Ninh Binh: The Gem of Vietnam

overview bai dinh pagoda ninh binh vietnam


Ninh Binh is a town which lies to the southeast of Hanoi and is a lesser-known gem of Northern Vietnam.  It is commonly referred to as ‘Halong Bay on Land’ for its similar landscape, but is far less touristy and untouched.  Ninh Binh is surrounded by hundreds of limestone mountains topped by dense greenery that tower from the ground, scattered with serpentine rivers flowing through and around them, while lush green rice fields shoot up from their muddy banks.  If the scenery itself is not enough for you, the area is dotted with some of the best pagodas and temples in the area and one of Vietnam’s ancient capital cities.


boat tour trang an ninh binh vietnam


Ninh Binh is not only beautiful, stunning, and diverse, but it is extremely traveler friendly as well.  A visit to Ninh Binh is one of those fascinating experiences that leaves you with memories just as strong and amazing as the scenery or ancient temples you will encounter there.  Ninh Binh is truly the gem of Vietnam. 


What to Do


buddha statues bai dinh pagoda ninh binh vietnam


              Ninh Binh is doable as a day trip from Hanoi and if that is all you can do it will be well worth it.  There is so much to see and do in Ninh Binh though that you really need a full day or two to experience it all.  If you are spending the night in Ninh Binh and rent a moto then you can easily tour Bai Dinh Pagoda, explore the ancient capital of Hoa Lu, and do the Trang An boat ride in a day.  Then hike Hang Mua Peak and explore the backroads and rice fields of Tam Coc the second. 


Trang An



trinh temple trang an ninh binh vietnam
Trinh Temple in Trang An.


              Trang An was one of the highlights of my visit to Ninh Binh.  Listed as one of Vietnam’s many UNESCO Heritage sites, it is known for its scenic waterways and is really a site worth seeing.  Taking a boat ride through Trang An brings awe inspiring views of the natural areas that make up this park.  During your boat ride you will travel through caves, visit secluded temples, take in the amazing natural views, visit a movie set from ‘Kong: Skull Island’ (tours 2 and 3), and witness the lady row your boat with her feet (I don’t know how they are able to do it so well!).


dia linh mountain trang an ninh binh vietnam
Dia Linh Mountain in Trang An.


              There are three different tours you can take that cover relatively the same things, but only tours 2 and 3 go to the ‘Kong: Skull Island’ movie set.  We took Tour 3 and it was great!  The tour costs 200,000 VND/9.09 USD per person and last about two hours, but the boats only leave when they have four people.  There is also a 15,000 VND/0.68 USD charge for parking.  It should also be noted that Ninh Binh is far less touristy than Tam Coc and since it is usually the second choice by many travelers it has far less foreign tourist visiting it (that’s not saying that it does not get super busy).  Also, unlike Tam Coc, the women that row the boats do not expect a tip, nor do the ask for one. 


trang an tour maps ninh binh vietnam


kong skull island film set ninh binh vietnam
Kong: Skull Island boat film set.


kong skull island village film set ninh binh vietnam
Kong: Skull Island village film set.


              Note: It is best to visit either early in the morning or later in the afternoon when the bus loads of people coming from Hanoi are not there. 


Bai Dinh Pagoda



aerial view bai dinh pagoda ninh binh vietnam
Aerial view of Bai Dinh Pagoda.


              I have to say that Bai Dinh has been one of my favorite pagoda sites to see.  The complex is both beautiful and peaceful.  With many pagodas, paths, lakes, and open spaces you can easily find peace while walking its grounds.  The Bai Dinh Pagoda starts with the old pagoda and temples 300 steps up in the mountain and continues with the new pagoda as it slopes downward, reaching towards the river and mountains in the distance. 


bai dinh pagoda ninh binh vietnam
Bai Dinh Pagoda


Bai Dinh Pagoda is a massive cultural complex of Buddha statues and temples that covers 539 hectares of land. With its recent temple addition, it is now considered the largest pagoda in South East Asia and has become a popular site for Buddhist pilgrimages.


largest avalokitesvara bodhisattva bai dinh ninh binh vietnam
Largest Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva statue in Vietnam.


It is free to enter and enjoy all of the complex except for the Tháp Báo Thiên Stupa.  If you wish to walk to the top of this stupa it will cost 50,000VND/2.27 USD and the tickets can be purchased at the stupa itself.  There is also a 15,000 VND/0.68 USD fee for parking a moto.  If you are tired of walking after exploring the complex you can catch a ride on an electric car for 30,000 VND/1.36 USD one way.  I suggest starting at the top of the complex, near the mountain, and working your way downhill where you can take the electric car back up to the top. 


map bai dinh ninh binh vietnam


Note: It is best to visit either early in the morning or later in the afternoon when the bus loads of people coming from Hanoi are not there. 


