Three days and two nights is the time recommended to fully explore Ninh Binh. Taking 2 hours to travel from Hanoi, Ninh Binh is recognized as one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the North of Vietnam with lots of magnificent landscapes. The place is famous for its gigantic karst structures reaching sky high. Highlighted with rice paddy fields, this is where the country’s most beautiful scenes are seen, such as Trang An complex, Tam Coc, Van Long along with appealing religious monuments like Bai Dinh Pagoda, Phat Diem Cathedral, Hoa Lu Ancient Capital City or natural preservation like Cuc Phuong National Park. When we set our first steps into the place, the landscapes and scenery was nothing but speechless and unbelievable beauty.
Comparisons often made between Ninh Binh and the famous Halong Bay, some people even refer Ninh Binh as the ‘Halong Bay on land’. However, that was not what we thought about this place, since the only thing they have in common was the rock formation, and everything else is just completely different.
What is the perfect time to visit Ninh Binh?
Tourists should consider visiting Ninh Binh between February and April. It is spring in the north during that time, the weather is very comfortable, not too sunny and neither cold nor hot. You may find other times in the year not as pleasing as the weather is very hot from May to September, especially wet in July and August, and quite cold and foggy from November to January, preventing you from enjoy the majestic beauty of Ninh Binh.
We often head to Ninh Binh from Hanoi during daytime, stay there for 2 or 3 days. To fully discover the sights in Ninh Binh, we advise you stay there for at least 3 days.
Day 1: Hanoi – Phat Diem Cathedral – Tam Coc
We packed up and started leaving at 6.30 am, heading to Giap Bat bus station to catch one to go to Ninh Binh. The bus departed Hanoi at 7.30 am and arrived at Ninh Binh at 9.30 am. The price for one ticket was 100,000 VND/person (~ $4). Our first impression was the city wasn’t that appealing. The province’s bus station was small with only few bus parking and some kiosks selling snacks and drinks. From there we began our trip to explore Ninh Binh.
We chose to stay at a homestay called Tuan Nam, which we found on the internet when we looked for a place to stay the night. The place was nicely decorated, they charged us 245,000 to 350,000 VND for a room each night (about $10.5 to $15 per night) (with taxes and service charges included with breakfast and they didn’t ask for any prepayment from us). The homestay impressed us with the relaxing atmosphere and fresh air it offered. The route we took on the way to the place was filled with bamboo trees and we were very impressed. It is very comfy and clean here. The owner was also a very nice and friendly guy.
We choose to stay at Tuan Nam Homestay
In order to moving around easily, we recommend hiring a motorbike or a bicycle. We began going to Phat Diem Cathedral at 10.00 am and we drove for about 25 kilometers before stopping for lunch. The cathedral is located at about 28 kilometers away from Ninh Binh, next to the Kin Son village. It was built from 1875 to 1899, designed by Father Tran Luoc, who combined the beauty of both Christian and Buddhism to the design. Furthermore, it also represents the magnificent charm of Vietnamese architecture during the Nguyen Dynasty. The structure remains intact after all those years. This masterpiece is much more impressive than the ruins of the capital of Annam in our opinion, which suffered the Battle of Hue back in 1968.
We stopped for lunch at Bamboo Bar and Restaurant, a place which is very popular in Ninh Binh, where there were a lot of tourists when we came to the place, mostly foreigners. The place had a great menu which featured a lot of basic Vietnamese dishes along with Ninh Binh’s culinary specialties like grilled goat. The meal was delicious and satisfying, and the service was also very pleasing.
Don’t forget to try Ninh Binh’s specialties
We began exploring Tam Coc – Bich Dong at 3.00 pm. Luckily our Tuan Nam Homestay was quite near the area, it took us only 5 minutes travelling. Entrance fee to enter Tam Coc was 150,000 VND/adult.
Tam Coc – Bich Dong is a complex includes limestone karsts caves and historical monuments built during the Tran Dynasty. Tam Coc literally means ‘Three Caves’, compiles three caves named Ca Cave, Hai Cave and Ba Cave, located on Ngo Dong River, passing through huge limestone rocks. Bich Dong means ‘Green Cave’ lying 2 kilometers away from Tam Coc. Tourists will sit on small boats sailing along the river from the village of Van Lam, through rice fields and limestone karsts, through the caves, and back. Local women serve as guides and attempt to sell embroidered goods to their passengers. First you will enter Ca Cave, which is about 127 meters long. It has a very large entrance, about 20 meters wide with hanging stalactites come with different shapes and sizes, it is relatively easy to go inside the cave. It is not difficult to realize the variety of stalactites and stalagmites here.
Hai Cave is the second cave of your trip, which is about 60 meters long. Similar to Ca Cave, Hai Cave also has a lot of beautiful stalactites. Ba Cave is the smallest of all three, just about 50 meters long with a pretty low ceiling. You can also stop by a temple, called Thai Vi, in which people honor the Emperors Tran Thai Tong, Tran Thanh Tong and two Generals Tran Hung Dao and Tran Quang Khai.
