Experience Vietnam’s hidden gem: Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh may not often get mentioned when it comes to must-visit places in Vietnam. You will mostly hear about Ha Long Bay, Sapa and Hoi An beyond the metropolises of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. This is only because Ninh Binh isn’t visited as much, and if it were, you’d be hearing a lot more about it. 

Ninh Binh offers you dreamy landscapes, similar to that of Ha Long Bay, a beautiful culture to get to know and delicious food to try.The best part is that Ninh Binh is only about 100 km south of Hanoi. With a quick 2 hour journey, you’ll be able to give yourself a peaceful retreat away from the chaos of the capital city, an adventure through sprawling rivers and into mysterious caves, past ancient temples and up mountain peaks. 

Getting to Ninh Binh is as easy as A, B, C

Ninh Binh is just a quick 2 hour ride from Hanoi, or a 5 hour one from Ha Long Bay. This journey can be done by bus or private transfer from both major cities which is a very comfortable and easy ride. From Hanoi you have the extra option of boarding the Reunification Express. However, do this only if you can time yourself well as there are only 3 trains a day, with the earliest departing at 9:00 AM which means you won’t have much of your day left for exploring Ninh Binh.

We’d also recommend you spend at least 2 days as 1 day is not enough to do the region and your adventure-seeking soul justice. If you aren’t very flexible though, we have created the perfect 1 day itinerary for you. As for the best time to visit? Any time of the year! May to July would likely be the best

Get around the region on two wheels!

Not the pedaling kind though. Well, you could, however, as the city’s attractions are placed far apart from one another, getting from one to the other on bicycle will have you knackered out. Best to save the bicycle for a certain attraction, and use a motorbike as your main form of transport around the city and region. 

©Chris Goldberg/Flickr

Renting bicycles and motorbikes is easy – just ask your hotel or hostel reception to get it done for you or to advise the nearest, most reputable place. It won’t cost you more than $10.00 USD per day, including gas. Be ready to tackle at least 40 kilometers a day!

Pro tip: We do not recommend you drive a motorbike if you aren’t a skilled driver already. Make sure you have your driving license and international health insurance as well, and remember to get your helmet on. There are also taxis in the area and xe oms (motorbike taxis) so getting around won’t be difficult. 

First, learn about Ninh Binh’s past

Hoa Lu Ancient Town was once the capital of Vietnam. It served as the economic and political center of the Dai Co Viet – a kingdom that encompassed of 3 dynasties during the 10th and 11th centuries, from the Ding to the Le and then the Ly. Hoa Lu was chosen because the surrounding mountains kept the city hidden and inaccessible from potential invaders – something they weren’t able to test out as no one tried to invade them. 

©Jean-Paul Navarro/Flickr

The complex is stunning and has various structures worth visiting, from temples and monuments dedicated to each emperor of the Dai Co Viet, to large gardens, stone pillars, tombs and statues. All this was built with a stunning background of mountains, endless green and beautiful blue skies. To get a beautiful panoramic view of the citadel and the area, head up to the top of Ma Yen Mountain. 

Get on a boat for a river tour 

You can do this in one of three places – Trang An, Tam Coc and Van Long Reserve. All three offer similar experiences when it comes to the nature you will experience. Trang An, located about 2 km from the city center, is easily one of the most beautiful places to explore. To get here, plug Khu du lich sinh thái Tràng An into the search bar on Google Maps. Once there, you will find the booth to pay for your entry cost for the complex (120,000 VND) and you will also meet a bunch of rowers sitting peacefully and hanging out on their boats. Find one to be your guide for the day; it will cost you about VND 150,000 for a one to two hour tour.

©Richard Mortel/Flickr

Your guide will stop over at various ancient temples and structures, and row you through mysterious caves. If you feel up to it, you can even start a boat racing competition with other tourists you see. Head to Trang An early in the morning, around 7:00 AM, or late in the afternoon – around 4:00 PM to avoid crowds. 

Tam Coc, a UNESCO recognized and protected World Heritage Site, is equally picturesque. A boat ride here will offer you the opportunity to slow down your pace and fully get lost in nature. Just like in Trang An, you will be rowed through the Ngo Dong River with picturesque views on both sides of endless green paddy fields and limestone mountains. Dotted here and there are ancient structures. Make sure you don’t miss Tam Coc Temple, Bich Dong Pagoda and Hang Mua Peak that are located within the Tam Coc complex. A boat ride here will cost you the same as in Trang An. 

©Rod Waddington/Flickr

Van Long is the last of the three locations where you can partake in a boat ride – and this is the most off-the-beaten-track you can get. Thanks to it being less popular, you’ll get to enjoy your views without other tourists in sight. The downside is that Van Long Nature Reserve is located 30 kilometers from town. But it is a journey you should take, especially if you are a lover of bird watching as this park offers sightings of many endangered and endemic species that have taken refuge here, far away from poachers and other predators. 

Get your hike on

Cuc Phuong National Park is one of Vietnam’s most protected areas. Set up in 1962, this also happens to be Vietnam’s oldest national park, and is home to over 307 species of birds, 133 species of mammals, 122 species of reptiles and more than 2000 species of plants. Many of these are endangered and in the Red Data Book of Vietnam. Cuc Phuong National Park can be explored by foot, and on motorbike and bicycle on paved and dirt paths.

©Chris Goldberg/Flickr

It’s best to spend two or three days exploring what the park offers – you can support rescue centers, take pictures at botanical gardens, visit ancient trees, crawl through caves and hike along hidden trails. Minority villages also dot the land and can be visited on a number of guided treks. 

If you’re not willing to go far or do not have so much time on your hands, head over to Thung Nham Bird Garden, a mere 5km outside of Tam Coc. This is a great place to learn about local, endangered birds. It’s not a very touristy place, so you have a good chance of getting it all to yourself! 

Play temple run…well, kind of!

Ninh Binh is full of temples to discover, and they are located all over the area, hidden amidst rice fields, tucked away in caves or perched up on mountains.  

Without a doubt, the most popular is Bich Dong Pagoda which is a complex of three smaller pagodas built into a cave. Combine this with your tour around Tam Coc as both are located near one another. 

©Alex Berger/Flickr

If you have time for a quick hike, then try to tackle Hang Mua Peak. It will take you a climb of 500 paved steps up a mountain, where you will come across a stone dragon watching over the surrounding valley from the top. You are also get to enjoy panoramic views of the area – a wonderful reward after all that sweating. On your way up and down, you will undoubtedly bump into a pack of cute billy goats. However, do not try to aggravate them, just let them do their own thing. Have your camera ready – these playful goats do some impressive stunts!

Piumi Rajapaksha

Piumi Rajapaksha

Third-culture kid, hailing from Sri Lanka. Currently residing in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and refuses to leave because of the good food. You'll probably find her wandering aimlessly through the city with a coffee in hand looking lost, but she never is.
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