Ninh Binh Provence is located in central north Vietnam and has some of the most spectacular natural beauty in South East Asia. A designated UNESCO world heritage site, the Trang An Landscape Complex encompasses the beautiful limestone karst peaks of Trang An, as well as two of our favourite things in Ninh Binh, the Bich Dong Pagoda and Bai Dinh Temple. While you’ll need a tour or motorbike to see the temples and Pagoda, a Trang An boat tour is the perfect way to see the ‘Halong Bay of the land’. There are so many things to do in Ninh Binh, you don’t want to miss it.
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Getting to Ninh Binh
Most travellers travel to Ninh Binh from Phong Nha National Park to the south, or Hanoi to the North, you can check bus availability from Hanoi to Ninh Binh using 12Go which is a fantastic booking company.
It is also possible to go from Halong Bay to Ninh Binh before heading south.
Things to do in Ninh Binh
Relax on a Trang An boat tour
Known as the Halong Bay of the land, the Trang An boat tour takes you along the river, past beautiful limestone karst peaks, through caves and to some small temples. The scenery is beautiful and the boat ride very relaxing. It’s a great way to spend a few hours.
Trang An boat tour price
When you arrive at the Trang An boat tour ticket office, you’ll have to buy a ticket for 200,000 VDN per person. There are also signs up offering 3 different options for routes.
It was rainy season when we were there and many areas surrounding Tam Coc and Trang An were flooded, and the river here was very high. I think it is for this reason we were told we only had the option of tour number 2, which supposedly consist of 4 caves, or grottoes and 3 temples. We did in fact, only get to go through 2 caves. There was no explanation for this, however the water level was so high in the two caves we did go through that we barely fit, so I’m assuming the other caves were impassable.
Once in your boat, your boat driver will paddle you up the river. While there are quite a few boats on the water, there are times when you feel like you’re the only person there. Its easy to get lost in the beauty of the area.
When you arrive at a temple, your boat driver will wait for you and you can continue your journey.
As I mentioned, the river levels were high, and as we went through portions of the cave we had to sit on the bottom of the boat and duck down. The Trang An caves were short, but beautiful. Our favourite part of the boat tour was going through one of the caves and coming out into a crystal clear, aqua blue lake.
The least exciting part of the boat ride for us was walking through the set of the King Kong movie. As Ben pointed out, if you are a movie buff, you may love this, but for us it was neither here nor there. It was all very staged complete with actors.
The whole tour took us around 2.5 hours, but the choice of timing will largely depend on you. Inside the boat there are another pair of oars if you want to help the boat driver and speed things up. Very few people were doing this, its not expected, however those that did were going a lot faster than the rest of us. How long the tour takes will also depend on how long you spend at each of the Pagodas and the King Kong set.
I would suggest wearing sunscreen and taking a hat and some water. It got hot on the boat.
Tam Coc or Trang An boat tour?
We were not sure at first which tour would be best. The Tam Coc boat tour leaves from the heart of Tam Coc town so if you’re staying in Tam Coc it’s the easier of the options. After a fair amount of research however it seems the Trang An Boat tour is the best option. Although more expensive than the Tam Coc tour, the Trang An grottoes tour has much more spectacular views of the limestone mountains, whereas the Tam Coc boat tour looks largely over the rice paddies. You can see rice paddies in plenty of other places in Vietnam.
The Trang An boat tour also has a much better reputation than the one leaving from Tam Coc. There are countless stories online about the boat drivers on the Tam Coc boat tour stopping mid-way through the tour and refusing to go on without receiving a decent tip. Interestingly we met people who this had happened to.
We were surprised near the end of our Trang An boat tour when the boat driver handed us a questionnaire to fill out and return when we were ashore. The questionnaire asked things such as ‘did you boat driver shorten your trip?’ and ‘did your boat driver ask for a tip?’. I got the feeling that the Trang An grottoes tour management have heard about what’s happening in Tam Coc and are trying to avoid the same occurring there.
All in all, it was a beautiful morning out on the water and one I would highly recommend.
Getting to Trang An Ninh Binh
Trang An from Hanoi
Hanoi to Ninh Binh Day Trip
It is possible to do a Trang An tour from Hanoi as a day trip, as Hanoi is only around 2 hours from Trang An. This Hanoi to Ninh Binh Day trip to Trang An includes one of our favourite things in Ninh Binh, the Bai Dinh Temple.
Hanoi to Trang An by bus
You can also get a bus from Hanoi to Ninh Binh. Buses take just under 2 hours.
