After visiting the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex (the main attraction of Ninh Binh) I visited Ninh Binh City. I had read some reviews saying its not worth visiting, which just made me want to visit it more. To be fair it’s not a place you would choose to visit if you had two weeks in Vietnam. I visited because as a) a gentleman of leisure, and b) an urban connoisseur, I had the time and inclination to visit.
[Ninh Binh river walk.]
On the way to Ninh Binh it occurred to me that I’ve been visiting lesser known provincial capital cities of Vietnam recently, such as Tuy Hoa and Thanh Hoa. I thought that while I was going to be in Vietnam for a while I should see if I can visit all 63 provinces and municipalities of Vietnam. If I do take up this challenge I have to validate it by visiting the capital of each province. So I can’t just go to Ninh Binh province and not visit the capital, Ninh Binh City.
This is a loose challenge that I’m not going to go out of my way to complete just for the hell of it. It’s more of a target to help me pick places to visit next instead of going to Hoi An again. These travel goals tend to change as your tastes change with age. I once had a lifetime goal of visiting every state in the US (I’m at 22 now), but now it’s not a high priority. I’m more likely to try and ride every kilometre of railway in Southeast Asia, or visit every province in Italy. For now though I’ll continue working my way through the provinces of Vietnam.
I had considered doing a day trip to Ninh Binh from Trang An until I discovered a hostel at the old Ninh Binh railway. As I am chronicling the railways of Southeast Asia, that seemed like an experience I should cover, so I booked a night at the hostel.
I arrived at the Go Ninh Binh Hostel to find that it was closed. Not just “closed for lunch” closed, but “completely gutted out and gathering dust” closed. I made the booking online, but at this point in history during the global pandemic, there are more hotel closures than the online booking sites can keep up with. Even on my site I’m too scared to look at my accommodation guides as half of the places may be closed down by the time this stupid virus is done.
[The closed Go Ninh Binh Hostel at the old Ninh Binh station.]
Fortunately for me there was a guesthouse that was still open opposite the station on Hoang Hoa Tham Street. I didn’t have to worry about a booking as I was the only guest.
It turns out that this street used to be an active backpacker area. Travellers used to get off the train at Ninh Binh and take their pick of accommodation in front of the station.
[Ninh Binh Homestay and Travel Information on Hoang Hoa Tham.]
In 2015 Ninh Binh Station was moved to a new location 1.3 km south of the old station. Now most of the backpacker action is at Tam Coc village, which is closer to the scenic area of Ninh Binh.
Even without COVID-19, the combination of lost railway traffic and the appeal of Tam Coc put an end to this backpacker street.
[A sign at the new station with directions to the now defunct Go Ninh Binh Hostel.]
Hoang Hoa Tham reminded me of Soi Ngam Dupli in Bangkok, which was the main backpacker street before the rise of Khao San Road.
There were some old “banana pancake restaurants” of the style that would always be listed in Lonely Planet. Old signs were advertising food you wouldn’t otherwise see in a suburban Vietnamese street.
It was a good street to stay in Ninh Binh, even if the travellers have gone. It’s close enough to the city centre, and there are still some restaurants that are open.
[Hoang Hoa Tham Street, Ninh Binh.]
While this street is reasonably central, there isn’t really a central part of the city. Perhaps one of the things that makes Ninh Binh unappealing is that there isn’t a central landmark to visit. There are no old colonial remnants here or an architecturally interesting post office or town hall at a city square. It’s a typical working provincial city of Vietnam.
I wouldn’t have known where to start exploring first if I hadn’t spotted an uusual site from a distance at Trang An. While I was climbing Hang Mua I saw what looked like enormous church domes under construction. I knew that Ninh Binh is famous for churches, but these churches looked on the scale of cathedrals in Europe. And why would they build so many churches so close to each other?
[The mega mansions of Ninh Binh as viewed from Trang An.]
A tour guide on the mountain said that these “churches” were in fact the mansions of local factory owners. Next to the domes was what looked like the new tallest building in Ninh Binh. Reporting on new urban developments in Asia is my beat, so that became my target to visit in Ninh Binh.
Without knowing where this was I started walking in the general direction that I thought it might be. From the mountain view my guess was that it was northwest of the city centre.
On the outskirts of the city is the official entry gate to the Trang An park.
Like the bus park Tam Coc, the bus park here was empty. Thankfully the park management have kept the big hotel developments in this area, while the small hotels and homestays are in Tam Coc village.
[Ninh Binh Legend Hotel.]
From here I found the landmark construction site I was looking for. This is the future Pullman Ninh Binh.
Around the Pullman site are the domed mansions that could be seen from Trang An. You can’t miss them as they are huge.
I never would have expected to see such opulence on display in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
This area is the Xuan Thanh urban area.
I couldn’t find any useful information about this area apart from a Facebook page. It appears there will be regular houses and smaller mansions in between the mega mansions.
These mansions are not my taste, but who am I to say what is tasteful and how you spend your money. What I don’t understand is that these mansions are at the foot of one of the most beautiful regions in Vietnam. From here you have an uninterrupted view of the craggy mountains of Trang An. If I was going to build a mansion here (because running a travel website in 2020 is going to make me a millionaire…) I would have full floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking out over the mountains. Instead, these mansions have tiny windows that are covered up.
[Trang An as viewed from the Xuan Thanh urban area.]
These mansions aren’t just confined to this new urban area either. Around the city I saw mansions of various sizes, many of them representing several centuries of European architectural styles in one building.
This one looked like a cross between a church and a state capitol building in America.
I couldn’t find much online about these “houses” apart from this blog post about the massive palaces of Ninh Binh.
With my maniacal mansions mission complete I spent the rest of my time walking around the city. Without a central spot to walk to I marked off churches, central markets, museums, and parks as targets to visit.
On the old backpacker street is the Ninh Binh Church, looking nothing like the church mansions of Ninh Binh.
Rong Market is the biggest market in the central city area.
The streets around the market are a great place to walk around, though it would be more lively in the morning.
There are some beautiful tree-lined streets in the city centre.
As the provincial capital, Ninh Binh is home to a provincial museum.
I went by but I was running short of time at this point.
Instead I went to the Thuy Son Park and took a break after a solid day of walking around.
Most of the cafes here are classic Vietnamese independent cafes with little seats. I didn’t see any cafe chains here, not even Highlands Coffee.
I ended up at Chookies Hideaway mainly for the name (chook is the Australian slang word for chicken). The cafe is on a big open-plan property with covered outdoor seating.
Chookies has western food (including a wood-fired pizza oven), wifi, good coffee, and it was the most lively international cafe/bar/restaurant I saw in Ninh Binh.
If you’re visiting Ninh Binh for the nature then Tam Coc is the better option. If you do want to stay in the city then another option is the area in front of the new railway station. There are some guesthouses and traveller cafes here that offer scooter rentals and other travel services.
From Ninh Binh it’s 2 hours and 17 minutes by train to Hanoi.