The thing I love most about rice (or at least rice fields) is that they are constantly changing colours. Over the course of a year rice paddies seem to go through all the colours of the rainbow. Well maybe not blue, that would just be weird.
And Vietnam is spoilt for choice when it comes to rice paddies – whether you are north, south, east or west they are quite literally everywhere. My favourite rice paddies in Vietnam can be found in Ninh Binh, Mai Chau and Sapa in the north – all of which are perfect places to spend a few days relaxing and enjoying the countryside while on a Vietnam holiday.
I felt the wind in my hair and smiled as we slowly left the urban sprawl of Ninh Binh behind and made our way along the fields of rice paddies and looming karsts on the horizon.
And there is almost no bad time of year to visit – if it is raining you will be greeted with brilliant, bright green paddies, if it is dry you will be rewarded with a golden spectacle. But more on that later.
So it was on a warm October evening, just before sunset, that I found myself pulling into Ninh Binh, which is just a few hours south of Hanoi by car. I was there to look at the gorgeous Emeralda Hotel, where I stayed for a few days – but it turned out that the drive out there alone was well worth the visit.
After hopping onto the back of a motorbike (the much loved mode of transport in Vietnam), I felt the wind in my hair and smiled as we slowly left the urban sprawl of Ninh Binh behind and made our way along the fields of rice paddies and looming karsts on the horizon.
As the sun began to set, roadworks diverted us off the main road and through the backstreets of rural life where local villagers were frantically harvesting the rice, as if they might wake up tomorrow and find it all gone.
“The typhoon is coming,” warned Truong, who was both my driver and expert guide for the weekend. “They must harvest their rice before the rain ruins it all. Relax, let go of the bike, and take some pictures,” he added.
And it was a site to behold. Without even realising I had done it, I removed both hands from the bike, whipped out my camera and was snapping away as we whizzed down the small, dusty streets.
With no other tourist in sight, it was all mine to gawp at. And I did. I gawped and I snapped as we watched the sun sink behind the huge towering karsts and iluminate everything in its path.
To be honest I don’t know how Truong managed to keep his eyes on the road. But whenever I started squealing and snapping he would stop so I could hop off and take pictures of buffalos walking out of the water and other such delights. And then he would sit on his bike and soak it all up too.
And in the sun’s final minutes of the day a smokey haze filled the horizon as villagers burned the leftover rice straw.
And then finally we reached my destination but suddenly I was not quite so ready to be there.
“We’re here already?” I whined like a five year-old who had just been told she wouldn’t have another birthday for 364 days.
“I’ll be back for you tomorrow at 8.30am,” said Truong as he hauled my bag off the bike and carried it into the hotel reception for me.
And I grinned like a 30 year-old who had just been told her journey’s not over yet.
There is not a bad time of year to visit Ninh Binh, Vietnam. But to give you a taster of the seasons here’s a brief guide:
The sub delta climate, with an annual average temperature of 23 degrees Celsius, is divided into two seasons: the dry season from November to April, and the rainy season from May to October. The rainiest months in Ninh BInh are between July and October, and it can be vulnerable to typhoons in September and October.
I especially loved it during harvest time (which falls in late September/early October) when everybody is working in the rice paddies, gathering the rice. It is also beautiful in May and June when the butterflies are flying in abundance.
I can heartily reccommend staying at the Emeralda, which is the only really good resort in the area – and it’s one of my favourite hotels in all of north Vietnam. It has a great menu on offer and there is nothing that really rivals it – as the town does not cater for international tourists you will just find street food and low key cafes there.
The city is a relatively industrialised, uninspiring destination, but you are not here for that. Instead you will be located in the countryside and seeing the rural side of life here.
Ninh Binh Attractions
- Cuc Phuong National Park: This is a gorgeous dense network of jungle that is also home to the fascinating Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, which has rescued hundreds of endangered species of monkeys and gibbons. It also has a Turtle Conservation Centre where hundreds of turtles can be seen (many of which are rescued from smugglers who were selling them for meat). The forest is gorgeous to trek around too – you could spend a morning here or a whole day. We normally recommend you bring a packed lunch from Emeralda as there’s not much in the way of restaurants here.
- Van Long Nature Reserve: This is the boat experience that fewer tourists know about. Take a local wooden boat through the beautiful reedy wetland and around the inland karst scenery, which is not dislike that of Halong Bay. Keep an eye out for the birds and enjoy a slice of Vietnam that few others see.
- The village of Kenh Ga is well worth a visit – people here spend their life in or on the water (even children commute to school by boat). Observe the riverine way of life and stunning limestone formations.
- We also really recommend cycling around the resort; it’s such a gorgeous corner of the country and best seen on two wheels. We can either arrange this for you or you can hire bikes from Emeralda.
It is worth noting that while Ninh Binh is off the international tourist trail it is becoming increasingly popular with Vietnamese tourists – so some of the big attractions like Tam Coc (a river boat ride through caves) and Trang An grottoes we avoid unless it is done first thing in the morning or at dusk when the tour buses aren’t there. However, hawkers on boats plague these attractions at all hours – another reason we avoid it.
If you are interested in booking a trip to Vietnam and would like to stay in Ninh Binh please contact me via my contact page (in the ‘about’ menu) or take a look at my travel agency site Fleewinter – which sells luxury holidays to Vietnam.