Ninh Binh Vietnam travel

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Ninh Binh is the capital city of Ninh Binh Province in North Vietnam, famous for the nearby Karst scenery and the village of Tam Coc. There is nothing to do in Ninh Binh itself aside from drinking beer with the locals; the town is more useful as a base for the surrounding countryside.

How to get there

By taxi

Taxis from Hanoi costs US$68 Taxis from Noi Bai international airport cost $85 usd , 2 hour journey

By bus

There are regular buses from Hanoi’s southern bus terminal (Giap Bat) that leave every 15 min (or whenever full) 60,000 Dong. Note that this may rise to 90,000 per person with luggage.Journey time for the 90km is 1.5-2.5 hr traffic depending. Buy a ticket in the ticket hall or you will likely have to pay more than 60,000 or be removed from the bus.the service is slow but relaxed and comfortable using one of the very common Hyundai 20-odd seat buses.

Open tour buses will drop passengers off upon request (Ninh Binh is not a regular stop). Most open tour buses from Hanoi will arrive at 9:30PM. Tour buses from Hue arrive at a rather early 4AM.

From Cat Ba island you can book a bus-boat-bus-bus ticket for 230,000 dong. Leaves at 9am and takes about 5h. Seems to be the easiest and cheapest way. The first bus takes you the harbour where you transfer onto a boat (and at times from that boat to another boat) to Haiphong’s Ben Binh harbour. The second bus takes you to a bus station called Bến xe Niệm Nghĩa which is quite far from the harbour and turns out not that convenient on a DIY trip. From there you wait for the bus to leave at 12pm. Seats are tiny even for small westerners. Drops you at Ninh Binh bus stations, walking distance from hotels and hostels. All the above uses local transports so expect locals boarding at various places.

Alternative buses including tourist ones leave from Haiphong a few times a day.

By train

Ninh Binh is a regular station for the Reunification Express, with trains coming from both North and South. It is usually a quick stop, with few people getting off, especially at night, so get off quick or miss the stop. Hard Seat 35-45,000 depending on train number 2-2.5 hours.

How to get around

By motorbike

A motorbike is the best way to view Ninh Binh and the surrounding areas. Most hotels can arrange for a motorbike driver/guide to take you around the sites for about US$15 a day. Hire a motorbike (commonly Honda 110cc) for 100,000 Dong. These take 3 litres of fuel costing 50,000 which will last a day of exploring.The local roads are bad, the local driving ranges from nuts to insane.
By bicycle

Cycling is a good option for visiting nearby sights. Finding a bicycle for rental is easy.

By foot

The actual town of Ninh Binh is quite small and walkable. Most of the interesting sights are located 10-20 km away.

What to see and do

Hoa Lu is the ancient capital of the Dinh and Le dynastys which dates back to the 11th century. Serene and tranquil, Hoa Lu is set in beautiful surroundings beside to Truong Yen village and is easily visited on a day trip from Ninh Binh, or if you are in a rush you can combine it with a trip to Tam Coc and Bich Dong. In that case you can cycle from Hoa Lu to Truong Yen and on to Tam Coc thru very scenic countryside on narrow roads, about 17km in all, a highlight all by itself!

The remains of the ancient city are just that — remains. Hoa Lu is very beautiful, but not because of the salvaged buildings, but rather because of its setting. The old city was spread out over 200 hectares, and situated 14km northwest of Ninh Binh. On arrival, the first thing you will come across on the right, just after the last houses of the Truong Yen Village, is a walled temple. At the entrance there is a tourist map detailing the area and other sites to see. Farther down the road, you can organise a trip in a row boat, and venture up the Hoang Long River.

All that remains of the original palaces and temples are some obscure ruins and some temples which have been built on some of the old sites. Those still standing include the Dinh Tien Huang, the royal temple which houses a statue of Emperor Dinh Bo Linh and his sons as well as the royal temple of the early Le Dynasty.

A boat trip takes about two hours and returns by the same route. You will get a chance to stop and walk up to a small temple in a cave, on the side of a mountain, which has great views. You will also pass small farms and houses, and float through a tunnel with a Chinese written sign chiselled into the rock face. Hoa Lu makes for a very pleasant day trip from Ninh Binh.

Tam Coc- Bich Dong

The area surrounding Tam Coc and Bich Dong is characterised by stony outcrops not unlike those at Ha Long Bay, though a bit smaller in size and of course without the water. If you’re there at the right time of the year, when the paddies are full of water, the reflections make Bich Dong, in particular, almost as beautiful as Ha Long Bay.

At Bich Dong there’s a series of pagodas and a fascinating collection of caves farther up the outcrop. Some of these caves were used by the Viet Minh to hide from the French during the First Indochina War. The caves are full of stalactites that have been carved into Buddhist images, as well as stalactites that are hollow upon which tunes can be played.

You can climb all the way to the top of the outcrop, from where there are fantastic views. The rice paddies all reflect the surrounding peaks giving the effect of an emerald mirror.

At Tam Coc the scenery is very similar to Bich Dong but you can observe it from a small boat that one of the locals will paddle you around in. This is quite a tourist scene so expect to have to bargain hard to get a decent price. During the boat ride you will have the opportunity to visit Thai Vi Temple and a series of caves as you drift along a shallow river densely packed with reeds and birdlife.

