The magical Ninh Binh is located in northern Vietnam, 100km south of Hanoi and is nicknamed “Ha Long Bay on Land”. Although we had a magnificent 3-day cruise on Halong Bay, we preferred it here in Ninh Binh.
The stunning landscapes are right out of a movie set (no wonder the latest King Kong movie was filmed here), with the constant backdrop of charming rivers, surrounded by karst limestone cliffs and vivid green rice fields. It is a site not to be missed.
Not only is Ninh Binh a sight for sore eyes, it is one of the best opportunities to see the rural way of living in Vietnam. The whole province is super relaxed, there’s barely any traffic, the roads are wide and flat, foreigners are few and far between, touts are minimal and it felt extremely surreal – just how the Vietnam experience should be. It was a breath of fresh air from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, that’s for sure. No photos can do this place justice!
We spent 2 days in Ninh Binh and took things relatively slowly. These were our highlights and what are the must do’s in Ninh Binh.
Ninh Binh Highlights
1/ Tam Coc
The area of Tam Coc, which means 3 caves, boasts spectacular landscapes and is no doubt the most visited attraction in Ninh Binh. The Vietnamese refer to Tam Coc as The Green Sea and we can absolutely see why! To best experience this area, there are 2 ways to explore it. Bicycle/motorbike or via a boat tour. Or both!
Bicycle or Motorbike
Rent a bike from your hotel and get exploring! It won’t take long before you notice the intensity of the green absolutely everywhere (especially if you come in rainy season). There really is no need to take a tour to explore Tam Coc. The roads are flat and very easy to navigate, hence the reason I learnt to ride a motorbike for the first time here.
Don’t be afraid to head off into the tiny paths, wave at the locals as they plough through the rice, stop and watch the variety of animals (cows, chickens, ducks, wild horses) as they graze about in their natural habitat and most importantly, take a moment to take it all in! This is real life in Vietnam.
Cost: $4- $5 USD for a motorbike, most homestays will rent bicycles for free.
Boat rides in Tam Coc run through the Ngo Dong River and start from Pier Van Lam. The 2-hour round trip takes you through caves, rice fields and past the ever so unique karst rocks. You will feel like you’re in a movie scene cruising down a natural kingdom like this.
There are three caves which you pass by, (Hang Cả, Hang Hai, and Hang Ba) and they were all individually created by the erosion of rocks.
The single most fascinating thing about the boats in Tam Coc is the women that row the wooden paddles. They use their feet! Yes, their feet! I recently finished season 29 of Amazing Race (gosh I wish we had the courage to audition for this show) and one of the challenges was filmed here and the contestants had to row the boats like these women. I am almost certain I would have steered us in a 360 circle, if at all! They make it look like a piece of cake! The special technique they use eases the pressure on their back and arms.
Be aware that some touts are known to pester tourists by selling food and drinks along the river, so bring some water and snacks before you get on the boat. You’ll find many more foreign tourists here than Vietnamese travellers. Trang An (below) is more popular with the locals.
Tip: Head here early morning or late afternoon to avoid the day trippers from Hanoi and hot sun.
Cost: Tickets can be bought from the booth at the pier for 195,000 VND ($4 USD) and there are 2 people per boat + the rower.
2/ Trang An Grottoes
The Trang An Grottos consist of a variety of caves, rocks (surprise surprise) and temples surrounded by canals, lakes and the occasional mountain goat. To put it bluntly, they’re simply mesmerising. Similar to the Tam Coc boat ride, you spend 2-3 hours in a row boat with a local lady (no idea how she does this all day, every day!) cruising down the river. There are 1000’s of boats waiting there and they generally won’t go unless you have a minimum of 4 people so be prepared to share.
Our favourite part of the boat trip was navigating our way through the caves and by we, I mean the incredible skilful lady in charge, definitely not us. Some of these caves were so small we were forced to duck our heads. Not once did we hit the sides of the cave. Most definitely not her first rodeo.
We were slightly concerned how long we would be spending on here, our butts already becoming numb after just 1 hour but before we blinked, we were back at the start. Cudos to you lady! Time flies when you’re having fun.
