Ninh Binh: The Definitive Guide
After it was selected as a primary shooting location for Kong: Skull Island, the amount of international visitors expected to travel to Ninh Binh, Vietnam in the upcoming future will surely increase. As it becomes a widely marked destination due to its striking limestone karsts, largely undisturbed atmosphere, picturesque rice paddies and record-breaking pagodas, we can be sure to hear the name Ninh Binh beginning to catch wind on major travel blogs across the world.
Although already a popular tourist destination for the Vietnamese community, it’s just recently been exposed to the foreign travel market and western visitors are already trickling in. Lucky for you, we’re here to uncover all you need to know before you travel to Ninh Binh, Vietnam.
Location and Transport: Ninh Binh is 92.4 kilometers south of Hanoi, and can be reached via bus, taxi, motorbike or train and takes 2-3 hours total. There are also direct bus routes from Halong Bay and Hue as well.
What to Do
Trang An Boat Trip
The first thing most people do when they travel to Ninh Binh, Vietnam is hop in a boat and take a trip to the UNESCO World Heritage listed Trang An Grottos. This two hour trip is sure to impress as guests are taken on a winding river journey beneath colossal limestone caps and dark caves as local oarswomen helm the ship with their feet. Yea, that’s right, their feet. I won’t lie it’s pretty impressive. These women are tough.
Hoa Lu Temple
The best way to visit this temple is by including it as part of your Trang An boat trip so you catch all nearby sites in one go. Hoa Lu is known because of its historical context as it served as the ancient capital for the Le and Dinh Dynasties which ruled during the 10-11th centuries. A visit to the attractive complex is rich with history and ideal for the history buff.
Bai Dinh Pagoda
This is Vietnam’s largest pagoda, and is a result of combining a 1,000 year old pagoda with a new addition built in 2008. The Bai Dinh pagoda attracts nearly 400,000 visitors each year and holds an additional number of records including Asia’s largest corridor (3 km), the biggest bronze buddha statue in Southeast Asia, and is home to over 500 Arhat statues which display the evolution of buddhism throughout the dynasty periods.
Note: To avoid large crowds, it’s best to travel to Ninh Binh outside of Vietnamese religious holidays. If you do any of the boat tours be sure to book early in the morning or late in the afternoon. In other words, don’t expect to have the river for yourself on this one. It isn’t going to happen!
Tam Coc Boat Trip
The Tam Coc boat trip will take you through three caves along the Ngo Dong River and depending on what kind of tour package you decide upon, perhaps other attractions as well. The two hour boat journey is nothing short of spectacular and the Tam Coc area is home to countless knockout natural landscapes as well as numerous revered religious relics.
Bich Dong Pagoda
The Bich Dong Pagoda, built in 1948, is a trifecta of temples laboriously carved into the mountainside and weaved throughout three caves. They rest charmingly stacked on top each other in ascending order with a ground floor pagoda, middle level and an abrupt incline to the third and final temple which opens up to an immaculate view of the surrounding Tam Coc countryside.
Hang Mua Temple
Also in the Tam Coc area, yet only accessible by a short, but intensely steep 500 step trek to the top of the mountain lies, in my opinion, one the best views in Ninh Binh. It’s ideal to beat the heat by waking up early and beginning your ascent to watch the sunrise. Once you reach the top you will get a birdseye view of the boats quietly making their way down the Ngo Dong River and entering the cave below. Behind lies a monumental view of limestone karsts and dense, resplendent canopies.
Visit the Locals
Riding bicycles around small villages is a treat if you travel to Ninh Binh, Vietnam. Residents retain a beautifully innocent charm and are extremely kind and welcoming. As you cycle around, embrace yourself for plenty of waves, big smiles and friendly hellos from the youngsters in the region. It’s a highly satisfying experience and an honest gaze into a more traditional way of life. The small village and trails leading into the entrance of the Hang Mua temple is a perfect place to do this.
Cuc Phuong National Park is a highly preserved rainforest revered for its botanical gardens and Endangered Primates Rescue Center. Although it lies about 45 kilometers outside of Ninh Binh, it remains the perfect place for any nature lover to explore wildlife such as butterflies, a wide range of birds, 150 kinds of rare primates and wild mountain goats.
Phat Diem Cathedral
It was built over a 24-year span from 1875-1898 and was made using only wood and stone. Renowned for its architectural amalgamation, it gently combines both western cathedral architecture with eastern religious features. Phat Diem Cathedral is also very near the Gulf of Tonkin and is known as the place where Catholicism was first introduced to Vietnam.
