Most people say that any travels 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, and on the single day that I’ve been to Ninh Binh, I felt I’ve already seen much of Vietnam.
Ninh Binh is an excellent place to spot the best views in Vietnam and encounter Vietnamese culture. There are just a few things to do in Ninh Binh. But I’m sure they are a gem you would want to see and experience. That is, especially if you love seeing awe-inspiring landscapes, temples, rivers, caves, and life in the countryside.
Comparing to Hanoi, Halong Bay, and Sapa, Ninh Binh is a less traveled destination in Vietnam. However, it is still one of the tourist’s popular places to go in Vietnam because of its proximity to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Ninh Binh is a town located in the southeast of Hanoi and only an hour and a half drive from the capital.
If you are coming from Hanoi, you can take the train and bus to Ninh Binh. When you arrive in Ninh Binh, you will find scooters and bicycles for rent in the town center for only 100,000 VND and 50,000 VND, respectively. You can use them to move around and visit each destination listed on this post.
If you aren’t comfortable riding scooters on your own, you can download Grab from App Store and Play Store. It is a car and motorbike booking app to get yourself non-scammy motorbike rides to move around Ninh Binh. Alternatively, you can hire a private car from Hanoi to bring you anywhere in Ninh Binh.
In this blog post, I will show you the best things to do Ninh Binh. I included the length of stay, how to arrive at them, and the things to do for each destination to help you plan your trip to Ninh Binh. So, without further ado, let’s now tackle the best spots in Ninh Binh:
Bai Dinh Pagoda
Let’s kick off the best things to do in Ninh Binh list by introducing to you the “largest” Buddhist complex in South East Asia. When you go here, you can have something you can be proud of and a great story you can tell to your friends and family.
Tell ’em you’ve visited a very large temple that is filled with 500 statues of different Buddhas. You can also describe to them what you felt after you saw the 10-meter Buddha totally made of bronze.
Well, buddhas are not all you will see here. In this large complex, you can find two pagodas that have the same name. One of these pagodas is situated beside Dinh mountain and could only be accessed from a 300-step stairway. The second one is located 800 meters away from the main compound.
They say that there are monks telling fortunes here in Bai Dinh Pagoda. Sadly I was not able to spot any during my visit. I’ve always wanted to meet an actual monk in person (that I realized since the day I learned their existence from watching the series Avatar The Last Airbender).
They say Bai Dinh Pagoda was still new. But if you’ll ask me, it seemed very old already. Maybe it’s the wooden structure that made me think that it has aged for decades. Or, perhaps the faded knees of the buddhas along the hallway towards the pagoda.
If you’re an Instagrammer or a Photographer, Bai Dinh has many spots where you can create fantastic shots. Take an angle at the stairs or at the hallway full of leading lines. However, if you’re like me, who just want to reflect and take awe from everything that I see, strolling slowly and observing every part of the temples are more than enough.
How to go to Bai Dinh Pagoda
From Ninh Binh town center, ride on a scooter to the west for 30 minutes until you reach the entrance of Bai Dinh Pagoda. From there, you can walk to the gate of the Buddhist complex and start exploring.
But I recommend that you avail the 30,000 VND electric golf car ride from the entrance to the gate instead. It is more fun, and you would no longer have to walk under the intense heat from the sun.
Suggested visiting duration to Bai Dinh pagoda
If you are doing slow travel, perhaps you can spend a half-day here in Bai Dinh pagoda. There’s just a lot to see and walk you will be doing. However, if you are just for a quick drop, you can already see the bests of the pagoda in a minimum of two hours.
I included Bai Dinh Pagoda to my list of inspiring photos of Vietnam. Check out the rest! 🙂
Bich Dong Pagoda
The next must-visit destination in Ninh Binh that we will tackle is the Bich Dong Pagoda. I’m sure the moment your eyes hit the entrance of the pagoda, you will automatically pull your cameras or phones out of your bags and capture the marvelous view. With a perfect weather, you’ll see that visiting Bich Dong Pagoda is really the one of the best things to do in Ninh Binh.
