Located 100 kilometers southeast from Hanoi, Ninh Binh province is a hidden gem that features plenty of less-visited attractions and beautiful untouched caves. The best Ninh Binh has to offer include mesmerizing limestone islands, the biggest pagoda in Southeast Asia and the oldest national park in Vietnam. Check out our awesome list of 11 things to do in Ninh Binh to make sure you don’t miss anything fun in this “Halong Bay in land”.
Ninh Binh Top Attractions:
Trang An Complex
Trang An boat ride
Hoa Lu Temple
Bai Dinh Pagoda
Thung Nham Bird Garden
Bich Dong Pagoda
Hang Mua Temple
Van Long Nature Reserve
Cuc Phuong National Park
1. Take a Boat Ride in Trang An or Tam Coc
What to see: dramatic limestone islands over turquoise waters
While Trang An is a crystal-clear turquoise pearl, Tam Coc is a place for golden paddy-field hunting. Both are perfect choices for nature lovers, but Trang An is generally less crowded, making for a more tranquil and private experience. While gliding gently under caves, remember to keep your head down if you don’t want to hit the exceptionally low ceilings. The skilled rowers who have learned to row with their feet will inform you when to duck, and you duck.
Tip: It’s not really ideal to ride at noon – the sun will bother you a little bit. Either wear a sun hat or arrive in early morning or late afternoon, when the sunbeams are much gentler.
2. Wander the Bai Dinh Pagoda
What to see: bronze Buddha statues, bells and a watchtower
As the largest religious complex in Southeast Asia, Bai Dinh Complex consists of an ancient pagoda for Buddhist privileges and a newly built larger pagoda for tourists. The walkways are decorated with Buddha statues. Inside, you can find a huge bronze Buddha statue which weighs 100 tons, along with carved bells and a 13-story watchtower. On the sixth day of the first lunar month, Bai Dinh will be packed with Buddhists gathering for the Bai Dinh Temple Festival.
Tip: The complex will take at least 3-4 hours to tour around. Temples, shrines and pagodas are scattered all over the hillside; make sure you allow enough time to check them all out.
3. Stroll through Hoa Lu Temple
What to see: the ancient capital of Hoa Lu and King Dinh’s temples
Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam during the 10th and 11th centuries, under the reign of the Dinh and Le Dynasties. Hoa Lu was chosen for its strategic position. Surrounded by towering limestone mountains, Hoa Lu was well protected against Chinese invaders in its time.
Nowadays, a number of temples are erected to honor the kings and generals of the Dinh Dynasty. Though partly destroyed, the Temple and surrounding areas are still well worth a visit. Strolling under the leaning archways and green foliage of banyan trees, you will learn the stories of the lost kingdom dating back hundreds of years in the past. The visit will be most certainly private – the Temple remains firmly off the tourist trail despite its intriguing historical values.
4. Go temple trekking at Bich Dong Pagoda
What to see: the 3 levels of the “emerald cave” Bich Dong
Bich Dong is a series of pagodas built into a mountain over the Ngo Dong river. Bich Dong consists of 3 different pagodas, one higher than the previous. You will walk on a stone bridge over a lotus pond and pass through the gate to come deep into the chambers of Bich Dong – the “second most beautiful grotto in Vietnam”. The stairway climb is quite an exercise, but you will be duly rewarded. A bird’s-eye view over the verdant valley, emerald river and lush mountains is well worth the sweat!
5. Conquer the top of Hang Mua Cave
What to do: hiking, taking photos, sunset-watching
Mua Cave is located at the top of the mountain. Climbing up 500 steps, you’ll reach the mouth of the cave, where the temple nests. If you wish to climb higher, make your way up to the top of the mountain to see the Lying Dragon statue sits.
When the temple is somewhat ordinary, the aerial view of Ngo Dong river, surrounding peaks and Tam Coc Valley is truly breathtaking. The vision might be blocked sometimes by mist, but wait for it to clear. You’ll definitely enjoy how the snaking river makes it way through lush limestone karsts and green paddy fields.
Tip: The panoramic view is best enjoyed in sunset, when the sun slowly hides its glowing vanilla beams under the jungle-covered tops of limestone mountains.
