Ninh Binh is an area of Vietnam that is often overlooked by visitors looking to experience this spectacular country. And it’s unfortunate, as it’s only about 2 hours south of the bustling city of Hanoi. Filled with towering landscape cliffs, lush green rice paddies, and the friendliest people, Ninh Binh is the perfect place to relax and unwind while soaking up the landscape and the culture of Vietnam.
Read on to find out where to stay, where to eat, and what to explore in this beautiful region of Vietnam!
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Getting to Ninh Binh
The town of Ninh Binh is located about 60 miles south of Hanoi. There are three options to get to Ninh Binh – take a train, a bus, or hire a private driver. Or, of course, you can rent a motorbike and drive yourself (although driving in Vietnam is not for the faint of heart).
Tourist buses depart from Hanoi around 8:00am and will pick you up from your hotel if you stay in the Old Quarter. Tickets are 150,000 VND per person and the bus will make one 20 minute stop to grab a snack and use the toilet. You can book a ticket at any of the many tourist agencies in town. Local buses also depart regularly from Hanoi’s southern bus terminal, Giap Bat, but note that you may end up with less space and more stops than you planned for.
There are 5 trains departing daily from Hanoi Station and include the SE5, SE7, and SE19. The trip takes about 2.5 hours but keep in mind that trains in Vietnam are frequently late so don’t be surprised if you have a bit of a wait once you arrive to the station. You can purchase the tickets online or through a travel agent in town.
It’s also worth noting that if you are short on time you can travel by bus directly between Ninh Binh and Halong Bay. This saves you from having to return to Hanoi between these two popular tourist destinations.
How Long to Stay in Ninh Binh
Many people choose to visit the Ninh Binh region as a day trip. While it is possible to see some of the highlights in a short time, we would highly recommend spending a few days here.
You’ll have the opportunity to sleep in darling bungalows with sweeping views of rich paddies and towering limestone cliffs. Plus you’ll be able to take your time in exploring the area and won’t be rushed by a tour guide trying to fit it all into a few hours.
If you give yourself some time to relax and unwind in Ninh Binh it may just turn out to be the highlight of your Vietnam itinerary.
Weather in Ninh Binh
The temperature in Northern Vietnam is hot and humid from May to October and the chance of rainfall is high. This rainfall can spoil your ability to explore the region but it also makes for vivid green rice paddies. November to April tends to be a bit cooler and drier.
You can visit Ninh Binh at any time of year but best to check the weather prior to departing since pretty much all of the attractions are outdoors.
The currency of Vietnam is the Dong (VND) and at the time of writing (August of 2018), the exchange rate was approximately 23,164 VND to $1 USD. So if we say that something costs 50,000 VND, that’s just about $2.
There are several ATMs around but they are outside of the main area of Tam Coc. Several markets in Tam Coc advertise ATMs but they will simply charge your card, add a 3% fee, and then give you cash. The closest ATM to Tam Coc is on the left hand side of the road when you head east on DT491C.
Should I stay in Ninh Binh or Tam Coc?
There are several small towns in the Ninh Binh region so don’t feel like you need to stay in Ninh Binh town proper. Tam Coc is the most popular town as there are plenty of comfy homestays and many delicious restaurants. Trang An is another area that has a few homestays but less dining options. If you stay in the heart of Ninh Binh town you’ll probably find it to be a bit underwhelming.
We would recommend staying in Tam Coc where you’ll be surrounded by the beautiful countryside but still have plenty of eating and drinking venues right nearby.
Where to Stay in Ninh Binh
Getting Around Ninh Binh
Most of the homestays in the area have bicycles and motorbikes available to rent. While it’s nice to cruise around on a bicycle, a few of the highlights are outside of town so you’ll have a long ride ahead of you. A motorbike will run you about 120,000 – 150,000 VND/day but you’ll have to fill up the gas tank (~80,000 VND for a full tank).
For many visitors to Ninh Binh and Tam Coc a favorite activity is simply roaming around the back roads on a bicycle or motorbike soaking in the beautiful landscape and views of daily life in rural Vietnam.
If you are staying in Tam Coc and are only interested in visiting Bich Dong Pagoda and the Tam Coc boat ride you will be fine with just a bicycle. However, if you want to visit any of the other sites (such as Hang Mu, Trang An, or Hoa Lu) you’ll be much happier on a motorbike as these sites are several miles away from each other.
Contact your homestay prior to your arrival to see if they can pick you up from the bus or train terminal. It’s amazing that they can balance your gigantic luggage and you on the back of their little motorbike on the bumpy, unpaved streets!
