Your Ultimate Ninh Binh, Vietnam Travel Guide: DIY Adventure | Itinerary Suggestions | Top 6 Must-See Spots

Ninh Binh | Intro

Ninh Binh, Vietnam, is approximately a two-hour drive south from Hanoi. Ninh Binh is blessed with natural beauty, where visitors can explore the UNESCO-listed Trang An Landscape Complex, renowned for its stunning limestone karst formations, and meander through the golden rice fields of Tam Coc while enjoying picturesque river and mountain views. You can also immerse yourself in Vietnamese culture, savor the ancient capital, and explore Buddhist temples.

The Ninh Binh region is incredibly popular among both domestic and international tourists, with a thriving tourism industry. Whether for a day trip or an extended stay, Ninh Binh offers convenience, but many of its attractions have become commercialized, and there are numerous vendors vying for attention.

Ninh Binh | Trip Planning Tips

The five major attractions in Ninh Binh are all located to the west of the city center. Although the number of attractions can be counted on one hand, experiencing them all would require at least two days. For those with limited time, it's recommended to join a day trip from Hanoi, which offers more convenient transportation options.

Tam Coc is to the south, and Trang An is to the north. While these two places are just a 20-minute drive apart, each of them typically requires at least half a day to explore. Therefore, on a one-day trip, it's common to visit a maximum of three of these attractions.

For those with several days to spare, taking it slow over two or three days is a great option. It's recommended to plan a minimum of a two-day itinerary. On one day, you can explore Tam Coc, including Mua Cave, Bich Dong Pagoda, and a half-day cycling tour of Tam Coc's rice paddies. On another day, you can arrange a trip to Trang An, with a boat tour, a visit to Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, and Bai Dinh Pagoda.

To have the best travel experience, it's important to note that there are several cement factories in the vicinity of Ninh Binh. This can impact air quality during their working hours, so it's advisable to head to the natural attractions early in the day. Personally, I recommend a three-day itinerary, with one morning dedicated to Mua Cave, another morning for cycling in Tam Coc, and a third morning for a boat tour in Trang An. These mornings provide the best scenic views in each location.

Ninh Binh | Where to Stay

In Ninh Binh, you have the option to stay in Tam Coc or in the Ninh Binh city center. The city center is closer to the train station and offers a wider range of restaurant choices. However, personally, I recommend staying in Tam Coc as it serves as a convenient hub for exploring the nearby attractions in Tam Coc. Typically, accommodations in Tam Coc provide complimentary bicycles for transportation to nearby sights. Additionally, staying in Tam Coc allows you to enjoy the serene countryside scenery and avoid the hustle and bustle of Ninh Binh city center.

Find a stay in Tam Coc:

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Ninh Binh | Transportation

Traveling to Ninh Binh

When traveling from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, most tourists typically choose between private car hire and the train. Taking the train to Ninh Binh railway station will bring you to the city center, from where you can arrange transportation to Tam Coc or other attractions separately. Opting for a private car hire is a relatively straightforward option and is the choice we recommend. If you only plan to make a day trip and return to Hanoi, booking a day tour is a convenient way to go.

Transportation between attractions in Ninh Binh

In Ninh Binh and between popular attractions, you can use Grab for convenient and transparent ride-hailing services. However, if you plan to visit more remote locations like Cuc Phuong National Park, it's best to use a private car hire or consider renting a scooter or motorbike for greater flexibility and access to such destinations.

Notes on Motorcycle Rental

Renting a scooter or motorbike in Ninh Binh city center and Tam Coc is quite convenient. If you're concerned about language barriers, you can ask your hotel to help you arrange a rental. You can also directly approach local scooter rental shops in Tam Coc. English communication via WhatsApp is usually hassle-free, and some shops even offer the service of delivering the scooter to your accommodation. Rental typically includes raincoats and helmets. The cost for a basic 125cc scooter may vary depending on the model but is around $5-8 USD per day.

If you have experience riding a scooter or motorbike, getting around the attractions in Ninh Binh is generally not too challenging. Traffic between attractions is usually not overly congested, and even in the Ninh Binh city center, it's not as difficult to navigate as in some busier cities. One key difference is that there is no waiting to turn left; you simply turn left with the flow of traffic.

If you're primarily moving between attractions, it can be a bit challenging to find large gas stations along the way. In this case, a simple solution is to buy fuel from the scooter rental shops. They typically offer reasonably priced fuel, and when you rent a scooter, they usually provide it with a full tank of gas. If you're visiting just the five major attractions, a full tank should be sufficient, and you won't have to worry about refueling.

