The spectacular karst mountains near Ninh Binh are sometimes called the ‘Ha Long Bay on land’. While not at sea, these limestone peaks are set amid bright green rice fields, beautiful wetlands, and many ancient temples.
It is well worth making a stop — ideally for a couple of nights!
Most guides to Ninh Binh (or the town of Tam Coc) seem to mention the same tips, often based on a one-day stay. I stayed in Ninh Binh for 4 days, letting me get a more complete picture. I’ll give you a few tips you won’t find anywhere else.
While the scenery of Ha Long Bay may be more impressive in an objective sense, I enjoyed exploring the Ninh Binh area a lot more.
There’s so much to see and since you’re not on a cruise, you can have much more control over the experience. If you rent a motorbike or bicycle, you will be free to explore the area as you please.
It’s a delightful place and among my favourites in Vietnam!
Why Tam Coc is overrated
Most guides will tell you that the city of Ninh Binh is ugly and that you should stay in the town of Tam Coc.
It’s true: Ninh Binh itself is an unappealing city with lots of motorways, business hotels, factories, and electricity pylons running right through it. I can’t imagine any tourist wanting to be there except to catch the next bus or train.
So when we talk about Ninh Binh, what we actually mean is the national park that’s several kilometres to the west of it.
The town of Tam Coc (about 5km west of Ninh Binh) has become the go-to place to stay. There you’ll find many guesthouses, hostels, souvenir shops, and tourist restaurants serving Western food. Since Tam Coc is also where one of the popular (but not necessarily best) boat tours depart, it can make for a convenient base.
But to tell the truth, Tam Coc is not very special.
It’s just your typical backpacker or tourist street. If you’ve travelled in Southeast Asia, you’ll have seen many places just like it. Tam Coc is also where most day-trippers go, so at certain hours it’s filled with tour buses.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret: the better move is to stay in Trang An!
Trang An is a 20-minute ride north of Tam Coc. It’s more spread out and in the middle of nature, nestled among the limestone pinnacles.
You’ll be waking up every day surrounded by the mist-shrouded peaks. From time to time, you can hear distant the calls of tropical birds. And at night, along the quiet paths, you’ll see fireflies pulsating in the dark.
If you don’t mind being somewhere slightly further away, then Trang An is easily the best place to stay in Ninh Binh.
Staying in Trang An
One drawback of Trang An is that it’s more in the countryside and things are not as clustered together, so ideally you should have a motorbike or bicycle to get around. Most of the guesthouses have ones that you can borrow or cheaply rent.
It’s also a bit more difficult to — brace yourself — find pizzas or espressos in Trang An. The vibe is just a lot more Vietnamese. But should you have already gotten sick of pho noodles, you can still get Western food at the Mona Lisa Restaurant. It was opened in 2019 by the brother of the owner of Chookie’s Beer Garden, a popular haunt in Tam Coc.
Then again, access to pizza should not be as important as being in a gorgeous location!
Most of the guesthouses, hostels, and small eco-resorts in Trang An are near the river. A small cluster of them sits right on the riverside opposite some cute bamboo docks with deck chairs and fairy lights — and possibly the best sunset views in Ninh Binh.
I strongly recommend checking out these accommodation options, which are all in the same magical location:
- Hualu Ecolodge
- Trang An River View Homestay
- Trang An Central Homestay
- Linh Eco Homestay
- Independence Bamboo Homestay
Trust me, you won’t regret staying in this area. Another advantage is that you are close to the Trang An grottoes tour, which most travellers rate more highly than the one in Tam Coc.
Tip: the way locals pronounce Trang An sounds more like ‘Chang Ang’. This is quite useful to know when asking for directions.
How long to stay in Ninh Binh
Doing Tam Coc as a day trip from Hanoi seems like a bad idea to me. It takes 3 hours to get there and 3 to get back, leaving not much time to enjoy the place.
It’s better to stay at least one night. That way, instead of backtracking all the way to Hanoi, you can also travel onward from Ninh Binh (at least if you’re heading south).
For the best experience, I recommend at least two full days. There are tons of attractions in Ninh Binh and the area is really nice.
If you’re a long-term traveller or backpacker with some days to spare, you could spend 3 or 4 days and truly see it all.
If you stay just 1 night: then I think the best place to stay is Tam Coc. Its central location makes it easy to see some things quickly and then be on your way again.
If you stay more nights: then I suggest the best place is Trang An. You’ll have time to relax and enjoy the more natural surroundings.
Two must-see sights
There are two things to do in Ninh Binh that I strongly suggest putting at the top of your list. You can cover these in about half a day.
Trang An boat tour
The Trang An boat tour will take you down rivers and lakes surrounded by dramatic karst mountains. Along the way, your paddle boat will pass through river caves and stop by several ancient Buddhist temples. The oarsmen and women use a peculiar rowing technique, alternatingly using their arms and their legs.