6. Taste the local specialties
What to eat: goat meat (de nui) and fried rice crust (com chay)
Goats are raised and fed by locals on the towering mountains of Ninh Binh, which makes the mouth-watering savoury, juicy flavors of the goat meat. Goat meat is often used to make “de tai chanh”, in which goat meat is cured in lemon juice and served with chillies and lime leaves. For barbecue-lovers, you can choose to have a smoky grilled goat meat plate served with an assortment of fresh herbs. Other protein choices include eel vermicelli soup and fermented pork rolls.
Fried rice crust is enjoyed both as a crispy snack and a side-dish in meals. The rice is fried and topped with pork floss, chilly sauce and green onions. When served in meals, it will be accompanied by a bowl of mild fish sauce.
Tip: You can also buy some “com chay” for your friends and family back home, as a typical package can last weeks to months.
7. Go for a hike in Cuc Phuong National Park
What to do: hiking, animal-gazing, camping
As the oldest national park in Vietnam, Cuc Phuong boasts thousand-year-old trees, wild biodiversity and utmost tranquility. To get in, you’ll have to pay a small admission fee of 20,000-40,000 VND.
The park covers an area of 222 kilometers and is made up mainly of tropical forest. A wide range of birds, mammals and reptiles will be found here, along with plants and ancient trees. There are a few stops to choose from: Endangered Primate Rescue Center, Turtle Conservation Program and Botanical garden. Follow the trails across the park and you’ll even see a village of Muong people that inhabit a part of the park. For a truly authentic experience, rent your own tent and equipment from Hanoi and spend a night or two outside.
Tip: It’s best to travel in the dry season, which lasts from December to April. The rain will keep the ground super slippery and not safe for hiking.
8. Bird-watch in Van Long Nature Reserve or Thung Nham Bird Garden
What to do: bird-watching, hiking and trekking
Van Long Nature Reserve offers a still water surface, on which you will see no wave. That’s why it’s also known as the “bay without waves”. You’ll get a similar experience as in Trang An or Tam Coc, but the wild biodiversity is much more exciting. While monkeys, reptiles and langurs can be found here, the place most appeals to passionate bird-watchers.
For an even less-visited destination, check out Thung Nham Bird Garden, which sees virtually no tourist in its off season. Tucked away on the mountains, the park is home to most of the birds in the region. Look up to see the tops of the trees filled with birds leaving and coming back to their nests.
Tip: Early morning or late afternoon are the times when the birds are most active and visible.
>> Check Out Our Tour on Full Cycling & Farming Day in Van Long Nature Reserve!
9. Hop on a motorcycle tour
What to do: exploring the less-traveled paths on a motorbike
If you can ride a motorbike, you can choose to rent one for about 100,000-120,000 VND per day and get around Ninh Binh. The landscape changes in front of your eyes: from golden paddy fields, verdant limestone karsts to local homes, climbing goats and flocks of ducks. Enjoying the breezes on a motorcycle surely is nice, but you are advised to travel with a companion to help you search for the maps and in emergency situations. If you can’t drive, a number of tour operators will help you arrange a tour with local guide-drivers.
Tip: Getting around by bike is also possible, but some attractions in Ninh Binh can be too far from each other. Also, choose the less-traveled paths for a more authentic, local-friendly experience.
10. Check out Phat Diem Church
What to see: admiring the unique architecture of Phat Diem
Phat Diem Church is among the most beautiful churches in Vietnam. Despite worshipping a Western religion, the church resembles Vietnam’s traditional pagodas and temples. Built only with stone and wood, it took 24 years to finish the construction of Phat Diem Church. There is also a lake, a bell house and three artificial grottoes inside the church. On four towers of the bell house, you will find the statues of four saints that feature Vietnamese architecture styles.
11. Book a local homestay
What to do: resting, socializing, enjoying local food
Ninh Binh city is generally not recommended by tourists for accommodation. For better views and serene atmosphere, find hotels and homestays in either Trang An or Tam Coc. Embraced by sweeping paddy fields and lush sceneries, you can also enjoy local cuisines and converse with locals for more inside information.
Ninh Binh is not yet developed as its sister in the north, Halong Bay, but not for long. There are plenty of great things to do in Ninh Binh, which are suitable for both locals and tourists alike. Whether you seek a serene experience with nature, or an exotic gastronomic tour in Northern Vietnam, Ninh Binh is definitely the destination you must check out.