Ninh Binh province is located in northern Vietnam, about 100km south of Hanoi. With its hundreds of limestone cliffs emerging from the ground scattered across the rice fields, this region is appropriately nicknamed the “Halong Bay in land”.
Apart from this stunning scenery, Ninh Binh is a great opportunity to peek into the rural way of living. It’s all very laid-back and serene, just how the Vietnam experience should be.
1. Boat ride in TRANG AN
Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, registered as a natural and cultural asset. It consists of a spectacular limestone karst landscape, with the historical city of Hoa Lu and rice fields. Trang An Landscape Complex is one of the most visited places in northern Vietnam. There are 48 caves located in Trang An and it’s a well-known place for diverse ecosystems.
Rowboats bob along the Sao Khe River through limestone caves. It's a relaxing trip, but many caves have also been enlarged to accommodate boats. Boat trips (200,000d per person) take two hours, and there are two possible routes, both visiting caves and temples. Bring a hat and sunscreen as the boats lack shade. Trang An is 7km away from Ninh Binh and about 11km from Tam Coc. You'll pass it on the way to the Chua Bai Dinh.
2. Boat ride in TAM COC and cycling
Take a 2 hour boat ride in Tam Coc, on the way down the Ngo Dong river, you will pass three caves, the first cave Hang Ca measures 127m, second Hang Giua 70m and third Hang Cuoi 40m.
There are also floating shops on boats, where local people offer a variety of drinks and food.
The area around the river is suitable for cycling or walking. Rent a bike and ride here in the lowlands – between the hills and the paddy fields this is a magnificent landscape.
3. Temples and Pagodas
Scattered across the rice fields, enclosed in mountains on sitting on top of them, there is no shortage of temples in Ninh Binh.
Perhaps the most dramatic is Hang Mua. Sitting on top of hill 500 steps above ground, this temple is both a challenge and a delight. While the temple is somewhat unimpressive, the views over Tam Coc are stunning. The climb is paved but steep in sections, so bring water and allow an hour return. Mua Cave is 5km from Ninh Binh and is a popular stop on Tam Coc tours.
If you’re looking for something less challenging, but equally impressive, the recently built Bai Dinh Pagoda is a good option. Bai Dinh Pagoda is a bombastic Buddhist complex, built on a vast scale, that rises up a hillside near Ninh Binh. Construction was completed in 2014, and it's now a huge attraction for Vietnamese tourists. The entrance leads to cloistered walkways past 500 stone arhats (enlightened Buddhists) lining the route to the main triple-roofed Phap Chu Pagoda. This contains a 10m, 100-tonne bronze Buddha, flanked by two more gilded Buddha figures.
Steps behind lead to a viewpoint, a 13-storey pagoda and a giant Buddha. The compound's central area features more temples, including one showcasing a 36-tonne bell, the largest in Vietnam. Most structures use natural materials, and the complex's impressive bronzework, lacquerwork and stone-carving was crafted by local artisans. Bai Dinh Pagoda is 11km northwest of Ninh Binh, and attracts many Vietnamese visitors.
Bích Động Pagoda is a set of 3 temples carved into a limestone mountain next to Tam Coc. Despite the fact it has been heavily destroyed, the ancient city of Hoa Lu, the former capital of Vietnam during the Dinh and the Le dynasties (1st century), is also worth a visit.
Entrance fees of temples in Ninh Binh:
Hang Mua: 100,000 dong/ person.
Bai Dinh Pagoda: free if you walk; 50,000 dong if you opt to get around with the electric car.
Bích Động Pagoda: free entrance.
4. Van Long Nature Reserve – a place of wetlands and cultural heritage
Van Long Nature Reserve is located about 20km from the town of Ninh Binh. It’s a place like Tam Coc, where you can ride a boat (90 minutes, maximum two people per boat) in a beautiful hilly area. This nature reserve is a bit less visited than Tam Coc. Van Long has about 30 caves and one of the prettiest is Ca, a 250 meters long cave on the Hoang Quyen mountain. In winter this is the home of migratory birds, flying in from the cold north.
5. Cuc Phuong National Park
Approximately 30km west of Ninh Binh is the oldest national park of Vietnam – Cuc Phuong. The place is known for its Botanical Garden and the Endangered Primates Rescue Centre, which has around 150 primates from all over Vietnam. It’s a great place for biking, hiking and observe a wild range of animals, from birds to an amazing variety of colorful butterflies (from April to June).
Admission to the park is 20,000 dong. The official website of Cuc Phuong national park – Cucphuongtourism.com.
6. Thung Nham Bird Garden
Tucked away in the mountains, this natural park is basically where most of the birds of the region make their nest. If you visit during early morning or late afternoon, you’ll see the trees absolutely PACKED with all types of birds. It’s a true sight and a wonder of nature.The park also has several caves and hiking trails and is perfect for take a bit of fresh air and go on a relaxing walk. It’s just 5km from Tam Coc center.
Admission to the park is 100,000 dong and 20,000 dong for boat trip.
7. Phat Diem Cathedral
The cathedral’s wooden interior boasts a vaulted ceiling supported by massive columns. Above the granite altar Vietnamese-looking cherubs swarm, while Chinese-style clouds drift across the blue ceiling. Beneath are icons of the martyrs slaughtered by Emperor Tu Duc during the anti-Catholic purges in the 1850s. Opposite the cathedral’s main doors is the free-standing bell tower, and stone slabs are where mandarins used to observe the Catholic Mass. Between the tower and the cathedral is the tomb of the Vietnamese founder, Father Six.
Many Vietnamese tourists visit, few of them Catholic, but many curious about Christianity. Mass is celebrated daily at 5am and 5pm, when the massive bell is rung.