If you do just one thing in Ninh Binh, I suggest you do this!
The tour takes about 3 hours and will take you to the heart of the UNESCO protected Trang An Landscape Complex. Unlike the boat tour in Tam Coc, this one does not have a reputation for hawking and scammy behaviour from the rowers. (Be sure to tip them at the end.)
I didn’t feel so inspired at first by the big crowds I saw at the docks, but the Trang An tour was much better than I expected.
The tour can be much less crowded than these images might suggest.
Be sure to take Route 1. This route is a bit longer and most tour groups do the shorter Route 2 or Route 3. After about 20 minutes they go off into a whole other area, never to be seen again. While route 1 doesn’t pass by a location featured in the film Kong: Skull Island (if this matters to you), you’ll see a lot of inspiring scenery and beautiful temples in relative peace.
I suggest taking the tour in the early morning or (as I did) around 2.30pm. You’ll avoid the big crowds and will end the tour just before sunset.
Mua Cave viewpoint
The next best thing to do in Ninh Binh is to head to the Mua Cave. Not so much for the cave, but for its viewpoint up above.
You’ll ascend 500 steps to a mountain peak from where you can see all of the scenery below. The valley just down from the Mua Cave viewpoint is the start of the Tam Coc boat ride, so if you don’t do the boat tour you can still see some of it from above.
Atop the mountain is a fantastic dragon sculpture. You can climb around it and find a private spot from where to enjoy the views. Be warned though: the rocks are all sharper than a dragon’s tooth and there are no railings to stop you from falling.
The Mua Cave viewpoint is the place to take an epic selfie or drone shot. I saw many Vietnamese and Chinese women in flowery dresses spending copious amounts of time trying to get the perfect photo. Not to be outdone, a group of French girls was also there in heavy makeup and model outfits trying to make the most of this photo opportunity.
It’s not my thing but if you want to look hot on a mountaintop, this is where you want to be. For those of us just coming for the views, it’s also completely worth the 20-minute trek.
Other amazing things to do
Let me tell you about a few more things to do in Ninh Binh and Tam Coc that are awesome for a longer stay, or if you prefer sights that are a bit less known or crowded.
There is a ton to see in Ninh Binh and even on a 4-day stay, I didn’t manage to see it all. I focused on the sights that were closest by and so I didn’t make it to the Cuc Phuong National Park (which is a two hour’s drive) nor the Phát Diệm Cathedral (only one hour, but too far away from everything else).
Van Long Nature Reserve
This was a surprise highlight on my stay in Ninh Binh. Just as with the other tours in the area it involves getting on a paddle boat, but Van Long is much more peaceful and less developed.
You’re also a lot more likely to see some wildlife at Van Long, as it’s a known spot for black-faced spoonbills, Asian openbills, and kingfishers, among many others. Mind you, there’s no need to be a hardcore ‘birder’ to appreciate these wetlands; the pretty landscapes and peaceful nature are worth it in itself. Try to aim for early morning or end of day for the best light and the most wildlife activity.
Van Long is also one of the few habitats of the endangered Delacour’s langur primates. I wasn’t lucky enough to see them, but I could hear calling from behind the mountains.
Galaxy Grotto (Thien Ha Cave)
I discovered the Galaxy Grotto by chance while driving along the rice fields around Tam Coc. It’s really cool and I don’t think any other blogs have mentioned it! Since it’s not well known, let me link to its exact location.
There is a paddle boat tour here leading you to three caves. The scenery is not in the same league as the Tam Coc or Trang An boat tours, but the cool thing about the Galaxy Cave is that it’s largely unknown and so you might just be the only one there to explore it.
Unlike the other boat tours, this one is managed locally by some of the farmers living near the caves as part of a small cooperative. I highly recommend it if you’d like a peaceful off-the-beaten-track attraction.
The first river cave is beautifully lit with coloured lights, the second you can explore by foot, and the third one is a river cave that’s kept completely dark and in a natural state. When I visited I was the only person there, apart from a Vietnamese TV crew shooting a documentary. The locals running the boat trips were delightful, in stark contrast to the extremely pushy people running the Tam Coc tours.
Bich Dong Pagoda
This cute pagoda in Tam Coc is an easy thing to tick off the list. You can see it on the way to the Thang Nham Bird Garden or other sights around the area.
A small stone footbridge takes you across a lake. Then, a short flight of stairs takes you to a shrine, which is partly built into a cliff face. It’s a lovely spot to explore for a while!
Bai Dinh Pagoda
Opinions on this pagoda will probably be divided; I think it may not be everyone’s top priority, but I personally found it a very interesting place to see.
I knew nothing about Bai Dinh beforehand, only finding a large pagoda indicated on Maps.me. I soon saw a huge tower in the distance, looming over the area. Then I drove past endless walls, making me wonder just how to access this apparently enormous complex.
It turned out this is actually Vietnam’s largest pagoda and a huge destination for Asian tourists.
