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Ninh Binh is a small city 2 hours south of Hanoi, in the north of Vietnam. When people refer to Ninh Binh when travelling, they are most likely referring to the province of Ninh Binh, rather than the city itself. Known as ‘Halong bay on land’, Ninh Binh province is an area of natural beauty and is definitely worth visiting when you are travelling in Vietnam.
The main towns in Ninh Binh province are Trang An and Tam Coc. This is where most people stay when visiting Ninh Binh province. The area here boasts stunning landscape with karst mountains, deep green valleys and winding rivers. It is here where the film Kong: Skull island was filmed - something Ninh Binh is now well known for.
During my month-long trip to Vietnam in May 2022, I spent 5 relaxing days staying in Trang An and exploring the beautiful scenery around the province of Ninh Binh. In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know about visiting Ninh Binh, including the must see attractions, as well as tips and advice for planning your trip.
First time in Southeast Asia? Make sure you also check out my 50 essential travel tips for visiting Southeast Asia to help plan your trip!
The Trang An Scenic Landscape boat ride is a must-do when in Ninh Binh
9 Must-see attractions and things to do in Ninh Binh province, Vietnam
Before we get into the practical information of what you need to know before visiting Ninh Binh, here’s 9 of the best things to do in Ninh Binh, including the top must-see attractions in Trang An and Tam Coc.
1. Take the Trang An Scenic Landscape boat ride
If you only do one activity in Ninh Binh, make sure it is the boat ride through the Trang An Scenic Landscape. It is without a doubt, the best thing to do in Ninh Binh.
Tickets for the Trang An boat ride are 150k vnd each (£5.30) and the boat seats 4 adults. If you have less than 4 people in your party, you will be paired up with other people to make a full boat. (If you want the boat to yourself, you can pay extra to have a private boat). The boat is rowed by hand and the guide will give you information about key sights along the way. We were joined by a lovely Vietnamese family and therefore the guide we were given spoke no English but he did point out wildlife and various sights to us along the way.
There are three routes you can choose from for your boat ride. To be honest we really didn't know which to pick! We ended up choosing route 2, but it seemed that whatever route you did, you all ended up seeing the main attractions anyway, so I don’t think it really mattered that much. The boat ride lasts anywhere between 1.5hours - 3 hours, depending on how busy it is and along the way you will stop at a couple of small islands where you can get off the boat and wander around the small temples and gardens.
A temple on a small island in Trang An Scenic Landscape
The scenery floating through Trang An is incredible! The water is so calm and still and it felt very tranquil gliding past the huge limestone and karst mountains which rose up straight from the water.
Trang An’s claim to fame is that parts of the film Kong: Skull Island were shot here and we saw the famous rock where Kong leaves his bloody handprint.
You can also take a boat ride at Tam Coc, but having spoken to other travellers who did this, I would avoid it. The Tam Coc boat ride has a bad reputation and we heard of instances where the rowers just stopped in the middle of the river and refused to continue rowing until they were tipped. We also heard of stories where fruit and souvenir sellers were allowed to stop by the boat and when the tourists refused to buy anything, the seller gave the rower items and then demanded money for them from the tourists.
There was nothing like this in Trang An, and in fact, they actively discouraged this behaviour. The Trang An boat ride was the highlight of my time in Ninh Binh and is one of the most popular and well known activities in the area.
We saw the famous rock from the film Kong: Skull Island (L) whilst rowing around Trang An Scenic Landscape
2. Climb up Hang Múa viewpoint
If you have seen photos of Ninh Binh, then you have most likely seen images of the Hang Múa viewpoint. This spot is one of the most visited attractions in Ninh Binh and rightly so, the views are incredible!
Hang Múa sits in between Trang An and Tam Coc, and therefore is easily accessible by bicycle from both places. The entrance fee for Hang Múa is 100k vnd each (£3.50) and you can park your bicycle at the entrance for 5k vnd (20p). Tip: As you cycle down the road towards the entrance, you will see parking signs and people coming into the road to guide you to small parking lots. The fee for these parking areas is higher at 10k vnd (35p) and you will have to walk the rest of the way, so just ignore them and go all the way to the end.
The main attraction at Hang Múa is the viewpoints. There are two small mountains next to one another which you can climb. There are stone steps all the way up, and it should take no more than 15-20 minutes to reach the top. Just be careful, especially if it has rained as the steps are uneven and there is no handrail. The mountain on the left side (as you stand facing up the stairs) has the better views. From here you can see down to the river and rowing boats of Trang An on one side and across to the other mountain on the other side, with views of rice fields and the bamboo bridge in the centre. The walk up to the top of the viewpoint was not too strenuous and didn't take too long, but the views from here are truly stunning.
Once you’ve made it back down from the viewpoint, there’s a couple of cafes at the bottom around the small lake where you can get a drink or ice cream. You can also walk along the bamboo bridge which stands above a lily pond, surrounded by the rice fields. There were plenty of locals dressed in beautiful floaty dresses and even heels at this spot - it is definitely a great location for those instagram photos!
