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An in-depth, A to Z guide of how to get from the adventure of Koh Samui to the serenity of Koh Tao in beautiful Thailand.
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Once you discover Ninh Binh in North Vietnam it's actually quite hard to tear yourself away. From the remote rural nature of the countryside to the distinct lack of tourists, this is one of Southeast Asia's hidden gems and an absolute must for old school travelers. However, when it's time to move on, it's time to move on. And if you're looking to explore down south, then the next stop from Ninh Binh has to be Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. The 400 kilometer (248 mile) distance from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park allows you to see a solid section of Vietnam's northeast coast.
The 8 – 9 hour drive can be made by overnight sleeper bus or by private car. Buses leave Ninh Binh at 9pm in the evening and arrive at Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park for breakfast. Private cars, and people carriers (up to eight passengers), can leave at any time you wish. As you're only allowed to drive in Vietnam if you're a Vietnamese national, private cars come with their own driver. They also provide more space and peace than a busy bus. However, cars are more expensive to hire. Also, sometimes, traveling on an overnight bus in Vietnam can be a real holiday highlight for all manner of unforgettable reasons!
Buses are rated as Local Sleeping and Sleeping and all have air conditioning, reclining seats, an onboard bathroom and Wi-Fi – although this is patchy in places. The benefits of bus travel are that it's super affordable and you also get to save on the cost of overnight accommodation. The negatives are that conditions can be a tad cramped, especially if you've got long legs, and also you might not get a whole lot of sleep. A top tip is to take an eye mask, ear plugs and a neck support or sleep cushion for the journey. Of course, you could always stay awake and watch the sun come up – there's nothing like a French-style black coffee to revive the senses on your early morning arrival!
As sleeper buses leave at 9pm you're not going to see that much on the direct ride from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. There will, of course, be breaks to stretch your legs along the way but these pit-stops are usually nothing more than comfort breaks rather than anything more exciting. The suburbs of Vinh – one of the largest cities in North Vietnam – are often well-lit and worth keeping an eye out for if you are awake in the wee small hours.
Sunrise as you approach Phong Nha Ke Bang can be one of the ride's most memorable moments. Many travelers will start to wake up very early as the sunlight sneaks in through the curtains, and watching fellow passengers emerge from their slumber is almost as entertaining as welcoming the dawn. Alternatively, if you're traveling by private car during the day, you can expect to see plenty of bamboo forests, rice paddies and the occasional glimpse of the South China Sea.
The fastest way to get from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is with a Local Sleeping Bus by Camel Travel. The bus ride takes approximately 7 hours and costs from $11.
The cheapest way to get from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is with a Local Sleeping Bus by Camel Travel. This costs just $11 and takes approximately 7 hours in total.
The most popular way to get from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is with Queen Cafe’s Local Sleeper Bus. The journey takes approximately 8 hours and costs $16.
The most affordable way to travel from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is by sleeper bus. Air conditioning, reclining seats and onboard bathrooms make for a semi-comfortable journey down south. It's a direct ride but there will also be stops to buy food and stretch your legs. Buses can be cramped and noisy but then they do save you money on accommodation. Also, as you're traveling through the night, you get to spend more daylight hours enjoying the delights of Vietnam. Arriving early for your bus's designated departure time is always recommended, as is booking your seat in advance. Buses in high season – September to November – can get booked up quite quickly.
Not everyone realises that foreign tourists aren't allowed to drive a car in Vietnam; it's Vietnamese nationals only. This means that anyone hiring a private vehicle to travel from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park will also be hiring their own driver. People carriers, and drivers, can also be hired.
Private vehicles are, of course, more expensive than a bus but if you can get eight other passengers then you'll be keeping costs down and also guaranteeing a departure time that suits you. Private cars and people carriers are always a good idea for those who prefer peace and quiet, as well as the security of traveling with people that you're already familiar with.
There are around 5 bus departures leaving from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park each day. You can book a private car or people carrier whenever you want.