We decided to check out Ninh Binh for 2 reasons: 1. Pete’s cousin Dan recommended staying here. 2. It was a more direct route down the coast of Vietnam and we didn’t want to go back to Hanoi. We are so glad we explored this gorgeous area!
Getting from Cat Ba to Ninh Binh was easy. Like, almost too easy. The friendly man at the Sea Pearl front desk arranged our tickets from our hotel (in Cat Ba) to Ninh Binh for $16/person. We would be taking a bus to a boat, the boat to main land, a bus to Hai Phong, and a minibus to Ninh Binh (similar to our journey from Hanoi to Cat Ba). The buses were both air conditioned coach buses, which was a treat. The minibus was fine and provided quite an experience for us to watch all the locals hopping on and off.
They only checked our “ticket” once during this whole process – before we boarded the first bus in Cat Ba Town. The ticket was more like an invoice/voucher. Pete and I were a little worried since it looked pretty sketchy, but from there, they never checked our “ticket” again. We just kept reconfirming that we were heading to Ninh Binh at each stop, and we made it there!
The journey took 6 hours: 3 hours to get from Cat Ba to Hai Phong (coach bus –> boat –> coach bus). We transferred to a minibus in Hai Phong. During that transfer, we had a chance to buy snacks and take a bathroom break. The minibus ride to Ninh Binh was 3 hours. The taxi from there to our home stay cost $10 (25 minute drive through gorgeous scenery).
Our Homestay Experience: Ninh Binh Family Homestay
There have been a handful of times on this trip when I’ve thought to myself: this is an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life. Staying at the Ninh Binh family homestay is one of them.
This was our first homestay experience and it was truly incredible. We were immediately impressed by the Ninh Binh Family homestay. The mother gave us a warm welcome with fresh watermelon and bananas from their tree out back. Their home has great wifi, A/C and amenities; our room was spotlessly clean. They took us on a non-touristy tour, helped us buy much cheaper train tickets (about 50% than what we were about to buy them for online!), and cooked us fantastic breakfasts & dinners. Thanks to their gracious family, our stay was impeccable. I can’t use enough superlatives to describe how amazing our stay was! They treated us like family, and we couldn’t be more thankful for the experience.
The family offered home-cooked dinner for $5/person. We politely and enthusiastically obliged every night. Our first dinner was a chicken hot pot, a special experience. Tanh (the father) explained that they don’t normally serve hot pots during summertime, but since it was a “chilly” day (about 80 degrees, hah), they’d make an exception. All the guests sat on the floor with Tanh. He served us endless amounts of food, including “sweet” potatoes (their version, which was yellow), their version of bok choi, tofu, and fresh chicken (like, really fresh). He also serviced us “happy water” (rice wine) and made Pete drink extra with him.
After dinner, some local kids from the neighborhood came over to practice their English. They do this every night during their summer break – what a wonderful experience for everyone!
Banana pancakes were for breakfast and they were (unsurprisingly) incredible.
Tanh promised us a tour where we’d be immersed in local culture, fabulous scenery, and not see a single tourist. Sounds perfect, right? It was! Cost: $22/person (we got a discount for our larger group of 8).
Van Trinh Cave
We jumped in a brand-new van and headed to Van Trinh cave. Tanh had some fun leading us around in the dark and through tight spaces.
Kenh Ga Floating Village
Our next stop was a boat ride through Kenh Ga, a floating village.
After the boat ride, Tanh treated us to some fresh sugarcane juice at a local spot for a quick pick-me-up.
Van Long Wetland Reserve
This nature reserve was my favorite part. I knew we were in for a treat when we arrived to this gorgeous place.
We went through the wetlands with 2 people per boat on these rowboats, with the help of some very strong Vietnamese rowers.
Our rowers quietly took us through the lotus flowers and into the valley between the limestone formations, where no other boats were going.
The combination of the haze and the complete stillness, save the gentle rowing, created a magical aura that made us feel like we were on another planet.
Our guides helped us spot some extremely rare Delacour’s langur, one of the world’s most endangered primates. It’s estimated that there are less than 200 of these fantastic animals left 🙁
Along the way, our guides showed us how to eat lotus seeds. When they saw how fast we were devouring them, they kept handing us more and more of them, much to our delight.
We were sad when the tour came to an end. Tanh promised we wouldn’t see a single tourist the entire tour and he was right! However, our butts were pretty sore from sitting on wooden benches and we were ready for another fantastic meal.
First of all, if you have the chance to explore Ninh Binh, take it!
Second, if you go to Ninh Binh, try to stay at the Ninh Binh family homestay. There are different price options; we paid $35/night for a private room and bathroom and couldn’t be happier. If rooms are not available, check out Tam Coc Rice Fields resort; we’ve heard great things about them too. We loved avoiding the more touristy boating spots and seeing the area through a local’s eyes.
Have you stayed at a homestay before? Was your experience as great as ours? Let us know in the comments!