However, if you plan to travel further or stay outside of Ninh Binh city center, you may need to purchase fuel from local grocery stores. Many small shops use the kind of manual fuel pump you described in the image. You can simply go into the store and ask for the price, specify how many liters you want to buy, and the shopkeeper will measure and pour the fuel into your scooter.

Parking can indeed be a concern in Ninh Binh, and it's important to be aware of the parking fees. Official parking lots at most attractions typically charge between 5,000 to 15,000 Vietnamese Dong. If you encounter higher prices, it's very likely you're dealing with unofficial parking.

In Ninh Binh, there are many private parking lots right in front of attractions, and they may even try to force bicycles or scooters to stop. Some of these parking lots are extremely close to the attractions, making it easy for tourists to unintentionally use them. Some attendants may physically block your path, so it's essential to firmly say "No" and continue riding past them if you don't want to use their services.

While the fees at these unofficial lots are not usually very expensive, the feeling of being overcharged can be unpleasant. It's a good idea to be aware of these situations and consider it as a reference when you visit Ninh Binh.

Ninh Binh | Attractions

Attractions | Trang Ang

Trang An Scenic Area, with its boat tours through Trang An, is a must-visit experience in Ninh Binh, located about 7 kilometers west of Ninh Binh city center. In 2014, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its ecosystem comprises limestone mountains with a geological age of 2.5 million years, giving rise to hundreds of canyons, caves, lakes, and lagoons over time. This area preserves wetland ecosystems, forests on the limestone mountains, archaeological sites, and historical cultural landmarks.

The main highlights of a visit here involve taking a boat ride to explore the spectacular limestone landscapes, river caves, and ancient relics on the islands. There are three boat tour routes available, each lasting about three hours, making it a half-day adventure.

Trang An Boat Tour Experience and Detailed Introduction, please see this post.

Attractions | Hoa Lu Ancient Capital

Hoa Lu Ancient Capital was the first capital of ancient Vietnam. Vietnam's history of independent dynasties began with the Dinh Dynasty in the 10th century and continued through dynasties like the Pre-Le Dynasty, Ly Dynasty, Tran Dynasty, Ho Dynasty, Post-Le Dynasty, Mac Dynasty, and the North and South Dynasties. Hoa Lu Ancient Capital served as the first capital of the Dinh Dynasty, with its status as the capital city spanning three dynasties (Dinh Dynasty, Pre-Le Dynasty, and Ly Dynasty) from 968 AD until 1010 AD when the capital was relocated to Thang Long (modern-day Hanoi).

The main attractions in Hoa Lu include the tomb of Dinh Tien Hoang, the founder of the Dinh Dynasty, and the tomb of Le Dai Hanh, the founder of the Pre-Le Dynasty.

For more information about Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, please see my other post here.

Attractions | Chùa Bái Đính | Bai Dinh Pagoda

Bai Dinh Pagoda is the largest Buddhist complex in all of Southeast Asia, covering an area of 539 hectares. It is situated on a hillside, about a 30-minute drive from Ninh Binh city center. Visitors can explore the temple complex for free, but due to its extensive grounds, taking an electric car to ascend the hill is a necessity, with a one-way cost of 30,000 Vietnamese Dong. If you wish to enter the iconic Bai Dinh Pagoda tower, there is an additional ticket fee.

For detailed information and an introduction to Bai Dinh Pagoda, please refer to this article.

Attractions | Mua Cave | Hang Mua | The Great Wall of Vietnam

Mua Cave, also known as Hang Mua, is often referred to as the "Vietnamese Great Wall." It is located 5 kilometers from Ninh Binh city and is one of the most popular attractions in Tam Coc. If you're staying in Tam Coc, it's a great place to visit by bicycle. The name "Mua Cave" translates to "Dancing Cave," but don't be misled, the main attraction here isn't the cave itself. While there is indeed a cave, the real highlight is the panoramic view of the entire Tam Coc area from the peak of the mountain.

For a detailed review and introduction of Mua Cave, please refer to this post

Things to Do | Tam Coc Ricefield Bicycle Tours

Cycling through the beautiful rice fields in Tam Coc is an experience you shouldn't miss when visiting Ninh Binh. If you're staying in Tam Coc, most hotels offer bicycle rentals, or you can join a half-day bicycle tour of Tam Coc. There's no fixed route for cycling, and it's easy to find small paths through the fields within the Tam Coc area. We rode in the direction of the bird park from near Bich Dong Pagoda and spent about half a day exploring. We visited during the winter season when the rice had already been harvested, but the fields still offered stunning mountain views. During this season, the rice fields turn into water surfaces, creating beautiful reflections of the mountains. This bike ride became one of my most memorable experiences in Ninh Binh. Just like when visiting other attractions, it's a good idea to head out early to avoid the air quality worsening; typically, the air deteriorates after around 9 AM.

