Ninh Binh is three hours away from Hanoi, and it’s situated in a mountainous part of Vietnam. We basically spent our third day in Vietnam traveling for 6 hours, but that sounds a little compared to the 8 hours of traveling to and fro Halong Bay. I slept mostly during the duration of the trip, so the hours passed quickly.
If I have to choose one word to describe this day, it’s calming. We visited the Bai Dinh Temple and the Trang An Grottoes and were welcomed with utter calmness. The most people we saw that day was during our stopover in the morning. Just like in the previous day, we visited a souvenir station where they sell clothes, potteries, art works, and whatnot. After that stop over, we visited places that seem to be vacated except for us.
This time, we joined a traveling group of mostly Vietnamese from Ho Chi Min City. There’s also a mother and daughter pair from Chile, and we talked mostly to them.
Our first stop is the Bai DinhTemple and was astounded by the vastness of the place. Everything about it is huge. The temples were humongous and so were the Buddha statues. It was pretty solemn since it somehow felt like we were the only one in the place.
The place was huge and I’m pretty sure we didn’t manage to visit every nook and cranny in the temple. There were spacious corridors and empty halls, and I felt like every step I made echoed. I lost count on how many Buddhas there were because there were gigantic Buddhas in rooms. We were dwarfed next to the gigantic structures. There were even statues upon statues in the hallways. It’s just impossible to count the number of small Buddhas decorating the walls of the temple.
I don’t know much about Buddhism since I didn’t really focus in my social science subjects in school. However, our tour guide was extremely patient trying to explain snippets of it to us. Though I’d often rather travel without a guide, this time having one was really better. It made the visit more meaningful since I learned a bit more about Buddhism and reincarnation and enlightenment. Apparently, anyone can be a Buddha, and they have to go through different levels of enlightenment. I didn’t know that.
The one pictured above is my favorite Buddha I saw that day. It’s the Cundi form of Avalokiteśvara. I love how the tour guide explained that it has a thousand eyes to see those in need and a thousand arms to help them. Isn’t that beautiful? I had a fear for it when I saw it came alive in the movie Gantz. But now, there’s nothing but warmth that I feel towards it.
Unfortunately for us, it started raining! Good thing Jinky and I brought our raincoats with us because we were actually expecting rain. Though we looked silly (and cute) in our raincoats, it was still better than holding an umbrella while touring. Our fellow tourists ended up buying raincoats as well from the vendors roaming around the pagoda.
Bai Dinh Temple is relatively new, and there are areas that are still under construction. The sky-high pagoda won’t be finished for a couple more years, and some place still needs some work. By that time, I’m pretty sure it’ll be an even more awe-inspiring attraction.
Trang An Grottoes was our next destination, and this probably the most peaceful I’d been in my life. Riding a small boat with three other strangers may not exactly sound appealing and definitely doesn’t sound calming. But the surrounding has that tranquilizing effect on me. There weren’t many visitors so we almost had the place all to ourselves.
Just like in Halong Bay, most of the rowers are women. And man are they strong. There can be five to six people on the boat and these women can row continuously for two hours! I tried rowing, too, since there were about four paddles available on the boat. After a few minutes, I got so tired already! My admiration for the female rowers grew by a mile. How could they possibly row for two hours straight? And maybe even more than that for the number of boat trips they have to do in a day.
I thought I would get bored just sitting there, but it was a really nice change of pace and a nice escape from my much loved modernity.
Trang An Grottoes is called Halong Bay on land, and it’s easy to see why. The length of the river is surrounded by one mountain after another. You can see vegetation surrounding the area and there were even wild animals roaming on land.
It was a particularly gloomy day so there were clouds hanging over us. We could also see the mountains surrounding the areas had large overcasts. There were also warning signs of rain. But I actually preferred it that way. It made the trip quite refreshing since we didn’t have to battle it out against the sun. We had the ease of just sitting and observing the scenery without holding up umbrellas or donning caps.
We stopped over some grottoes that were incredibly well-preserved. We also entered a couple of caves going to and fro. That’s actually my favorite part of the trip. I love how the rowers expertly maneuvered the boat inside the narrow caves! I wondered how they discovered the cave and I wondered how they managed to light up the inside. It’s easy for a small person like me to bump my head on the ceiling, but apparently tall people actually had to duck desperately save their heads.
We spent most our time in Ninh Binh just sitting down, but it was a pretty good day to relax. If I were a bit younger, I would have dismissed it as very unexciting. But I guess the stress from my day job really makes me yearn for days where I could just stretch out my legs and not think about anything at all.
Ninh Binh is incredibly far from Hanoi, but it’s really worth the travel.