Welcome to the cute and petite city of Ninh Binh, North Vietnam. This is a lovely place.
Ninh Binh isn't a place well known outside of Vietnam. International tourists know Hanoi and Halong Bay in the north. Some know about Sapa. Yet, tourists from outside of Vietnam never seem to know about Ninh Binh. It seems that way anyway.
Visit Ninh Binh, Vietnam. It is a wondrous place, full of towering limestone mountains. A kind of inland Halong Bay. The locals are friendly and kind. The accommodation is nice. The views are spectacular.
Nature is in abundance here. You count the diverse range of flowers here. Animals graze every part of the lands around the attractions in Ninh Binh city. National park areas surround you. Crystal clear rivers and streams flow everywhere.
The mountains and rice paddies captivate everyone on the roads. Ninh Binh is an incredible experience. They are in for a treat. Ninh Binh is one of the most unique spots in Southeast Asia.
Cliche time... Ninh Binh truly is a hidden gem!!!
Ninh Binh Center
You reach Ninh Binh City on the Red River Delta. The river flows through the main part of the city. It's a standard small city in modern Vietnam. You will find local life hustling and bustling along the streets. Restaurants cater to a variety of local tastes.
The Ninh Binh Province
The attractions in Ninh Binh are amazing but challenging to tour around. The attractions are spread around the province and can be accessed by booking a tour or renting a motorbike. Cycling is possible to get to some of the places, depending on where you stay. Travel is an essential part of the Ninh Binh experience. Let me show you some of the best spots to visit.
1. The Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
Hoa Lu was the first capital city of Vietnam!
The ancient capital of Ninh Binh was called Hoa Lu. It was during the time of the great breakaway from Imperial China. After Vietnam got independence, the land was separated into 12 states. It was Emperor Dinh Bo Linh who created the idea of the first Viet state. This was called Dai Co Viet and was the Dinh Dynasty.
The Yen Ngua limestone karsts cover the ancient city. For the 30 years or so it was capital, it certainly left its mark on Vietnam. It remained in place. Different Hoa Lu Temple areas were built to pay respect for Hoa Lu. Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Hoan Temples pay homage to former leaders of Hoa Lu.
Other Hoa Lu areas are the Bao Thien Tue Palace, once plated with gold and silver, and the Nhat Tru Pagoda. There are antiquities stored here which stretch back to the beginning of time. That is the start of Vietnam.
Traditional roots go back to Tang Dynasty rule in China. On the 3rd day of the lunar month, the Truong Yen Festival begins. Calligraphy, dragon dancing, and Chinese Chess are amongst the activities taking place. Ninh Binh Town comes alive during this time.
2. Trang An Grottos - Boat Tour
The scenery here is truly inspiring. King Kong has visited this place. Well, they filmed King Kong: Skull Island here anyway. He trekked through the limestone hills rising out of the river. A lot of animals live in these parts.
It's that beautiful. The area of Trang An is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can take a boat ride around Trang An. At around $15-20, it's an unmissable experience. This is mother Earth showing you part of her jewels.
You can kayak or have a personal rowing escort on a boat ride. From here, you can choose three different routes. Each route provides an opportunity to see different scenery and caves around Trang An. The route can be selected due to the experience you want. Route three is what I took.
Crystal clear blue streams show unique and natural life below. Floral decorated vines cascade over the giant rocks above. This area is a museum of topography. Some species have been here for so many years, it is unrecorded in our time.
This boat trek has a few scenery shots from the King Kong Movie. It has long, dark and fascinating grottos and caves. You will see some of the most mesmerizing images in the light, and in the dark. Be careful not to hit your head on those stalactites!
You stop at some beautiful temples and wonderful scenic spots along the way. You can get a bit of shade in an old bamboo hut. Bring a hat or umbrella. Don't let the sun spoil this wonderful experience. This is one of the top attractions.
3. Hang Mua Mountain and Temple
Mua Cave has some amazing over-the-top views of Trang An and Tam Coc. You can see Ninh Binh Town from here as well. It's a bit of a sideroad trek to get here, but worth it. You are really standing on the shoulders of the Ninh Binh mountain giants on Hang Mua.
It's a bit of a steep walk up to the peak. The 500 or so steps are deep and may require a bit more climbing than walking. There are two peaks. One has a Pagoda; another the Mua Cave Dragon. Both peaks have some enthralling views. Both peaks have a lot of selfie-lovers around. Make sure you get a pic.
