When you visit northern Vietnam, you’ll have no hesitation in including Halong Bay and Sapa, but you may be tempted to take on Ninh Binh. Well, in this post we give you a few reasons to include Ninh Binh in the itinerary even before the other two places ;).
IS IT WORTH GOING TO NINH BINH?
Many people already define it as “the Halong Bay on land”, because its karst formations are just as impressive, but instead of seeing them sailing, you can enjoy them on foot. So whatever you do, make sure to include Ninh Binh in your itinerary!
HOW TO GO TO NINH BINH
we went from Hanoi to Sapa and from Sapa to Ninh Binh, in Sleeper Bus. From Sapa to Ninh Binh, we had no problem getting the tickets the same day a few hours earlier at Sapa’s own bus station, which is tiny with a single window and no choice at all.
1. Sapa to Ninh Binh tickets can also be purchased at the Pavilion Hotel Hanoi.
2. AVOID THE SAO VIET COMPANY with red buses, because they leave the passengers in the middle of nowhere before they get to Ninh Binh and they are in league with the taxis that suddenly appear there to make the transfers to the hotel.
If you go to Ninh Binh from Hanoi, you can do it with Vietnam Railways, which is the official company of the country. The website used by the locals to buy the tickets is http://dsvn.vn, but they don’t allow the payment with credit cards that are not Vietnamese.
We traveled by train to go from Ninh Binh to Hanoi and we used the web to check the available seats and seeing that there were many, we bought the tickets an hour before at the Ninh Binh train station itself. If you don’t want to risk it, the Baolau travel website, sells the same tickets with a small commission of 1.60 euros.
Although we went from Ninh Binh to Hanoi, those of you who are going to visit Ninh Binh from Hanoi, the same trains make the opposite journey.
HOW MANY DAYS IN NINH BINH
We recommend spending at least two days in Ninh Binh, i.e. overnight there.
Something very common in organized tours and agencies in Hanoi is to organize a day trip from the capital. In the absence of time and alluding to that of “less is nothing”, rather than staying without seeing it, we would go for a day. But it goes without saying that it is short, in fact, quite short.
Besides, going and coming back in the same day from Hanoi implies seeing Ninh Binh with the rest of thousands of people who have decided to do the same as you. So if you are not a fan of crowds and you like to enjoy what you have in front of you with a little peace, if you spend the night at Ninh Binh you will be able to at least see a couple of places before and after the marabunta arrives and leaves.
THINGS TO DO IN NINH BINH
Sometimes the concepts ‘Ninh Binh’ and ‘Tam Coc‘ are mistaken and when the latter is named, it is believed that reference is made to the whole region, which is not the case. Tam Coc is only one area of Ninh Binh province, although it is the most beautiful and it is the reason for the ‘Terrestrial Halong Bay’.
Tam Coc is a huge area full of rice fields, crossed by the Ngo Dong River and surrounded by karst mountains. That’s why one of the best ways to enjoy it is to take a ride in some small boats run by a local company that you will find easily.
The entrance fee is 120000 dongs and the boat fee is 150000 dongs, that is, if you are a couple, you will pay 195000 dongs per person (7.0 euro approx).
During the boat trip you will cross, without getting off the boat, the three caves that give the name to this region: Hang Ca, Hang Giua and Hang Cui. In some of them the roof is so low that you have to bend down to avoid bumping into them. The trip is well worth it, the perspective of the whole place from below is impressive.
Tip: you will see idyllic pictures of Tam Coc stained with endless green rice fields, hence some call it the ‘green sea of Vietnam‘. But only one month of the whole year looks like this, which is from mid-April to mid-May, just before the harvest and the rains come in September. If you have the possibility to go at any time of the year, perfect, if not, don’t be discouraged because it’s beautiful anyway, we went in August and it looked just like it is shown in the pictures.
BICH DONG PAGODA
The environment couldn’t be cooler, the complex is embedded in the mountain and it is a quite unique as it is a three in one: Pagoda Ha, Pagoda Trung and Pagoda Thuong, on different levels.
If you want to go up to the third level, you have to look for some stairs that are embedded in the mountain and somewhat hidden. Inside you will see altars, offerings and good views of Tam Coc on the upper level.
