Located two hours south of Hanoi en route, via train or bus, to Vietnam's central region, Ninh Binh province is conveniently located for an excursion from Hanoi or as a stop-off on your way up or down Vietnam. How should you make the most of a couple of days there? We’ve put together some tips to get the ball rolling on planning your itinerary.
Ninh Binh city is not pretty, but you don’t have to travel far to reach the peace and beauty of the paddy fields and karst landscapes -- it's these that bring the visitors in their flocks. But despite the high number of local and foreign visitors it’s possible to escape the crowds in the countryside outside of the hotspots. That’s why we’d recommend renting motorbikes or bicycles to explore the area: there’s much pleasure to be had by cycling around the back streets and villages, though be warned that it’s easy to get lost; get a map from your hotel (or take a phone with mobile internet and a mapping app if you have one). Of course, if you prefer to be driven rather than drive, taxis are plentiful, or book you can book a tour with your hotel.
The other overall recommendation we’d make is to stay overnight in Tam Coc rather than Ninh Binh city. It may mean a longer trip to visit the sights outside of Tam Coc, but it gives you the option to walk to the nearby sights: the boat dock, Bich Dong and Hang Mua viewpoint. Then you can bike or cycle from there along some scenic back roads to the other locations. Most importantly, it’s prettier than Ninh Binh.
An overnight stay in the area is enough time to see a few of the sights and enjoy the scenery, but stay two nights if you can to have more time to relax and explore further afield.
For a two-day schedule, assuming you arrive in the morning of day one, start with lunch in Tam Coc, which has numerous tourist oriented options, including a branch of the Lotteria chain if you’re so inclined. Our choice would be Father Cooking, on the corner by the boat station. After lunch, take a boat trip. The trip will last for a couple of hours and is a good way to marvel at the scenery without putting in too much effort. Make sure you take a hat and sunscreen on a sunny day and a warm jacket if you’re there in December through February.
Continue on through Tam Coc -- with the river on your right -- and follow the road until you reach Bich Dong. It’s a few kilometres, so it's walkable, or you can rent a bicycle in Tam Coc. It’s a steep walk up to the pagoda but it’s worth a look around and the views are not to be sniffed at. If you’re more about the views and not so bothered about the temple, skip Bich Dong and instead head back towards Ninh Binh from the boat station, turn left after the pond by the large tree, and walk up Hang Mua for truly stunning views. If you arrived the night before or are staying in Tam Coc you can fit both in, but otherwise it’ll be too tight to fit in before sundown. If you’re staying in Ninh Binh cycle back via the back roads. Continue straight along the path from Hang Mua and make your way to the right. Take a map and –- if you have it – GPS, as it’s easy to get lost and end up racing the last few kilometres to get back before dark.
The second day of a two-day trip could either be dedicated to a visit to the shiny new Bai Dinh pagoda or to the church. Both are a bit beyond cycling distance for all but the avid cyclist, but the drive to either by motorbike is straightforward albeit a bit hairy at times due to the volume of buses heading to the pagoda. If you decide to go to the pagoda, you could stop off at Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of the Dinh and Le dynasties. We’re not fans of the place – there’s very little there beyond a temple similar to the Temple of Literature in Hanoi – but there’s no harm in a quick look.
If you have the luxury of three days, then you have time to cover both Bai Dinh pagoda and Phat Diem cathedral. Or mix up the two-day itinerary a bit: On day one check out the countryside around Tam Coc and visit both Bich Dong and Hang Mua, but skip the boat ride and take your time cycling round the area or stopping for plentiful rest breaks. If you’re in the mood for a slightly more upmarket drink stop, turn left before you get to Bich Dong and head to Tam Coc Garden Resort for a chilled drink overlooking their pool and the paddy beyond. On day two head to Hoa Lu and Bai Dinh Pagoda and stop off at one of the less populated boat docks to pick up a ride. You’ll see a couple of places along the way which, on our last visit, had no tourists in sight. Go with a good idea of a fair price – based on the prices for Tam Coc and Trang An -- and prepare to haggle.
On your final day, check out Phat Diem cathedral or add an extra day and circle back to Hanoi via an overnight in Cuc Phuong National Park. The park is an hour or two from Ninh Binh, so may be a bit far for a day trip, but you can stay overnight at the park and continue your trip the next day. Check out the primate rescue centre, take a walk up to the peak for views across the park, visit the caves and cycle or motorbike to headquarters via a breather at Mac Lake.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
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This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.