Ninh Binh is popping up more and more on the traveller scene and for good reason. Whilst the city itself is nothing to write home about, the surrounding areas of Tam Coc and Trang An are beautiful. This is the rural Vietnam you’ve seen in photographs, locals cycling along the rice paddies, limestone karsts dominating the skyline and picturesque rivers best explored on traditional wooden boats.
It was the description ‘Halong Bay on land’ that caught our attention and made it a dead cert on our Vietnam itinerary. Lying just two hours south of Hanoi but feeling like it’s worlds apart, the noise of the city disappears and you’ll find a natural - and not too touristy (yet!) - experience in Vietnam.
There are few experiences quite like the boat trip in Trang An and it instantly became one our favourite things to do in the country. We spend three days here, but could have happily spent a lot longer, especially if the weather was better!
But as we know time is a precious commodity and most people stop here for just two days, here’s how to see the best of Ninh Binh in just a couple of days.
What to do in Ninh Binh, Vietnam - Day 1
Firstly, ensure you stay outside of Ninh Binh city - it’s a noisy concrete jungle. Nothing you do will be based here, so head straight out the city!
Ninh Binh is best explored independently so ideally you will have your own transport. Luckily the area is really flat so it’s perfect for cycling or if you are feeling a little lazier like us, motorbike. If you don’t fancy either options there are all an abundance of taxis available.
Motorcycling or cycling around Ninh Binh
Sometimes the journey is just as good as the destination and nowhere is this more true than around Ninh Binh. If you stick to the smaller, quiet roads, you’ll be able to take in the landscapes and avoid the lorries and trucks that seem determined to knock over everything else on the main roads.
It is pretty cheap too and you can normally hire a motorbike for 100,000 dong per day (just under $5 USD) and not only does it give you complete independence, but just riding through the rice paddies and around the karsts is one of the best things to do in the area. Many guesthouses offer free bikes or rent them for a very low cost.
Read next: The best things to do in Da Nang
Take in the views from the Lying Dragon Mountain - Mua Caves
Tucked down a few bumpy side streets to the west of Ninh Binh is Mua Caves, with our favourite views in the area.
Don’t panic, at first Mua Caves does look a little bit like Disneyland. The owners have gone all out with the somewhat tacky features - cheesy swings, bridges, drinks stalls, souvenir shops and random statues. But once you get past that you’ll get to the main reason you came: the stairs up to the view. Luckily there is no tacky decorations up here and it’s every bit as atmospheric as it looks in photos.
It’s a relentless uphill climb (supposedly 450 steps), but one that that is definitely worth it for the gorgeous views. Take the stairs to the left first and keep going. From here there’s a viewing platform just below the dragon.
In the spring and summer this is a lush green from the rice paddies. Sadly the dull, continuous rain and autumnal season meant we were too late for the signature lush green rice paddies. We still loved the view though.
From here you can go a little further up to see the Lying Dragon itself.
The pagoda at the top of Mua Caves
After the Lying Dragon Mountain head downwards again, but not completely to the bottom. At the small cafe there is another set of stairs that lead up to another peak. Its a few more steps, but then you’ll reach a precariously placed pagoda and views to the north and east of Ninh Binh.
This a more sweeping, broader view of the area, but equally stunning. We could have spent an hour looking over this mesmerising landscape and the beautiful pagoda that was placed at the top of this peak.
For the low down on the best time to visit Mua Caves and all the nitty gritty details check out this detailed post.
Prepare to be blown away on the Trang An Boat Trip
The highlight of Ninh Binh has to be the boat trip around Trang An. Boat trips have the potential to be underwhelming and a little touristy, but the Trang An trips are just stunning. We weren’t sure what we were going to think of this trip and were thrilled to be completely blown away.
Hiring a small boat which seemed to leave when there was a minimum of three people, you have a choice of three routes: 1 - which seems to take you to an extraordinary amount of sites or 2/3 which seemed to visit less sights and therefore we guessed more time taking in the scenery.
We chose 3 as we thought the huge tour groups behind us would want to tick off everything! We were right…
But despite the number of people, if you go in the morning you can still experience complete peace and tranquility. We set off at 9am and for 90% of our trip, we were the only people in sight, paddling through the pristine waterways surrounded by those epic limestone mountains.
This was interspersed with a trip through three long and narrow caves, some sections are so low you have to put your head on your knees! It was quite incredible and testament to their skill that they are able to actually row through such small spaces!!
We haven’t seen it ourselves but they filmed Kong Skull Island in Ninh Binh and tours two and three take you to a spot from the movie. You can see why it made a great movie location as it has that feeling of an ancient and lost land, somewhere untouched and wild. If you’re going to do one thing in the area, make sure it’s a boat trip on Trang An, even if like us you aren’t usually fussed about scenic boat rides.
A boat trip on Trang An costs 200,000 dong per person (just under $10 USD), it’s a set price and you purchase a ticket at the counter and have to enter through a turnstile. The trip takes about 2.5-3 hours.
