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Escaping the chaos to Ninh Binh with kids

Escaping the chaos to Ninh Binh (Vietnam) with kids

When I boarded the train in Hanoi with my husband and two young kids, I was exhausted and in need of a break from its wonderful chaos.  Little did I realise that we would soon be floating serenely in a small bamboo boat rowed by a sprite 70 year old Vietnamese woman.

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The friendly Vietnamese ladies waiting for passengers at Van Long Nature Reserve in Ninh Binh

Most people only visit Ninh Binh as a day tour from Hanoi on the well known ‘Tam Coc‘ tour.  However, due to our aversion to cities and love of rural scenery, we chose to spend three days here whilst travelling from the North to the South of Vietnam.  I could easily have spent a week!

Aesthetically, the city of Ninh Binh is nothing to write home about.  It mostly serves as a convenient base to explore the beautiful rural surrounds.  There are quite a few upmarket hotels on offer that provide a luxury that is otherwise not affordable back home.

We usually stay in accommodation that would be considered budget and it was an absolute delight to experience The Legend Hotel without feeling too guilty about the expense.  The room was quite large which gave the kids heaps of space to spread out and play in the evenings.

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Buffet breakfast at the Legend Hotel in Ninh Binh. This place is a bit more upmarket than our usual style!

Picture this!

You are sitting comfortable in a small bamboo boat, rowed by a smiling elderly Vietnamese woman. Even the kids are quiet, although this might have something to do with the biscuit that your awesome rower has shared with them.  Your surrounds consist of beautiful limestone karsts that are reflected on the perfectly still water. The reflections are briefly broken by the passage of a passing duck as it glides through the water.  The warmth of the sun on your face and the fresh air are amazing and its the first time you have felt relaxed in ages.

This is what I was lucky enough to experience at Van Long Nature Reserve in Ninh Binh! (check out my post here for more information and photos on this awesome place).

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The lone duck breaking the reflections in the water at Van Long Nature Reserve

Our rower leans forward (I wish so bad I could remember her name) and says something in Vietnamese, which is quickly interpreted by our driver, who has decided to tag along for the boat ride.

“A lot of people refer to this place as the inland version of Halong Bay,” she says proudly.

There are plenty of bird spotting opportunities here, and you may even spot the critically endangered Delacour’s Langur monkey.  I was interested to learn that the movie “Kong: Skull Island” was filmed here.  I just can’t imagine all that chaos in this serene place.

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The kids were pretty quiet with a mouthful of sweet Vietnamese biscuit

The next morning, I am pleasantly surprised to learn that chivalry is still alive in this part of the world, as our driver not only insists on holding our umbrella in the drizzle, but also carries around my water bottles in my fashionable plastic bag.

Upon arrival at Bich Dong Pagoda, I am immediately awestruck by the beautiful arch entrance way which at first glance, seems like a portal into an earlier time period.  This cluster of Buddhist cave pagodas are built into the side of a mountain and you need to ascend some steep steps to reach the middle and upper pagodas.

The kids love the idea of crossing over the water on a concrete bridge to reach the entrance.  Little Miss has only been walking for around eight weeks so much to her disgust, I don’t let her attempt this on her own.

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The entrance to Bich Dong Pagoda in Ninh Binh

“Do you know what the difference is between a temple and pagoda?” our driver asks as we walk across the bridge to reach the entrance way.

I don’t.  I feel both curious and slightly less intelligent than five minutes ago.

“Temples are used to worship gods, animals or humans and pagodas are used to exclusively worship Buddha,” he informs me.  “However sometimes you will find a temple inside a pagoda”.

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A peek inside one of the pagodas at Bich Dong Pagoda

Upon reaching the top pagoda, I am again reminded of the generosity and welcoming nature of the Vietnamese culture when I witness a few early morning worshippers leave offerings for Buddha. These same worshippers even present the kids with ‘lucky money‘, which is basically small denominations given for good luck.  I feel very blessed to be treated so warmly in a place where we are obviously foreigners.




Before returning to the hotel, due to a series of wrong turns and closed roads, we find ourselves walking around the narrow lanes of a rural Vietnamese village.  I enjoy observing the local way of life and marveling at the rustic shacks with well maintained vegetable gardens.

This village gives a real sense of stepping back in time to an age of innocence where pushbikes are the main form of transport and the fashion is conservative.

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Hats and shoes are left outside when entering a pagoda

Two young teenage girls are pushing bikes, dressed in traditional white ‘ao dai‘ clothing. Some young boys walk past and as both parties notice each other, the talking and laughter turns to whispers, giggling and backwards glances.  The interaction is amusing to watch although makes me feel a little old.

Despite the obvious lack of material possessions, everyone I pass carries a smile and I hear plenty of laughter, which forces me to uncomfortably question my own materialistic life.  Whilst we are not considered high income earners back home, over here we would be considered rich.

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Ripley helping to row the boat

Walking into town turns out to be a fantastic afternoon.  We observe the interesting narrow houses built on water; seemingly on purpose.  Some residents are fishing from their back steps and we even pass an out of place oxen wandering the streets.

Every stranger we pass presents us with a genuine smile and an attempt at conversing in English.  There is so much more to do here, from push biking among the flat rice fields, stepping back in time at ancient temples, to visiting national parks.  Unfortunately for us, time is limited and we have to board a train back to Hanoi for the next leg of our journey.

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The backstreets of Ninh Binh on a drizzly day


Getting There

Ninh Binh is a picturesque two hour train ride from Hanoi in North Vietnam.  If you are travelling outside of peak times, I recommend the cheaper tickets in the hard seat carriages as it’s virtually empty.  If you would prefer soft seats and air-conditioning, it’s only a couple of dollars more for this luxury.  The toilets are gross on both types of carriages.  You could also hire a private driver or take a bus.

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The ‘budget’ seats in Vietnam between Hanoi and Ninh Binh were actually quite pleasant. Mr 3.5 even managed a nap with his head on daddy’s leg.


Visiting With Kids

In general, Vietnam is a very easy country to visit with kids.  Ninh Binh is particularly easy because it’s just not as busy as the larger cities.  Kids are tolerated extremely well and even treated like little celebrities wherever you go.  You really don’t have to worry about your baby or toddler ‘doing what they do’ when eating out at restaurants or waiting in line etc.  There is always a friendly face seeking them out to play peek-a-boo or distract them.

There is a good chance your waitress will even pick them up and walk off with them!  (see my post here on waitresses stealing babies).


Want To Learn About More Awesome Places?

For more blog posts, photographs and information on my travels through Vietnam with kids, please check out this page: Vietnam

For more information on ALL of my travels, please check out this page: My travel destinations

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