Van Long Nature Reserve
Van Long Nature preserve is for those that love to travel off the beaten path. It contains some of the most untouched land in the region and the wetlands here have been reported to be the most bio-diversified in the entire country. It’s even home to the elusive silver langur, an endangered species can be spotted if you’re paying attention, and have some luck going for you. If you travel to Ninh Binh, Vietnam, the Van Long Reserve retains some of the most pristine scenery in the province and most certainly deserves a visit.
Dich Long Cave and Pagoda
This pagoda complex is located in the Gia Vien district and is perched 80 meters atop a karst formation. It rests above three caverns which contain buddha states and stunning stalagmites. The name translates to ‘wind flute’ due to the beautiful sound effect created when a gust of wind blows through the grottos creating a natural whistle. It was said to have been abandoned for many years and then discovered by a local around 1739. If you’re into temple hopping, jot this one into your itinerary for sure.
Local Cuisine: Three to Try
Ninh Binh Eel Vermicelli
Fried eel seasoned with vinegar, onion, black pepper, red chili and fish sauce. Served with banana flowers, ginger, lime and vermicelli noodles.
Rare Mountain Goat Meat
It’s often mixed with basil and duckweed before getting just the slightest boil. The meat is then mixed with fried sesame, chili, citronella, ginger, lemon leaf, lemon juice and often served with a soybean jam on the side.
Sour Perch Fish Soup
Massive, meaty perch are in abundance in the region, particularly in the caves of Hoa Lu district. This soup contains a sweet and sour pickle-ish broth with tofu, tomatoes, morning glory and most importantly, the unique flavor of the crunchy, meaty perch. Chili peppers are usually left optional for this one.
Where to Stay: Three of the Best
Budget: Go Ninh Binh Hostel
If you like the backpacker hostel scene this is one of the best there is in Ninh Binh province. It’s central, cheap and offers both dorms and private rooms. Have some cold beers, bust out the guitar and play pool at this chilled out spot. Dorm beds start at about USD $7.
Nature Lover: Nguyen Shack
If you don’t like to be out in the middle of nowhere, skip this one. These incredible bamboo bungalows float on a small lake near the base of Hang Mua pagoda. Sitting quietly underneath 360 degrees of limestone, this is perfect place to stay if you love nature, like to explore the countryside and mingle with the local people. It’s an ideal place to hang out in the hammocks and rest up, or grab a bicycle and go dodge the traffic. And by traffic I mean mountain goats and buffalos. Make sure to book before you go because this spot is in high demand.
Luxury Resorts: Emeralda Resort Ninh Binh
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to travel in style. So, if you want to be pampered in a luxurious resort, this is the best we found in the region. It’s perfect for families or couples and is home to sweeping natural views, an exclusive spa and wellness center, a kids’ club, and elegant indoor and outdoor swimming pools.
Climate / When to Visit
When you travel to Ninh Binh province, you should most certainly check the weather before you plan your trip. The yearly average temperature is 23 degrees celsius (73.4 fahrenheit). So, the best time to visit could depend on your personality, and what kind of weather you prefer.
Also, keep in mind that the rice harvest plays a very important role in regards to the color of the landscape. Before the harvest, the rice fields are a gorgeous bright green, but once picked, the land becomes cloaked with an amber brown, which many find to be less visually appealing.
The dry season is equivalent to winter in Ninh Binh and typically lasts from November-April. At this time, temperatures range from 17-22 degrees celsius (62-71 degrees fahrenheit). January-March sees even colder weather and marks the coldest time of year.
Conversely, the summer season runs from May-October. Bear in mind that this time is extremely hot and humid, so if you don’t to sweat, plan a trip during the winter season.
In regards to rain, July-September is the wettest time of the year, and makes for difficult trekking and a thick fog that can intrude on your time spent staring down those beautiful views.
Insider Tips: Three for the Road
Prepare to Walk
Ninh Binh province is a destination for nature lovers, and walking is involved in order to see many of the sites. Make sure you have the proper clothes depending on the season, and shoes for hiking as well.
Bring Plenty of Cash
There are hardly any ATMs in the area as it’s primarily comprised of natural landscapes and small villages. Bring plenty of money with you, because cash machines really are scarce.
It’s Growing Fast, So Get There Now
There’s no time like the present, and the area is quickly becoming more popular, as well as seeing some industrial development. If you want to travel to Ninh Binh province, Vietnam, get there as soon as you can before it moves onto the beaten path.
As many of the sites and accommodations are quite spread out, we highly recommend renting your own motorbike if you can drive. It’s the most convenient way to see all the attractions, as well as the most affordable. Gas is much cheaper than paying for tour packages and private cars, not to mention it’s the best way to soak up the pristine scenery.