5 Unmissable Things To Do In Ninh Binh, Vietnam

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Most people say that traveling to Vietnam without stopping by Halong Bay is incomplete. But I say, traveling to Ninh Binh is like already seeing Halong Bay and getting much more. Actually, Ninh Binh is also called Halong Bay on land. On the single day that I’ve been to Ninh Binh, I felt I’d already seen much of Vietnam.

Ninh Binh is a great place to experience the best views of Vietnam and immerse yourself in Vietnamese culture. There are many things to do in Ninh Binh, but if you ask me what you shouldn’t miss, there are five.

These experiences are sure to be memorable, especially if you love seeing breathtaking landscapes, remarkable temples, river cruising, exploring caves, and taking in the view of the rustic life in the countryside.

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5 Unmissable Things to Do in Ninh Binh Vietnam

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To get to Ninh Binh from Hanoi, you have two options: train or bus. Once you reach Ninh Binh, you can rent a scooter or a bicycle from the town center. They are very affordable: only 100,000 VND for a scooter and 50,000 VND for a bicycle. You can use them to explore the beautiful attractions in Ninh Binh that I have listed on this post.

If you don’t feel confident riding a scooter by yourself, you can use Grab. It is an app that lets you book cars and motorbikes easily. You can download it from App Store or Play Store. Grab is a reliable way to get around Ninh Binh without getting scammed. Another option is to hire a private car from Hanoi. This way, you can enjoy the convenience and comfort of having a driver who can take you anywhere in Ninh Binh.

1. Bai Dinh Pagoda

One of the unmissable things to do in Ninh Binh is to visit the “largest” Buddhist complex in South East Asia. This is a place you can be proud of and a great story you can share with your friends and family. Imagine telling them that you have seen a vast temple with 500 statues of different Buddhas, including a 10-meter bronze Buddha. How would you feel after witnessing such a sight?

But buddhas are not all you will find here. This complex also has two pagodas with the same name: Bai Dinh. One of them is located beside Dinh mountain and can only be reached by climbing a 300-step stairway. The other one is 800 meters away from the main compound. Both of them are worth exploring for their architecture and history.

More Information: Cool facts, what more to expect, how much time to spend

I heard that some monks can tell fortunes at Bai Dinh Pagoda. Unfortunately, I did not see any of them during my visit. I have always wanted to meet a real monk in person. I realized that when I watched the series Avatar The Last Airbender, where I learned about their existence.

People say that Bai Dinh Pagoda is new. However, it looked very old to me. Maybe it was the wooden structure that made me think it had been there for decades. Or maybe it was the faded knees of the buddhas along the hallway towards the pagoda.

Bai Dinh has many spots where you can take amazing photos. If you are an Instagrammer or a Photographer, you can try different angles at the stairs or the hallway full of leading lines. But if you are like me, who just wants to admire and appreciate everything I see, walking slowly and observing every part of the temples is enough.

If you want to visit Bai Dinh Pagoda, you can follow these steps:

  • From Ninh Binh town center, ride a scooter to the west for about 30 minutes.
  • You will reach the entrance of Bai Dinh Pagoda, where you can park your scooter.
  • You have two options to get to the gate of the Buddhist complex:
    • You can walk for about 15 minutes, but it might be very hot and tiring.
    • You can take an electric golf car ride for 30,000 VND, which is more fun and convenient.

I can help you with that. Here is my suggestion:

How long should you stay at Bai Dinh Pagoda? It depends on your travel style and preferences.

  • If you enjoy slow travel, you might want to spend a half-day at Bai Dinh Pagoda. There are many things to see and explore, and you will have to walk a lot.
  • If you are in a hurry, you can still see the highlights of the pagoda in about two hours. But you might miss some of the details and the atmosphere.

2. Bich Dong Pagoda

Bich Dong Pagoda is another must-see destination in Ninh Binh. The entrance of the pagoda is so beautiful that you will feel like taking photos right away. If the weather looks perfect when you visit Ninh Binh, I’m sure you won’t regret visiting Bich Dong Pagoda.

The entrance of Bich Dong Pagoda is amazing. It looks like a true Asian gem that you can admire before you enter the pagoda. The arched concrete walkway that curves over the emerald water and leads to the pagoda and the mountain is very pleasing to the eye. In some seasons, the lake is covered with blooming lilies, which make the scenery even more beautiful!

