Summary. Ninh Bình province is approximately two hours outside of Hanoi. Most famous for, Tràng An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the 2005 movie King Kong was filmed. The tour company we used is no longer available, though we noticed many operators offering the exact same service. It was extremely hot the day we went. Check the weather; bring extra water and snacks; hydrate often; and if your tour operator allows for it, take air-conditioning breaks. We were each given a nón lá ("leaf hat"), which seemed hokey at the time, ended up being the perfect sun shade. Day trip cost: $58/person, lunch included.
Travel from Hanoi to Ninh Binh. In a medium-sized air-conditioned bus, we left Hanoi early and traveled to the Ninh Bình province. Our first stop was Hoa Lu, the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, where we visited the Dinh King temple and Le King temples and learn about two former kings of Dai Viet (name of Vietnam in those centuries).
Leisurely Bike Ride. After traveling a short while on the bus, we stopped at what would be our lunch stop. First though, our young tour guide (first day on his own incidentally), took us on a leisurely ride down Hoa Lau streets to a scenic view point where we were given time to take photos of the gorgeous limestone natural pillars. Upon returning we had buffet lunch, which was put together for us and several other travel groups. Here is where I first experienced some symptoms of possible heat stroke. Our guide was kind enough to let me rest in the air-conditioned bus until our next departure. The heat can be punishing but after rehydrating and cooling I began to feel better.
Tam Cốc-Bích Động. After lunch, we traveled to Tam Cốc-Bích Động, part of the area's UNESCO World Heritage Site, for this highlight of the day. Located at the southern margin of the Red River Delta, caves running through the famous limestone peaks contain traces of human existence in this area dating back 30,000 years.
Life vests are required though the ride itself is gentle. Each boat is given a non-English speaking operator that will take you through several caves and the waterways that line the limestone peaks of Trang An. There are also three pagodas or temples on the route, one of which is in the middle of the waterway (photo below).
A word about the caves. Some of us do not like enclosed areas (read: me), but these caves were fine. They are large and do not run particularly long. No guarantee of course, but if you're generally uncomfortable with caves, you may nonetheless be OK here.
This fairly long excursion is peacefully quiet. All tourists, without a word, seemed to fall silent and enjoy the serene, meditative stillness of the landscape. One stop along the way is an island where the modern King Kong was filmed. Remnants of the set remain. Sun block and/or sun clothing, including a hat, is essential as there is no cover and the sun can be punishing.
Hang Múa. Our last stop for the day was at Hang Múa, a scenic area with view of the Tam Coc Valley and the Ngo Dong river. To see these views though, you will have to work for it. The trail to the vista point has 500 stone steps. on this incredibly hot and humid day, it was particularly important to bring a ton of water. There are vendors at the bottom of the trail too, where we ended up getting cold drinks on our way back to our bus.
Overall we enjoyed this day trip from Hanoi. The views were breathtaking and it was a nice break from the bustling streets of Hanoi.