Ninh Binh is located in North Vietnam, just around two and a half hours South of Hanoi by train. It’s a little less visited, but well worth a stop.
I’ve first heard about Ninh Binh from a girl working at a hotel in Hue and after hearing her enthusiastic explanation of why I should visit, I’ve checked it online and decided to spend one night there. This was much too short to fully experience this peaceful place, but I still managed to see quite a bit and capture some nice photos.
All of the North and Southbound day and night sleeper trains stop at Ninh Binh. If going from Dong Hoi (like I did) I think the best option is to take the late night sleeper train. It leaves Dong Hoi at 00:49 and arrives to Ninh Binh around 9:00, so you get a good night’s sleep.
I’ve always bought train tickets directly at the station and that was no problem in the low season, but they should be booked in advance in high season. A good site for this (that can also be used just to check the timetable and fares) is http://www.baolau.vn/.
Stay at Tam Coc, not Ninh Binh
There’s not much to Ninh Binh (town) really, so it’s best to stay at the nearby village of Tam Coc. Most of the attractions are there (the countryside of Tam Coc is one of them) and the small village town itself is much more likeable.
One more thing I would recommend is that you don’t take a 100.000 VND taxi from the Ninh Binh train station to Tam Coc (and back), but rent a motorbike right outside the station and drive to Tam Coc yourself. You’ll probably rent a motorbike to explore the area around Tam Coc anyway (the other good option being a bicycle). And this way you’ll also save the taxi costs to get back to the station later, when you return the motorbike upon departure.
The Tam Coc boat ride
The two hour boat ride beneath the karst mountains and through the three limestone caves is the main draw in Tam Coc. It’s quite expensive, but very impressive.
The rowers (usually older ladies) are not paid well and are limited on how many times per week they can do the trip, so they try to make up for it by pushing you to buy their handicrafts. Some of them are quite persistent … they’ll stop at the end of the route and seem like they’ll never row back if you don’t buy something. They’ll expect a tip if you don’t and I kindly gave the lady 50.000 VND.
The scenery is beautiful and I can’t even imagine how it would look in June, when all the fields turn green or September, when they are golden yellow.
Try to go on the ride early in the morning or in the afternoon (I went around 16:00) when the tour buses from Hanoi are not there and the light is better for photography.
Other sights around Tam Coc
The Bich Dong Pagoda is set within the side of the mountain and only a few kilometres away from Tam Coc pier. Admission is free, the walk up not hard and the view from the peak behind the pagoda amazing.
I’ve asked at my hostel if it’s ok to go in flip flops and they said it was fine, that there are only stairs. Unfortunately the last short trail that goes up to the peak (behind the last pagoda) is made of very sharp rocks … but I went anyway, slowly, one step at a time. The view was worth it, but hiking shoes are a must.
Another nice sight that is pretty close to Tam Coc is the Hang Mua Peak. It’s a ~15 minute drive with a motorbike and the 360° view from the top is worth the walk on the 450 steps. Most motorbike rental shops can show you the way … or you can always ask Google maps. Bring water, you can’t buy it there.
Trang An is 15 minutes further from Hang Mua Peak, but the only thing you can do there is another boat ride, which I’ve skipped.
From there it’s another 20 minutes to the Bai Dinh Pagoda. Skip it and rather spend the time driving around Tam Coc.
But the main attraction of Tam Coc …
Are probably all the back and country roads, villages and daily local life. I was not there when the rice paddies were green and have also slightly missed the golden yellow (before the harvest), so I couldn’t really make any beautiful photos of the karst mountain landscape. But I got there just in time for the harvest, so the whole town was very busy. Harvesting rice, separating it from husk, drying it out on the streets and roads (with cars driving on patches of it), so it was still a nice time to visit, but my stay was too short … I should have stayed for two nights to have at least one full day, but was short on time. I needed to move to Hanoi so I would still have enough time for my 11 day motorbike trip of Northern Vietnam and China before I fly to Japan.