The entrance of Bich Dong Pagoda is impressive. It feels like you’ve seen a true Asian gem just at the sight before you enter the pagoda. The arched concrete walkway that curves over the emerald water, and leads to the pagoda and to the mountain, is just so satisfying to stare at. However, in some seasons, the lake gets covered with blooming lilies which makes the whole scenery much better!
However, Bich Dong Pagoda isn’t there yet after you come across the entrance gate. First, you have to walk up to about 100 steps up the stairs before reaching the pagoda. Actually, three pagodas are waiting for you in Bich Dong Pagoda. Yes, it’s kinda confusing, like a pagoda within a pagoda when you heard it at first. But, you will get it once you come.
The first pagoda that you’ll see is called Ha Pagoda, situated at the foot of the mountain. As you continue moving upwards, you’ll encounter another pagoda on the mountainside called Trung Pagoda. And on the top, you’ll find the last pagoda called Thuong Pagoda.
On the summit and on your journey to the top of the mountain, you will see beautiful sceneries such as the panoramic view of the jungle, vast rice fields, and towering limestone hills. You will also find a cave along the trail, which I heard is home to some small bats.
Bich Dong Pagoda is a popular destination in Ninh Binh. I suggest that you come here very early in the morning or late in the afternoon if you want to have a quieter and tranquil exploration of Bich Dong Pagoda. Besides, the top of the mountain is an excellent place to watch the sunset. Just imagine seeing the sky turns red and purple over the different shades of mountains afar. It would be just perfect!
How long to stay in Bich Dong Pagoda
Swiftly, you can visit the entire Bich Dong Pagoda in less than an hour. You might need an hour or two if you plan to explore and see every detail of Bich Dong Pagoda and take many beautiful shots of it.
Now, we are on a part in Ninh Binh that eclipses the experience of cruising in Halong Bay! That is taking a boat trip in Trang An. Well, technically, I could not compare. But I’ve read so many comments in reviews that Trang An gives a view that is already as good as the ones we can get in Halong Bay.
As I have experienced, I can say that Trang An is truly one recommendable thing to do in Ninh Binh.
To be more precise, like Halong Bay, Trang An is included in UNESCO World Heritage sites. So you could really expect that visiting Trang An has valuable natural beauty equivalent to Halong Bay. And that just also proves that Trang An is a must-visit place in Ninh-Binh.
Trang An boat ride takes you around Trang An landscape complex following the curvy Song Sao Khe River. There 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 sceneries are just irresistible to look at, and it feels totally incredible. I’d say I was filled with awe for the two hours I stayed in the boat. I was so happy, literally!
Again, the boat ride lasts for 2 hours, and it traverses three to four caves and underground rivers. Honestly, I forgot to count them up because I was really occupied by the awe I’m taking. In that two hours, you’ll cover up 7 kilometers of winding river.
One of the questions that you might have right now is, “Am I going to paddle on my own to get through the 7 kilometer river?” Of course not. Haha. There will be a strong lady local who will paddle for you (or for your group). It may sound crazy, but yes. Yet, you can help her paddle if you want. There are extra paddles in the boat which you can use to speed up.
Actually, paddling the boat gave us more fun while cruising in Trang An. We had a very friendly competition with another tourist from another boat during that day, though. We were 5 in the boat in rotation to paddle so we may overpass our foe. I felt like I joined a dragon boat competition, though.
Honestly, paddling the boat is really tiring! Yet, I only felt the tiredness after cruising. My mind was so busy processing all the fun and amusement that happened. I just cannot imagine how strong are these lady locals who do the paddling every day. They really deserve a big tip after each trip.
During the boat ride, you will come across temples at the shores. One notable temple which you can see in Trang An is the Trinh Temple. It has been around for already a thousand-year and is being continuously improved throughout the years.
What will be actually surprising during the cruise is the pagoda or pavilion in the middle river! It even has a powerful sound system, and you’ll wonder where the heck they’re getting electricity to power it.
