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Ninh Binh is known as Halong Bay on land, with the same beautiful karst mountains dotted between rivers and rice paddies. Only two hours south of Hanoi, it makes a perfect day trip but to really see everything, you are definitely going to need more time.
While my trip to Ninh Binh wasn’t the smoothest, I have learned from my mistake and compile this guide to help you. With my experience of success and misadventures, you are sure to have the best time in the beautiful Ninh Binh
A little about Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is the name of the entire region, as well as the main town there. However, when you want to visit Ninh Binh, you likely won’t want to stay there. Most people will end up staying around Tam Coc and nearby the Trang An Grottoes, but if you have a scooter or is planning to rent one, it doesn’t really matter.
Hanoi to Ninh Binh, Ninh Binh to Hanoi
While it is tempting to book transport from your hostel or try the public bus or train, time is money and let’s be honest, dongs are cheap. After the disastrous trip from Hanoi to Ninh Binh with the transport we booked from our hostel that lasted 5 hours, where we were dumped by a gas station, we took our homestay’s recommendation to go back.
For 160,000 dongs, we booked to be in a limousine 7 seater to that would pick us up fro homestay then drop us off at a designated spot in Hanoi – the closest to old quarter is Circus Central.
We were picked up on time and the ride was very comfortable. After picking up people in the area, we made a short stop at their headquarter in Ninh Binh town and changed to another car that took us to Hanoi. The whole ride took under two hours, and using Grab to get a taxi back to our hotel was super easy and costs the usual 25,000 dong in town.
There were people who are waiting there to go to Ninh Binh, so I assume the process also work smoothly in reverse!
You can also find their Facebook here. But it’s all in Vietnamese, so you are best off asking your hostel/hotel book it for you!)
Alternatively, you can get a train from Hanoi Rail Station to Ninh Binh and arrange to be picked up from there. There are also private car service to and from starting at 65 USD for 3 people (only 10 USD more than our bad shared transfer from hell):
Ninh Binh attractions
It’s mostly about beautiful nature in Ninh Binh, but believe it or not, there is history here, too! Here are my top picks:
Mua Cave and Lying Dragon Mountain
Mua Cave means tiger cave in Vietnamese, and the cave itself is nothing more than a small cave with the statue of a tiger. The real attraction is the Lying Dragon Mountain that lays on top of it.
Arguably the best viewpoint in the area, you can ascend the hundreds of steps to the top which offers the best panorama of Tam Coc River.
One thing that I didn’t expect was there are two peaks. One that looks back to the east towards town and rice paddies, and one to the west at the Tam Coc River.
The latter is also where the Chinese dragon statue lies.
There are several photo spots up the peak that faces the west, facing the Tam Coc view. Here are my favourite photos:
The hike itself isn’t very long, but the stairs are pretty steep, so wear appropriate shoes and bring enough water. I would estimate to spend about an hour or two to take photos.
Trang An or Tam Coc
While you can do both boat trips, they are said to be very similar and most people seem to prefer Trang An. Tam Coc river tour is conveniently located in the Tam Coc town centre. However, there are online comments about how much they push tourists to buy items on stops. Also, from the Lying Dragon Mountain, you can get a full view of Tam Coc, whereas you can’t for Trang An. besides, Trang An is also the filming location for Kong: Skull Island.
Trang An Grottoes
As we had discussed above, Trang An Grottoes refers to a complex of river and caves in Ninh Binh. To visit the grottoes, you simply purchase tickets at the entrance and wait in line. What you probably won’t notice is that there are actually three routes to do Trang An. Route 1 is the shortest, with Route 2 and 3 similar in length but with slightly different stops. It’s up to you to discuss which one to do once you get on a wooden boat.
We had not a clue about the whole thing and a Vietnamese man from Ho Chi Minh City joined our boat – as they would since we were a trio and a boat can fit up to six. We thought he told us that we would see three caves, but it turns out we were going to route 3!
The whole trip takes about four hours, and it’s best to go earlier in the morning to avoid the crowds but not all of them. Because, truthfully, the landscape wouldn’t be as beautiful without a boat inside it. You would have to wear the neon orange life jacket for safety, though no one told us off for taking it off for a photo or two.
With only the lady rowing the boat, it doesn’t go very fast and there are two paddles onboard that we can use. The man from Ho Chi Minh City, whom we referred to as our Vietnamese Dad because he took such good care of us, started paddling. So naturally, my sister, my friend, and I rotated to help, and we were the fastest boat around. There are numerous stops along the way, and truth be told most of them didn’t stand out. But below is our itinerary:
- Trinh Temple
Route 2 is pretty similar, visiting 3 caves and 3 temples that are all different except Dai Cave, as well as the Kong film set.
Route 1 is the most different, visiting 9 caves in total!
