Ninh Binh is a city in North Vietnam with population of 130,517 people, famous for the nearby karst scenery and the village of Tam Coc. There is nothing to do in Ninh Binh apart from drinking beer with the locals, but it is useful as a base for the surrounding countryside.
Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed as a mixed natural and cultural property. It consists of a spectacular limestone karst landscape. The archeological remains found in caves trace human presence since 30,000 years. Part of the heritage is Hoa Lu, the old capital of Vietnam.
Taxis from Hanoi cost USD48.
Taxis from Noi Bai international airport cost USD70, a 2-hour journey.
There are regular buses from Hanoi's southern bus terminal (Giap Bat) that leave every 15 min (or whenever full) 70,000 dong (June 2016). Journey time is 1½-2½ hr depending on traffic. Buy a ticket in the ticket hall or you will likely have to pay more than 70,000 dong.
Open tour buses will drop passengers off upon request but Ninh Binh is not a regular stop. Most open tour buses from Hanoi will arrive at 21:30. Tour buses from Hue arrive between 04:00 and 06:00, depending on the company.
Ninh Binh is a station for northbound and southbound trains.
Daytime southbound trains to Dong Hoi and Hue (11PM arrival) depart at 11:21 and can be enjoyed in 2nd class seats rather than sleepers for those looking to avoid overnight journeys and long-haul buses.
Guesthouses may provide organised tours by car for USD20 per day. Taxis are also common and not different from the ones in Hanoi or Saigon, although a little cheaper.
A motorbike is the best way to view Ninh Binh and the surrounding area. A motorbike can be rented for about 100,000 dong per day, a motorcycle driver/guide to take you around the sites for about USD10-20 a day.
The roads in general are quite well maintained and not overly busy, but the junctions, just like everywhere else in Vietnam, can be dangerous. Renting your own motorbike is possible but not without risk.
Cycling is a good option for visiting nearby sights. Guesthouses hire out bicycles for about 40,000 dong/day. There is a country road (mountain bike is recommended) that connects Hoa lu and Tam Coc.
The town of Ninh Binh is quite small and walkable. However, most of the interesting sights are outside the city.
There are three main spots, where people board boat tours: Trang An, Tam Coc and Vân Long. Tam Coc being the most famous and therefore crowded of them.
Trang An area
- 1 Trang An Grottoes (7 km from Ninh Binh). An easy bicycle ride away, Trang An Grottoes is similar to Tam Coc, but with many more caves to pass through. Tourists who have also visited Tam Coc prefer this trip as there are not as many hawkers. Most caves have been widened in order for the boats to pass through and as result their natural beauty has been compromised. The first two caves are the most natural and beautiful, but are also tight in places, so watch your head. Lots of concrete structures are being built all over the place, and rice paddies are disappearing fast, but hopefully this area will not lose its splendor. It might be worth bringing a torch in case the power fails and the lights go out. Some of the tunnels are quite long and your rower may have forgotten his backup torch.
There is a parking fee of 15,000 dong for two wheelers (bicycle or motorbike) as of June 2016. The boat trip lasts more than 2 hours so make sure you carry water and some nibbles. 150,000 dong entrance fee.
- 2 Hoa Lu ancient capital (6 km north of Ninh Binh, then 6 km west of Hwy 1). The ancient capital during Dinh (968-80) and Le dynasties (980-1009). Mostly destroyed, there is the temple of Dinh Tien Hoang, the temple of King Le Dai Hahn, Nhat Tru Pagoda, and on top of a hill, Dinh Tien Hoang's tomb. There are also boat trips on the river to Xuyen Thuy cave, less spectacular than other caves in the area. Entrance to cave is 15,000 dong. 12,000 dong.
- 3 Chua Bai Dinh (11 km NW of Ninh Binh). Huge new Buddhist complex, mostly visited by Vietnamese.
Tam Coc area
9 km south of Ninh Binh, along Hwy 1. It's an easy bicycle ride from Ninh Binh, with no hills
- 4 Tam Coc. One of Vietnam's most spectacular sights. A boat can be hired that will take you along the river. Excursion begins at the village of Van Lam and proceeding through a scenic landscape dominated by rice fields and karst towers. The route includes floating through three natural caves (Hang Cả, Hang Hai, and Hang Ba), the largest of which is 125-m long with its ceiling about 2-m high above the water. Vast limestone cliffs rise out of the rice paddies. The area is somewhat similar to Ha Long Bay, but more accessible and much less touristy. The best time to go is in the morning or late afternoon, when it's quieter and cooler with more shade. Last boats start out about 17:30 in the summer and 16:30 in the winter. 150,000 dong per boat (maximum 2 foreigners per boat), plus admission of 120,000 dong per person.
- The area around Tam Coc is equally beautiful, and is best viewed from the back of a motorbike or by bicycle. There is also a temple atop one of the hills which provides incredible views.