Hoa Lu Ancient Capital



bridge hoa lu ancient capital vietnam
Bridge to Hoa Lu ancient capital.


If you feel like throwing in a little history into your visit then a quick visit to Hoa Lu Ancient Capital is just the place.  Nestled between the mountains is the old capital of Vietnam during the 10th and 11th centuries.  Not much is left of the city itself, but you can still explore some of the old temples built in honor of the emperors that ruled here.  Nearby are also the tombs of these emperors.  There is a 10,000 VND/0.45 USD fee for parking.


Tam Coc

      

trang an ninh binh vietnam


        Tam Coc is a beautiful area much like Trang An, with roadways and a river that flow through karst mountains, cave, and rice fields.  If you choose to explore Tam Coc there are two ways of doing it, by bicycle/motorcycle or by boat.  The most common choice of these is the boat ride and has lead Tam Coc to become the most populace site in Ninh Binh for foreign tourist.  Due to the influx of tourist the prices here are inflated for most things.  The price for a boat tour is 120,000 VND per person and 150,000 for the boat (so 390,000 VND total per boat).  There are only 2 foreigners or four Vietnamese per boat.  You will also be expected to tip and likely be accosted by hawkers during and after your tour.


rice field ninh binh vietnam
Lush green rice fields.


              Touring Tam Coc by bicycle/motorcycle can be a very pleasant and awarding experience.  If you are visiting during the rainy season the fields will all be a bright green as the rice grows, creating some incredible scenery.  Exploring this way also allows you to see the area at your own pace and experience rural Vietnam firsthand and at its finest.  Don’t be afraid to take off down the small paths, interact with locals, and take in the breath-taking natural habitat that surrounds you. 


List of All the Top Attractions



list top attractions ninh binh vietnam


How to Get There



Bus

             

trang an tour boat ninh binh vietnam


              Bus are the most convenient and cheapest way of getting to Ninh Binh.  From Hanoi, buses leave from the southern bus station (Giap Bat) about every 15 minutes and cost 80,000 VND/3.63 USD.  The trip takes about 3 hours and is an easy trip.  You can also book a bus leaving from the Old Quarter online at 12Go.



              If you happen to be in Cat Ba or Halong Bay you can find direct buses to Ninh Binh if you do not want to travel back through Hanoi.  The bus from Cat Ba will pick you up from the Cat Ba Island center and will cost $14.66.  The bus leaves twice daily (9am, 3pm) and takes about 6 hours.  Direct buses from Halong Bay leave from the Quang Ninh bus station 7pm, cost $11.86, and take about 6.5 hours. 


Train



trang an boat ninh binh vietnam


             The train, though slightly more expensive, is also a good way of traveling to Ninh Binh.  The Reunification Express runs from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City multiple times a day and makes a stop in Ninh Binh going both directions.  The train offers either soft seats or sleepers that vary in price from 160,000VND/7.38 USD – 230,000 VND/10.40 USD from Hanoi.  These tickets can be bought at the train station or reserved online at 12Go. 


How to Get Around



mirror selfie motorcycle ninh binh vietnam


              The best mode of transportation to get around the area is to rent a motorcycle/moped.  These can be rented from most hotels and should cost (motorcycle and gas) around 200,000 VND/9.09 USD per day.  All of the roads are pretty flat, well maintained and have little traffic, so if you have never ridden a motorcycle before this is the place to learn. 


You can also rent bicycles at many places and since the roads are flat it is easy to get around.  That being said, some of the sites can be as far as 20+ km away, so a bicycle could be nice to explore the roads through the rice paddies or other close by areas, but might be a little strenuous for those far away areas. 


Where to Stay



giant buddha statue bia dinh pagoda ninh binh vietnam
Giant Buddha statue in Bia Dinh Pagoda.


              When exploring Ninh Binh there are a lot of choices for accommodation.  Ninh Binh itself is a larger town with many hotels and restaurants that can appease whatever your budget may be.  Many tourists also stay in Tam Coc, 7 km southwest of Ninh Binh, which is a smaller town and has many homestay opportunities.  Which city you choose really depends on the experience that you want and what sites you would like to be closer too. 
  




What to Eat




              The specialty in Ninh Binh is goat (con dê), often cooked in fried rice.  Duck and dog are also featured in many restaurants.  Both Ninh Binh and Tam Coc have plenty of places to eat, so you will have no trouble finding food.  Off of the main thoroughfare through Ninh Binh there are a few good fried rice places and across from the train station there are a few restaurants that have good food and are popular for backpackers.  If you are staying in a homestay there is a good chance that they will offer great homecooked food there.  


pin point map ninh binh vietnam


What was your favorite thing about Ninh Binh?


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