The Ninh Binh (pronounced Neeng Beeng) region is an area of Vietnam famous for it’s cascading limestone cliffs, with bright green rice fields winding in between the peaks. Often affectionately referred to as the “Halong Bay on land,” Ninh Binh is a very popular day trip from Hanoi. After seeing photos and hearing about the region from other travellers, I knew the region deserved more of my time than just a quick day trip. So, in the interest of my 2020 goal to travel slower and really immerse myself in local culture, we chose our home base in the middle of a Tam Coc rice field and began planning our 3 days in Ninh Binh itinerary.
planning to spend 3 days in ninh binh?
keep reading for all the details In this Ninh Binh itinerary...
but first, let's answer a couple important questions:
Where is ninh binh?
Ninh Binh is a city located roughly 1.5-2 hours south of Hanoi by car (depending on traffic, of course). In this article, you’ll hear me talk a lot about different spots in the “Ninh Binh region.” However, we didn’t actually spend any time in the city of Ninh Binh, itself. In fact, I’ve heard there isn’t much to see in the city from other travellers.
Most of our time in this region was spent in the towns of Tam Coc, Trang An, and in the rural rice fields and narrow roads zig-zagging throughout the area.
How to get from Hanoi to Ninh Binh? You can get to Ninh Binh by train, bus, or private car. Rome2rio is always a great resource to discover the different ways to get from one city to the next in Vietnam. We hired a private car to get from Hanoi to Ninh Binh and back because we were visiting during Tet (Chinese New Year) holiday, and transportation was limited during the holiday. However, this option was not cheap. We paid roughly 60-75 USD each way to get a private car from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, and back. Taking a train or bus would take a bit more time, but it would be significantly cheaper.
If you’re looking to book a group shuttle to Ninh Binh that can pick you up at your hotel instead of going from the Hanoi bus station, our hotel recommended this bus transfer company, Ninh Binh Excursion.
Coming from Hanoi? Check out my Hanoi City Guide.
Where to Stay in ninh Binh?
Ok, now that you know that you shouldn’t stay in Ninh Binh city, where should you stay?
Ninh Binh or Tam Coc? In my opinion, the best – and most popular spot – to stay in the Ninh Binh region is Tam Coc. Tam Coc is full of restaurants and shops, and is a short bike ride or motorbike ride away from all the main attractions you’ll want to see. In Tam Coc, you’ll find a few hotels lining the main street, but I would suggest wandering off the main strip and staying in a traditional bungalow.
There are many of these bungalow properties scattered all over the region, and they are designed to mimic traditional homes of this region. Plus, they are often located with stunning views of the rice fields. We particularly liked our stay at Tam Coc Wonderland Bungalow. The price was affordable (we paid around 40 USD per night) and included a wonderful breakfast, and hospitable hosts who went out of our way to make us feel so special. The location was perfect, right off the main street, and free bikes were included which we used to get to all the spots in this guide.
How to get Around Ninh Binh
One of our favourite things about Ninh Binh: Getting lost in the rice fields by bike.
The Ninh Binh region is very bike friendly, and many hotels offer bikes for free. Although, admittedly, the quality of bikes we came across seemed to vary in quality from mediocre to barely functional… but I guess that was part of the charm! Almost everywhere we went was easy to get to by bike. With that being said, there are some areas that are a bit difficult to get to by bike. We learned this lesson the hard way as we biked alongside a high traffic road while Viatnamese teenagers on motorbikes laughed at us. Therefore, in some cases, it might be safer or easier to take a motorbike, or hire a driver. More details on this in the itinerary below!
A note about bike parking in Ninh Binh: We were surprised when we were given our bikes at the hotel and there was no bike lock. However, we quickly realized that everywhere you go, locals have set up “bike parking” where you charge you a small amount (normally 10,000-20,000 VND or less than 1 USD to guard your bike). Many of these were not “official” in any way, but it was a small amount to pay to leave the bike and have someone keep an eye on it. So, make sure you have some small bills for bike parking when you are using a bike (this goes for motorbikes too).
The Itinerary: Things to Do in ninh Binh
1. visit bich dong pagoda
One of the best things to do in Ninh Binh for me was visiting Bich Dong Pagoda. This famous pagoda is tucked into the side of a cliff with the most beautiful limestone peaks in the background. This is a popular spot, so I would recommend getting there early before the day trip tour buses arrive from Hanoi. We rode our bikes here (about 20 minutes away) just before 8:00 am and had the entire place to ourselves.
