Ninh Binh is one of those places you’ve probably never heard of until you started planning your trip to Vietnam. As they say, better late than never. Luckily you’ve found it before setting off for the airport.
This is the polar opposite of Hanoi. Quiet, serene, enveloped by nature. If Hanoi is like taking five shots of espresso (of more unsavory drugs I won’t write about here), then Ninh Binh is morphine. Stress alleviates from your body as your heart settles into a simple rhythm.
Like most rural places, three days in Ninh Binh can feel like a week. Time just moves slower here. Nonetheless, you’ll be surprised when it’s time to leave.
Where is Ninh Binh?
Ninh Binh is just a couple of hours south of Hanoi by train. The internet claims that driving or a bus will get you there in about an hour. But I’m skeptical of that claim after seeing the traffic alongside the rails on our way out of town.
Even if the train is an hour longer, I don’t mind. After you finally pull out of Hanoi, you get scenic countryside views and a unique train experience. Trains rule! End of story.
How to get to Ninh Binh?
Oops, I got ahead of myself. Anyway, if you fly into Hanoi, then I’d recommend the train. The only thing I’ll note is that it can be a little rocky on the rails if you’re sensitive to such things. This is not a Japanese bullet train that practically doesn’t move. You’re gonna rock and roll a little bit. (But don’t get me wrong! It’s not like you’re getting the turbulence experience on a train.) From the train station, you’ll likely need a taxi if you’re staying outside of the city, which most tourists do.
Best time of year to visit Ninh Binh
In general, the best time to visit Ninh Binh is going to be in the spring (January to March) for cool climates. The internet will tell you summer is a good time as well, but the temperature highs creep into the 90sF/30sC. Do with that what you will!
Things to do in Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is all about temples on temples on temples on temples. Below, I’ll share what we did, which ought to cover you for about three days of slow travel. Unless otherwise noted, I’d recommend renting a bike to get to these places.
Go Temple Hopping (Bich Dong Pagoda + Thai Vi Temple)
Our hosts kindly supplied us with a makeshift map showing the popular route to cycle around for temples and views. The route led us west from Ninh Binh.
First, we stopped at Hang Thiên Hương –– a cave-turned place of worship on the side of the road. Then we followed the road to a dead end at Thung Sen Tam Coc Glamping & Restaurant where they’ve manicured the area a bit to allow for some light hiking. If you stop by, make sure to patronize the restaurant for their troubles in opening up the space to hikers.
Then, we backtracked to Thai Vi TempleI. It’s a 13th-century temple complex. An older man (you can see him in the video above) waves passing tourists over to play some music for them. (He’ll expect a tip and probably more than what you have in your pocket.)
That said, and I should point this out, there were hardly any other tourists up to this point. We didn’t truly see them until our next stop: Bich Dong Pagoda. This is arguably the highlight of the area. And it’s easy to see why. It’s a gorgeous postcard view. There’s no other way to put it. The temple is ancient and tiered, so you can stretch your legs a bit and check out some of the caves. You can even go on a little hike behind the temple. But eventually, the trail seems to just stop and you have to turn back.
Thung Nham Bird Valley
This came at the end of the map our hosts provided. And depending on your fitness, it can be a bit of a schlepp out here. It was about eight kilometers or five miles from our hotel. But it was worth it –– and surprisingly wildly uncrowded with tourists.
The park entrance comes as a bit of a surprise. We were cruising downhill, spotting a mild climb in the distance when a guy started waving us over. I’m generally suspicious of anyone asking for money without a uniform or even just a matching polo with the park’s name on it. But it’s legit. Hand over the park entrance fee and keep cycling into the park where you can mosey around or park your bike and go for a hike in the caves and surrounding bird park.
Hang Mua Viewpoint
This viewpoint is within reach for cyclists (or even runners), but we opted to rent a motorbike for two reasons. First of all, Ninh Binh is the kind of quiet, rural landscape where you can get the hang of riding one of these things without the terror that is Hanoian traffic. Second, we knew we’d be heading even further north.
This (and our next stop) were easily the most popular spots with other tourists. But it wasn’t annoyingly overcrowded or hindering the experience. In fact, a good chunk of the visitors at Hang Mua seemed to be Vietnamese women getting photos in traditional dress. So, you know, that was fun and unexpected to see. Just bring water, climb up the thing, and enjoy the view.
You probably don’t know the name, but you do know King Kong. This is where the MonsterVerse edition of the royal ape’s saga was filmed with its giant mound-like mountains and endless lakes. So what you do here is hop in a boat and a guide paddles you around through dark caves that connect to different temples.
I’ll admit I was skeptical of adding this to the itinerary. As a rule, I like to be the one working hard for my views. I don’t love having someone else paddle or carry stuff for me. But that’s my baggage. And once I got over it, I quite enjoyed slipping into quiet backdrops surrounded by the mythical monkey’s habitat, hopping out now and again to explore a new temple.
Restaurants in Ninh Binh
Visiting Ninh Binh was more about the cultural heritage and nature than the food. That said, I’ve got one spot for ya…
NGON Vegan Restaurant
The main strip of this part of Ninh Binh (west of the actual city) seems to cater mostly to tourists. So the restaurants all seem a bit of a dime a dozen. It sounds insulting, but I don’t mean it to be. But you know what I mean, right? Some tourist-tinged towns fill up with restaurants that more or less offer the same thing. And I don’t blame them! They’re catering to a transient crowd, not locals who might demand a bit more.
Anyways, NGON! We went here twice, both times getting the tofu with ginger and coconut. I could blabber on about how delicious it was, but I did already mention we went twice in three nights of staying in Ninh Binh. Do the math. You’re smart.
Hotels in Ninh Binh
I’m including this section, not because I’m an expert on Ninh Binh lodging, but because I can happily recommend where we stayed: Tam Coc Wonderland Bungalow. There is a main strip of restaurants with other hotels or hostels nearby. You can check those out. But I enjoyed staying out back among the rice paddies. It was only, say, a 10-minute walk into town.
Tam Coc is a wonderful family-run spot surrounded by the kind of gorgeous nature you want from Vietnam. The breakfasts are delicious, but they do skew toward presumed Western palates. My tip? They’re making pho every morning for the family and employees. If you say you’d prefer pho, I think you score some savvy traveler points and they’ll happily whip some up for you. They’ll also help you rent bikes or a motorbike if you want to go explore the area a bit.
Want more Vietnam travel tips? Check out my tips on things to do in Hanoi.