Where to Eat in Tam Coc
- Hoa Luan Restaurant has a large menu filled with Vietnamese classics and a few dishes that you probably haven’t seen before. The fresh spring rolls are delicious and unique – the vegetables inside are cooked and seasoned to perfection!
- If you’re tired of eating so much Vietnamese food, how about a little Indian cuisine? Aroma Ninh Binh has a large menu of delectable Indian favorites at reasonable prices. Be sure to try the Aroma Special Naan!
- Bamboo Bar and Restaurant and Hai Linh Restaurant are two good choices in Tam Coc proper that offer delicious and affordable Vietnamese fare. Both have outstanding papaya salads and savory meat options including the region specialty, goat.
Best Things to do Around Ninh Binh
Take a Boat Tour
Boat tours are the most popular tourist activity in the Ninh Binh region. You’ll cruise along the scenic countryside and through several caves (depending on the time of year and water levels). And if you’re lucky, you’ll end up with a local who’s skilled enough to row with their feet!
You can take a boat trip from three departure areas in the Ninh Binh region – Tam Coc, Trang An, or Linh Coc. Tam Coc is the most popular with tourists and every tour group coming for the day from Hanoi boards a boat here. So expect crowds unless you go early in the morning or late in the day.
Tam Coc Boat Trip
When you arrive to the Tam Coc pier you’ll park your motorbike near the WC for a 10,000 VND fee. You’ll pay the fee of 120,000 VND per person and 150,000 per boat. Only two foreigners are allowed on each boat. Then you’ll pick up a lifejacket and be assigned a boat driver.
It’s an out-and-back, the scenery is nice, and you’ll go through a few caves (although none are so low that you need to sit in the bottom of the boat as you do with the Trang An boat tour).You won’t get out of your boat at all during the 1.5-2 hour ride so there are no bathroom stops along the way. They won’t make you keep your life jacket on unless you want to.
Most of the boat drivers paddle with their feet which must be quite challenging. Although they all appear to be so relaxed while doing it.
Tipping: We got a hard sell at the halfway point of the trip by another lady selling food who latched onto our boat. When we didn’t show an interest in buying anything she asked us to buy food for our boat driver which we also declined. We figured she would prefer cash. We tipped 50,000 VND each which is probably a bit more than the standard rate (~25,000 per person).
Parking Fee: 10,000 VND for motorbikes and bicycles
Trang An Boat Trip
The boat ride in Trang An is quite a bit more organized than the one in Tam Coc. You’ll park your motobike in the designated area, cross the bridge, and pay your 200,000 VND/person fee at the ticket booth. From there you’ll head to the dock where you’ll be assigned a boat (they usually wait for a group of 3 or 4 prior to departing).
You’ll get off of the boat to explore a few beautiful temples and go through a few narrow caves where you’ll have to duck your head and/or sit on the floor of the boat. It’s exciting and pretty amazing that the boat drivers are able to navigate so well!
There are toilets at each stop (for a 2,000 VND fee) as well as plenty of places where you can purchase drinks and snacks. And they are sticklers about you keeping your lifejacket on when you are on the boat. The entire trip will take 2.5 – 3 hours.
Tipping: The boat drivers aren’t supposed to ask for tips, in fact, you’ll probably be asked to complete a survey and one of the questions was whether or not you were asked for a tip. But a tip of 25,000 VND per person is customary and appreciated.
Parking Fee: 15,000 VND for motorbikes and bicycles.
Visit the Temples and Pagodas
Bích Động Pagoda
Built into the side of a cliff, the Bích Động Pagoda is most certainly a must-see highlight of the area! Once you park in the designated area you will cross a pond filled with lily pads and under a stunningly beautiful ancient gate. Come early if you want to capture some photos here as it is a popular spot for photographs.
As you continue up the stairs you will come upon a temple. Continue around the back to go through a dark cave filled with bats and then up another set of stairs to a lovely viewpoint. It’s an interesting pagoda but the highlight is the gate entrance at the very beginning. Be sure to dress respectfully here (although most tourists don’t seem to follow the rules).
Parking Fee: We read online that the fee for a motorbike is 30,000 VND but the lady giving out tickets charged us 60,000 VND. Not really knowing how to dispute it (and since it’s only an extra $1 USD) we ended up paying it anyway. We believe that the real price should be 30,000 VND.