Attractions | Bich Dong Temple

Bich Dong Pagoda is located in the Tam Coc area, to the west of Ninh Binh city. It was built in the 10th century and consists of three levels: upper, middle, and lower. Collectively, these are referred to as Bich Dong Pagoda, and its distinctive feature is that it's constructed against the mountain caves. Visiting Bich Dong Pagoda itself does not require an entrance fee. However, if you arrive on a bicycle, the vendors near the entrance may insist on a parking fee, which can be more expensive than motorcycle parking, at 20,000 Vietnamese Dong. While you are not obligated to pay, haggling with the vendors can be bothersome, so walking to the site may be a more relaxed option.

The scenery at the entrance of the ancient pagoda is already quite charming. After passing through the lotus pond and entering the main gate, a short walk will lead you to the lower temple. The temples here are all constructed from wood without the use of any nails.

To reach the middle temple, you'll need to climb a set of stairs from the lower temple. The middle temple is the main and most prominent structure of the pagoda. Its exterior appears as a temple nestled within the cave of the mountain. There's a narrow passage on the left side of the temple that leads to the back, where you can closely examine the ancient roof. You can tell that it has a long history. From the stairs behind the temple, you can continue to climb up to the upper temple. When you emerge from the cave, it gives you a feeling of stepping out from a hidden world, and you can enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains from this elevated position.

Nearby Attractions | Cuc Phoung Național Park

Cuc Phuong National Park is Vietnam's first national park, established in 1962. It spans across two limestone mountain ranges and three provinces, housing 336 bird species, 135 mammal species, 122 reptile species, and over 2,000 plant species. It is one of Vietnam's most important conservation areas. The park features landscapes like tropical rainforests, cave relics, and ancient trees. Cuc Phuong National Park is located quite far from Ninh Binh city center, approximately 45 kilometers away, and you can reach it by car rental or riding a motorbike.

For a one-day itinerary at Cuc Phuong National Park, please see this post.

Ninh Binh | Cuisine

Restaurant | Tam Gia Trang

  • Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Price: $$

This restaurant is located near the Trang Anh Scenic Area, and its atmosphere is reminiscent of Taiwanese seafood stir-fry restaurants. It's a very authentic Vietnamese stir-fry eatery. The restaurant is bustling with customers, but they don't have any English-speaking staff, and I didn't see any other foreign tourists. This made me wonder if the staff assumed we were locals because we were wearing helmets while riding our bikes. Luckily, they had an English menu, so we were able to order by pointing to the pictures.

Not knowing the portion sizes, we were cautious and ended up ordering a bowl of lamb soup, salt and pepper river crabs, and a plate of vegetables. Lamb is a specialty in Ninh Binh, and the lamb soup was more like a lamb stew with radishes and had a mildly sweet taste, somewhat similar to a light corn soup. It was quite tasty, especially when eaten with the rice crackers served on the side.

Restaurants | Family Restaurant

  • Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Price: $$

This restaurant is located in the bustling area of Tam Coc, and it's likely one of the most popular restaurants in the entire Tam Coc area, as it had a large number of customers. When we visited during the Christmas holiday, it was exceptionally busy. The restaurant is most famous for its roasted duck, although there is a wide selection of dishes, including lamb. In the end, we ordered the roasted duck, lamb, and vegetables. The roasted duck was truly delicious, and I highly recommend it. They also include complimentary rice and fruit with the meal.

Accommodation | Tam Coc La Montagne Resort and Spa

  • Room: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Facility: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Location: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • Price: $$$
  • Overall Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

We stayed at the Tam Coc La Montagne Resort and Spa. It's conveniently located, just a five-minute walk from Bich Dong Pagoda. The resort offers complimentary bicycles for guests to use, and it's situated amidst rice fields, making it an ideal choice for travelers seeking a leisurely countryside getaway.

My favorite part was the lotus pond with a waterside walkway inside the resort; the atmosphere was fantastic. Most of the rooms overlook the lotus pond, so you can also enjoy it from indoors. In terms of room comfort, I'd say it's moderate – not overly luxurious, but there wasn't much to complain about either.

The accommodation includes a complimentary breakfast, offering both Vietnamese and Western options. When we arrived on the first day, there weren't many guests, so they used an a la carte ordering system. However, on the second day, which coincided with a holiday, there were many more visitors, and the breakfast service shifted to a buffet style. The flavors were still quite good.

Tam Coc La Montagne Resort and Spa Booking Comparison

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