Ninh Binh – the hidden gem of Vietnam is actually bound to become more and more popular as it has made Booking.com’s list of Top 10 trending destinations for travelers in 2020. The spectacular natural scenery gives you enough to explore for days on end but it’s actually not Ninh Binh itself that brings in all the visitors. In fact, all the attractions in the region are located in the nearby picturesque village of Tam Coc (7km away from Ninh Binh) which instantly wins you with its endless rice paddies, mystical limestone mountains and tranquil atmosphere.
We arrived in Tam Coc in the evening after a short but stuffy minibus ride from Hanoi and at first were unsure what to expect when we were dropped at this small and quiet town. Peaceful and silent, other than the two open top buses which had been converted into lively bars, this place felt a world away from the chaos of the capital. Our homestay was a short walk away, down a small road in the dark almost unnoticeable if you weren’t looking for it. With the moonlight reflecting off the flooded rice paddies surrounding the path and the giant shark-tooth shaped mountains in the distance, Tam Coc’s atmosphere couldn’t feel any more mystical.
HOW MANY DAYS TO SPEND IN TAM COC?
I’ve seen travel guides suggesting a day trip to the area, but in my opinion this is nowhere near enough. Two or three days will give you just enough time to see and do everything in the region if you’re using your time efficiently. However, we stayed for nine days as we fell in love with the laid-back attitude of the locals and the spectacular scenery, which made it a really nice place to relax before moving on to more intense travelling. Trust me, if you give yourself enough time to relax in Ninh Binh it is very possible that it will turn out to be the highlight of your Vietnam trip.
WHERE TO STAY IN TAM COC
Stay in Tam Coc instead of Ninh Binh center for a fully cultural experience and closer proximity to the natural wonders the province offers. There are other small towns in Ninh Binh province such as Trang An, however, Tam Coc offers better balance between scenery and shop and dining options. For budget accommodation we recommend this friendly homestay a few minutes’ walk from the main street, offering comfortable accommodation and delicious breakfast. If you are willing to stretch your budget, there are some beautiful resorts in the vicinity such as this one https://www.booking.com/hotel/vn/tam-coc-garden.en-gb.html and this one https://www.booking.com/hotel/vn/emeralda-ninh-binh-resort-and-spa.en-gb.html which is a little bit further away but is absolutely stunning.
TOP TIPS FOR TAM COC, NINH BINH
- Bring a good insect repellent with high concentration of Deet! We bought this one from a local shop and it worked wonders. That’s needed in general for the whole of Vietnam but the mosquito situation in Tam Coc is definitely on another level.
- Rent a bicycle – although it would be easier to get around on a motorbike, if you’re not rushed for time opt out to hiring a bicycle as it will allow you to take in more of the views which you might miss if driving a motorbike
- If you’re staying in a hostel/homestay it’s most likely that the place won’t have a washing machine and will wash everything by hand, with most places charging 50,000 VND/kg which is more than the average of 30,000 VND/kg in other towns. So unless it’s urgent, wait until you get to your next destination to do your washing.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN TAM COC, NINH BINH
1) Hang Mua Caves
Arguably the best place in Ninh Binh province, the Hang Mua Caves should be on top of your travel itinerary. The views are incomparable, leaving you with a sense of divinity and appreciation of the beauty surrounding you. I would highly recommend sparing a couple of hours to fully enjoy the scenery and take advantage of all the insta-worthy picture spots. Don’t be put off by the infamous 500 steps to the top, prepare some sturdy shoes and you’ll be good to go. Climb up the first peak to take in the fascinating view and then carry on to the Dragon Peak which offers magnificent views of the rice paddies and river on the other side of the hill. If you have come here for the sunset, it might as well be one of the most mesmerizing sunsets you’ll experience in Vietnam.
Best time to visit Hang Mua
- If you want to watch the sunset from the top of the dragon, check what time the sunset is on that day and get there at least two hours before that so you have enough time to explore the complex beforehand. Keep in mind it is a very popular spot with tourists especially for sunset and you might have to queue up and be patient if you want to get some good shots.
- Your second option is to get there early in the morning before it gets too busy and enjoy the place to yourself. It’s worth doing this if you’re not a fan of crowds.
- You could book a night at the Mua Caves Ecolodge located inside the complex which offers tremendous views and would mean that you can go up the peaks at your convenience (possibly both in the morning and at sunset).
Opening hours: 06:00 – 19:00
Cost: 100,000 VND
Parking fee: 10, 000 VND
Time: 2 hours
Tip: Bring your insect repellent and some sturdy shoes for walking up the stairs
2) Bai Dinh
Bai Dinh is 31km away from Tam Coc and it’s South East Asia’s biggest Buddhist complex, covering 539 hectares. An absolute must visit in the area, the complex is one of the most spiritual places we’ve ever been to.
