Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s World Heritage Sites, famed for its stunning limestone karsts jutting out of the water. Perhaps you’ve never even heard of Ninh Binh, but let me tell you, if you’re visiting Vietnam, the question posed above needs to be considered. Ninh Binh is known as the “inland Halong Bay,” and here I discuss which I believe is the best option and why.
I have cruised on a beautiful boat in Halong Bay (a great option if you do decide you want to visit) and independently visited Ninh Binh, so I can safely say, if you want freedom over what you do, Ninh Binh is the better option. I pondered for hours over which Halong Bay cruise to do and eventually chose one based on which I believed had the best itinerary. And it was fine, but we still chose to skip some of the activities, like the 6am Tai Chi and the cooking class. If I want to do a cooking class in Vietnam (which, of course, I do), a 25 minute session on how to make a spring roll is not going to give me what I want.
The cruise itineraries are, of course, based on time restrictions. If you want to kayak, you can, but only at a 3pm and only for half an hour. You want to go and sit on the upper deck and watch the sunset? Sure, go ahead, but remember dinner is served at 6:30. That’s not what I look for on a trip. I want the freedom to think “Hey, I’m enjoying sitting here relaxing, so I’m going to do just that. Dinner can wait – I had a big lunch.”
Now we’re on the subject of food – lunch buffets with ‘vegetarian options’ are basically buffets with salad. And we all know the buffet would’ve looked exactly the same if there were no vegetarians on board. Even on a ‘5 star luxury cruise’ (we were upgraded), the lunch buffet wasn’t great for veggies, leaving me with a bread roll and some salad whilst others gorged on prawns and curry. I should point out, dinner was far better, because they offered a menu with some choice. Fancy that; we hadn’t had much choice the rest of the time!
I’m sounding critical, I know. If you’re not a picky (or diet-restricted) eater and you’re happy sticking to a pre-determined schedule, then Halong Bay cruises offer a great way to see the UNESCO site whilst you relax onboard. The scenery is beautiful, I just don’t think it’s that different to Ninh Binh, and I prefer some freedom and control.
You see, in Ninh Binh, you can still relax on board a boat for a couple of hours whilst your local ‘rower’ powers and steers the boat with her/his feet. You can find fantastic local food cheaply and actually order what you’d like. You can get around by taxi, pushbike or moped and see incredible scenery and stay admiring it for as long as you want, taking it in without any deadlines. There are, I’m sure, hostels and hotels offering cooking classes and Tai Chi, if that’s what you want to do, but if that’s not your thing, you can get out and explore or just head to a bia hoi for a beer.
Both Halong Bay and Ninh Binh are beautiful; I certainly don’t want to degrade Halong’s looks. I just encourage any visitors to Vietnam, be that short- or long-term, to consider Ninh Binh too, particularly if you want freedom over what you do or if you’re prone to bouts of seasickness!
If you’re interested in reading more about the best things to see and do in Ninh Binh, I’ll be posting about them in the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned!
Thanks for reading!
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