Things to do in Ninh Binh - Travel Guide to Vietnam’s Hidden Gem
Ninh Binh, also known as the “Ha Long Bay on Land”, is one of the most majestic places in Vietnam. Hundreds of limestone karsts jut out from sprawling rice fields, making it one of the most unique landscapes we’ve ever seen! We actually preferred Ninh Binh over the hyped-up Ha Long Bay and think that anyone traveling to Vietnam should add Ninh Binh to their itinerary. This guide will take you through all the best things to do in Ninh Binh as well as tips for visiting this underrated destination.
For your convenience, here’s a map with all the points of interest mentioned in this post.
Things to do in Ninh Binh
1. Cycling in the Tam Coc Rice Fields
If staying in Tam Coc in Ninh Binh, you can take two steps out of your hotel or homestay and be fully surrounded by limestone mountains and rice fields! As such, one of the best things to do in Ninh Binh is to get out and explore the rural landscape by bicycle. Almost every homestay in Tam Coc rents them out for 50k VND per day and you can use them to explore hidden gems like Thai Vi Temple. Another way to explore the Tam Coc area is to do a boat tour. We actually skipped the Tam Coc boat tour and went with the boat tour in Trang An instead (see below).
Cost: 50k VND per day for bicycles
2 - Bich Dong Pagoda
Bich Dong is only 3km west of Tam Coc center, so you could easily bike or even walk there. The entrance is the most photographed spot, with a bridge leading over waterlilies to a beautiful gate surrounded by enormous limestone cliffs. It can get pretty congested on the bridge with so many tourists taking selfies, especially when the tour buses arrive. Continuing on the path, you walk through a large cave, climb several stairs, and end with a beautiful view of the valley below. The entire complex is pretty small and you can visit the whole thing in under an hour.
Tip: Watch out for parking scams. If you park right in front of the pagoda the locals may ask you to pay a small parking fee. You can avoid this by parking a little further away on the side of the road and walking the rest of the way.
Hours: 24 hours
3. Mua Caves (Hang múa)
Hang Mua has the most impressive 360-degree view of Tam Coc’s limestone mountains and valleys. Even though the hike only takes 15-20 minutes, the 500 steps to the top are surprisingly steep and exhausting. As suggested by the name, there’s a cave here at the bottom of the hike, but it’s not very impressive so most visitors skip it entirely and head straight up the mountain.
When climbing up the stairs, you’ll find that the path splits into two directions. This is because there are actually two viewpoints at Hang Mua, one with a single pagoda, and another larger viewpoint with a giant dragon statue carved into the rock. Unfortunately, you’ll have to go down many stairs and back up again to get to both viewpoints. Nevertheless, the views from both sides are worth it! Mua Caves is one of the most popular things to do in Ninh Binh, so get there early in the morning to avoid the crowds (and the sun)! Hang Mua is only 4km north of Tam Coc center, perfect for a lovely bike ride through the rice fields.
Tip: Parking is free by the ticket counter, however, several men pretending to be parking attendants may aggressively try to stop you and scam you into paying for parking so be careful!
Cost: 100,000 VND entry
4 - Trang An Boat Tour
This is one of the most beautiful and peaceful things to do in Ninh Binh in our opinion. Trang An is 6.6 km north of Tam Coc center (past Hang Mua). We were surprised by how well-run this operation is. After purchasing your ticket and walking through fancy turnstiles, you arrive at the boat dock where hundreds of boats are lined up. Each boat waits until it is filled with four passengers before departing. The boat ride lasts from 3 to 4 hours and you’ll see temples, caves and the Kong: Skull Island movie set. Impressively, the boats are all paddled by small Vietnamese women who somehow have the strength to do this all day.
There are a few more alternatives to the Trang An boat tour where you can experience a boat ride through the gorgeous Ninh Binh landscape. The most convenient is the Tam Coc boat ride, offered right in the middle of Tam Coc. Due to its prime location, it’s also the most crowded and touristic. However, this is where women paddle the boats with their feet, which is an impressive sight to behold. Another alternative is doing the boat ride at the Van Long Nature Reserve, which is 28km north of Tam Coc and as a result tends to be much calmer and free of tourists.
Cost: 200,000 VND per person
Hours: 7am-4pm (arrive as soon as they open to avoid the day-trippers)
5 - Bai Dinh Pagoda
Bai Dinh is a huge complex of Buddhist temples and is 16km north of Tam Coc center. Once you get to the entrance, it is still a very long walk to get to the temple area itself. For this reason, they offer electric cars that will take you from the entrance to the temples for a small fee. You could spend several hours here exploring the temples and taking in the impressive views.
Cost: free entry + 15k VND for scooter parking. 30k VND each way to hire an electric car to drop you off at the start of the route.
How Many Days Do You Need in Ninh Binh
Two days should be enough to see all the highlights, but we recommend 3 days to fully enjoy the atmosphere and see things at a slower pace. While many tourists come to Ninh Binh via day trips from Hanoi, we highly advise against doing this since the tours can be very crowded and rushed!
How to Get to Ninh Binh
Frequent trains from Hanoi take around 2.5 hours to get to Ninh Binh and cost $8 USD when booked online (and a few dollars cheaper to book in person at the station). On the other hand, buses take 1.5 to 3 hours to get to Ninh Binh and cost about the same. If you choose to take the bus however, you’ll be at the mercy of the insane Hanoi traffic, so it could take a lot longer than expected.
From the South (Phong Nha, Hue, & Beyond)
If you’re heading to Ninh Binh from the south, there are several overnight buses and trains that will take you there. We made the 12-hour trip from Hue via train as we were told it was the safer and more comfortable option. From Hue, the tickets cost $25 USD for a regular seat and up to $40 for a first-class sleeper seat. Alternatively, the bus takes around 14 hours and costs only $16 USD one way.
Wondering how much it really costs to travel to Vietnam? - See our Travel Budget for One Month in Vietnam
Where to Stay in Ninh Binh
There isn’t really anything to see in Ninh Binh city itself, so we recommend staying in Tam Coc instead. Tam Coc is 8km away from Ninh Binh city and is very central to all the activities listed above.
You can easily find a private double room in Tam Coc for $11-$18USD per night and that usually includes breakfast for two! We stayed at Tam Coc Happy Home and couldn’t recommend them more! However, so many of the budget accommodations here have amazing reviews (we’ve really never seen another neighborhood with so many stellar reviews) so there are ample options.
See all Hotels in Ninh Binh
Getting Around Ninh Binh
Since the scenery is so beautiful, we highly recommend using a scooter to explore these lands! The roads are very wide and flat, so scootering felt relatively safe here. Another great option is to rent a bicycle to visit the sites within Tam Coc itself, however other attractions in Van Long or even Trang An might be too far to reach by bicycle.
Most homestays in Tam Coc will rent scooters for around 100k VND/day (~$4.30 USD) and bicycles for half of that.