Slightly off the beaten track, Ninh Binh was a little gem during our trip around Vietnam. It’s a quiet town with friendly locals and a perfect little stop off between the bigger, busier cities. From here you can glide along the beautiful Tam Coc river caves, climb up the hill of pagodas and see more of authentic Vietnam.
How To Get There
Bus / The drive from Ha Noi is 2-3 hours depending on traffic and if you catch a tourist bus or coach, it’ll probably set you back $3-6 (depending on when you book and who with!). You can also grab a taxi or private car but, obviously, that’ll set you back quite a bit more (like 10 times more!)
If you’re stopping off at Ninh Binh on the way from Hue to Ha Noi, not many of the sleeper buses stop there unless you request it. The drive is about 12-14 hours depending on the traffic and how much of a maniac your bus driver is.
Train / Ninh Binh is on the Reunification Express, with trains coming from both North and South. From Hanoi to Ninh Binh, it takes just over 2 hours and will set you back around 100,000 VND ($4.50). The train doesn’t linger at the Ninh Binh station for very long so make sure you’re ready to jump off!
As Ninh Binh is quite a small town, there isn’t a great deal of choice when it comes to accommodation. While there isn’t a hostel, the hotels are pretty cheap so don’t be put of by the lack of places on Hostelworld! We stayed at the Can Dieu hotel on the other side of the train tracks and I would not recommend it. It was a large building but we were one of the only guests staying there. The room smelt strongly of damp, the bathroom was disgusting and I suspect that the bed had bedbugs. In the ‘centre’ of town, there are a few guesthouses and slightly further afield you’ll find alternative and probably better, accommodation.
How Long Should I Stay?
Whistlestop / You could easily cover the sights in and around Ninh Binh on a day trip.
Taking Your Sweet Time / 1-2 days is really the maximum you could stay here. We were here for a full day and an afternoon and it was more than enough time.
Things To Do
The majority of the things to do here are in the surrounding areas. The Tam Coc river, Bich Dong pagoda, the dancing caves – all are easily done in a day trip. I would recommend going to the Tam Coc river and grottoes first thing as there are less people on the river and less locals trying to sell you stuff on every corner. The trip takes about an hour each way and while your boat hand rows with his feet (it’s quite strange!), you can sit back and take in your beautiful surroundings. Early in the morning, it’s really peaceful gliding along the river as the sun rises – though it was a bit cloudy when we went as it was winter!
I’d also recommend wearing good shoes as there’s plenty of climbing/steps so flip flops or sandals wont cut it. At the Dancing Caves, there’s a lookout point and shrine at the top of ones of these islands but it’s 450 steps to reach it so walking boots or trainers are definitely needed! If you’re after a bit of adventure of the beaten path (literally), when you reach the top pagoda at Bich Dong, take the advice of the random sign and ‘Climb Up’ behind the building. It takes about 20 minutes and it is up a steep, rocky path but once you get to the top, the view is so worth it!
In the town, there’s a few things to see so take a walk around or even grab a bike and cycle around. We spent an afternoon doing this and got a glimpse at local life and got lots of friendly smiles and waves from people in the streets!
Eating and Drinking
Somewhere I would highly recommend is a family restaurant – Trung Tuyet. The food is cheap but high quality and the portions are large and filling. They also serve these amazing little biscuit curls before you eat that we didn’t come across anywhere before in Vietnam.
Another highlight of our trip to Ninh Binh was an evening we spent in a local’s beer garden. Located just around the corner from Trung Tuyet, the drinking hole was actually just a bunch of tables and chairs set up in a family’s garden. Really friendly atmosphere, we drank with locals, played cards and paid just 10,000 VND for a stein.
There are also lots of mini-marts and local stalls in the town to stock up on food and snacks for your day trips and bus journeys.
Tam Coc first thing in the morning is breath-taking. The river winds through rice paddy fields so you can quietly observe local farmers starting their day of work as the sun rises. It was beautifully peaceful and one of the highlights of our entire trip.