With Ha Long Bay already attracting 6 million visitors a year, and the government hoping to hit a staggering 50 million by 2020, you might want to start asking yourself in Vietnam’s main highlight is actually still worth going to. More and more TripAdvisor reviews are pouring in on how busy and polluted Vietnam’s top destination has become, even though it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 1990s. Ha Long Bay may become a victim of it’s own succes.
Luckily for you, Vietnam’s bigger than just Ha Long Bay. In fact, I would argue that the majority of the country is still unexplored and Ha Long Bay is definitely not the only place with these iconic limestone rock formations sticking out of Mother Earth.
Enter Ninh Binh, located in the Red River Delta in Northern Vietnam and only a two hours drive south of Hanoi. Both available in day trips from Hanoi or as a two day trip on your way to the north or south of Vietnam. Ninh Binh is often called the ‘dry Ha Long Bay’, because whereas Ha Long Bay is located on the coast and contains several islands, Ninh Binh is actually inland and is surrounded by rivers and rice paddies.
Although Ninh Binh is by no means a hidden gem or an off-the-beaten track destination anymore, it might very well be the best to place in Vietnam to behold the country’s iconic and picturesque limestone mountains and caves.
How to get to Ninh Binh
Vietnam is a country that is usually travelled either by going north or by going south. Therefore, you are most likely to come from Hanoi, Phong Nha or Hue when you’re on your way to Ninh Binh. One of the easiest and fastest options of reaching Ninh Binh is going by train. The journey only takes about 2-3 hours and you will be treated with driving through beautiful landscapes. There’s multiple trains a day going from Hanoi and tickets will set you back about 90,000 - 100,000 VND (about $4-5 dollars). I booked and paid my tickets through Baolau and received an email with a QR code needed for boarding the train just a few minutes later. The same trip can be booked from Hue.
If you’re coming from Phong Nha National Park it’s a bit of a different story, as Phong Nha doesn’t have a train station. You would need to take a bus to Dong Hoi first, from where you can take a train to Ninh Binh.
Where to stay in Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is home to many great places to sleep, as you’ll likely be staying close to the limestone mountains. I stayed at the Ninh Binh Valley Homestay and got nothing but love for this place. It’s surrounded by limestone mountains and they have their own little lake. It’s one of the most beautiful places I stayed in Vietnam. They have several bungalows by the lake and there’s a small restaurant.
Getting there can only be done by taxi (or just call them for a pickup), as there’s a 2km dirt road that you need to go over before you reach the homestay. In case they’re fully booked, I’ve heard good stories about the Nguyen Shack.
Things to do in Ninh Binh (in 2 days)
The great thing about Ninh Binh is that you can go around and explore everything by yourself. You don’t need to book a tour and are not restricted in where you want to go. The best way to experience Ninh Binh is to rent a scooter or bike and drive around the amazing scenery yourself. Roughly speaking, two days should be enough for seeing most of the important points of interest in Ninh Binh.
Although just driving around can be impressive by itself, there’s a few highlights you should consider seeing:
- Hang Mua Peak. A mountainside peak which gives you great views over Ninh Binh and Tam Coc (which is the name of the region). There’s 500 steps leading to the top, where you’ll be able to get some iconic views over the limestone mountain ranges. It’s worth the climb! On top of the peak is dragon stone statue awaiting you, hence the nickname of the mountain ‘Lying Dragon’. Views around sunset are even more amazing here. The entrance fee is 100,000 VND.
- Mua Caves. These series of caves are located on the foot of the Hang Mua peak and can be easily combined when going to the Hang Mua peak. Not particularly stunning by themselves. Entrance to these caves in included in your Hang Mua ticket.
- Tam Coc or Trang An boat ride. One of the best ways to explore these lands is to take a boat ride along the river or through the caves. The two main locations, Tam Coc and Trang An, have come quite busy over the years, which make it worth to visit early in the morning. And I mean really worth it. Trang An is the trip which takes 2-3 hours and which goes in and around the limestone mountains and features caves with a length of over 300m. It is the busier of the two. Tam Coc takes about 1,5-2 hours and not only features three caves, but also shows you some fish catching, rice planting and maybe even some buffalos.
- Which of the two you choose is completely up you. You decision might also depend on the time of the year, as the rice paddies in summertime turn enchantingly green, probably making Tam Coc a more interesting choice. The prices for the boat rides are fixed. In Tam Coc the price for a boat is 150,000 VND, and an additional 120,000 VND per person. The price for a boat ride in Trang An cost 200,000 VND per person (about $9 dollars).