Electricity speaking, the caves have installed lightings inside. You will be able to see magnificent rock formations like stalagmites. You must always look forward so you may notice and dodge the low-lying rocks coming from ahead.
Actually, 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 has still kings and monarchs.
Lastly, you could also spot prenup photoshoots along the river. Those kinds of rare moments in Trang An give a bit additional amusement to the overall experience you’ll get in Trang An.
How long to stay in Trang An
The approximate duration of the boat trip in Trang An is 2 hours. But, if you will come at a peak hour, you might catch a longer queue. That’s gonna take time too. It’s just don’t forget to add time allowances to the itinerary you’ll be using.
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 Trang An boat ride, going toTam Coc is one compelling 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 looks offensive to some tourists. But they realized it is easier to paddle by foot, so they allowed it once again. Besides, if you will ask me, it is definitely alright. Since it gives distinction to Tam Coc.
There are also rice fields in the valleys of limestone hills along Ngo Dong River in Tam Coc that also makes a difference to the first Trang An boat ride we discussed. This is the reason why Vietnamese call Tam Coc the Green Sea. Basically, you can have a boat ride giving sceneries of a vast sea of rice fields instead of blue water.
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 somehow it can make you wonder about your current status in life. Like, in my case, I thought, “these farmers are living a simple life in a paradise, while every day, 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 Cam, Hang Giaua, and Hang Chateau, which I think is astounding as the caves from the Song Sao Khe River. Watch out also for the picture-perfect grottoes at the foot of the gigantic limestone hills.
However, though I did not experience it, I heard a few scam rowers in Tam Coc. 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 recommend Trang An (Song Sao Khe River) as you can find more professional rowers in it.
How long to stay in Tam Coc
The whole boat ride trip to Tam Coc takes about 2 hours, traversing a 3-kilometer river within a scenic valley of limestone hills and rocks.
Hang Mua Peak
Get the eye’s bird view of the river you cruise in Tam Coc by climbing your way up to the Hang Mua Peak. It perhaps has the most beautiful sceneries you could ever have in Ninh Binh, especially if you come at a perfect time and weather. The photos you will see later below will convince you that visiting Hang Mua Peak is really a must thing to do 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 kinda have to prepare your knees first. It is going to be a challenging straight 500 steps stairway ascent to the top.
Before you reach the spot where your actual climb shall 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 all around you. It is another good spot to take photos, I think, at least if the weather is favorable and the lotus are 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 will just be a shortstop and an appetizer to the real deal in Hang Mua Peak.
The start of the staircase to the viewpoints is guarded by a dragon statue serving as handrails. It kinda gives you this excitement, like “here it is, there is something great waiting up there, you gotta hurry up!”
Honestly, the ascent is tiring. Yet, the higher you get by climbing, the more panoramic the scene gets. The view will just wipe all your exhaustion away. Just be careful to always look at your steps and not always stick your eyes to the stunning landscape. The steps can be slippery, especially if it is wet!
The first viewing point shall be your first major relief from climbing. It will take your breath away so as your tiredness. At the first viewing point, you can see a super scenic view of the vast rice fields with the limestone hills appearing just to be like a stone thrown and buried halfway on flat soil. Incredible sights indeed! But wait until you come to the second viewpoint or the main viewpoint, located on a higher spot on the mountains.
If you think that the first viewing point is already much, you are wrong. The main viewpoint allows you to watch more panoramic sceneries that you would never see anywhere else in the world! Because on the other side of the mountain, you will see the rugged-shape tooth-like limestone hills and mountains of Ninh-Binh. It is a sight of a pure marvel spectacle!
I suggest when you come here, you bring two cameras. One to capture photos, and another is to create 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 long to stay in Hang Mua Peak
Reaching the top of Hang Mua Peak from the start of the trail takes up 30 minutes to 45 minutes. But in the case which you want to enjoy every single scenery and spot, I suggest that you allocate an hour or two for Hang Mua Peak on your itinerary.
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