A beautiful province nestling on the Red Delta region, this area is perfect for those seeking the quiet life. The valley is tranquil and the scenery is outstanding. That said, there isn’t actually a huge amount to do in Ninh Binh (aside from drink beer and practice your Vietnamese phrases with the locals). Instead the town is the ideal base to visit the unique limestone scenery that the province is famous for.
The diverse terrain of Ninh Binh offers both mountainous regions and coastal type areas – almost like a mini Vietnam has been squeezed into the area. The spellbinding karst topography gives the land a primitive feel, which is exacerbated by the incredible subterranean caves and steep, ragged valleys.
Ninh Binh is also the perfect place to discover how real, rural Vietnamese villagers forge a life in the Vietnamese outback. The region offers a fairly accurate representation of the rustic villages and minority cultural groups and gives a genuine insight into daily life. Life is hard and surviving from the land alone is a mean feat.
Eco-tourism is beginning to grow and slowly but surely Ninh Binh is earning its place on the map but it has already been a hot spot for Vietnamese tourists for many years. As a result there is plenty of tourist infrastructures already in place and you can easily get around and find places to stay.
Ninh Binh travel Guide and Tips
Day tours from Hanoi to Ninh Binh are widely available from tourist stalls or online and start from around $46 per person including transport, lunch, a cave visit and boat trip. Whilst these tours do manage to cram in most of the highlights they tend to miss the point of Ninh Binh, which is relaxing and enjoying the landscape at a leisurely pace.
If you want to make your own way to Ninh Binh, the Luong Yen bus station in Hanoi has comfortable long distance buses with tickets starting at around $10 per person for a one-way journey. The Giap Bat bus station (opposite the train station) in Hanoi offers a budget bus ride at a mere $4.5 each way and the buses leave every half hour. Expect the bus journey to take approximately 2 – 2.5 hours.
01. Bai Dinh Pagoda
Bai Dinh Pagoda is famous for two things. Firstly its sheer size – as far as pagodas go they don’t get much bigger than this. Secondly Bai Dinh holds an astonishing collection of 500 stone Buddhist Arhat statues, each standing at a mighty 2.3m tall – it is certainly a sight to behold!
Bai Dinh pagoda actually holds several records:
- Being the largest pagoda in Vietnam
- Having the largest number of Arhat statues
- Displaying the biggest gold – plated copper of Asia
- Owning the longest lobby in Asia.
In addition to all of that you can also see the largest bronze Buddha statue in Vietnam. At over 10 meters tall it weighs in at an impressive 100 tons.
Bai Dinh pagoda is part of the Gia Sinh commune and is located just 15km from Ninh Binh in the historical city of Hoa Lu. Needless to say this Pagoda is becoming somewhat popular with tourists and is fast becoming one of Ninh Binh’s ‘must see’ destinations.
If you really want to witness an authentic cultural experience at the Bai Đinh temple then visit on the sixth day of the first lunar month. On this date the Pagoda holds a huge festival where Buddhist rites are performed in accordance with the ancient rituals.
The Pagoda is free to enter but as with all spiritual and religious areas, make sure that you dress and behave respectfully.
02. Tam Coc Boat trip
Most people travel to Ninh Binh to experience the awe-inspiring beauty of Tam Coc. The majestic karst towers soaring above the emerald paddy fields are often described as an inland Halong Bay. Karst refers to a landscape with towering rock formations made from limestone, dolomite or gypsum and is characterized by vast underground drainage caverns.
The Ngo Dong River meanders between the karst formations and hiring a rowing boat is the perfect way to experience the landscape. You can hire a rowing boat from around $7 per person and most people are surprised to find that that it is usually a Vietnamese woman who does the rowing.
Your boat journey will generally begin in Van Lam and, after gliding along the river for a while and enjoying the breathtaking scenery, you will enter the three caves, Hang Ca, Hang Hai and Hang Bai. The sheer size of these underground caverns is unbelievable and you have to check out the acoustics in there!
Unlike Halong Bay this boat trip is intimate and private, the lack of engine noise means that you can enjoy the panoramic views with only the sound of oars slapping the water and ripples lapping against the shore. Make sure that you wear a hat as there is very little shade and the heat can be unforgiving.
Tam Coc is famous for the intricate and elaborate embroidery created by the local women. These beautiful works of art make great souvenirs and help to boost the local economy so why not pick up one or two?Top Tip 1: Tam Coc is unfortunately starting to get a bad reputation for over enthusiastic street vendors. If you are offered goods that you simply don’t want then a polite but firm ‘no’ should suffice in deterring further hawking. Try not to show too much interest in goods that you have no intention of buying, otherwise you may find yourself acquiring things that you don’t want!Top Tip 2: The best time to travel to Tam Coc is from the middle of May to June. Just before the harvesting season the rice fields turn golden making the landscape rich and beautiful.
03. Bich Dong Pagodas
A cluster of cave temples on the Ngu Nhac mountainside are a great excuse to return to land and explore some more Vietnamese culture. Enter the lower Pagoda before embarking on a too step ascent to the middle Pagoda. The final climb to the Upper Pagoda is shorter, but steeper and certainly worth it. All of the temples house imposing statues and sculptures amidst the mystical haze of incense.
Trang An Grottos
Trang An is a picturesque area located just 7km from Ninh Binh and is famous for the deep and cavernous grottos that can only be accessed by boat. In 2014 the Trang An landscaped was adopted into the UNESCO list of world heritage sights.
Trang An is similar to Tam Coc however it has more caves and the boat ride therefore feels slightly more adventurous. The grottoes are characterized by their dramatic, towering limestone Karst structures. These permeable rocks form yawning caves that are dotted around flooded inland waterways.
The grottoes are exceptionally deep yet the water is so clear that you can see straight to the bottom. Be aware though, some of the cave ceilings are low so you might need to duck at some points during the cave tours.
The boat trips usually cost around $5 and last for around 2.5 hours. During this time you will visit enough caves to last you a lifetime but you will still be astounded by their sheer size and magical beauty.Top Tip: The 7km journey from Ninh Binli to Trang An is gentle and scenic and can easily be done by bicycle if you want to experience more of the country.
- De nui (Mountain goat dishes)
- Com chay (Burnt rice off the bottom of the pot) served with pork