Visiting Bich Dong Pagoda is not just about its entrance gate only, though. You have to climb about 100 steps up the stairs to reach the pagoda. Actually, there are three pagodas waiting for you in Bich Dong Pagoda. It might sound confusing, like a pagoda within a pagoda, but you will understand once you get there.

More Information: What else to expect and other visiting information

The first pagoda you will see is Ha Pagoda, which is located at the foot of the mountain. As you climb up, you will come across another pagoda on the mountainside, called Trung Pagoda. And at the top, you will find the last pagoda, called Thuong Pagoda.

On your way to the summit, and from the summit itself, you will see breathtaking scenery. You will enjoy the panoramic view of the jungle, the vast rice fields, and the towering limestone hills. You will also discover a cave along the trail, which I heard has some small bats living in it.

Bich Dong Pagoda is a popular destination in Ninh Binh. I recommend that you visit it very early in the morning or late in the afternoon. That way, you can have a peaceful and serene exploration of Bich Dong Pagoda. Also, the top of the mountain is a great place to watch the sunset. Imagine the sky turning red and purple over the different shades of mountains in the distance. It would be just perfect!

The duration of your stay at Bich Dong Pagoda depends on how much you want to see and do.

  • If you are in a hurry, you can visit the whole Bich Dong Pagoda in less than an hour.
  • If you want to explore and appreciate every detail of Bich Dong Pagoda and take many photos, you might need an hour or two.

3. Trang An

If there is a place in Ninh Binh that could eclipse the beauty of Halong Bay, it has to be Trang An. Both places are recognized as UNESCO Heritage sites, and they look very much alike. They have spectacular limestone karsts jutting above the horizon, and they are both explored using a boat. Their only difference is that Halong Bay is on the sea, while Trang An is on land.

I prefer visiting Trang An over Halong Bay for a simple reason: it is more affordable and less crowded. I like breathtaking and tranquil experiences, which Trang An did not fail to give me. Having visited Trang An myself, I can attest to why it is a must-visit destination in Ninh Binh.

The boat ride in Trang An takes you around the Trang An landscape complex, following the curvy Song Sao Khe River. As I have hinted previously, you will see scenic and absolutely marvelous towering limestone rocks and hills. I think I spent most of my time on the boat looking upwards to the tip of the limestone rocks with my jaw dropped and mouth open. The scenery is irresistible to look at, and it feels totally incredible. I was filled with awe for the two hours I stayed on the boat. I was so happy, literally!

More information: My experience, tips, and other visiting information

The boat ride lasts for two hours, and it traverses three to four caves and underground rivers. I forgot to count them because I was so occupied by the awe I felt. You will cover seven kilometers of a winding river in those two hours.

One of the questions you might have right now is, “Do I have to paddle on my own to get through the seven-kilometer river?” Of course not. Haha. There will be a strong local lady who will paddle for you (or for your group). It may sound crazy, but yes. However, you can help her paddle if you want. There are extra paddles in the boat which you can use to speed up.

Paddling the boat gave us more fun while cruising in Trang An. We had a very friendly competition with another tourist from another boat that day. We were five in the boat, taking turns to paddle so we could overtake our opponent. I felt like I joined a dragon boat competition.

Paddling the boat is really tiring, though! I only felt the tiredness after cruising. My mind was so busy processing all the fun and amusement that happened. I cannot imagine how strong these local ladies are who do the paddling every day. They really deserve a big tip after each trip.

During the boat ride, you will come across temples on the shores. One notable temple you can see in Trang An is the Trinh Temple. It has been around for a thousand years and is being continuously improved throughout the years.

What will be surprising during the cruise is the pagoda or pavilion in the middle of the river! It even has a powerful sound system, and you’ll wonder where they’re getting electricity to power it. Speaking of electricity, the caves have installed lighting inside. You will be able to see magnificent rock formations like stalagmites. You must always look forward so you can notice and dodge the low-lying rocks ahead.

The one you must really watch out for in those underground rivers in Trang An is the Wine Making Cave. Inside the cave, you will see hundreds of jars containing wine. It is a tradition that traces back to the old days when Vietnam still had kings and monarchs.

Lastly, you could also spot prenup photoshoots along the river. Those kinds of rare moments in Trang An add a bit of amusement to the overall experience you’ll get in Trang An.

So, how long to stay in Trang An? The boat trip in Trang An takes about two hours. However, if you come at a peak hour, you might face a longer queue. That will also take time. Don’t forget to add time allowances to the itinerary you’ll be using.