You can comfortably spend at least 2-3 hours exploring, immersing yourself in the cultural and spiritual atmosphere of the place. Taking the pedestrian route instead of a cart allows you to go at your own pace and explore the two large pagodas, the four temples and the hundreds of white alabaster statues of Buddha along the 500 stairs leading up to the temples. However, what truly amazed us was the sheer amount of small golden Buddha statues resting in small niches on the walls which seemed to number in their thousands.
The Light and the Dark Cave
Apart from the temples, climbing some 300 stairs up the side of the mountain takes you to the Light and the Dark caves, which are carved into the side of the mountains filled with a rich cloud of fresh incense inviting you inside to explore. You can feel a delightfully unsettling sensation as you wonder what the caves have to offer just to find the giant dragon statue lurking over a pool water as though it’s a guardian of some ancient Buddhist secrets. The authenticity and sacredness of these two cave temples are something you can’t find in many places.
Bai Dinh Sunset Point
At the summit of the mountain there is an incredible sunset spot overlooking the complex and the cratered landscape intertwined with giant lakes and waterways in the distance. However, if you are planning to visit the spot make sure you have enough time to come down and go back to the entrance before it gets fully dark as the route back to the car park can get a bit daunting.
Bai Dinh opening hours: 07:00 to 18:00
Entrance fee: Free
Parking fee: 5 000 VND for a bicycle and 10 000 VND for a bike
Time: 3-4 hours
Tip: Don’t forget your insect repellent especially if you are visiting in the late afternoon.
3) Trang An Boat Tour
The Trang An Eco-Tourism Complex is a UNESCO Heritage site and a must visit while in Ninh Binh. Its reputation as ‘Halong Bay on land’ is not far from the truth, offering one of the most picturesque views in Vietnam. The surrounding landscape of karst mountains surrounded by the crystal-clear river waters and with small temples scattered on little islands along the way, it truly makes you fall in love with its natural beauty and its cultural heritage.
There are three possible routes you can take, each lasting approximately 3 hours and taking you through different parts of the complex. We took route 3 as it was recommended to us and saying it was absolutely mesmerizing would be an understatement. Apart from exploring the different temples alongside the river, it includes passing through three caves, one of which is 1km long and perfect for cave lovers. I wouldn’t suggest it if you’re claustrophobic as the height of the cave itself is quite low and might be a bit too much for some unless you’re feeling brave. However, the formations inside are fascinating and being so close to them makes it a breath-taking experience.
Opening hours: 09:00 – 16:00
Time: 3 hours
Price: 200,000 VND for an adult 150,000 VND for a child
Best time for Trang An tour: early morning will be least busy but you can comfortably do the tour during the day as well
Tip: Bring a hat, sunscreen and some snacks to enjoy on the tour
4) Bich Dong Pagoda
Bich Dong Pagoda is another highlight in the area, carved into the side of a cliff. The beautiful ancient gate at the entrance is surrounded by a pond filled with water lilies, making a great (and very popular) place for some nice pictures. Although the gate entrance is the definitely the highlight, continue up the stairs to the ancient temple located into a dark cave and then walk further up another set of stair to gorgeous viewpoint offering a splendid view of the area.
Opening hours: 09:00 – 18:00
Entrance fee: Free
Parking fee: You’ll be asked to pay more but the regular price should be 10,000 VND
Time: 30 minutes
5) Tam Coc Boat Tour
Tam Coc boat tour leaves from Tam Coc pier which is located at the center of the town. The tour is meant to offer some splendid views of the surrounding rice fields and the towering karst mountains, as well as going through three large caves. However, the view you get depends on what time of the year you are visiting. We decided not to take this boat tour as the rice paddies were flooded when we visited in November so the colors weren’t as beautiful as you would see on pictures. The best time to do enjoy this tour is either between January to February, or at the end of May to early July as that’s when the rice fields take their beautiful colors.
Opening hours: 08:00 – 18:00
Entrance fee: 120,000 VND per person and 150,000 VND per boat (only two people per boat)
Parking fee: 10,000 VND
Time: 1.5 – 2 hours
Tip: We also heard about some cases of the rowers or sellers in nearby boats insisting on buying something from them or tipping them. Try to avoid getting a boat which has a box at the back as that would mean that the rower will try to sell you something. The Trang An boat tour was better in this sense as you are not nagged to buy anything during the trip but are free to leave your hardworking rower a tip at your discretion.
6) Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
The ancient Dinh Dynasty capital is one of the not so popular attractions in the region and can be skipped if you are staying in Ninh Binh for a short period of time. Very little of it has survived, including the main temple and the grandeur gates at the entrance and exit, but not much more. If your budget allows it I’d recommend getting a guide who can explain its history to you as otherwise the place doesn’t seem so spectacular in comparison to the rest in the area.
There is a ticket office selling entry tickets for 20,000 VND but we are not sure they are actually needed as we saw plenty of people just walking through the gates without a ticket. You will see a lot of people waving at you way before the entrance when you’re driving / cycling but keep going until you reach the gate and leave your bike at one of the car parks in front of it.
Opening hours: 07.00 – 16:00
Entrance fee: 20 000 VND
Parking fee: Free if you buy a drink when you’re leaving
Time: 30 minutes