Address: adult 200,000 dong, children under 140 cm 100,000 dong
Opening times: unclear, but likely 9:00 – 16:00
Hoa Lu ancient capital
Before the Ly dynasty moved the capital to Hanoi in 1070, Hoa Lu was the first ever capital city of Vietnamese dynasty. While there are not much left to see, it used to be the seat of power during the Dinh Dynasty and Early Le dynasty, covering an area of 3 km2. The karst mountains and rice paddies make for a beautiful backdrop, and the former also act as a great natural defence system.
Nowadays, you can visit the temples of the first two king of the respective dynasty. The Temple of Đinh Tiên Hoàng and the Temple of Lê Đại Hành.
The two men were important figures in the Vietnamese history, with Đinh Tiên Hoàng unifying the country, defeating the other warlords to form an imperial dynasty and Lê Đại Hành defeating the Chinese invasion.
We were able to borrow skirts for free from the stall next to one of the temples, though they don’t seem to re-enforce the dress code all that much. There is also a beautiful rice paddy that’s perfect for photos in between the temples:
Admission fee: 20,000 dong per person
Bai Dinh Temple
Sprawling over 539 hectares, Bai Dinh Temple is one of the biggest Buddhist temple complexes in Asia. Built around an older temple of the same name, construction started in 2003 and lasted seven years. There are only one entrance and exit point, where you can get on an electric buggy for 30,000 dongs to go over to the main temple. Alternatively, you can also walk in but it is 3km!
There is also an option for a guided tour, but as the temple was only completed recently, we didn’t opt for the option. We spent about two hours roaming the ground of the complex, which follows the traditional design with massive halls, curved roof, and hundreds of Buddha statues that line the staircase up.
The building materials and the craftsmen are all from the area, and the temple complex is a working monastery. The jewel is the main pagoda, which though you have to pay an extra 50 000 dong for, is well worth it to see the view of the surrounding area.
Admission fee: technically free, but electric buggy is 30,000 dong per round, and to go up the pagoda is 50,000 dong
Opening times: unclear, but likely 8:00 until dark
Cuc Phuong National Park
Two hours northeast of the other attraction, Cuc Phuong National Park is a popular place to visit for those who want a heavy dose of nature. The national park has many parts as well as educational trails and tours suitable for family with children. However, for most visitors, the most frequent path is to see the thousand-year-old tree on the 3km circular trail.
To avoid disappointment, I want to tell you that the thousand-year-old tree is dead. However, on the way, we followed a sign that leads to some really tall trees as well. There are some cave temples in the area, too!
Personally, I didn’t particularly find Cuc Phuong National Park interesting, though that’s because I frequently hike in Hong Kong.
They have a comprehensive map and tourist information center at the entrance. We didn’t want to wait around for one of the tours, but those are definitely an option!
Address: Nho Quan District, Ninh Bình Province 432857, Vietnam
Admission fee: 60,000 dong adult, 10,000 dong children
Opening times: 8:00 – 18:00
Getting around Ninh Binh
The best thing to do is to rent a scooter, but, if you are like us, and can’t, there are really only two options left. We did one day of cycling around, from our homestay to the Trang An Grottoes, Mua Cave, and then back. Another day, we booked a car with driver from our homestay to go to Cuc Phuong National Park.
Cycling in Ninh Binh
The roads around the Ninh Binh area are all well paved and big, and drivers are well accustomed to people paddling by the side of the road. However, most of them don’t have lanes, though cars do try to stick to the correct side, it’s a bit of a free for all situation.
The traffic is pretty tame, so when in doubt you can simply wait until there is no car.
I definitely recommend doing one cycling day in Ninh Binh to fully enjoy the scenery – even if you are renting a scooter. The small roads near Trang An Grottoes are especially beautiful and scenic, and well worth a slow bike through to appreciate its beauty! We ended up getting on the wrong path and the local farm ladies pointed out the right way for us.
Where to stay in Ninh Binh
Mountain View Homestay
We had the most amazing time at Mountain View Homestay, with Jasmine and her family doing above and beyond to take care of us. The location is close to Bai Dinh Pagoda in a quiet village, with a beautiful orange-red tile roof and spacious courtyard. While its location is remote, you can get dinner for 5 USD per person with huge portion sizes and super tasty Vietnamese food.
As I’ve mentioned before, we had problems getting from Hanoi to Ninh Binh. Despite not being present, Jasmine had picked us up from the gas station that we were dumped at, help me get my lost bag back, and rescued us from a one-hour walk on the road.
The only real drawback is that if you are not planning on renting a scooter or booking a car, then it’s going to be a very long way to cycle. Otherwise, it’s ideally located in the middle of the sights mentioned above.
Beautiful Nature near Trang An Grottes
We cycled past this stunning stretch of rice paddies near Trang An Grottoes on a small road and passed a few homestays. Out of the four there, For You Homestay and Trang An River View Homestay have the best review. If I return to Ninh Binh, I would 100% book either one because you can’t get a view like that anywhere else.
Closer to Tam Coc
For places further south, you can stay right by Mua Caves with Mua Caves Ecolodge, which is a tentative half-way point between Trang An Grottoes and Tam Coc. Lotus Field Homestay is a little closer to Tam Coc if you want to be nearer town.