Hanoi to Ninh Binh by train
Trains also run between Hanoi and Ninh Binh. The trains are a little slower and cost a minimum of $16 USD one way, depending on which form of seating you choose.
From Ninh Binh train station you’ll need to make your way to Trang An. You can do this by taxi, motorbike or hiring a moto, or you could join a bus tour from Ninh Binh City.
Other awesome things to do in Ninh Binh
Visit the Bich Dong Pagoda
Bich Dong Pagoda is a stunningly beautiful cluster of three temples located 3km from Tam Coc. Built in 1705 by two Buddhist Monks, the Pagoda’s look over the beautiful rice fields below. Each of the Pagodas rest against the Bich Dong Mountain while the Truong Giang river runs across the mountains base. Bich Dong Pagoda was recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site, as part of the Trang An Landscape complex in 2014.
The spectacular landscape of rice paddies, Truong Giang river and the Bich Dong Mountains are what make this temple really stand out compared to others in Vietnam.
As you arrive at the Bich Dong Pagoda, a small bridge crosses the river which is full of water lilies. It was wet season when we arrived, and as much of the areas surrounding Tam Coc were experiencing floods, the water level of the river flowed over the access bridge. We had to take our shoes off to cross.
Once through the gate, you begin climbing stairs to the three Pagoda’s above, which are organised in ascending order up the mountain. The Ha Pagoda, or lower pagoda, is located at the foot of the mountain. Next is the Trung Pagoda, or middle pagoda, found on the mountain side, and finally he Thuong Pagoda, or upper pagoda, located at the top.
To get to the Thuong Pagoda, you’ll need to make your way through the Dark Cave, the home to quite a few bats.
Make sure you take the time to admire the views as you move up the mountain. They are some of the best in Vietnam.
Bich Dong Pagoda entrance fee
It is free to enter the Bich Dong Pagoda. If you ride a motorbike or bicycle however you’ll have to pay 10000 VDN if you park it in the ‘secure’ parking area.
Bich Dong Pagoda opening hours
The Bich Dong Pagoda is open all day so you can go any time you like.
Tours of Bich Dong Pagoda and Trang An
If you want to do both the Trang An boat tour and explore the Bich Dong Pagoda near Tam Coc, you can do a tour like this one which combines both options, leaving from Hanoi.
Explore the Bai Dinh Temple
The Bai Dinh Temple, which is also known as the Bai Dinh Temple Spiritual and Cultural Complex, consists of two separate areas, the original ancient Temple and the new temple complex which was built between 2003 and 2010. Located on Bai Dinh Mountain, it is the largest complex of Buddhist Temples in Vietnam, sitting on 700 hectares of land. Like the Bich Dong Pagoda, the Bai Dinh Temple is also part of the world heritage listed Trang An Landscape Complex.
Bai Dinh Temple was so phenomenal that we went there twice. The first time, we didn’t allow ourselves enough time to see it all. We were so impressed with the complex that we went back the next day to see the things we had missed.
When you arrive in the car park, you will have the option of taking an electric car to the main entrance of the complex, 4km away from the carpark. The electric car costs 30000 VDN per person each way.
You can also walk the shorter walking path to access the complex. If you walk, you will enter the complex around the middle. If you have time, there is no reason not to walk. On our first visit we were short of time, so we took the electric car. On our second visit we walked as the remaining sites we wanted to see where closest to the walking path entrance anyway.
Throughout the Bai Dinh Temple complex, you’ll discover large halls and courtyards. Maps can be found near most major structures to offer you direction. The largest structure is the Tam the Hall, which measures around 34 meters at it’s roof ridge and is over 59 meters in length.
A covered walkway leads you through the new portion of the complex and is lined with 500 perfectly carved statues of those who have reached enlightenment.
The main Temple is covered almost top to bottom in bronze, as large and small statues are dotted throughout. Even the walls are lined with Buddha’s. Yet surprisingly, the complex never feels gaudy or overly blingy as everything else is made with natural materials.
Built largely from materials sourced locally such as quarried stone, wood and tiles, it took over 500 craftsmen to construct the complex.
The grounds of the Bai Dinh Temple complex are spotlessly clean, with beautifully manicured gardens. There are many places throughout the complex where you can stop and witness the stunning views of the surrounding area below.