4. Tam Coc

Going further south of Ninh Binh, you will arrive in Tam Coc. It is another epic boat ride destination that is also a part of the Trang An Landscape Complex. Like the Trang An boat ride, going to Tam Coc is one exciting thing to do in Ninh Binh.

One crazy difference between the boat ride from Song Sao Khe River and Tam Coc is how the lady paddlers row the boat. Instead of using their hands, they use their feet! Before, it was banned because it looked offensive to some tourists. But they realized it was easier to paddle on foot, so they allowed it again. To me, this is one of the factors that make Tam Coc unmissable. A unique experience.

There are also rice fields in the valleys of limestone hills along the Ngo Dong River in Tam Coc. This also makes a difference from the first Trang An boat ride we discussed. This is the reason why the Vietnamese call Tam Coc the Green Sea. Basically, you can have a boat ride with scenery of a vast sea of rice fields instead of blue water.

What else to expect from Tam Coc

What’s more impressive is the limestone hills that serve as the backdrop to the Green Sea. It is just fascinating to stare at, and it can make you wonder about your current status in life. For example, I thought, “these farmers are living a simple life in a paradise, while I constantly die inside with the stress from the promise of convenience in a concrete jungle.”

There are also caves in Tam Coc called Hang Ca, Hang Giaua, and Hang Chateau, which I think are as astounding as the caves from the Song Sao Khe River. Watch out for the picture-perfect grottoes at the foot of the gigantic limestone hills.

However, I heard of a few scam rowers in Tam Coc, though I did not experience it. They ask for a high tip, and some say they even stop rowing the boat in the middle of the river if you don’t give what they ask for. That’s why most people recommend Trang An (Song Sao Khe River), as you can find more professional rowers there.

How much time to spend in Tam Coc? The boat ride to Tam Coc takes about two hours, traversing a three-kilometer river within a scenic valley of limestone hills and rocks.

5. Hang Mua Peak

Definitely, you should really get the bird’s eye view of the river you cruise in Tam Coc by climbing your way up to Hang Mua Peak.

It offers the most beautiful scenery you could ever see in Ninh Binh, especially if you come at a perfect time and weather. The photos you will see later will convince you that visiting Hang Mua Peak is really a must-do thing in Ninh Binh.

But to reach the top and scale the hill to see the stunning view of Tam Coc River and all of Ninh Binh, you have to prepare your knees first. It will be a challenging 500-step stairway ascent to the top.

Before you reach the spot where your actual climb will begin, you will arrive at the Lotus Pond and Tiger Cave first. The lotus pond has a wooden pathway in the middle where you can walk around and have an unobstructed view of many limestone hills around you. It is another good spot to take photos, I think, at least if the weather is favorable and the lotus is blooming.

In the Tiger Cave, however, you can find a well that seems to be guarded by a tiger statue in the early parts of the cave. The lotus pond and the tiger cave are just a short stop and an appetizer to the real deal in Hang Mua Peak.

What else to expect from Hang Mua Peak?

The start of the staircase to the viewpoints is guarded by a dragon statue serving as handrails. It gives you this excitement, like, “here it is, there is something great waiting up there, you gotta hurry up!”

Honestly, the ascent is tiring. But the higher you climb, the more panoramic the scene becomes. The view will wipe all your exhaustion away. Just be careful to always look at your steps and not get distracted by the stunning landscape. The steps can be slippery, especially if they are wet!

The first viewing point will be your first significant relief from climbing. It will take your breath away as well as your tiredness. You can see a super scenic view of the vast rice fields with the limestone hills that look like stones thrown and buried halfway on flat soil. Incredible sights indeed!

But wait until you come to the second or main viewpoint, located on a higher spot in the mountains. If you think that the first viewing point is already amazing, you are wrong. The main viewpoint allows you to watch more panoramic scenery that you would never see anywhere else in the world! On the other side of the mountain, you will see the rugged-shaped tooth-like limestone hills and mountains of Ninh-Binh. It is a sight of pure marvel!

I suggest when you come here, you bring two cameras. One is to capture photos, and another is to create a timelapse. Then, come just before the sunset. During that time, you could probably generate the most epic shots that you’ll ever have anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

How much time to spend in Hang Mua Peak? Reaching the top of Hang Mua Peak from the start of the trail takes about 30 to 45 minutes. But if you want to enjoy every scenery and spot, I suggest that you allocate an hour or two for Hang Mua Peak on your itinerary.

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Ninh Binh Vietnam
Ninh Binh Vietnam

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