Nov 28, 2018
Ninh Binh is a Vietnam’s underrated travel spot but should deserve the same praise as Ha Long bay. It exhibits a quite diverse assemblage: mountains, big lakes, gigantic limestone on lakes, rice paddies, great pagodas, nature reserve and national park. That sounds too much, until you discover they are just inside a 60km radius and ideal for a weekend getaway.
Ninh Binh is a small province some 100km southeast of Hanoi. There are apparently 2 popular travel routes in Ninh Binh: Trang An-Bai Dinh in the northwest and Tam Coc-Binh Dong west of town. Okay, that’s 4, but grouped to 2, and indeed consists of around 10 venues. Most of them constitute the awkwardly-named Trang An scenic landscape complex, a UNESCO-recognized heritage.
A full Ninh Binh trip takes away 3 days from you, but 2 days are enough if you skip similar spots. I went with the 2-day options, for my limited time rather than skipping many things. My itinerary is as follows:
How to get to Ninh Binh?
Ninh Binh is well-served on the north-south route by both bus and train. With around 100km, a bus drive takes 1.5 hour. You can buy bus ticket, ranging from VND 80k to 200k, on vexere.com. Train is typically slower, but with such a short trip offers better rates, from 60k to 120k. Check out the official Vietnam Railway website for tickets.
Alternatively, self-driving to Ninh Binh is pretty straightforward. It stays on the national road 1A; you never get lost unless you decide so. Take a bike from Hanoi and there you go.
I arrived by train at 10pm the day before. The homestay owner picked me up at the station with a small fee. Around $6 for a dorm bed, this seems like a common rate here. The city has so many hotels, hostels and homestays that a quick search on Booking.com and Agoda may leave you overwhelmed.
Trang An that you cannot miss, either in eyesight or on Google Maps. It’s the most famous out there. Named Trang An grottoes in many English guides, its real scene should be described a 2.100 hectares complex of limestone, lakes, temples, and caves.
I went straight to the ticket booth where they sold for VND 200k/pax for a boat ride around the complex. You have 2 boat routes to choose from. Route 1 runs through 9 caves and 3 temples and lasts 3 hours; route 2 is shorter at 2.5 hours and passes through 4 caves and 4 temples, plus a fake Kong: Skull island film studio (the movie was filmed in Ninh Binh, albeit at a different location). By its look, route 2 seems fun and less duplicating, but I picked route 1 for the greater amount of caves.
Boat maneuvering through Trang An water.
And so the paddler navigated through the big big lake. In front of us were black limestone karsts, one after another, grandiosely lining up to the horizon, covered with trees of grayish green. The lake never ended, until the boat seemed about to hit a mountain in front and turned left or right.
After a short lunch break, I dragged my dirty old bike to Hoa Lu, 10km north of Trang An. The area is better known as Hoa Lu ancient capital, where a king established his dynasty more than 1.000 years ago. It nowadays is a complex (another complex, argggh) of small temples and pagodas, this time not on water, of course.
The bridge and the gate of Hoa Lu
I visited Am Tien cave, a much-advertised location for wedding photos. VND 10k for parking and 20k for ticket let me in. Here you have a bunch of hills surrounding a green lake which resembles a self-enclosed safe haven. Exiting the ‘prison,’ I ran to the proper Hoa Lu area. The complex comprises 2 medium-sized temples for 2 great Vietnamese kings, one of which requires VND 20k for ticket.
The lake at the bottom of Am Tien cave
I headed south to Mua cave, on the way back to my homestay. It has recently received heaps of praise from travellers thanks to its highest vantage point in Trang An scenic landscape complex.Ticket booth says VND 100k, seemingly proud to put on a Trip Advisor certificate of excellence.
Near the top, overlooking Tam Coc
My last day, or second if you like, started at 9am with a ride to city centre. Ninh Binh is such a small town that easily fits inside an inner district of Hanoi. “Nothing to do,” I thought. Grabbing a quick bite for breakfast, I escaped.
Bai Dinh is the biggest pagoda complex in the country, and in Southeast Asia too, at 539 hectares. Like other places in this post, don’t mistake this pagoda for one building. It’s a combination of 3 great halls, long corridors, a big stupa, a bell tower, and large squares. Expensive wood was imported from Laos and Cambodia, while white stones were carved very carefully and lavish bronze decoration fills the eyes. All temple roofs were traditionally curved to the shape of phoenix’s tail. You just can tell how much they invested in this. So crazy.
The last and biggest hall
Bich Dong means green cave. Cave again? Wait, that’s not the worst part. Because its full name is Bich Dong pagoda. One more pagoda? You may think I’m joking.
Bich Dong pagoda is totally different. It stays at the end of the short Tam Coc-Bich Dong travel route, making the logical choice for anyone getting on this route. Bich Dong is a cluster of 3 modest pagodas, called lower, middle, and upper, built into a mountain. A short hike led me through a dark cave (note: pitch black) to the upper pagoda, where placidity was so complete. This place was exactly devoid of glamor and hassle I saw at Bai Dinh, small enough to feel secured, and spectacular enough to relax.
The entrance of Bich Dong
I skipped Tam Coc, the second most famous/infamous in Ninh Binh. Can you imagine that? I can tell you this: Tam Coc is similar to Trang An as you’d take boat ride, but through 3 caves and spacious rice fields. Its best season had long gone in May or June, when the fields paint a vivid yellow. Try them if you have 3 to 4 days.
Ninh Binh is particularly attractive to photographers and I can confirm that. Nature and artificial constructions harmonize so well in an admittedly small zone.
Many thanks to Captain Essy for sharing his experience with Ask Vietnamese.
More details of this trip can be found at Captain Essy blog: http://captainessy.com/2017/2-day-wander-ninh-binh/
Photos credited to Captain Essy