Hang Múa Temple/Mua Caves
There are a few caves in this area so it is generally referred to as “Mua Caves” which is a bit confusing as the real draw is on the top of a mountain. You’ll climb a steep and challenging 500 stairs up the side of Hang Múa peak in order to reach the temple at the top. You’ll be huffing and puffing once you reach the top but trust us, it’s worth it.
Not only are the views of the valley below absolutely breathtaking, but there is an impressive dragon statue at the top that is the perfect spot for a few photos. But be careful, the rocks are jagged and slippery and the drop offs are no joke. Tennis shoes would be a good choice for this hike as the stairs are a bit uneven as well. Be sure to climb the stairs to the other pagoda across the way as it attracts fewer crowds and offers equally stunning views.
This spot also seems to attract some grumpy visitors (could be the heat or the intense climb) so go early to avoid vying for space if you want to take a lot of photos.
Parking Fee: 10,000 – 15,000 depending on which restaurant you park at
Hoa Lư Temple
The Hoa Lư Ancient Capital is about 10 miles north of Tam Coc and easily accessible by motorbike. The setting is spectacular although there isn’t much remaining of the capital which dates back to the 11th century. There are two surviving temples that have been restored, one was dedicated to the Dinh dynasty and the other to monarch Le Dai Hanh. The temples are dark and boding inside, with dark red and black lacquered pillars and gated offering areas.
While the peaceful area is nice to wander around while admiring the ancient gates and temples, it’s not necessarily awe inspiring. If you plan on doing the boat ride in Trang An it’s worth a stop as it is nearby. And if you come for the day with a tour group from Hanoi it will most certainly be on the route.
Parking Fee: There are several restaurants right outside of the gate to the temple where you can either pay 10,000 VND to park your motorbike, or purchase food or drinks from them and park for free.
Hours: 6:00am – 6:00pm during the summer and 6:30am – 5:15pm in the winter.
Bái Đính Temple
The Bái Đính Temple is an enormous complex of Buddhist temples located about 14 miles outside of Tam Coc. The entire area is over 1,300 acres making it the largest pagoda in SE Asia. In fact, just getting from the parking lot to the front gate is no easy feat. Most people opt to take the electric shuttles to and from the entrance.
You’ll start at the bottom of the hillside and make your way up to the top. You’ll climb a seemingly endless stairwell lined with large stone Buddha statues, most of which have entertaining expressions. You can see the smooth, shiny areas on each where they’ve been rubbed for good luck. The complex houses some 5,000 Buddha statues in total!
You’ll start to see the temples near the top. The newest of which was started in 2003 and completed in 2010. The temples boast giant shiny gold Buddha statues and intricate lattice work hanging from the ceilings. This is a popular place for religious Vietnamese to visit and it hosts a large festival on the 6th day of the first lunar month.
Parking Fee: 15,000 VND
Shuttle Fee: 30,000 VND per person per way (60,000 roundtrip per person)
Enjoy the Landscape
Thung Nham Bird Garden
When you enter the Thung Nham Bird Garden you might be a bit confused as to why exactly you’re there. Sure it’s pretty peaceful and serene but where are all the birds? Keep going, follow the signs for the bird viewing area. It’s a long walk, probably a mile and a half to get there, but fairly flat until the end. Plus you’ll pass by a few interesting bamboo bridges along the way. You’ll climb up to a lookout at the end of the hike and be rewarded with a lovely view of the lake below and hundreds of birds perched in the trees surrounding it. It’s quite a remarkable sight.
If a 3-mile round trip walk doesn’t sound appealing to you, you can also take a boat ride out to the bird area for an additional fee. You’ll be more likely to see a lot of birds if you visit in the early morning or late afternoon.
Parking Fee: 10,000 VND for a motorbike
Other Things to do Around Ninh Binh
- Cúc Phương National Park – Vietnam’s first national park and largest nature preserve.
- Van Long Wetland Reserve – Much quieter location for a boat ride with more wildlife but less stunning scenery than Tam Coc or Trang An.
- Phát Diệm Cathedral – This catholic church is a strange mixture of European Gothic and Vietnamese architecture including a pagoda-style roof. It’s an interesting place for a brief visit, but it is about 45 minutes from Tam Coc by motorbike.
- Thai VI Temple – A small Buddhist temple near the town of Tam Coc. The scenery on the walk/bike ride to the temple is much more impressive than the temple itself.
Want to book a Tam Coc Day Tour online?
We always prefer to find our own way in a new country and tend to shy away from group tours. But if you prefer to have a guide to show you around Ninh Binh you can book a Hoa Lu and Tam Coc Day Tour online.
Planning a trip to Vietnam? Check out our favorite books and travel guides!
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