After visiting beautiful Cat Ba and Lan Ha Bay, it was time to trade the sea for inland for Ninh Binh. These places have something in common. Ninh Binh is also called Ha Long Bay on land because of the beautiful karst mountains and the rivers.
The city of Ninh Binh is located in the province of the same name in northern Vietnam. The city itself is not much, but the beautiful surroundings full of karst mountains, rivers and rice fields make this place a must visit in Vietnam. Preferably do not stay in the city of Ninh Binh but in the cozy village of Tam Coc, about a 15-minute drive from Ninh Binh.
The Ninh Binh and Tam Coc area has plenty to offer. The most beautiful sights around Ninh Binh and Tam Coc can be seen on the map below.
For more travel inspiration you can check my entire Vietnam itinerary here.
7 activities in Ninh Binh / Tam Coc
1. Thai Vi Temple
Within walking distance of the center of Tam Coc is a small temple complex with the Thai Vi Temple. The complex is located in a beautiful area surrounded by rice fields and karst mountains. In front of the gate are large stone animals and on the site you will find some beautiful buildings.
Entrance is free but a donation is appreciated.
2. Chùa Linh Coc Pagoda
Near the Bich Dong Pagoda is the Chua Linh Coc Pagoda: a temple in a cave.
When we arrived it seemed as if we had landed on someone’s private property. We passed a barking dog that was (luckily) chained and saw no cave and no pagoda. We doubted if Maps had told us was right. Until we saw a stone staircase with a sign next to which Chua Linh Coc was scribbled. We walked up the stairs and not soon after heard someone walking behind us.
The woman asked us for an entrance fee of 20,000 Dong per person, after which she unlocked a metal gate. She followed us, closed the gate, took out a flashlight and walked past us further into the cave. With the flashlight she shone on stone formations trying to explain to us what these formations looked like in an unintelligible mix of English and Vietnamese. We didn’t understand each other and didn’t have the same imagination as her to think what these stones looked like, but we all had fun anyway.
Recommended? If you are very short on time, maybe not, but if you have more time it can be quite a funny experience.
3. Bich Dong Pagoda
The Bich Dong Pagoda is one of the most famous pagodas in Ninh Binh and is best known for the decorated stone gate. I really liked walking around the grounds and the place felt almost magical. I imagined myself in an oasis of peace. Try to visit the Bich Dong Pagoda in the morning to get ahead of some minibuses of Asian tourists.
Entrance is free and you don’t have to pay a parking fee for your scooter.
4. Hang Mua Viewpoint
The Hang Mua Viewpoint is one of the most beautiful activities in Ninh Binh. You must climb 500 steps to reach the highest point. The view over the karst mountains is amazing! Unfortunately I wasn’t lucky with the weather, but even without the sun the view is great.
You reach the viewpoint by scooter or bicycle. From the center of Tam Coc it’s about 20 minutes by scooter. You can drive on the main road or take a shortcut through the rice fields. The shortcut is a big mud road with bad weather, but in good weather it’s a very nice route!
You pay 100.000 Dong entrance to the Hang Mua Viewpoint. Parking your scooter is free, so don’t be stopped by any of the people along the way who claim to pay.
5. Trang An Boat trip
The surroundings of Ninh Binh are incredibly beautiful and the most beautiful karst mountains of the area can be found at Trang An. You can admire the amazing surroundings by taking a boat trip on the river.
The women on the boats row you across the river for about 2 hours. Something I could never imitate. That is why you can also help them by rowing every now and then. By the way, don’t expect that you will receive information during the boat trip because the rowers often do not speak a word of English.
The boat trip is unfortunately no unknown activity in Ninh Binh. You share the river with tens to hundreds of Asian tourists. I didn’t mind and sometimes it was funny that almost all of them waved at each other. I especially enjoyed the beautiful surroundings.
On arrival you will see that you can choose from 3 routes. The most recommended routes are route 2 and route 3.
You pay 200.000 Dong for a boat that can accommodate about 5 people. In addition, you also pay 15.000 Dong for parking your scooter.
6. Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
Hoa Lu Ancient Capital was the capital of ancient Vietnam at the end of the 10th century. The capital had an area of 3 km² and is located between karst mountains and rice fields. The area of Hoa Lu Ancient Capital has dozens of monuments that you can visit. It’s nice to walk on the photogenic terrain, but within an hour I was certainly done with it.
Hoa Lu Ancient Capital is about half an hour by scooter from Tam Coc. It is also about a fifteen minute drive from Trang An, making these activities easy to combine.
A ticket costs 20.000 Dong and you also pay 10.000 Dong to park your scooter. Do not listen to the people along the road trying to tell you that you are not allowed to cross the bridge with your scooter and that you have to park your scooter with them.
7. Bai Dinh Pagoda Complex
The Bai Dinh Pagoda Complex is considered to be the largest complex of Buddhist temples in Vietnam. The area covers no less than 7 km² and is full of pagodas, temples and sculptures. It is a popular spot for Buddhist pilgrims from all over Vietnam.
I found it very special to walk on the gigantic terrain. What I found most special was that I hardly saw any other visitors during my visit. It has happened several times that the two of us stood in a gigantic temple, on a mega-sized square or walked through a corridor of tens of meters without meeting anyone. If you go on the weekend, expect to share the sights with others.
You need at least several hours to visit most of the site.
Entrance to the Bai Dinh Pagoda Complex is free, but it’s wise to buy a return ticket of 60.000 Dong for the electric shuttle van. The entrance is not exactly within walking distance of the parking space and you have enough distance to cover the site. You pay 15.000 Dong for parking your scooter.
Where to stay in Ninh Binh / Tam Coc
As I mentioned it isn’t highly recommended to stay in Ninh Binh city. Preferably stay in the nice town of Tam Coc. It’s a lot smaller, more relaxed and closer to some sights.
The nicest place to stay in Tam Coc is without a doubt Phi Hung’s Unique Homestay. I found this the nicest accommodation during my entire trip through Southeast Asia! The rooms are in tip-top shape and the family running the homestay is incredibly friendly, welcoming and sweet. When I stayed there they hardly spoke any English but these friendly people always kept smiling and tried to explain everything in every way. In the evening they like to play a game of ping pong with you after the family dinner or you can have a microphone with them during the karaoke. Brilliant!
How to get to Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is easily accessible from various cities in Vietnam. Arrange your transport easily via your ho(s)tel and indicate that your final destination is Tam Coc. The buses usually drive first past Ninh Binh where many people will get off. After another fifteen minutes drive you arrive in Tam Coc.
Hanoi » Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is about a 2.5-hour drive from Hanoi. You can make this trip by bus and train.
Cat Ba » Ninh Binh
A trip from Cat Ba to Ninh Binh takes about 5 hours and costs around 250,000 Dong.
Phong Nha » Ninh Binh
From Phong Nha it’s a long drive of about 8 hours to Ninh Binh. Sleeper buses often leave in the evening, so you arrive at your destination at night or in the morning.