Climb the left mountain at Hang Mua for the best all round views
3. Visit Am Tien lake
Am Tiên lake is a small attraction north of Trang An. It is one of the lesser known spots in the area, but it is a nice place to stop for an hour if you are cycling nearby, or if you are visiting Hoa Lu ancient capital. Am Tiên lake is a man-made lake completely surrounded by mountains. Two large tunnels have been carved into the mountain in order to reach the lake.
At either end of the lake are two small temple buildings and a temple cave at one end. There's also a little shop and cafe by the shoreline. From the main tunnel entrance, make your way to the main temple, situated above the shop. This is where you will get the best views of the lake.
There is a smooth, paved path all the way around the lake, so it is suitable for strollers and wheelchairs. You can rent bicycles at the entrance but honestly you don't need to. The path around the lake is only about 1-2km long but it is a nice, pretty stroll. There's also several carts and even a cinderella style carriage that you can hire! You can see goats grazing on the mountainside and watch the large fish in the lake.
On the lake there are a couple of small rowing boats which have been decorated with colourful fake flowers, perfect for photo opportunities.
Entry to Am Tiên lake is only 20k vnd each (70p) and parking for a bicycle is 5k vnd (20p). You probably only need an hour here but it is a nice activity to do whilst you are cycling around.
Am Tien Lake in Trang An
4. Cycle around the countryside
Cycling around the countryside is one of the best activities in Trang An and Tam Coc, plus if your homestay lends you their bicycles, it is completely free! You don’t really need to follow a map or have a planned route (although I always recommend downloading an offline google map of the area when you are out exploring), just set off on your bike and enjoy the scenery!
As much as I enjoyed cycling round the beautiful town of Hoi An, I think the landscapes here were even better! Cycling around the countryside you will pass rice fields, mountains, rivers, lakes and grazing buffalo. There’s plenty of local cafes to stop and get lunch or a smoothie. One particularly scenic spot for lunch is the Trang An Lotus lake Homestay. It’s hard to explain just how beautiful and tranquil the landscape is in this area, you definitely have to experience it for yourself!
Cycling around the beautiful landscape is one of the best things to do in
Tam Coc and Trang An
5. Spend a few hours in Tam Coc
Tam Coc is the place to go if you are looking for more westernised restaurants and cafes. You can get Indian, Mexican, fast food and of course local Vietnamese food here. There’s even several bars and pubs if you fancy more of a night out too. Tam Coc is also where you will find grocery stores, pharmacies, tour companies and even massage salons. Spend an hour or so walking around Tam Coc lake and down the high street, treating yourself to lunch or a smoothie.
6. Visit Hoa Lu Ancient capital
Surrounded by the limestone mountains of Trang An, is Hoa Lu - the ancient capital of Vietnam. Hoa Lu was Vietnam’s capital city for 41 years and it’s a place of historical importance, with many temples, pagodas and tombs on this site. The Dinh Tien Hoang Temple and Le Hoan Temple are two of the most popular sites in the complex - these 17th century temples were built in the style of the previous 11th century buildings which preceded them. Another notable building in Hao Lu is Nhat Tru Pagoda, which dates back to the 10th century.
Many people who visit Ninh Binh take a trip to Hoa Lu, it is one of the most popular sites in the area. However, we actually chose to skip this as we had read reviews where people had said it was quite touristy and the temple buildings were not so impressive. We had just visited the ancient city of Hue a week before this trip and we found ourselves disappointed there, so we decided not to visit Hoa Lu. Perhaps after visiting Ankgor Wat in Cambodia and the many beautiful temples in Chiang Mai, Thailand we were just a bit spoiled by the amazing things we had already seen!
If you are interested to learn about the history of Vietnam and enjoy visiting temples, then Hoa Lu could be a great place for you to visit. It’s only 5km from Trang An and can be reached by bicycle or taxi.
Hoa Lu Ancient capital, Ninh Binh (Photo by Alberto Capparelli via Pexels)
7. Go bird watching at Van Long nature reserve
Van Long nature reserve sits 20km north of Trang An, on the edge of Ninh Binh Province. Similar to the Trang An Scenic Landscape, the main thing to do in Van Long is to ride a boat on the winding canals and rivers that make up the wetlands of Van Long reserve. The protected area is dotted with limestone mountains and over 30 caves. The mountains and forests around the wetlands are home to many langurs, but it is perhaps most well known for being a great place to visit for bird watching. Whether you are an avid bird-spotter or not, the Van Long wetlands are a great place to visit on a day trip from Trang An or Tam Coc.
8. Trek through Cúc Phương National Park
Cúc Phương National Park is a preserved rainforest in the north west of Ninh Binh province. As the largest nature reserve in Vietnam, it holds significant importance and is home to over 2000 plant species and 300 types of birds, as well as reptiles and mammals. One of the best things to do in Cuc Phuong is to go jungle trekking. There are various treks you can take, ranging from easy, 1 hour long walks to guided full day treks. You can also go kayaking on the lake and visit the langurs and gibbons in the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre.
