Located in the North of Vietnam, it may not be as well known as areas such as Hoi An and Da Nang, but in my opinion, Ninh Binh is one of the best places to visit in Vietnam. Located roughly three hours outside of Hanoi, Ninh Binh is often referred to as the Halong Bay of the Land due to the many limestone rock formations that surround the area incasing the free-flowing rivers and caves formed inside. Despite there being many things to do in Ninh Binh, most attractions are within close proximity, making it the perfect addition to a curated 2 week Vietnam itinerary.
Top places to add to your Ninh Binh itinerary
How to get to Ninh Binh from Hanoi
As previously mentioned, Ninh Binh is located roughly a 3-hour drive outside of Hanoi. I found the quickest and most convenient way to travel there from Hanoi to be by car. A private taxi is quite expensive by South East Asia standards, setting you back roughly around 14.00000 dong each way (£50), however, I also used the Limousine service (think more converted van as opposed to actual limo) which is a lot more affordable at around 180.000 per person (£8) The limo service obviously does take slightly longer due to various pickups but there is free wifi throughout the journey and the seats are actually pretty comfy.
You can pre-book the limo online but it is slightly more expensive to do this (£12 per person)
Trains do also run between Hanoi and Ninh Binh for around the same price as the limo and the duration of the journey is similar as well, however, the trains do not run as frequently.
The best time to visit Ninh Binh
Vietnam is very much an all-round destination, with each season bringing something different. Ninh Binh, like the rest of Northern Vietnam, has its humid season between May and October, with this comes high rainfall. However, the high rainfall brings lush greens and vivid colours, making for beautiful scenery and photographs. If you are particularly keen on seeing the bright yellow paddy fields, please be aware they are usually harvested in September, there during the proceeding couple of months, the fields will often be more of a muddy brown colour.
During the last week of April in Ninh Binh is White Butterfly season in the Cuc Phoung National Park, during this week thousands of butterflies flutter through the National Park making for a truly stunning and incredible experience.
My experience visiting Ninh Binh in July was incredibly hot, with temperatures on average reaching between 35-39 degrees each day with high humidity. However, I did not experience much rainfall, during the two weeks there was just one heavy storm, which lasted roughly 1 hour, most evenings there were thunderstorms but no associated rainfall. Ninh Binh in July is hot but not unbearable, however, as many attractions are outdoors, they needed to be planned for earlier in the day to avoid being in direct sunlight at the hottest part of the day.
Top attractions in the Ninh Binh Province to add to your itinerary
Cycling and renting a moped is the most popular way to get around the Ninh Binh province with rental shops being readily available. While you may be confident in riding a moped, it is important to note, if you do not have a moped license in the UK, you most likely will not be covered by your travel insurance if you have an accident.
There are various areas to stay in Ninh Binh, however, I would advise basing yourself in the Tam Coc region, this is where most of the hotels, hostels and restaurants are and from here you can easily reach most attractions. If you are still looking to book your Tam Coc accommodation, I would recommend the Banana Tree Hostel (private rooms and dorms available) as it has a pool. I did not stay there but I paid to use their swimming pool on two occasions (50.000 Dong / £2 per person per day), they serve great food with a chilled atmosphere.
Tam Coc is also the area where you will find the typical South East Asian shops/stalls selling fake goods and other standard backpacker items. There is also a really great pizza place called Neapolitan if you are craving freshly made stone-baked pizza.
Limited on time in Vietnam? You can book Ninh Binh day tours from Hanoi. When travelling on a tight itinerary, I always book activities and tours through Get Your Guide in advance. While it may be slightly cheaper to buy tours at the location, booking in advance saves valuable time and I know they are a company I can trust. Below are a few of the day tours from Hanoi they offer, booking through this link means I will earn a small percentage at no extra cost to you.
Bich Dong Pagoda
You may not have heard of the Bich Dong Pagoda but there is a good chance you have probably seen it on Instagram as the stone gate entrance to the pagoda has become a very popular photo opportunity. Inside you will find 3 pagodas, Ha, Trung and Thoung, all of which are nestled inside the mountain and make for a tranquil, scenic walk (be aware there are some steep steps during parts). At present, there is no fee to visit the Bich Dong Pagoda.