All three caves are located on the Ngo Dong River, passing by many large green mountains. In order to explore the place, you need to pay 120,000 VND for a boat trip, normally takes 4 Vietnamese or 2 foreigners. The rice paddy fields near the shore of the Ngo Dong River is a site you should not miss, which is most beautiful during May to June.
About 2 kilometers away, Bich Dong offers you a religious and spiritual atmosphere you would not find anywhere in Ninh Binh. Literally means ‘The Green Cave’, Bich Dong is a place where many visitors come to, since it is one of the most popular destination in Ninh Binh. It is considered as the second most beautiful cave in Vietnam, just behind Huong Tich Cave in Huong Pagoda. The place holds three small ancient pagodas and it was built during the early 18th century in ascending order, named ‘Ha’, ‘Trung’ and ‘Thuong’. They appeared in the film ‘Indochina’ where the two fugitives come to the place looking for shelter. You can explore the three pagodas while travelling inside the cave. You can try hop on a boat and sailing around the area, stopping at the mountains to eat some fruits, however, that would make your trip 3 hours longer. The temple requires no entry fee.
We got back to our Tuan Nam Homestay at 7.00 pm and enjoyed our dinner. The meal was easily enjoyable and the staffs were able to make anything we asked for. The menu includes both traditional Vietnamese food and Ninh Binh’s culinary specialties. It cost us 150,000 VND/person for the meal. We liked it so much we decided to keep eating here from the day after.
After finishing our meal, we went outside for a little jogging and had a couple of beers at Tam Coc Pier Pub. We were lucky to have arrived at the place during ‘Happy hour’ time, where we can have a big cup of beer for only 15,000 VND. We returned to the homestay to sleep at 11.00 pm.
Day 2: Trang An – Bai Dinh
We woke up at 6.00 am, had breakfast and then hired a motorbike like the day before and started heading to Trang An Landscape Complex. It was about 11 kilometers away from our spot, took about 30 minutes to travel there. We bought the tickets as instructed, the place was not very crowded when we got there, as it was only morning. The price was 200,000 VND/person, including a boat trip. I bought a Non la (conical hat made of palm leaf) before exploring Trang An. The lines were not long so we did not have to wait. I found going early on weekdays was quite benefit, as there were less people. We jumped on a 70-year old man’s boat and he told us that he had been sailing for tourists for over 10 years. The boat carried 4 to 6 visitors and he was our tour guide during our visit.
Trang An Landscape Complex has one of the most beautiful and unique karst structure in the world. The place was formed by huge limestone mountains shaped like a hat, covered with thick lines of forests and golden rice fields surrounding the valley. I cannot forget mentioning the crystal-clear rivers and streams flowing through the valley, reflecting the clear blue sky up high. These rivers are all somehow connected to each other, some of them even stretch as long as one kilometer. Therefore, making boat trips is a great way to fully explore the beauty of the site. You can also stop by some spots to visit the beautiful natural caves on foot.
Trang An is of global significance as an outstanding humid tropical tower-karst landscape in the final stages of geomorphic evolution. It is composed of a variety of classical karst cones and towers and a network of enclosed depressions connected by an intricate system of subterranean waterways, some of which are navigable by small boats. The area is unique because of being invaded by the sea several times in the recent geological past but it is emergent on land now. The blend of towering mountains draped in natural rain forest, with large internal basins and narrow cave passages containing quietly flowing waters, creates an extraordinarily beautiful and tranquil landscape.
Taking a look inside Trang An’s mysterious caves
Archaeological deposits in caves reveal a regionally significant, continuous sequence of human occupation and utilization spanning more than 30,000 years. There is convincing evidence showing how early human groups adapted to changing landscapes in the massif, including some of the most extreme climatic and environmental changes in the planet’s recent history.
Trang An is an outstanding locale within Southeast Asia, for demonstrating the way early humans interacted with the natural landscape and adapted to major changes in climatic, geographical and environmental conditions over a period of more than 30,000 years. The long cultural history is closely associated with geological evolution of the Trang An limestone massif in late Pleistocene and early Holocene times, when the inhabitants endured some of the most turbulent climatic and environmental changes in Earth history, including repeated submergence of the landscape due to oscillating sea levels. Within the one compact landscape, there are many sites covering multiple periods and functions, comprising early human settlement systems.
The scenes we have seen here was more than anything we could imagine. The colors of green and blue surrounded us everywhere we set our feet to. The boatman told us about the history of the places in Trang An, along with its stories. We were very exciting when we were told we could paddle with the man, in order to help the boat goes faster. A lot of other visitors did this with enthusiasm. This place was truly an escape from the busy, crowded and noisy city rhythm.
After 3 hours of travelling, we finally got back to the dock. We gave the old boatman 150,000 VND as tips for him as a thank for his great work. Our plan was to visit Bai Dinh Pagoda in the afternoon and then return to our homestay in Tam Coc. The route to Bai Dinh from Trang An was about 11,3 kilometers. We stopped for lunch in a small restaurant on the way. Once we got there, we had to pay 50,000 VND/person entry fee.
The old original Pagoda is located on top of a small hill in Gia Sinh Commune, Gia Vien District. Visitors, who come to the place, must climb up about 300 stone steps. The name ‘Bai Dinh’ was explained as “worshiping heaven and earth, the Buddha and the holy angels”.
