“Epic limestone karsts rise out of the green rice fields for miles around to give the landscape a middle-earth feel.”
Vietnam is a destination that has rapidly grown in popularity in the past decade or so. With a coastline of over 3000 kilometres and a distinct north and south region, there is just so much to see and experience. We had two weeks to explore this amazing country and one of our highlights was our stay at Mua Caves Ecolodge. The lodge is situated near a small town called Tam Coc in an area most tourists call Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh has developed a reputation as “the inland Ha Long bay”. Ha Long bay, with its karsts rising out of the sea, is arguably the north’s most popular tourist attraction. But for someone who likes to stay off the beaten track where possible, Ninh Binh seemed like a great alternative.
After some doing some digging we soon realised that although Ninh Binh is the closest large town, it is simply used as a point of reference. The real attraction are the outlying areas that offer spectacular outdoor opportunities; cycling through endless rice paddies, hiking, exploring enormous caves and simply enjoying the beautiful scenery. The small town of Tam Coc is actually where most people end up staying but is a bit noisy to really appreciate the surrounds.
We stayed at Mua Caves Ecolodge which has a handful of cottages. The rooms have luxuriously soft beds; a welcome contrast to stone-hard ones common in South-East Asia. Most of the rooms have been built along the bottom of a karst and face Hang Mua Mountain and, though the area can be busy by day, it is superbly peaceful at night. The lodges greatest drawcard, however, is its ideal location.
Only 5km from Trang An, the major cave attraction in the area, and a few km from Tam Coc, the nearest town, Mua Caves Eco Lodge is a bike ride away from the nearby attractions and you can enjoy cycling through this dreamlike scenery on your way there. Indeed, the whole area where the lodge is situated is surrounded by majestic karsts and sprawling rice fields.
The lodge also happens to be on the site of one of the areas major attractions – the Mua Caves and the Hang Mua Stairs. The great thing about staying at the lodge is that we had unlimited access to these areas, whereas day visitors pay a fee. Many day visitors tend to miss the main cave and simply head for the stairs. There are a number of Trip Advisor reviews written by day visitors that that give the impression that the caves are tiny, probably because of the small cave at the bottom of the stairs. However, the main cave on the property is called Suoi Ngoc Trai which is a good sized cave fed by a spring and so the one end of the cave is full of water. As guests at the lodge we were able to explore this cave in the evening when no-one was around so it was stunningly quiet.
The Hang Mua stairs have become a huge attraction in the area. To get to the top you’ll have to walk the 500 stairs which is actually less challenging than it sounds; a few of us staying at the lodge even ran the stairs which got the heart rate up. This was worth the effort as the vistas from the top are extraordinary! Epic limestone karsts rise out of the green rice fields for miles around to give the landscape a middle-earth feel. The misty cloud that characterises the area further adds to the effect and creates a wonderful contrast with the brilliant green paddies below.
We also visited the nearby bird sanctuary which has lovely gardens and is also a place where you can watch hundreds of Egrets and Storks return to their nests in the evening. The Trang An caves are a huge attraction and are well worth an early morning rising to get ahead of the tour buses. So if you’re considering a trip to Vietnam, a visit to ‘Ninh Binh’ with a stay at Mua Caves Ecolodge is well worth including in your itinerary, especially if you are going to Ha Noi.
Best to stay here on weeknights as the stairs can be busy on weekends
A two night stay is a good amount of time to see what the area has to offer without rushing by
The lodge has a restaurant which serves breakfast, lunch and supper and there are plenty of restaurants in nearby Tam Coc if you want to get out
If you want to see the Ninh Binh/Tam Coc area at its best (when the rice fields are green) you should go between February & April which also falls within the dry season.
If you want to see the Trang An caves, be there by 6:45am you will almost always beat the crowds
Be aware that during the lunar new year holiday the crowds are difficult to avoid at Trang An
This area is often shrouded in mist and is colder than other parts of Vietnam so pack an extra layer