Cost: 200,000 VND ($8 USD) per person + 15,000 VND ($.60c) for parking your bike.
3/ Hang Mua Peak
“The best view comes after the hardest climb.”
We’d be lying if we said we didn’t have a “but we have a drone” moment as we contemplated hauling our asses up to the top during the hottest part of the day but our guilt took over and we’re so thankful we did.
If there’s one climb you should do in Ninh Binh, or Asia even, it’s the hike up to the viewpoint on top of the Hang Mua Caves. Don’t be put off by the steep 500 stair climb (there’s an ice cream waiting for you at the bottom for your efforts), it is absolutely worth the 20-minute hike.
Once you reach the top, the panoramic 360-degree views of the countryside, as well as the Tam Coc valley and of course the abundance of limestone mountains, are absolutely magnificent. On a clear day, you can really see for miles.
The dragon that dominates the top of the mountain is one of the 4 sacred creatures in Vietnam along with the Phoenix, Turtle & Qilin (a combination of different animals). The Vietnamese dragon is known to be a symbol of Yang and is seen as one of the most noble and powerful symbols opposed to evil.
Don’t forget to bring some water!
Cost: 100,000 VND ($ 4 USD) + 10, 000VND for parking if you came by bicycle/motorbike.
4/ Bai Dinh Pagoda
The Bai Dinh Pagoda is a gigantic cultural complex of Buddha statues and temples and covers 530 hectares of land. With its recent temple addition, it is now considered the largest pagoda in South East Asia. The attention to detail inside the largest temple was enough to pick your jaw off the floor.
The compound consists of the original old temple and a newly created larger temple. I have to admit this was one of the more pleasant pagoda sights and it was really beautiful to stroll around early morning.
If the size of this masterpiece looks intimidating and tiring to explore, they do offer golf buggies to take you to the main gate and back for 60,000 VND, $2.60 USD.
Tip: Head here in the morning, before the day-trippers all arrive by the bus loads from Hanoi and don’t forget to climb to the top of the Buddha statue on the hill. It’s an easy climb with yet another great view 🙂
Cost: Free – unless you walk to the top of the pagoda (50,000 VND/$2 USD).
- Don’t base yourself in Ninh Binh Town, there’s no appeal to visit or stay here. Instead, stay in or around the Tam Coc area.
- Ninh Binh is best explored by motorbike or bicycle. The roads are flat and wide which also makes it the best place to learn to ride a motorbike (unfortunate if it is the last place on your itinerary).
- There are no ATMs in Tam Coc. If you’re in need of cash, you’ll need to go to Ninh Binh city which is 7km away to withdraw money.
- If you’re staying at a decent home stay, chances are the food there is better than in the restaurants. There’s nothing to write home about for restaurants in Ninh Binh.
- The easiest way to reach Ninh Binh is by bus from Hanoi. On either the local bus from Giap Bat, south of the city Local bus tickets will cost 70,000 – 90,000 VND ($3 USD) OR a tourist bus for $10 USD which will pick you up from your hotel. The bus ride will take 2 hours approx.
- Trains run to Ninh Binh from Hue, Da Nang, Dong Hoi and Hanoi. You can see the schedule and book tickets here.
- If you’re coming from Halong Bay or Cat Ba, there are direct buses to Ninh Binh so no need to venture through Hanoi.
- If your schedule allows it, stay at least 1 night, 2 if you can! It’s such a unique, peaceful destination really worth exploring, slowly.
- Google doesn’t always place the right location on the map so ask your hotel for a map or directions before setting off to visit the sights.
Ninh Binh was one of, if not our favourite destination, in the whole of Vietnam. If you want to experience the “real” Vietnam, jump on a bus or a train and head here stat, before it becomes overrun with tourists. It won’t take long to feel like you’re a tiny ant in one giant movie set.
So there you have it, a few tips for one of the coolest places in Vietnam. Let us know if you have anything else to add! We’d love to hear if you’ve been here before!
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