We didn’t know a lot about Ninh Bình, only what Cynthia had posted, so we checked into the Green Papaya home stay and googled what to do. The Green Papaya is in a quiet residential neighbourhood, several hundred meters from down town but a nice location if you are happy to explore. From google we determined that there were a couple of main destinations, the Trang An area with the Trang An Grottoes, Hoàn Lu Temple & Citadel and Tam Coc area with Hang Mua viewpoint, its rice fields, boat ride and Bich Dong Pagoda. As most of these are only a few k’s from town and a few k’s apart we decided the best way to explore them was by bike.
We had heard this region was famous for its goat dishes so after dropping the bikes at the Homestay we headed back out to explore food offerings. The great thing about exploring a new town is what you stumble across, the local soccer teams readying for the evenings battle, the beer garden full of drunk men chatting loudly, the wet market with local delicacies chicken, goat, dog, pig!! (And remember ‘puppy is not just for Christmas, leftovers are great on Boxing Day’....)
We ended up back in down town Ninh Binh and ‘The courtyard’ restaurant which offered local mountain goat (not dog) which we were keen to try. We sat down to a couple of craft beers and goat two ways;
*traditional- De Tai Chanh which is thinly sliced goat seasoned with fried garlic and shallots and local herbs and blanched in lime juice and served with a range of green leaves and shrimp paste. To eat you roll up the goat in the leaves, dip in the paste and consume, really tasty,
*contemporary- Goat burger, probably doesn’t need a description, but also tasty.
Early the next morning we hopped on our bikes and headed for the Trang An Landscape Complex which is a spectacular landscape of massive limestone pinnacles with almost shear cliffs penetrating through the cultivated valleys and hidden wetlands. The whole area around Ninh Binh has been described as the ‘Halong Bay of the land’ and cycling into it was awe inspiring.
You type in your destination in google maps and head off, taking detours, finding new routes, exploring village as you wish. I’m glad we hired better quality touring bikes as this allowed us to opt for many off-road paths between the paddies and along the river etc. It was well worth it, despite the toll it took on Bea’s butt, the next day she found it painful!
The amazing thing about touring this area by bike is that between the tourist sites you are more or less on your own and the hoards seem to vanish only reappearing at the next ‘must see’ point of interest. Between these you just explore the lanes, the villages, the rice fields and look around in wonder at the majesty of the location.`
The size of the visitors complex and the sheer number of boats line up for visitors indicates that this is a serious tourist destination, however it is efficiently run and the landscape was stunning, and while there are masses of boats in the area it doesn’t really detract from the beauty.
Tam Coc itself is the tourist Mecca of this region and especially the boat ride through the hills and rice paddies. We chose to cycle around this area rather than taking another boat ride, just exploring the backroads and paths around the pinnacles and rice paddies.. still blown away by the scenery and the relative lack of tourists.
As the sun began to set we headed back through Tam Coc town centre, this is obviously where most tourists stay given the bike hire places and abundance of restaurants, to Ninh Binh and the Green Papaya. We were pleased we choose this area to stay as it is obvious they don’t get an abundance of tourists wandering around. Every time we ventured out, whether walking or biking, kids would take delight in yelling out “hello” to you, or running up to give you high-fives or shake your hand. When I say every kid... I mean every kid under the age of 15!
Shattered and needing a beer we headed out that evening to that beer garden full of drunken men talking loudly for a ice cold bevy, some local food and some overly hospitable attention from the local drunks!
Beers in hand we tried to use google translate on the menu- the ‘fried dandruff with melon’ didn’t sound appealing but the recommended ‘beef noodles’ and ‘fried chicken legs with chilli’ sounded safe.... *note to google- chicken leg and chicken feet aren’t the same thing. However if you do need to eat chicken feet then fried with chillies is the best option.
The proprietor seeing we were ok with unusual food then recommended apricot egg leaves with leafy leaves and leaves (according to google) which ended up being tasty leaf and batter pancake, great with beer and chilli sauce and the complimentary tasting of rice wine, 30% ABV, (aka moonshine) that was being served to the locals in large plastic jugs.