Goat meat and the sunset
The Mua cave is a lovely place to see the sunset. It's worth the short yet strenuous hike. You can get some BBQ Goat and fresh herbs at local restaurants around here. This area has goat meat restaurants known by Ninh Binh locals.
4. Thung Nham Bird Garden
The bird watchers amongst us will love this first courtyard with this display of our feathered friends. There's a range of birds in these parts. Flocks of different birds can be seen grazing and lazing on the various limestone karst hilltops around. You'll see cranes and teals. The odd flamingo if you're lucky! Get those binoculars on the ready guys!
People come to see birds, but also caves. The Fairy (but), Three ladies (Ba Co), and Water Palace (Thuy Cung) can be visited. The stalactites and stalagmites tell some old legendary stories.
This is a popular spot for big-city escapees. They come during the weekend. Fishing, climbing, caving, and hiking are popular activities. People also enjoy a picnic. Come during the week, if you wish to avoid the crowds.
Over 40 species of birds can be seen in Thung Nham Bird Garden. There are 150 plus varieties of fauna. Tropical fruits are grown everywhere. This is a Garden of Eden for birds.
The birds come out at dawn. They fly back to their nests just before sunrise. You choose a suitable time to see the natural show. This certainly beats watching a documentary on the screen. Stilt houses are around the lush green forest. Dinner and drinks are served to the local taste.
5. Bai Dinh Pagoda
This is the largest religious complex in Ninh Binh, Southeast Asia. It is a Buddhist temple showing over 500 finely carved and sculpted Buddha statues. People come to visit from all over the world.
The villagers made this sacred place. Most materials are sourced from local villages around the area. It has made up a total area of around 540 hectares. Some of it is old. Most monuments have been rebuilt as part of a Gia Long community project.
There's plenty to see in Bai Dinh Pagoda. It's a day out from Ninh Binh, at around 15km from Ninh Binh. The bell tower is one to be marveled at, as is the temple worshipping Boddhisattva. Thich Ca Buddha is made of bronze and is 10 meters in height.
The places to see in Bai Dinh Pagoda are the Gieng Ngoc wall and Ancient Pagoda. The Gieng Ngoc Wall was built in the shape of the moon over 1000 years ago and holds the biggest spiritual well in Vietnam.
The Ancient Pagoda is on Bai Dinh mountain and is a place of worship. Ancient Saints and Kings blessed this area. The ambiance is what visitors want. It's as important as the architecture.
The largest Buddhist Temple in this part of the world gets busy, especially during the lunar new year. Expect crowds of people during holidays. Do try to make time for the 6th day of the new year, if you're around.
This is festival time. Games, entertainment, snacks, and fortunes are told. The fortunes are told here every day. It's the main reason people come to Ninh Binh's Bai Dinh Pagoda.
6. Bich Dong Pagoda
Bich Dong pagoda is an old pagoda. The experience is unforgettable. Ever seen a banzai garden, with miniature temples in it? This is the real-life version.
Vivid greenery and imposing karst hills almost render Bich Dong pagoda missable. You can find it though. Something about ancient spiritual beliefs in East Asia seems articulate in nature.
The little things make the big things happen. You need to notice those little things first though. Bich Dong can be found. You'll be amazed at how much discovery can happen in a place such as Bich Dong.
Crossing the little paved road over the stream shines a light on this intricately carved gate. It is cozy looking, yet rugged. Something suggests nature has battled this place over time.
Three temples are woven into the foot, middle, and peak of the mountain. All of the temples become part of the cave. Man makes some unnatural and ugly-looking buildings. Bich Dong isn't that.
7. Tam Coc Boat Ride and the Tam Coc Rice Paddies
I like Tam Coc. It is a nice little tourist town. It has everything you need, convenience stores, coffee, travel agents, de tai chanh, and a goat meat restaurant. The place is great for those who like creature comforts.
The Tam Coc Boat Trip departs from this town. Come here in June and you see the farmland below turn a magical yellow.
Yellow Tam Coc rice fields contrast the towering green hills, creating an awe-inspiring picture. This is the postcard shown to promote Ninh Binh, Vietnam.
After passing the stone bridge, you'll see goats and livestock grazing on the mountainside. Workers will be working on the paddies. Your captain will be using feet to row you to across the valley. You pass through a fascinating cave on the way.
The ride through the Ngo Dong river is pleasant. You travel through the Tam Coc Valley. Early morning is the best time to ride Tam Coc, to avoid the tourist trail. This is by far one of the most popular tourist spots in Ninh Binh. Go in, take the two-hour boat tour, then leave.