We arrived quite late in the afternoon on our first visit to the Bai Dinh Temple. We had no idea how large it was. As we have a general rule to never ride motorbikes in Vietnam after dark, we were somewhat rushed to see everything and make it back to Tam Coc before night fall. Because of this, we only got half way through the complex, missing the main temple, and the Ancient Temple.
We were unbelievably happy that we chose to go back to the next day. It was worth it.
Bai Dinh Pagoda
The Ancient Temple, located on Dinh Mountain, is around 800 meters from the New Temple. As you follow the signs pointing towards the Ancient temple, you’ll find yourself walking up around 300 stairs, through beautiful forest.
The signs become less clear as you near the temple, and we were a little underwhelmed (and rather hot and tired) when we arrived at a wooden pagoda. We decided to climb a little further up and were rewarded with one of the highlights of the Bai Dinh Temple complex, The Ancient Pagoda.
The Ancient Pagoda of Bai Dinh Temple complex is located inside a beautiful cave. Bronze statues are arranged inside the cave on shrines.
As you walk further into the cave, an awe-inspiring pool, inside the cave, complete with fish, and lined with a beautiful Dragon border.
We spent quite a bit of time admiring the beauty and natural wonder of the phenomenal ancient Pagoda. Interestingly, there was virtually no one else there while the newer complex below was buzzing with people.
If you go to the temple, you must, and I mean must, visit the Ancient Pagoda. It’s well worth the climb.
As you head back down the stairs, away from the Ancient Pagoda, you can catch the electric car back to the car park or walk down the electric car road and join up with the walking path. Just watch out for the electric cars, I’ve seen how they drive them!
Bai Dinh Pagoda Entrance Fee
The Bai Dinh Temple complex is free to enter. As mentioned above however, you have the option of taking the electric car to the main entrance, around 4km away from the car park. The electric car is 30000 VDN each way.
Bai Dinh Temple opening hours
The Bai Dinh Temple complex is open from 7am to 6pm daily.
Bai Dinh Pagoda tour
It is possible to book a tour of the Bai Dinh Temple from both Tam Coc and Ninh Binh City.
Tours of Trang An will often also include a visit to Bai Dinh, such as this one that leaves fron Hanoi.
Having a copy of the Lonely Planet Vietnam (Country Guide) is always a great idea as you can quickly and easily check out the nearest attractions and the next town to visit.
Getting out and exploring the Ninh Binh country side
It wouldn’t be a post from me unless I included exploring the local area! Some of our best days are those where we just ride around and admire the natural beauty of a place and Ninh Binh is an area with more beauty than we could handle!
Lined with rice paddies, beautiful waterways, limestone karst mountains and livestock, it’s not that dissimilar to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, however there are some differences between the two.
In Phong Nha, the limestone mountains are covered in a rich forest, so they are almost entirely green, whereas the mountains of Phong Nha have quite a bit of exposed rock face. This gives the area a different feel than Phong Nha.
There are also a much greater number of waterways and tributaries running through the region, and it is fascinating to see how people build their lives along the edge of the water.
Due to flooding the water levels were quite high and we witnessed quite a few fields that were flooded, although thankfully we didn’t see any houses that had been inundated.
The whole area is green and lush with animals freely roaming the road side.
We highly recommend either hiring a motorbike or a bicycle and exploring the region for a day. You won’t regret it.
Climb Hang Mua (Mua Cave)
Mua Caves is more popular for it’s spectacular panoramic view of Ninh Binh than it’s caves, but you’ll have to work for it. It’s 500 stairs to the top of the mountain but well worth the view if you can make it. At 100,000VDN per person, Mua Caves is not the cheapest thing to do in Ninh Binh, but if you have the time and fitness, you won’t be disappointed.
Where to stay in Ninh Binh
If you’d prefer to stay in Ninh Binh to spend a few days exploring the region, there are a some great hotels in the area.
The Tre Xanh Homestay, located only a few kilometers from the Trang An Boat tours is a great, inexpensive accommodation option.
For a mid range priced homestay, Mom’s Homestay can’t be beaten. With beautiful rooms with garden views, an outdoor pool and sun terrace, you’re only 5.6 km from Trang An Ecotourism Complex and less than 27km to the beautiful Bai Dinh Temple.
For a little luxury after exploring all the things to do in Ninh Binh, the Tam Coc Wonderland Bungalows offers beautiful surrounds, in a fantastic location close to the center of Tam Coc.
Where to next? You may find these useful
Planning a trip to Ninh Binh for a Trang An boat tour? Here’s how we get started
This article may contain affiliate/compensated links. For more information, please see our disclaimer here.
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