We recently returned from our wonderful trip to Vietnam in November, and hopefully I can share some information that will help others. I'm starting with Ninh Binh since it isn't as well traveled. Many thanks to everyone who has taken the time to share information, and a huge thank you to Creaking Bones, Tecalli and other visitors for their posts on the Ninh Binh area and answers to my specific questions!
While in Ninh Binh we stayed at the Emeralda Resort and I will post a separate review for them. Prior to this part of the trip, we had been to Saigon, the Mekong, Siem Reap, Hanoi, and Halong Bay and were two weeks into our trip. We were pretty tired, so the peace and quiet of the area and the resort ended up being exactly what we needed.
We rode in a private car from Halong Bay to Ninh Binh, and unfortunately the traffic was crazy and our driver was training for Nascar, so it ended up being a scary drive that we would not want to repeat anytime soon. I finally understood what all the warnings about traffic in Vietnam were about!
On Creaking Bones fantastic recommendation we had booked Toan - an independent local motorbike guide who grew up in the Ninh Binh area - for our three days of tours in the area. After the car ride, I was questioning the sanity of being on a motorbike... I nervously emailed Toan, and he replied that night and reassured me that the next few days would be perfect motorbike weather and we would stay far away from the busy highway. True to his word, we went only on rural roads with very little traffic and amazing views of local life. I have never cared for riding on a motorcycle at home, but found the motorbike much more relaxing. Toan and my husband’s driver were both very safe. We would never have seen as much as we did if we had taken a car.
For our first day we had a trip planned to Cuc Phuong National Park -http://cucphuongtourism.com/ . It ended up being a beautiful sunny day, and the ride there was breathtaking. The ride to Cuc Phuong took about 2 hours with a few stops for photos and some serious restraint on my part to keep from asking to stop for many more. There are two animal rescue sanctuaries at the entrance to the park – one for monkeys and one for turtles. Both are interesting and worth a quick visit. The part of the park that we saw was more developed than I expected with a paved road going around and a 7 km hiking loop that goes through primary forest to a cave temple and the thousand year old tree. It was a weekend, so was somewhat busy with Vietnamese tourists (we saw maybe 150 other people total), but most people just hike to the tree and then backtrack, so we had the second half of the loop almost to ourselves. There are lots of stairs on the trail so it is strenuous at times, but most of it is stone or cement so is easy to navigate. Keep your eyes peeled as Toan pointed out a bunch of walking stick bugs and a fist sized grasshopper. Lunch was at the park restaurant and it was very good; there are drinks to purchase at the entrance and along the paved road inside the park. I really wish we had done an overnight in the area - with the travel time from Ninh Binh we were only able to see the front edge of the park, and between the park website and Toan’s descriptions I think we missed out on some of the best and more undeveloped parts. His guiding specialty is actually to do multi day treks into the more remote areas of Pu Luong nature reserve and the minority villages and on a return trip I would definitely fit that in.
More to come later..