The towering mountains watching over Tam Coc Valley will inspire you to keep going. There's a man who's lived here for a while. Still going strong, at over 100 years old! It's quite the place for photos. I recommend you tip the boatman. Buy a drink from the boat lady, if you wish.
Tam Coc offers a vivid color contrast between the green limestone mountain area and the surrounding peaks. Look to enjoy that moment. Cycle to some of the places around Tam Coc. Ninh Binh has many hidden caves to explore.
8. Van Long Nature Reserve
Located a bit further out from Ninh Binh, this is a wonderful spot to take a boat trip and go bird watching. Rare types of the crake, goose, and spoonbill birds frequently pass through Van Long's pure waters. Locals are spotted fishing and farming here. Van Long is off the beaten track.
Van Long is a national park of a different order. There a plentiful amount of limestone cliffs. The topography of Van Long Nature Reserve is sublime. There isn't nearly the same amount of tourists. Local specialties can be tried here, such as goat meat, or de tai chanh. This is a paradise for nature lovers. This could be seen as Ninh Binh's diamond in the rough.
The Van Long Nature Reserve is rugged and untouched compared to Trang An and Coc Tam. Van Long is peaceful. It has birds flocking during sunrise and sunset. It's a place to avoid tourist traps. It's quite a bike ride there. Be careful on those country pathways.
9. Dich Long Cave and Pagoda
Listen for the music when looking for this cave. This is quite a name. In English, it means cave of the flute. It is an impressive cave. It is in the Gia Vien district of Ninh Binh. This was founded in 1739. A temple was then built to pay homage.
It is one cave that is strolled along. This is unique compared to most grottoes around Ninh Binh. It is divided into three main areas. The light cave, dark cave, and in-cave pagoda. The pagoda fits onto the cave. It has all the amenities that are usually found, such as a prayer hall, bell, and compartments. All made up by the cave.
All have some incredible stalactites and stalagmites full of wonderful shapes which offer various impressions on the perception of the mind. You can imagine crouching tigers and hidden dragons hanging out in this cave.
The cave is lit throughout, showing the natural art display. Previous Emperors and Statesmen of Vietnam have commended Dich Long Cave and Pagoda. It is time-honored and a moment you should look to capture while in Ninh Binh.
10. Cuc Phuong National Park
This is a bit far out from Ninh Binh. At around 40-45km, it is a wonderful park full of tropical forest. Some very ancient trees are in Cuc Phuong National Park, in addition to excavated caves. Some old homes of cavemen can be explored in this area.
You need a tour or motorbike to get to Cuc Phuong National Park from Ninh Binh. Any tour that comes here is an easy option. It is a beautiful ride along the way. Don't ride an automatic though. The quality of roads changes swiftly and unexpectedly.
There's a small surcharge to enter. You ride to the top. There, you can find a lake and the countryside. It is a pleasant park at the end of the road. The journey of discovery from Ninh Binh is what makes the Cuc Phuong experience complete. You must come and visit the oldest national park in Ninh Binh and Vietnam.
Save the animals is a theme here. There's an endangered primate rescue center in Cuc Phuong. Be sure to visit is open. The Endangered Primate Rescue Center welcomes all visitors and any help you can offer.
The best time to visit Cuc Phuong National Park is during May. This is butterfly season. Forget-me-not Butterflies are everywhere. Other types of butterflies come throughout the month. You can get in between these cute and creative little insects. You won't forget this park during butterfly season. Wow, just, wow!
11. Phat Diem Cathedral
This is quite the design for a cathedral. At first, you might think it's one of those traditional Vietnamese pagodas. Look closer, however, and you'll see the sign of Christianity.
This was built around 1891, with Vietnamese architecture styles placed on Christian gothic foundations. The stone walls are western in look. This 15-acre building has 52 wooden pillars. These are 11-meter's tall. The Chapel of Immaculate Heart of Mary is built completely in stone. The Bell Tower has Christian carvings yet has appeared like an imposed East Asian gate.
Phat Diem Cathedral is quite the place for history to show the merge of two distinct cultures around Vietnam. Mandarins used to visit here. Pho Gia created the Christian artwork in the Cathedral. It isn't a natural wonder. It's a structure based on fortified spiritual belief and it looks like something from an alternative dimension.
Ninh Binh, Vietnam - I hope you know more about it now
Ninh Binh is a hidden gem; it holds some of the most creative natural structures around. It is a bit different from Halong Bay. Want to know more about Ninh Binh's attractions, like hot springs and a botanical garden? Come and have a look at our Ninh Binh guide here.