Ninh Binh is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. Located a mere 100 km southeast of the capital city, the region offers you a chance to immerse yourself in peaceful scenery of endless mountains, sprawling rivers, and well, goats. Thanks to the region’s beauty and tranquility, the Hollywood blockbuster Kong: Skull Island was filmed here.
A day trip may not do justice to your adventure-seeking soul, as Ninh Binh offers plenty of attractive sites to explore such as Tam Coc – Bich Dong, Cuc Phuong National Park, Hoa Lu Ancient Citadel, Phat Diem Cathedral and more. However, we understand that sometimes time just isn’t on your side, so we’ve crafted the perfect one day itinerary for you to explore the best of what this ancient capital of Vietnam offers.
Pro tip: Almost any time of the year is great to visit Ninh Binh, however the ideal time would be September, so try to plan your journey around then.
But first, a breakfast for champions (and then a quick 2-hour drive!)
Wake up early by 4:00 AM and have a quick cup of ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee with milk) and a banh mi (stuffed baguette sandwich) to go with. This is how the locals do almost every morning. Thousands of stalls serving these items dot the streets of Hanoi, meaning you’ll come across one or two within just a few minutes of walking.
There are also many types of banh mis you can find with all sorts of fillings – you just have to point your way through the items displayed behind the glass walls of the cart and make your sandwich as you wish. Choose from meats such as cold cuts, grilled chicken, pork, beef and fish to veggies and herbs such as cucumber, lettuce, daikon, and coriander. Add on an egg and cheese if you want and don’t forget the pate!
Once you are full, hop on your private transfer to Ninh Binh by 5:00 AM so you can arrive in the region by 7:00 AM. It’s important you get an early start to the day so you get enough time to slow down and explore all the nature and hidden gems.
While the train is also a great method of transport to Ninh Binh, the first one departs Hanoi at 9:00 AM, meaning you will only arrive at Ninh Binh right before lunch. Do this only if you have time to spend a night in the city.
Travel back in time to the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
Tick this off as the first thing you do when in Ninh Binh. When you get here early, you can avoid the crowds and capture some beautiful photos. Hoa Lu is an ancient city that was once the economic and political center of Dai Co Viet, a kingdom of 3 dynasties, the Ding, Le and Ly, that extended from what is now northern Vietnam to the center during the 10th and 11th centuries. The complex is built into a stunning backdrop of endless mountains beneath blue sky and surrounded by greenery. Truly a spectacular sight. One can not help but imagine how the city was a 1,000 years ago.
There are a series of temples to visit in the capital, including King Dinh Temple, King Le Temple, and Nhat Tru Pagoda – each offering you a different experience. Head up to the top of Ma Yen Mountain and you can get a beautiful panorama view of the ancient capital of Hoa Lu and its surroundings.
Explore Tam Coc by boat: A maze of mountains, caves and bats
Next, make your way over to the Tam Coc complex – a World Heritage Site recognized and protected by UNESCO. Tam Coc is made up of a cluster of submerged limestone monoliths, resulting in natural lakes and swamps connected to one another through a myriad of caves. The complex houses some of the most valuable historical attractions including Bich Dong pagoda and Hang Mua peak.
To visit Tam Coc, head over to the Tam Coc boat station. Here you will find the ticketing booth where you can pay your entrance fee to the complex. It will cost you 120,000 VND and a further 150,000 VND for a 1-2 hour boat tour around the region. You’ll be rowed through Ngo Dong River around limestone mountains, past floating paddy fields, and through dark caves.
Once the peaceful start to the day is over, follow the road leading southwest of the boat dock to Bich Dong Pagoda, either by foot (if you have time) or hop on a xe om (motorbike taxi). Xe oms are a convenient and cheap method of getting around the region if you don’t drive a motorcycle yourself. Bich Dong Pagoda is a complex of three smaller pagodas (Ha, Trung and Thuong) built into a cave in 1428 during the Le Dynasty.
At the foot of the mountain you will come across Ha pagoda and from here is a 120-step climb up to Trung pagoda. Thuong pagoda is located at the highest point, from which you will be rewarded with beautiful views of the five mountains facing Bich Dong Pagoda. Beware of the bats!
A special lunch: goat meat
Conquering Bich Dong will tire you out, and when you’re done, it will be time for lunch. Ninh Binh’s specialty is goat meat, so get your tummy ready for some thit de com chay (goat meat with scorched rice). This is not your ordinary rice dish as the rice is deep fried until the grains become swollen, crispy and yellow in color. The rice is then lathered with a layer of thick sauce which can be made from a variety of ingredients, including goat meat, beef, and pork. It is then fried with veggies such as celery, onions, tomatoes, carrots and mushrooms and seasoned with garlic and pepper.
To wash down the delicious meal, have a shot of Nho Quan rice wine (ruou can). This is not served in a glass or bowl, instead in a jar. To drink, a bamboo stalk is hollowed out and plunged into the jar. Good luck! Enjoy these specialties of Ninh Binh at Thang Long Restaurant. Depending on what you order, your meal can cost you upwards of USD $5.00.
Another option for lunch is bun cha quat, a delicious twist to the normal bun cha made famous by the late Anthony Bourdain and President Obama. Head over to Tinh Mai restaurant in the Ninh Binh city center. Here the pork is marinated, grilled and topped with sweet and sour fish sauce – absolutely delicious, and won’t cost you over USD $3.00.
A hike up Hang Mua to digest
Once you have such a big lunch, you’ll need to digest it. How better to do so than to conquer a mountain that will reward you with the most splendid views of the region?
Hang Mua is located at the foot of the mountain in an ecotourism community in Khe Dau Ha village. A not so easy challenge of 486 stone stairs takes you to the top. You will undoubtedly bump into some adorable billy goats on the way who have made this peak their home. While they are cute and friendly (for the most part), but try not to aggravate them or get too close as you do not want to be pushed off the mountain. Once you reach the top, the whole beauty of the Tam Coc area with its vast and green rice fields appear.
On the top you will find a stone dragon watching over the surrounding valley. The dragon is an important symbol to the Vietnamese that symbolizes prosperity, and is essential for rain and harvest. The Vietnamese also believe that they are descendants of a dragon and a fairy. This is why the dragon is placed on a vantage point where it can watch over the entire Tam Coc area and bring in good fortune for the locals. Spend a couple of minutes here and savor the views and the wind before you head back down.
A long ride home, dinner and then a massage
After descending Hang Mua, hop on your ride back to Hanoi. The final train for the day from Ninh Binh to Hanoi departs right before 5:00 PM, so again, arranging your own private transfer makes this journey easier and gives more flexibility. Once in Hanoi, head back to your hotel, get freshened up, maybe take a nap, and then head out for a nice dinner. We have a list of awesome restaurants if you’re looking for a recommendation. After that, to top off your adventure, head over to MF Spa for a relaxing massage to end your night.
Have a second day in Ninh Binh?
There are plenty more sites to visit, which you must if you have more time in Ninh Binh. These include Trang An and Van Long – both offering a similar experience to Tam Coc, however much less crowded. Cuc Phuong National Park is worth a visit to do some hiking and bird watching. Then there is Phat Diem Cathedral, a beautiful gothic church located about a 40 minute drive from the city center. The town is also worth walking around.