This may be a popular spot to take photos, but make sure you also go through the pagoda. If you go up the 40+ stone stairs that line the cliff side, you’ll be welcomed to another temple built right into the side of the limestone cliff. You can walk inside, and walk through the cave (although, admittedly, it was dark and this freaked me out a bit so we didn’t spend too much time in there).
Keep in mind that this is a religious landmark – make sure you are covering your shoulders and knees when visiting.
Bich Dong Pagoda Price: Free! And then we paid 10,000 VND per bike to park.
Dress shown in photos was made at Bebe Tailor in Hoi An.
2. climb the 500 step staircase to mua caves ninh binh
Mua Caves Ninh Binh is easily the most popular attraction in the Ninh Binh area. The over 500 uneven stone steps lead you to the top of a limestone peak, with the most beautiful panoramic views of Ninh Binh. It is breathtaking.
With that being said, I must warn you – Mua Caves is BUSY. And TOURISTY.
If I am being 100% transparent (and you know I always am), it was one of the most annoyingly busy and commercialized travel spots I’ve ever come across (dare I say comparable to Santorini at sunset). And while I feel like this was mostly just bad luck, because it was during the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday week, a time when many Vietnamese families travel, it meant it was extra busy during the January off-season – even at 8:00 am.
Even though I was mildly annoyed as I elbowed my way to the top, the chaos did not take away from how spectacular the views were at the top. There was a reason why so many people were there. I get it. And despite the craziness, I would go again (maybe just not during Tet). My biggest Mua Cave tip is to go early. It opens for sunrise at 6:00 am, and my only regret is that we didn’t go then. However, if you aren’t a sunrise chaser, I have spoken to plenty of other travellers, and seen their photos at around 8:00 am and at sunset, and most people don’t seem to have the same experience as we did.
Mua Caves Price: Being a touristy attraction, the price of this is a bit expensive by Vietnam standards at 100,000 VND (or roughly 4.50 USD per person), plus 20,000 VND per bike to park.
3. go for a boat ride through the rice fields
Our Ninh Binh boat ride was one of my favourite experiences during our time in the region. There are two places to take a boat ride in Ninh Binh: Trang An and Tam Coc.
I have heard from many travellers that the Trang An Boat Tour is the better choice compared to the Tam Coc Boat Tour option. It is longer (3 hours total), a better value, goes through more caves, stops at temples and let’s you get off the boat to explore, and has more spectacular views. We intended to take this boat ride, however again because of the Tet holiday in Ninh Binh, it was so busy. In fact, we were told by another couple that they arrived at 8:00 am when it opened and they had already stopped accepting people in the queue because it was too long. When we rode our bikes by, the entire scene was chaos and so we decided to skip it. However, it is not like this all the time so don’t be deterred. But, given the circumstances, we opted for the Tam Coc Boat Tour, which was located right by our hotel in the centre of Tam Coc.
And you know what – I loved the Tam Coc Boat Tour! Maybe this is a case of “not knowing what I’m missing,” but I really liked the ride. The tour is intended to be about 2 hours… Unless you have a beast of a rower like us. She was rowing with her feet and passing everyone, so the journey took about 1.5 hours. And truthfully, I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any longer because our butts got pretty darn sore sitting on the hard wooden benches.
We rowed through the bright green rice fields, where we saw locals tending to their fields. We went through caves, and took in the surreal views. It is simply put – BEAUTIFUL.
Tam Coc Boat Tour Price: We paid 360,000 VND total for the whole boat ride (about 15 USD).
A note about scams: I have heard stories of the rowers stopping mid-way through the journey, and demanding more money in order to keep rowing. However, this was not the case for us and I did not see anyone else doing this to other tourists (our guide was friendly and told us stories about the region). With that being said, also keep in mind that 15 USD is a very little amount of money for two hours of hard labor (especially when only a portion of that goes to the actual rower). So be kind and, if you’re able to, don’t forget to tip. There are so many rowers looking to work. This means that in many cases rowers will only get to take one journey every few days. And a little bit goes a long way.
4. go for a bike ride - with no plans
My absolute favourite memories from Ninh Binh were biking around, aimlessly, with no plans (we spent at least two full afternoons doing this). We drove through the rice fields with no final destination and no plans… and without any other tourists in sight. This is when we were able to experience the REAL Ninh Binh. I witnessed some of the most spectacular views I have ever seen in my life. And my eyes were opened to why this region is so darn special.
