Ninh Binh is a province located in Northern Vietnam approximately 100 km South of Hanoi. It’s still a relatively new tourist spot. However, Ninh Binh easily became one of my favourite places we visited in all of Vietnam. I strongly suggest not skipping it.
The stunning scenery contains endless stretches of rice fields nestled against hundreds of limestone mountains. This is just one of many reasons why Ninh Binh is a must-visit. It’s definitely a place for nature-lovers. Likewise, it’s suited for those who really want to explore another authentic side of Vietnam.
How to Get to Ninh Binh
You can easily reach Ninh Binh by train from Hanoi or from Southern cities such as Hue. I did bus checks on both 12goAsia and Verexe. However, it looks like going by train or taking taxi from major cities like Hanoi are your only options. We took a bus from Cat Ba Island. They cost $15 USD/per person and we went through a bus company called Cat Ba Discovery. If you missed it, read my guide on Cat Ba here.
We had a very good experience with them. The tickets included hotel pickup and took approximately 4.5 hours. There was an English guide on board who facilitated the journey. The bus driver was kind enough to drop the passengers off directly at their hotel.
Where to Stay in Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh Province is mainly divided into the areas of Trang An, Tam Coc, Van Long, and Cuc Phuong. Ninh Binh city/town doesn’t have much to offer and is a bit farther from the main attractions, which is why I recommend staying outside of the main city. I strongly suggest staying in a hotel or homestay in Tam Coc. It’s a beautifully rural area, which is located near the main strip of town close to many attractions.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at an amazing homestay called Tam Coc Mr. Loa Homestay. I can’t recommend this place enough. It’s a relatively new accommodation with only 5 bungalows. It was spacious and clean. Additionally, the bungalows sit beneath stunning karst mountains. The rooms also overlook a beautiful garden, rice fields and a lily pond. The Loa family went above and beyond for us during our stay. They have a full food menu, where breakfast is included. Make sure to try their vegetable soup for breakfast!
We ate almost every meal here during our stay, because it was just that delicious. It was probably one of the best accommodation experiences we’ve had since travelling Asia. They also have bicycles and motorbikes on site for rent! On the morning we checked out, they organized a driver to take us to the train station. See photos below!
How to Get Around
The best way to explore and get around is by scooter or motorbike. Most homestays/hotels will rent you one or you can rent from a company in town. Our homestay had one for us to rent for 100,000 VND/day. Ninh Binh roads are pretty flat and aren’t that busy. It’s the best way to explore your surroundings. You’ll be amazed by the scenery while you’re biking to all the sites! You can also get around by taxi, but I’m not sure what the prices are like.
What to Do
Trang An Grotto Boat Tour
Parking: 15,000 VND/motorbike
Tour Cost: 200,000 VND/per person
This is one of my favourite activities that we did in Ninh Binh. Trang An is known as the “Ha Long Bay of the Land” since the river is surrounded by high limestone mountains and lush greenery. Every corner the boat turns, there is something new and beautiful to see. You sit on a small rowing boat that takes you on an incredibly picturesque journey through several caves and temples.
The Boat Routes
There are three different routes you can take, each offering something different. They all cost the same price, so just choose the route you think best fits your interests. We wanted more time in the open scenery and with nature so we went with Route 3. It included going through 3 caves, 3 temple stops, and a stop at Kong Island, where “King Kong” was filmed. Each boat holds a maximum of 4 people. The boaters will wait for another 2 people to join if there are only 2 of you. If you want a private tour, it’ll cost you 800,000/per boat.
Route 1, 2, 3
Route 1 – 9 caves, 9 temples (This route visits the most caves and will interest those who love exploring geological formations.)
Route 2 – 4 caves, 4 temples
Route 3 – 3 caves, 3 temples
Route 2 and 3 are quite similar. They make almost the same stops, while route 2 includes an extra temple/cave visit. We chose route 3 since we didn’t feel the need to visit 4 caves. This particular route also included a journey through a 1 km-long cave that only opened to the public last January! (Watch your heads in those caves!) I had also read online that you see the most limestone mountains on this route.
The landscapes were stunning during this trip and I can’t recommend this activity enough. Our tour lasted 2.5 hours total. Go in the early morning or late afternoon before it gets crowded. This is also after the large tour groups have gone. Don’t forget to tip your rower since they work so hard!
Tam Coc Boat Ride
We didn’t take this boat tour since we had taken the previously mentioned tour through Trang An. These boats are operated by female locals only and they row with their feet!! We went and took lots of photos where people were getting onto the boats. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of natural beauty in these landscapes as well. Judging from our drone photos of this place, you’d get just as beautiful scenery with this boat tour. However, most people who have done both tours recommend the Trang An Grotto tour if you had to choose between the two.
Mua Caves / Hang Mua Temple
Entrance Fee: 100,000 VND/per person
Parking: 10,000 VND/bike
The view from Hang Mua is the most dramatic and stunning landscape that we saw in all of Vietnam. There’s a temple sitting on top of a mountain, 500 steps from the ground. The views from Tam Coc are absolutely breathtaking and is one of my favourite spots in Vietnam. Make sure to visit BOTH viewpoints as they both offer impressive, but different scenery. I’ll let the pictures below speak for themselves!
Bích Động Pagoda
Entrance Fee: FREE
Parking: 10,000 VND/Motorbike
I had researched beforehand that the locals here will try to charge you an entrance fee or charge more for parking. However, don’t fall for it! A lady tried to charge us 20,000 VND for parking, but we politely declined. She accepted our money without a fuss.
This pagoda houses 3 temples and caves which are carved into Bích Động Mountain. It’s located 3 km from Tam Coc. There are steep steps you must climb in order to visit the pagodas up top. We didn’t go up the pagodes since Alex hurt his leg the day before when our motorbike slipped in the mud (don’t worry, he’s okay!). However, we’ve heard the views are well worth it!
Other Places to Visit
Hoa Lu Ancient City – What would have been Vietnam’s capital in the 10th Century, it’s filled with lots of temples and a large citadel to explore.
Cuc Phuong National Park – Spanning over 222 square kilometers, this was Vietnam’s first national park and is home to the largest nature reserve. There are many caves, hiking trails, gardens and conservation centres you can visit.
Phat Diem Cathedral in Cuc Phoung – Built in 1892, it’s a blend of Vietnamese and European architectural styles.
Thung Nham Bird Garden – A natural park nestled away in the mountains, it’s home to more than 40 species of birds among a very rich ecosystem.
Visit the Hoa Lu Temples – The famous temple here to visit is Dinh Tien Hoang.
Visit Van Long Nature Reserve – A protected reserve great for birdwatchers!