- 5 Bích Động Pagoda (2 km west of Tam Coc Cave). Three temples carved into a limestone mountain, dating from the 15th-century reign of Le Thai To. The lower temple has a stone next to it that resonates when tapped, plus a Buddha footprint. The middle temple has an 18th-century bell, a cave and resonating pillars. The top temple has a view of the surrounding countryside, which is good for sunsets.
- 6 Hang Mua (5 km from Ninh Binh). Hundreds of steps will lead you to a unimpressive temple on top of a hill with incredibly stunning views over Tam Coc and Ninh Binh’s countryside. 100,000 dong entrance fee + 3,000 dong bicycle/motorbike parking fee.
Van Long area
- 7 Vân Long Nature Reserve.
- 8 Dich Long Cave and Pagoda, Gia Thanh commune.
- Beautiful Hoa Son, Tien caves and Van Trinh Grotto can be visited nearby.
- 9 Cuc Phuong National Park (45 km from Ninh Binh). A well-preserved rainforest with an Endangered Primates Rescue Centre near the entrance. You can only visit the centre with a park guide, which costs an extra 20,000 dong per person and doesn't take long. There are about 150 primates here being prepared for release back in the wild. Most are from other parts of Vietnam and any releases will be where they originally came from. There is also a botanical garden near the entrance. From the entrance you can drive, motorbike or cycle a further 20 km along a densely forested paved road, from which several bypaths lead you through the jungle to prehistoric trees and caves. Cycling is probably the most rewarding way to travel this 20 km of often steeply inclined paved road and mountain bikes can be hired at the park entrance. The road ends at the park centre (Bong), from where there are several forest walks. The park centre has a restaurant and a place to buy snacks. The best chance to see any animals here is at night. Guided night tours for overnight stayers are available. There are other points of interest along the narrow 20 km road such as a cave, ancient trees, and walking trails. One of the amazing things about this drive is the thousands of colourful butterflies filling the roadway. Peak time for butterflies apparently is Apr-May, but in later months there may still be many to be seen. It is especially enjoyable to touch the thousand-year-old cho xanh (parashrea stellata) and sau (dracontomelum duperranum or dancorra edulis) trees, 50-70 m high. The park is also perfect for seeing birds, butterflies, and orchids. They are more concentrated than in a typical butterfly farm enclosure. A limited amount of overnight accommodation is available in either a detached bungalow or a stilt house. 20,000 dong.
- 10 Phat Diem Cathedral (24 km SW of Ninh Binh in the village of Kim Son). Cathedral known for its scale and its oriental style. Completed in 1891. One of the earliest areas to be reached by missionaries; Portuguese priests were here in 1627.
There are not that many other activities to perform in Ninh Binh.
There is a fresh fruit market next to the main market across the bridge.
Mountain goat (de nui) meat is a local speciality, often eaten with fried rice (com chien). Another local speciality is com chay, which is the burnt rice off the bottom of the pot, served with pork. Duck is featured in many restaurants, and there are numerous dog-meat restaurants scattered throughout town (look for signs with a picture of a Great Dane or similar breed and the words thit cho).
The area near the train station has become a mini-backpacker area, and there are 4-5 backpacker cafes there with English menus and tourist prices (40,000-70,000 dong; coffee 15,000-20,000 dong). The three most popular restaurants are called "Good Food", "Cheap Good Food" and "Fast Food Cheap" (all on Hoang Hoa Tham).
- Chookie's, 17 Luong Van Tuy (Across from the Ngoc Anh Hotel). Good burgers and also a decent selection of Vietnamese at reasonable prices. Staff speak English and can answer any questions you have about Ninh Binh.
- Trung Tuyet Restaurant, 14 Hoang Hoa Tham (Half a block straight ahead from the train station entrance), ☎ . Open late. A few tables on the street and one of the few restaurants in the city that caters to Westerners. The menu offers 3 or 4 sizes of portions at different prices, however even the small sized portions are larger than in other towns. Coffee 20,000 dong, Fruit salad 30,000 dong. Yogurt 8,000 dong. Chicken with noodles 50,000 dong.
- Pho bò 24, Le Hong Phong Street (From Tran Hung Dao about 200 meters on the left). A small restaurant for locals with the food cooked in front of you. A few tables on the street and few inside. Soups and noodle for 25,000 dong and 30,000 dong. Have an English menu.
- Chookie's Beer Garden, Tam Coc - Bich Dong Road (700m from boat station on the way to Bich Dong Pagoda), e-mail: email@example.com. Open from 9am. Great place to relax and have a drink and something to eat. Good burgers, salads and Smoothies. Plenty of Vegan options too.
There are plenty of bia hoi sellers along the river in the late afternoon and evenings. One glass usually costs 5,000 dong. Plenty of places sell a sugar cane drink with ice for about 5,000 dong.
