We tried once to visit Ninh Binh and failed. Originally we'd planned on visiting Halong Bay - it was one of the things I'd looked forward to for this trip, but as we looked into it more and more we weren't so sure. The trips are quite expensive, and most of them seemed to be somewhat hit or miss, or dubious quality. The few consistently good ones were priced way out of our range. Generally you spend one night on a junk and one night on Cat Ba island, with some kayaking and crusiing of the bay and a few different islands of interest.
In the end, we heard about Ninh Binh, and decided to go there instead - hoping for a still cool experience that was a bit less touristy and certainly less expensive. We got off the Hue-Hanoi night bus a couple hours early at 6am in Ninh Binh and walked over to our hotel. After our previous night bus experience, we actually booked a night at the hotel for that morning only as we knew we'd want more sleep. We woke up the surly owner and got into our room for a few hours sleep. We got up and wandered around the town a bit, got lunch, quoted a few bike rentals for the next day and explored a local park and the river. Our plan was to rent a motorbike the next morning and do our sightseeing, then catch the train to Hanoi in the evening. Unfortunately we woke up the next morning to a downpour outside. We hung around a little and the rain didn't let up, so we checked out and ran/waded over to the train station and restaurant nearby for lunch. With no sign of the rain stopping we decided we might as well leave town then, and caught the 1:00 train to Hanoi instead.
A lot of effort for not much of an interesting visit, but with five nights booked in Hanoi, we decided we had time to take a day trip back to Ninh Binh if the weather cooperated, and so a few days later that's what we did. On the train it's only around 2 hours and 48 000 dong each in third class, so it was easy to do as a day trip with no bags.
We grabbed a motorobike rental and headed off into the countryside. Immediately outside of town the limestone karst formations appear out of the ground. In some ways it was quite similar to Krabi, but with many more peaks jutting out. The road was flat, but wound around the peaks for a bit before we arrived at Trang An. The well-published boat trip in Ninh Binh is Tam Coc, but we heard about a similar and less Western tourist focussed trip at Trang An. We also heard the boats at Tam Coc tend to force you to buy a drink for the rower partway through the journey, which he/she then sells back for half price! Also they almost force you to buy some 'local' crafts during the journey as well, so it seemed best to try this other trip.
Trang An was great, and a nice long experience. We arrived and bought tickets, then found ourselves on a small boat with two Vietnamese tourists. A wedding party was doing photographs behind us. Our female rower spent the next 2 hours rowing us along this series of lakes/streams and through 8 or so tunnels. The views were spectacular around each corner, with the limestone peaks rising up all around us. Other than a few temples built here and there, and several landing areas with food or drinks to buy, the whole area is undeveloped. Each area seemed like it would be very hard to access if not through the tunnels by boat, as the valley edges were steep and high. At one point we all got out and walked up a series of steps up to a small view and down the other side to a small shrine. We're not sure what the significance was as no one really spoke English, but they were trying to tell us it was very old we think?
We had a couple oars as well, and the other tourists and I took turns to help out with the rowing on occasion, but it was a very calm couple hours on the water. There are hundreds and hundreds of boats there, so it must get quite busy there sometimes, but on this day there weren't a huge number of boats out. Much of the time we couldn't see any other boats around us, and in the tunnels especially it seemed we were the only people there. We had initially thought the main attraction was the views, but the tunnels were actually really cool as well. Some were short and others were up to 380m long. Some were widened and large, but some were left mostly in a natural way and were very narrow and low. We had to lie down right against the boat frame in many places, and watch out that your head didn't get hit by hanging stalactites.
After the boat trip, we drove down a minor dirt lane through a couple little villages and up to the Hang Mua area. Here there is a temple with 500 steps up to a small shrine with great views back towards Ninh Binh and over the edge down to the Tam Coc boat area. The views were gorgeous and it was all I hoped it would be. We spent some time here, but had to hurry back to town to catch our intended train and hopefully get a bite to eat before the journey back to Hanoi.
The staircase wound its way up the mountain.
But the views were fantabulous!
All in all a great day, and probably the best of our time in Vietnam!