Trang An Boat Ride
The Trang An Boat tour is probably the most popular attraction in Ninh Binh and it very much reminded me of some of the scenery in Halong Bay. The peaceful boat ride takes you through the limestone mountains, inside various caves and even to a part of the set for Kong: Skull Island.
The boat ride at present costs 200.000 dong (£7) per person per route. There are 3 different routes available each taking around 2.5 – 3 hours. Each route has stop off points at different temples and sails through various caves, however, only route 2 and 3 will visit the film set of Kong: Skull Island. On arrival, you will by a generic boat ticket, if you do have a preference of route, make someone aware when you are queuing to get onto a boat, otherwise, you will just be allocated to a boat that needs filling.
If you are visiting Ninh Binh during the warm season arrive early, there is no shelter or shade during the tour and you will be at risk of heatstroke during the hottest part of the day. The Trang An boat tour operates between the hours of 7 am and 4 pm daily.
Cuc Phoung National Park
Cuc Phoung is Vietnam’s first national park as well as the largest nature reserve in the country, this is where I was based during my time in Ninh Binh and it is a truly beautiful area. This area is extremely popular for hiking, with routes suitable for all levels of fitness as well as the multiple animal rehabilitation centres located here.
Inside the Cuc Phoung National Park you will find:
The Endangered Primate Rescue Centre
The Small Carnivore and Pangolin Rescue Centre ( Save Vietnam’s Wildlife)
The Turtle Conservation Centre
All of these centres work in the rehabilitation and release of the animals back into the wild. Guided visits are available for a small fee and can be arranged at the visitor centre at the entrance of the Cuc Phoung. My visit to Ninh Binh was to volunteer at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife and I am proud to vouch for the incredible work all these centres are doing.
If you are looking for other wildlife centres in Ninh Binh, there is also Four Paws Bear Sanctuary, which is located just outside of Cuc Phoung National Park, this sanctuary works to provide a safe home to Moon Bears rescued from the Bile trade.
As previously mentioned, during the last week of April you can experience the white butterfly season inside the National Park, due to this the park is generally very busy during this time. I was told by many of the locals, however, it is one of the most amazing things to see in Ninh Binh.
Although this area, and all of the Ninh Binh area, is free from Malaria, there are many mosquitos and other biting insects, therefore be sure to invest in a good bug spray to help avoid any discomfort. The national park is also full of various wildlife, including black cobra snakes, I only saw one during my stay there and it was from a distance but be aware they are there. Even though the black cobras are highly venomous, they generally hide away from people and will only attack if they feel threatened.
The Mua Cave will take you 500 steps up to one of the most breathtaking views in Vietnam, a panoramic view of the paddy fields surrounded by the limestone mountains.
It is a steep climb but there are steps and railings, making it one of the most accessible climbs in the area. Around 3/4s of the way up the climb, you will come to a fork where the climb divides to either the Hang Mua Dragon or the temple. If you are able, do both, as both views offer something different and both are included in your entrance fee (100.000 dong / £3.50 per person).
There various places at the bottom and throughout the walk to buy water, however, the price is higher than normal so bring some with you. Also, wear comfortable shoes/trainers as opposed to flip-flops or sandals.
Van Long Nature Reserve
Van Long is often described as a less crowded Trang An, it is very similar, in that you take a tranquil boat ride around the area. However, the main draw for Van Long is the chance to see the wild Langurs which live in this area, as they are wild animals, sightings are not guaranteed but there are high chances. Alongside the langurs, there are many species of wild bird, making it one of the most things for wildlife lovers to do in Ninh Binh.
The area of Ninh Binh is becoming increasingly popular with people travelling to Vietnam, however, it is still relatively unknown in comparison to areas such as Hue and Hoi An. Personally, I really loved this area of the country and found it to be a welcome relaxing break away from the big cities of Hanoi and Saigon. You will be spoilt for choice for things to do in Ninh Binh as well as attractions to visit and I would really encourage you to add this area of Northern Vietnam to your itinerary.