Some things to keep an eye out for in the rice fields that are likely to result in some pretty surreal memories:
- When biking you’re likely to come across the water buffalo that call these fields their home. In one case we passed by a group with a small baby, and it was making a noise that sounded just like a crying human baby. It was so cool to see.
- You will likely also come across goats (I’ve heard that sometimes there are goats at Mua Caves, and can be aggressive so keep your distance). In one case we witnessed a local woman herding the goats alongside the road by throwing small pebbles at them. Also, while on the topic of roadside animals, it’s not unusual for goats or water buffalo to run into the street, so keep your eyes open while you’re biking and remember to respect them and their home.
- Follow the dirt or gravel roads that lead to seemingly nowhere – you’ll never know what you might find. In one case, we stumbled upon a beautiful small lake, surrounded by limestone cliffs. There was a local family sitting along the shore with their wooden boat, singing karaoke and celebrating the new year. They called us over and insisted we go for a solo ride in their boat – and wouldn’t take any money when we offered. This is why I love to wander without a plan – because sometimes you happen along these little perfect moments. Moments that remind me of EXACTLY WHY I TRAVEL. These are the moments that are packaged into memories in my mind that I will never, ever forget.
- Make sure to say “hello” to the local children! They love to say hi, and will often put their hand out to give you a “high five” as you ride by.
- If you find a cool middle-of-nowhere restaurant, stop in and have a beer with a view
Want to know where to bike in the rice fields?
i've mapped a few of my favourite spots on the map at the end of this post.
5. visit the hoa lu ancient capital
Located about 10 kilometres north of Tam Coc, you’ll find the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, an ancient former imperial capital that is positioned through some of the most beautiful limestone landscapes. It was previously the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries. Here, you can visit the ancient temples that are scattered throughout the rice fields and picture what life used to look like in this historical spot. I would absolutely recommend taking a couple hours to visit.
Hoa Lu Ancient Capital Price: 20,000 VND (or less than 1 USD) per person.
A note on how to get to Hoa Lu Ancient Capital: When we put Hoa Lu into Google Maps, we (naively) made the decision to bike there, as it was only 15 kilometres away from Tam Coc. Well we were, as a I said, very naive. The first half of the ride was a piece of cake – through rice fields, alongside quiet roads… Until we approached Trang An where we merged onto a higher speed, heavily trafficked BUSY road. Again, we naively thought this wouldn’t last long and kept pedaling while motor bikes zoomed past us. Spoiler Alert: It was this busy all the way to Hoa Lu. By the time we realized what was happening, we decided that we had already gone too far to turn around. But I wouldn’t recommend this biking route if you have a choice. We were wishing we had just hopped on a scooter instead.
But, there was a silver lining in all of this madness. By venturing by bike instead of hiring a driver, we were able to stumble across so many cool places along the way. My favourite, the Động chùa Bàn Long Buddist Temple Pagoda, a beautiful pastel coloured temple built into the side of a limestone cliff. We saw it in the distance and drove up. There wasn’t anyone in sight except for a older Vietnamese gentleman who kept trying to speak to me in French. While I could understand what he was saying, in the moment of panic, the only thing that came to mind from my high school French classes was “je parle un tout petit peu de français” (I speak a little bit of French). And then quickly said “merci, au revoir.”
Another one of these spots was this impressive stick bridge and wheel. I have been searching high and low for the exact coordinates and can’t find them. But, if you ride alongside the road from Trang An to Hoa Lu, it will be impossible to miss on the left side of the road (on the way to Hoa Lu).
other things to do in 3 days in ninh binh
We had a few other things we wanted to do in Ninh Binh, but we were at the end of our trip and were moving a bit slow. Plus, the crowds at some of these attractions were really crazy because we were visiting Ninh Binh during the Tet holiday. Here’s a list of a few other things we really wish we would have done:
Bai Dinh Pagoda: The biggest Buddhist temple in Vietnam is high on the list for many visitors to Ninh Binh. We planned on going, but after hearing about the Lunar New Year crowds we opted to skip it.
Phat Diem Cathedral: This massive Catholic church is completely made of stone and mixed both Asian and European influences. I really regret not making our way to this spot, because I have heard it is beautiful.
Cuc Phuong National Park: I’ve heard amazing things about this national park, filled with beautiful greenery and – if you’re lucky – some really cool wildlife.