The main temple in Bai Dinh complex
The atmosphere surrounding the pagoda was very comfortable. The place was surrounded by large mountains and green tropical forests, making it peaceful and ideal for a good meditation. The legend said this land was very sacred because of the fact that this is the hometown of Ly Cong Uan, the person is known as Emperor Ly Thai To, who had meditated here before moving the capital of Dai Viet to Thang Long.
The newly built Bai Dinh Pagoda is the biggest pagoda not only in Vietnam but also the whole Southeast Asia, which holds 500 Arhat statues, the biggest bronze Buddha statue about 10 meters high and 100 tons in weight. The place covers an area of 700 hectares, located of Ba Rau Hills, near Hoang Long river. Bai Dinh holds 12 different records in the world for having the largest copper bell, the tallest and heaviest statue of Sakyamuni, three largest copper Buddhas of the past, present and future, or the longest corridor of Arhat statues.
Bai Dinh pagoda is holding many world records for its incredible area and statues.
The place is not very crowded, except the weekends and during the big Buddhist festivals time, therefore you will have a lot of free space to fully discover the site. We recommend visiting during Bai Dinh Pagoda Festival held annually from the 6th day of the first lunar month until the end of the 3rd lunar month. The newly constructed Bai Dinh pagoda is recognized as the religious center of Buddhism in Southeast Asia.
On the way to the old pagoda, you should visit Light Cave, where the Sakyamuni Buddha is worshiped or the Dark Cave, where the Heavenly Mother of the Nation is honored. The Light Cave is 25 meters long and 15 meters wide, with both ceilings and floors are strangely and naturally flat. Above the entrance, there are carved scripts that said ‘Minh Dinh Danh Lam’ made by the poet-loving Emperor Le Thanh Tong. The Dark cave features the Fairy pond, with weirdly formed stalactites reflecting in the crystal-clear water, a magnificent scene to have.
We spent more than 4 hours in the place, before returning to the homestay. By the time we got there, it was 7.00 pm. We were starving and immediately had dinner. Then we went to bed quite early. It was an exhausting day.
Day 3: Cave of Mua – Hanoi
We continued to wake up early on the third day, had a good breakfast at the homestay and travel to Hang Mua. The distance was only 5 kilometers, so we hired the bikes and went to the place. We planned to go early in order to catch the sunrise, but unfortunately, Hang Mua only opened after 7.00 am, when the sun was probably shining bright. Nonetheless, we left home early to enjoy the fresh morning atmosphere.
We arrived at Hang Mua at exactly 7.00 am, making us the first visitors to the cave that day. A ticket cost us 100,000 VND/person, free entry for children under 6 years old. There are shops selling souvenirs and food near the entrance, we recommend choosing the first one, right next to the ticket counter, as the price there was very reasonable.
Hang Mua literally means ‘The Dancing Cave’. This name was attached by the story of an Emperor who moved the capital of Vietnam to Hoa Lu, he ordered to build a small pagoda in the Ca Cave. The Emperor often went there to listen to the sound of the odalisques and dancing, which is the reason why the cave is called ‘The Dancing Cave’. Besides, from being a magnificent sight to see, Hang Mua contains many historical values. During the war against the French colonization, Hang Mua was used as an armory for the Vietnamese military to store their guns and weapons. It was later used by the Vietnamese Military as a hospital to treat wounded soldiers during the Operation Rolling Thunder of the United States.
There is a large green old artificial lake, covered in moss in the middle of the cave. The space is open thanks to the shade of the trees. There are white stone steps leading you to the top of the mountain, resembles the stairs to the paradise. The sculptures of colorful dragons on the two sides of the path leading us up is what really makes the beauty of the mountain, unveiling the heroic history and the brilliance of Tran Dynasty architecture. The path to the top of the mountain is somewhat challenging with big steep rocks, you should be careful if you want to go the top.
After 486 stone steps, you have conquered and reached the top of Ngoa Long Mountain. Thanks to this exciting activity, a part from enjoying the natural beauty and historical remains, Hang Mua is also seen as an ideal place for you to become more active and energetic. The journey was not easy, but the price is completely worth it. From the top, you will be able to see a full view of the old capital Hoa Lu, which is one of the most magical scenes I have ever seen. The mountains, the area create a tricky terrain, hence the reason why the Emperors chose Hoa Lu to be the capital because of the difficulties in order to attack the place.
Climbing on top of Ngoa Long Mountain
It is recommended to visit the place during April – May or September – October, when the cave is in its best looks. You will be able to see the area covered with yellow from the rice fields during the harvest season. If the sun shines on your visiting day, it is perfect for taking beautiful photos. However, the weather in the summer can be exhausting, especially when you plan to climb almost 500 steps to the top of the mountain. It is recommended to go climbing during the sunset or the dawn, when the weather is most enjoyable.
At 9.30 am, we went back to Tuan Nam homestay and started packing our stuffs. After the last delightful lunch, we went to the city bus station to catch a ride back to Hanoi, ending our unforgettable trip.