Almost all of Bai Dinh is newly built, so don’t go there expecting any historical significance. The tourist train that takes you into the complex can also make it feel a bit like a theme park at first.
But the buildings are mightily impressive, and it’s interesting to see from a contemporary cultural perspective. Hundreds of statues line all the corridors, and their hands and knees are all perfectly polished from all the people touching them to pray. And the golden shrines are epic even if they’re not exactly ancient.
Some Western tourists craving historical authenticity may not be into Bai Dinh so much, but I thought it was a very cool site to wander for at least an hour or so. It’s easy to combine with a visit to the Trang An boat tour or the Van Long nature reserve.
Eat some goat
The Ninh Binh region is famous for its goat meat. On some roads outside of town, you might even see vendors selling whole goats roasted (yes, this does look a little sad).
But with so many mountains around there is plenty of space for goats to roam and graze on wild grass. Many of the restaurants have at least one goat dish on the menu — and several specialize in just serving a variety of goat dishes. It’s a great chance to try a local speciality.
Hoa Lu ancient capital
I think this historical site is only mildly interesting unless you are a huge history buff. It was the capital of Vietnam during the 10th and 11th centuries, but not much of the old citadel remains intact.
It seems more like a place for Vietnamese school groups to visit on an educational trip, though I can imagine Hua Lu being a lot more interesting if shown by an expert guide.
One uninformed listicle on a content farm site (cough, it was the Culture Trip) suggested you should spend an entire day here, but the site surely warrants at most an hour or so.
Still, its location amid the limestone mountains is pretty and the site makes for a lovely stroll even if much of the citadel is in ruins. I must also concede that Hua Lu was home to the most fabulous cow I’ve ever met.
If you’re going to Trang An or Van Long, you can easily check out this ancient capital on the way.
Thung Nham Bird Garden
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what this place was all about. It’s a bit hidden, reached by one road that goes into the national park. You then enter a park with rivers and small lakes, which feels like it’s partly wild nature and partly a landscaped park.
But then it turns out a joy to walk riverside bamboo bridges and walkways, exploring the caves, and finally discovering the viewing platform at the furthest edge of the park. From there, you can watch an epic nesting area where thousands of white birds flock, especially in the morning and late afternoon.
What’s most surprising about Thung Nham Bird Garden is how quiet it is. Despite being only a 10-minute motorbike ride from Tam Coc, it’s clearly not on the usual tourist trail. While there are boat rides through the park, in this case, I think it’s nicer to do things by foot. (There are paths to all parts of the park.)
Travel tips for Ninh Binh
Yes, there are ATMs! In Tam Coc, you can find an ATM in front of the Ninh Binh Hidden Charm Hotel. In Trang An, there is an ATM at the boat dock. Neither is quite at arm’s length though so it’s good to have cash with you already.
Getting from Ninh Binh to Tam Coc
When arriving in Ninh Binh by bus or train, you’ll need to grab a taxi to Tam Coc or Trang An. Don’t worry about this too much. There are lots of taxis in Ninh Binh and the ride should cost no more than 100,000 dong. I jumped on the back of a scooter (which was already waiting at my bus stop) and got there for 50k.
Ninh Binh is best explored by bicycle or, better yet, a scooter. That way you’re not dependent on tours or taxis. A scooter doesn’t need to cost more than 100,000 dong per day.
Most sights have guarded parking areas. The going rate is 5,000 dong, which is around $0.20. You’re technically not obligated to use them, but locals will kick up a fuss if you don’t. It seems to me like a fair way for them to earn a small income, so refusing to pay (as some backpackers apparently do) seems like a strange hill to die on. Don’t get tricked into paying any more than 10,000 dong though.
Roads in Ninh Binh
The roads around Tam Coc and Trang An are rural, flat, and easy to ride. If you’re driving further afield though, apps like Google Maps will probably suggest taking the big motorways. Avoid them since they’re a real headache! Pick some random scenic roads through the rice fields instead.
Avoiding touts & hassle
The area is mostly hassle-free, though one thing to keep in mind is that the Tam Coc boat tour is a known tourist trap. The boat people will pressure you to pay them more money or use tricks, like suggesting you buy products from them from a nearby seller (who they sell the product back to later). If you don’t like dealing with hustlers and touts, either be very firm or go with the Trang An boat tour instead.
By the way, some blogs from a few years ago describe Ninh Binh as a hidden gem that’s almost entirely devoid of tourists, but I think this might set unreasonable expectations. While Ninh Binh hasn’t traditionally featured in the standard Vietnam itineraries, it’s clearly become more known in recent years.
It is still much less discovered than many other sites in Vietnam though, especially Ha Long Bay. I much enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and would rate it as one of the top places to visit in Vietnam.
If you’re deciding where to go then you may feel you’ve got your hands full already with the likes of Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay and Hoi An, but it’s still highly worth adding Ninh Binh, if you can spare at least a day or two.