Ninh Binh is an underrated city of Vietnam & often considered as the unpopular twin sister of Halong Bay. While Halong Bay is majestic and awe-inspiring in its own right, Ninh Binh is more laid back & less touristy, and undoubtedly nature's gift to mankind. The best part being that it is only 2 hours away from Hanoi, this hidden gem is sometimes included as a day-trip in organized tours from the capital city.
The best way to get to Ninh Binh from Hanoi is to take a short train journey. Although you can easily spend 2 days in this serene, idyllic town, I was a little short on time and had hardly 24 hours to explore Ninh Binh. With two protected natural areas to choose from (Tam Coc & Trang An), both offering similar landscapes in terms of the jagged limestone rocks, the little river flowing from between & snaking through several caves, and the floating lush green rice fields that one can maneuver through in a boat, it can be a tough decision if you are short on time. Tam Coc sounded like a great option to me, so that's the one I chose.
Exploring Tam Coc in Ninh Binh in 1 day
Now here's the one most important thing you need to know - when you read up about Ninh Binh and see the pictures, you will fall in love with the sprawling rice fields and the little boat that maneuvers between these rice fields in the river. However, the rice gets harvested in September and these views are very different if you visit in the winter (I visited in December and was really disappointed to learn this). Nevertheless, I highly recommend a trip to this cute bucolic spot in Vietnam which is, in my opinion, very underrated.
Suggested homestay in Tam Coc (located right next to the lake): Tam Coc Mountain Lake Home Stay
Morning: Boat Tour through Tam Coc
The only way to explore the depths of this protected area is on a rowing boat. The 2-hour journey will take you through three different caves, costs about $7 (150,000 VND) and one boat can carry two people, apart from the rower. It's amazing to see how skillfully the local men and women ride these boats with their feet (although there are strict rules that forbid them from doing that, it's definitely an interesting sight to see!). The boat ride begins from Van Lam pier, and if you're staying in the hotel I recommended (Tam Coc Mountain Lake Homestay), you are literally a 2-min walk from here.
Early Afternoon: Bich Dong Pagoda
Once the boat tour is out of your way (you cannot afford to miss it because its the no. 1 thing to do in Ninh Binh), you can rent a bike or walk to Bich Dong Pagoda, which is about 3 kms from the pier. Built within a mountain cave, one must be prepared to climb steep steps to get to the different levels of the pagoda. The entrance to Bich Dong is free and I suggest you keep about 45 min aside for your visit.
The entrance to the pagoda is perhaps the prettiest, with a little moat full of lotus flowers. To explore the pagoda, you will go through the cool interiors of the mountain cave its built inside of, which also provides some relief from the strong sun. Make sure to have good footwear to be able to climb all the way up to the viewpoint.
Late Afternoon: Hang Mua Peak (viewpoint)
If you decided to walk to Bich Dong Pagoda, here is where I recommend that you rent a bike right outside the temple and visit the Hang Mua Peak. Its a 15-min (8 km) journey to the base of the peak. Be prepared, however, to climb 500 steps to the top of the this hill. The views from the peak, I promise, are totally worth it. When you look through google, you'll find gorgeous pictures of this place where you'll see the lake below with lush green rice fields and the boats sailing through them. The view in the winter months is not the same, of course, after the rice has been harvested. Nevertheless, the panoramic perspective of the Tam Coc Valley is something you cannot afford to miss when you visit Ninh Binh.
There are two viewpoints on the Hang Mua Peak. The first one, which is easier to reach, is where you can stop for a while, soak in the surroundings, rest your feet and enjoy a little picnic if you wish. But there are no cafes or restaurants here so make sure to carry water & snacks with you before you begin climbing. If you have the energy and the motivation, you could continue to the second viewpoint, to the Hang Mua Dragon. But there are no proper steps leading to this, so be prepared to climb uneven, steep pathways to get here. If you are not in proper footwear (slippers won't work), then do not even attempt this climb. It is a basically on a bed of sharp rock that requires scrambling so if you're low on the adventure quotient, skip it! Also, it can get very hot when the sun is burning down on you so carry your sunglasses, sunscreen & hats. Most importantly, STAY HYDRATED!
Tip: Parking is free right outside Hang Mua Ecolodge but a lot of local scamsters will try and convince you to use their 'private' parking spots to make money from you. Keep at least 2 hours for your visit here.
Evening: Sunset at Tam Coc Lake
The area around the Tam Coc Lake is quite happening! When I visited in December 2019, the nightlife was surprisingly amazing. I say 'surprisingly' because it's not what I expected from 'rural Vietnam' but I love being surprised. From cute & cozy restaurants, to poolside bars and lake side shisha lounges, Ninh Binh has quite the vibe. Enjoy a sundowner at The Banana Tree Hostel Kitchen & Bar with gorgeous views of the lake or a nice Vietnamese meal at the cozy & charming patio of Linh Chi Family Bar and Restaurant or sing the night away at the flashy karaoke bus parked right next to the lake. The double decker bus, with its neon lights and loud music may not be everyone's scene but it's definitely intriguing and unique.
I could have easily spent more time in Ninh Binh. There were so many beautiful spots & places that I missed out on due to the shortage of time. It's the kind of city where you need to soak in the nature & immerse yourself in the culture by visiting some pagodas & ancient cities, or just treat your palate to exquisite Vietnamese dishes, without being in a rush!
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