We recommend going early as Trang An is popular with tour groups visiting from Hanoi - especially at weekends. If you arrive before 9am, you should miss the worst of the crowds.
Day 2 is a little more laid back, but you’ll see a slightly different and more cultural side of Ninh Binh as opposed to just the landscape. So hop on the motorbike and explore!
Try Egg Coffee with a twist
Heading towards Tam Coc, make a stop at Brick Coffee. This family run coffee shop at the side of the road offers the usual cafe drinks, but has a unique twist on Egg Coffee (yep, if you didn’t try it in Hanoi, you’ll have to try it now!).
The owner told us how they used to take 30-40 minutes to hand whisk one cup! Nowadays the electric whisk has reduced it down to 10 minutes (still a decent time for a coffee), but you will see the work put into their coffee.
It was delicious and had a really thick consistency unlike any coffee I’ve had. You have this smooth thick mixture at the top before being hit with a shot of coffee underneath.
The family are really lovely as well and will happily join you for a chat. It was great to learn a little more about local life, pop in and say hi to them for us if you do!
Bich Dong Pagoda
Heading through Tam Coc you’ll eventually get to Bich Dong Pagoda at the end of the road. This whole area is stunningly beautiful, with a lake full of water lilies (again at a different time of year it would be more green and lush than you see in our photo!) and a bridge over to the picturesque pagoda. It’s worth taking a moment to admire the view before you go in. it was actually our favourite part of the site.
From here there are two temples to explore, a cave and a few pretty views to take in. Make sure you don’t stop at the second temple as there’s a small path to the left which leads through the cave to the top of the mountain. The cave has loads of bats so the smell of guano is thick in the air, we raced through this section for fear of being dropped on : )
At the top you’ll get some great views of the surrounding countryside. Just be careful if it is wet, the smooth stone paths become incredibly slippery.
You don’t have to pay for entry, but you will have to pay to park your motorbike (which costs 10,000 dong or 50c). You can also buy incense to light at the temple if you like. We can never resist the smell!
Read next: 7 Amazing things to do on Cat Ba Island
Chill at Chookies Beer Garden
On the way back from Bich Dong, stop in at Chookies Beer Garden just outside of Tam Coc. It is one of those places with a laid back vibe and is perfect if you’re craving a little bit of home comforts. 😂
There’s comfortable seating and a menu that included the usual western faves such as pizza, steak, and espresso martinis no less. It does seem a little criminal in a country with as good local cuisine as Vietnam but the food was great and the staff were lovely.
They also have a really good travel agent who offer honest advice about onward travel. They let us know about a flooded road ahead which really helped us out so it’s a good place to go for local knowledge.
Wander the original capital of Hoa Lu
The small temple complex of Hoa Lu is the original capital of Vietnam (I know, we thought it was Hue was as well) and is a humble place set among the mountains.
Whilst it isn’t worth going to Ninh Binh for Hoa Lua alone, it is an interesting place that has significance in Vietnamese history. You can stroll around the manicured garden or check out the Confucian temple. Unfortunately as with many sites in Vietnam there is very little information on the site when you are there so it is best explored after having read up about it beforehand. Otherwise it is hard to understand what you are actually looking at.
Entry is 40,000 dong per person (just under $2 USD). Don’t get conned with the parking people up the road from here who will try to charge you, they almost pulled us off the bike, and in fact6 there is free parking nearby.
Read next: What to do in beautiful Hoi An
Getting to Ninh Binh
Getting to Ninh Binh is pretty straightforward as it is just two hours south of Hanoi. We took a bus from Cat Ba Island (about 5 hours), but the most straight-forward option is to get a train that goes straight into town from the capital.
Ninh Binh by train
There are five trains per day that go from Hanoi to Ninh Binh: 6am, 9am, 230pm, 7.30pm and 8.10pm. It takes a little over two hours to get there.
You can also get the train from Dong Hoi (Phong Nha-Ke Bang - 6 hours), Hue (11 hours) or Da Nang (15 hours). All these trains offer sleeper options and can be done overnight.
You can now book train tickets online by using Baolau. We’ve used them several times and it has been easy, but we’ve found that our credit cards occasionally refuse to co-operate with them.
Where we stayed in Ninh Binh
Mua Caves eco-lodge
If you’re looking to stay outside of the noise of Ninh Binh city, then Mua Caves offers peace and quiet in a rural setting. The lodge is actually a series of small buildings set around the path to the top of the mountain.
The positives are that the rooms are big, comfortable and blissfully quiet at night. You also get in to Mua Caves free and before anyone else. The drawbacks are that during the day you will hear people walking around outside your room and there was some construction going on (but if you ask for the furthest away room from the construction, this is mitigated). After sunset, none of this is a problem.
The food isn’t the best either, head out for your meals.
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Are you planning a trip to Ninh Binh? Or have you been? Let us know in the comments below!