There are a number of cheap hotels just outside the train station and next to the bus station. Other hotels are located near the city centre. As there is nothing to see in city, either area is suitable. The area near the train station has become a mini-backpacker district, complete with travel agents, touts, overpriced drinks and English-menu restaurants. While it is also possible to stay near the wharf for the Tam Coc ferry, it is not recommended as the quality of the hotels and in particular the restaurants is very low.
- Kim Lieng Guesthouse, Ngo 212, No. 54 (still listed on Google as Van Thanh No. 54) (On a small and quiet side road not far from the city centre), ☎ . Run by the charismatic Madame Kim Lienh, a no frills and honest place to stay. Rooms are clean (USD16 for a double, + USD3 for air-con) but basic. Kim is very friendly, provides help with local transportation, arrangement of public bus tickets and transportation, and also sometimes offers to cook dinner for 70,000 dong per person (be prepared for loads of food). Doors close at 22:30, but the staff can be awakened by knocking on the doors, or preferably informing them of late arrival or excursions beforehand. USD16-19.
- Ngoc Anh Hotel, 30 Luong Van Tuy St, ☎ . Family hotel, friendly staff, good location, rooms are clean, all rooms have air-con, en suite bath, cable TV with good reception, Wi-Fi. Deluxe rooms also have a computer, a fridge and balcony. There are 2 modern computers in the reception/restaurant area. The cheaper rooms are at 26 Luong Van Tuy and the more expensive at 30 Luong Van Tuy. USD12-27.
- Nha Viet Hotel, Đường Lê Thái Tổ, phố Đẩu Long (On the way to the stadium of Ninh Binh Vissai FC), ☎ . The family owners are very helpful. Will cook food that you want. English-speaking staff, motorbike rental, Wi-Fi, clean, laundry, convenient location, far enough from main road to provide peace and quiet. USD12.
- Queen Mini Hotel, 21 Hoang Hoa Tham (One block in front of the train station). Near the train and bus station. It's popular, especially with French visitors, and often full. Rooms are clean enough, but can have insects. Wi-Fi in the lobby, but it doesn't reach all the rooms. The owner's refrain is "You pay now". They are affiliated with the Good Food Restaurant across the street. Be warned: there are four hotels sharing this name, and it's not clear if all of them are related: The Queen Mini (this one), the Queen Hotel (across the street, upscale and owned by the same family as the Queen Mini), the New Queen Mini Backpacker's Hostel (on the same street, often has grille down; they advertise rates of USD3 including breakfast!), and the New Queen Mini Hotel (two streets south). USD6-15.
- Thanh Binh Hotel, 31 Luong Van Tuy St, ☎ . Some members of the staff are somewhat helpful and friendly. Possibility to rent motorbikes for USD6/day. Breakfast is not included. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is added to some of their food. USD20 (double room).
- Thanh Thuy's Guest House and New Hotel, 128 Le Hong Phong, ☎ . The guest house rooms are large and pleasant with a shared bathroom. Hotel rooms have en suite baths and quieter as they're set back from the road. There is a reasonably priced restaurant adjacent to reception. Motorbike and bicycles available for hire. Staff can be a little brusque, but are helpful and speak good English. USD6-10 (guest house), USD15-35 (hotel).
- 37 P Minh Khai (On the eastbound road from the city centre, next to a reservoir), ☎ . Helpful owner. Good food, bicycle and motorbike rental, convenient location, and far enough from the main road to provide peace and quiet. USD15-35.
- 1 Go NinhBinh Hostel, No1 Hoang Hoa Tham street (Old train station) (Just about 15 minutes walk on foot from train station or 10 minutes walk from bus station), ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 12:00. Developed on the old train station, this is a real hostel in Ninh Binh. The common spaces are very large and comfortable with pool table, darts, free computer, and bookswap in each floor. The dorm rooms are large and pleasant with shared bathroom or bathroom en suite, bunk bed has curtain, spot light, 220v electric socket and coat hook, air conditioner. Hostel also has private rooms with toilet en suite, cable TV. There is a reasonably priced restaurant close to reception. Motorbike and bicycles available for hire USD3-4/day, free parking. Staff are friendly, helpful and speak English. USD5-6.
Tips for Tam Coc boat excursion:
- When leaving your motorbike at the departure point, beware of thieves (such as removing a mirror while the motorbike is parked, then selling it back to you for 100,000 dong). Look for official parking areas to avoid such scams.
- When you catch the boat from the harbour, try not to board a boat that is loaded with boxes at departure. The boxes are filled with handicrafts and are intended for you to buy. During the return trip the rowers might suddenly turn from friendly rowers to pushy sellers. Don't ruin your experience by allowing this. Demand a rower/boat without handicraft/souvenir boxes.
- Ha Long Bay
- Laos - There is a nightly bus from Hanoi that will stop in Ninh Binh on request. From there it is a grim 20 hr journey to Vientiane.