In northern Ninh Binh province, travellers can row themselves through marshes and limestone cliffs, or watch professionals do it with their feet. Words and photos by Lien Hoang.

Driving into  province, it’s hard to miss the goats. They’re plastered on banners advertising lunch, they roam the cliffs, they nibble on trash in the parking lots. And they’re a sign that this locale, 90 minutes south of Hanoi, has retained its rustic charm such that goats can continue to coexist alongside people.

Tourists still are rare enough in Ninh Binh that locals gawk when a busload of them drives past. The bus takes us to Van Long, a sprawling $30-a-night resort of mediocre food, fresh fruit trees, lotus ponds, and tolerable rooms that would have been empty if not for our group.

From there we walk down the road to dam Van Long, an acceptable consolation prize if you don’t go to Ha Long Bay, or have been there already and want an alternative. Barefoot women wait in their bamboo boats, reachable by the embankment’s stone steps leading from the road. For VND 90,000, the women take pairs of travellers on an hour-long tour of quiet marshland and limestone giants sitting under the fog. As we float past, colours of white and clay start to show through the dark grey rock, cut by harsh lines but round tops.

Ninh Binh river trip In northern Ninh Binh province, travellers can row themselves through marshes and limestone cliffs, or watch professionals do itThirty minutes would suffice for the excursion. If you get bored (or even if you don’t), the most entertaining thing you can do is relieve the women rowers and try the oars out for size. It’s not as hard as it looks; or maybe it just seemed easy to me because the skilled woman continued to push along with a bamboo rod even as I was paddling. There are so few visitors, or people at all, in this placid swamp that you can make just about any request to the casual guides.

We drift by blue dragonflies, lily pads, and tombstones said to mark the resting places of war dead. Most interesting to the uninitiated are pink clusters that cling to the reeds and the rock walls — little did I know they are the eggs of freshwater snails. Emerging from the mist, we arrive at skeletal rock formations, in which time and water have carved misshapen holes. In some places the water has cut deep enough into the crags that they become small caves for brief entry.

For foreigners, the best bet for an English-speaking guide is at another marshy adventure 8km away in Tam Coc. Still sparsely populated, Tam Coc proves slightly more popular with, and therefore convenient for, travellers to Ninh Binh. Unfortunately, the VND 80,000 boat rides last 90 minutes and retrace their paths, rather than following a circle so that tourists can view new terrain. But the trips are enjoyable, offering most of what’s available in Van Long, and then some. The rowers in these metal boats are even more impressive, usually rotating the paddles with their feet rather than hands.

Coming across bridges, branches, and caves, we are ducking constantly but not enough to lose the fun of novelty. The caves here are deeper and more extensive, the final one opening out into a small basin where everyone turns back, but not before being goaded by snack vendors. On the return trip, the pair of rowers in our boat also makes sure to push a souvenir or two.

Before getting back on terra firma, we pass by a temple on a hill, fishermen waist-deep and catching their livelihood with woven baskets, and low-hanging branches stretching out from small forests where chickens and other unexpected signs of life dwell. A restaurant is under construction on a manmade island, so we spend lunch back on the mainland at The Long. The restaurant also offers $10 cooking classes for the dishes of your choice, buffalo car tours (as in, transportation pulled by buffalo), and handmade scarves that remind you Vietnam isn’t all tropical.