9. Take some time to relax
Most of the homestays and hostels in Tam Coc and Trang An have a pool and an area to sit and enjoy the scenery. The whole atmosphere of this area is tranquil and calming, so take some time to enjoy some relaxation by the pool, read a book, or sit with a coffee and enjoy the beautiful, quiet surroundings. It really is very peaceful here, so make sure you soak it up before you head off to the likes of Hanoi, where nothing is quiet!
Our little hut by the pool at Trang An Memory homestay, with views over the lake
Tips and advice for visiting Ninh Binh province, Vietnam
Now you know the best things to do and the must-see attractions in Ninh Binh, let’s cover some top tips, advice and practical information for visiting this beautiful part of the country.
How to get to Ninh Binh?
The best and most popular way to travel to Ninh Binh city is by bus. Buses and minivans run regularly between Hanoi and Ninh Binh city and the journey is only 1 hour 45 minutes. You will then need to catch a taxi to travel between the city of Ninh Binh and where you are staying in Tam Coc or Trang An. We paid 160k vnd (£5.50) for a taxi from Trang An to Ninh Binh city and then £11.50 for two people to get a minivan to Hanoi.
If you are travelling to Ninh Binh city from the south of Vietnam, there are buses and trains which run from Hue, Da Nang (for Hoi An) and Dong Hoi (for Phong Nha). You can book these online in advance, or get your homestay to book for you.
What’s the best way to explore Ninh Binh?
The best way to explore the area of Ninh Binh province is definitely by bicycle! You can easily cycle between Trang An and Tam Coc in 30 minutes, through rice fields and alongside the river. Cycling around the beautiful landscape is actually one of the best things to do in Ninh Binh! Most of the homestays have free bicycles which you can use during your stay. For some of the attractions which are farther out, like Cúc Phương National Park and Van Long nature reserve, your homestay can easily arrange a local taxi for you. If you want to rent a scooter and explore further out on your own, most homestays can organise this for you. Just be aware that a lot of the roads in this area are gravel roads with a lot of potholes, so it will be a bumpy ride!
Where to stay in Ninh Binh province?
Don’t make the mistake that some travellers do and stay in Ninh Binh city. There’s nothing to see or do in Ninh Binh city and you will need to get taxis every day to and from the main sights and attractions in Tam Coc, Trang An and the wider area of Ninh Binh province.
Tam Coc and Trang An are the two main areas in Ninh Binh province to stay. Tam Coc is the main town and here you will find a busy high street with cafes, restaurants and shops. There are several hostels in Tam Coc, one of the main ones is The Banana Tree hostel, by Tam Coc river.
If you prefer somewhere quieter and more surrounded by nature, then head to Trang An. The area of Trang An is not as concentrated, or as ‘touristy’ as Tam Coc and doesn't have a main centre. In Trang An the accommodation is mostly homestays and the shops and restaurants are more local. Many of the homestays in Trang An are situated alongside the river and nestled under the mountains, like the Trang An memory homestay which we stayed in (and had a great time!)
The best place to stay in Ninh Binh really is down to what experience you would prefer. If you want to be able to go out in the evening and have a choice of lively places to eat and drink, then your best bet is to stay in Tam Coc. However, if you want to be surrounded by nature and have mountains and riverside views, and don’t mind eating at your homestay most evenings, then choose somewhere in Trang An.
The landscape around Trang An and Tam Coc in Ninh Binh Province is just beautiful
When is the best time to visit Ninh Binh?
The rainy season in Ninh Binh falls between May - October. The months of August and September are the worst, receiving high levels of heavy rainfall, flooding, frequent storms and occasional typhoons. Travel during these two months is not recommended.
The best time to visit Ninh Binh is during the dry season, between November to April, when the weather is cooler and drier.
How many days do you need in Ninh Binh?
I would recommend having at least two full days in Ninh Binh province. This way you can cover the must-see attractions in the area before continuing your journey in Vietnam. In two days, I would recommend taking the Trang An boat ride, visiting Hang Mua viewpoint and enjoying a cycle ride around the countryside. If you have a little more time to spare, and would like to explore at a more leisurely pace, then you could easily fill 4 days in Ninh Binh, visiting the various sights and attractions further out such as Cúc Phương National Park and Van Long nature reserve.
Are there ATMs in Tam Coc and Trang An?
Unfortunately, there are no ATMS in Tam Coc or Trang An, except one machine at the Trang An Scenic Landscape visitor centre (where the boats depart from). Make sure that you bring cash with you when staying in Tam Coc or Trang An. Many of the hotels, hostels and shops will only take cash.
What facilities are there in Tam Coc and Trang An?
Tam Coc has plenty of cafes, shops and restaurants, as well as a couple of pharmacies. However, facilities are limited in Trang An, with just a few local shops selling snacks dotted around the countryside. If you are staying in Trang An, it may be worthwhile bringing some snacks with you, or making a trip to one of the grocery stores in Tam Coc to pick up a couple of things to take back to your homestay.
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