The entrance is free but leaving the bike at the entrance is about 20000 dongs.
Hang Mua is a small cave at the base of the karstic mountain Mua in which they have enabled hundreds of stairs that take you to the top. At the top, besides being famous for the unparalleled views of the Tam Coc and Trang An region in 360 degrees, you will find a stone dragon, which is why many people know this place as ‘Lying Dragon Mountain’. The entrance cost us about 20000 dongs and needless to say it was worth it. We found it to be one of the coolest parts of visiting Ninh Binh and this is where you realize its resemblance to Halong Bay 🙂
BAI DINH PAGODA
Bai Dinh Pagoda could be known as the pagoda of records: it is the largest temple complex in Vietnam, it houses one of the largest bronze Buddha statues in Asia or it has the largest bell in Vietnam. However, far from its records, we went because the site is really huge and is a fusion of culture, history and art that is well worth visiting. In fact, many locals come here on pilgrimage, considering it a very sacred place of worship.
Get ready to visit a pagoda of innumerable floors, the Temple of the Three Times or an endless row of 500 statues of Arhant with a thousand positions of legs, arms and head that make no one the same, each one demonstrating the state of the soul of the Buddhist doctrine: anger, joy, hate and love.
Reserve a minimum of an hour and a half or two hours if you want to enter all the places and see it well. You can go to one end of the enclosure by electric car and then walk to the other end.
Much less known than its neighbors Tam Coc and Trang An, Van Long is once again a large region of karst mountains with rice fields, a small river running through them and a small local company running the boats. The big difference with the rest: there is practically nobody there and the sun comes in late in the day ;).
That’s why an hour before sunset, we went for a walk from the hotel to the pier, just 5 minutes, and we toured the reserve in a boat all alone in what was one of the best moments of our stay at Ninh Binh. You couldn’t hear anything, the peace and quietness was all over you.
OTHER PLACES TO SEE
Hoa Lu Citadel, which was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th century.
Trang An: the other huge natural eco-park that can be visited from a boat and has a great similarity to Tam Coc: rice fields, karst mountains and caves.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN NINH BINH
To travel around the southern area on a motorbike is a real treat, they are such rural areas that there is no traffic and they invite you to get lost in the rice fields with your motorbike.
The best thing is to rent the bike anywhere in town, businesses, hotels and homestays offer them, even if you are not staying. As for gas stations, there are plenty of them.
Taxi/ Private Car
This is another means of transport that is very popular around here, the prices are very low and when you go in a group of 4/5 people, if it is already cheap, it becomes a bargain.
On our second day in Ninh Binh on which we went to the great Pagoda Bai Dinh, we hired a car from the hotel, it waited for us outside while we visited it and took us back to the hotel, where we spent the rest of the day until sunset, when we went to see Van Long.
WHERE TO STAY IN Ninh Binh
It is such a brutally beautiful area that we recommend sleeping anywhere close to nature and away from the city. There are two good options, sleeping near Tam Coc/Trang An in the south, or sleeping near Van Long in the north. We recommend the second option.
Ninh Binh is not a region in which they have fancy hotels and the Emeralda Resort Ninh Bình stood out from the rest. It’s that kind of hotel you don’t want to leave during your stay. The best thing is that the price, per night is around 100 euros, something extremely expensive for Vietnam but quite cheap for Europe being a five star hotel in an unbeatable environment.
The hotel complex has two huge swimming pools, one indoor and one outdoor, and a great breakfast buffet. The hotel itself is worth a visit, because of the shape of its buildings, its gardens or the pond with little boats at the entrance.
The best part, however, is that it is only a few meters from the Van Long Nature Reserve.
If you are looking for something more economical and prefer to be in the south, we highly recommend Nguyen Shack Homestay. Despite not having been there personally, we trust Booking quite a lot, it has a 9.2 grade, so it seems that it is a sure thing.
This place is total immersion in nature, six small cabins at the foot of the karstic mountains of Hang Mua.
If you have any doubt or opinion, don’t hesitate to write us a comment or an email. Thanks for reading and see you next time!