Trang An Grottoes, (7 km from Ninh Binh). An easy bicycle ride away, Trang An Grottoes is similar to Tam Coc but with many more caves to pass through. Most caves have been widened in order for the boats to pass through and as result their natural beauty has been compromised. The first two caves are the most natural and beautiful but are also tight in places, so watch your head. Lots of concrete structures are being built all over the place and rice paddies are disappearing fast but hopefully this area will not lose its splendor. It might be worth bringing a torch in case the power fails and the lights go out, some of the tunnels are quite long and your rower may have forgotten their backup torch, as was the case for the boat in front of us and had to wait for our boat to provide light for them to navigate the last cave.

Phat Diem Cathedral

Located about 29km south east of Ninh Binh in Kim Son district and only a few km away from the Gulf of Tonkin, Phat Diem is of historical importance and a real hit with Vietnamese tourists.

It is in this area that the French and Portuguese missionaries first introduced catholicism to Vietnam. While most christians fled south, settling between Dalat and Saigon after the communists seized power in 1954, today they’re returning and many newly erected churches can be seen on the way to Phat Diem.

The Phat Diem Cathedral (Nha Tho Phat Diem) was built between 1875 and 1899 and in considered to be a fine example of sino-vietnamese architecture. The main building is 74m long, 21m wide and 11m high. The six rows of huge ironwood pillars and the carved stone entrance and altar are very impressive, and the whole complex has a peaceful, solemn feel to it. Try to be there at 10:00 for mass. Other mass hours are at 06:00 and 16:00.

Cuc Phuong National Park, (45km from Ninh Binh). A well preserved rainforest with an Endangered Primates Rescue Centre near the entrance. You can only visit the centre with a park guide, which costs an extra 20,000 dong per person and doesn’t take long. There are about 150 primates here being prepared for release back in the wild. Most are from other parts of Vietnam and any releases will be from where they originally came from. There is also a Botanical Garden near the entrance. Note that as at feb 23rd 2013, these gardens have no animals, but you are told that at the visitor centre so you can decide whether to proceed.Animals will be re-introduced when it gets warmer.From the entrance you can drive, motorbike or cycle a further 20 km along a densely rain forested paved road, from which several bypaths lead you through the jungle to prehistoric trees and caves. Cycling is probably the most rewarding way to travel this 20 km of often steeply inclined paved road and mountain bikes can be hired at the park entrance. The road ends at the Park Centre (Bong), from where there are several forest walks. The Park Centre has a restaurant and a place to buy snacks. The best chance to see any animals here is at night. Guided night tours for overnight stayers are available. There are other points of interest along the narrow 20 km road such as a cave, ancient trees and walking trails. One of the amazing things about this drive is the 1000’s upon 1000’s of colourful butterflies filling the roadway. Peak time for butterflies apparently is during April and May but in later months there may still many to be seen. It is especially enjoyable to touch the thousand-year-old cho xanh (parashrea stellata) and sau (Dracontomelum Duperranum or Dancorra Edulis) trees, 50-70 m high. The park is also suitable to watch birds, butterflies and orchid flowers. They are more concentrated than in a typical butterfly farm enclosure. A limited amount of overnight accommodation is available in either a detached bungalow or a stilt house. 20,000 dong.

What and where to eat

Mountain goat (de nui) meat is a local speciality, often eaten with fried rice (com chien). Another local specialty is com chay, which is the burnt rice off the bottom of the pot, served with pork. Duck features in many restaurants, and there are numerous dog-meat restaurants scattered throughout town (look for signs with a picture of a Great Dane or similar breed and the words thit cho).

The area near the train station has become a mini-backpacker area, and there are 4-5 backpacker cafes there with English menus and tourist prices (40,000-70,000d; coffee 15,000-20,000d). The three most popular restaurants are called “Good Food”, “Cheap Good Food”, and “Fast Food Cheap” (all on Hoang Hoa Tham).

What to drink

There are plenty of Bia Hoi sellers along side the river in the late afternoon / evenings. One glass usually costs 5,000 dong.

Plenty of places sell sugar cane drink with ice for about 5,000 dong.

Where to stay

There are a number of cheap hotels just outside the train station and next to the bus station. Other hotels are located near the center of town. As there is nothing to see in town, either area is suitable. The area near the train station has become a mini-backpacker district, complete with travel agents, touts, overpriced drinks and English-menu restuarants.

Kim Lieng Guesthouse, Ngo 212, No. 54 (still listed on google as Van Thanh No. 54) (On a small and quiet sideroad not far from the center of town), ☎ +84306250800. Situated on a small and quiet sideroad this place is run by the charismatic Madame Kim Lienh, and is a no frills yet very honest place to stay. Rooms are clean ($17 for a double, +3$ for aircon) but basic. Kim is very friendly, provides help with local transportation, arrangement of public bus tickets and transportation and also sometimes offers to cook dinner for VND 70,000 per person (be prepared for loads of food). Doors close at 10.30pm, but the staff can be woken by simply knocking on the doors (or preferrably informing them of late arrivals or excursions beforehand). For our amusement, the rest of the pretty young staff seemed to get quite heavily stoned as it got late, to a point where ordering a beer scores you only puzzled looks. US$16-US$19.

Ngoc Anh Hotel, 30 Luong Van Tuy St, ☎ +84 30 3883-768. Family hotel, friendly staff, good location, rooms are clean, all rooms have A/C, en-suite, cable TV with good reception, wifi. Deluxe rooms also have a computer, a fridge and balcony. There are 2 modern computers in reception/restaurant area. US$12-25.

Nha Viet Hotel, Đường Lê Thái Tổ, phố Đẩu Long (On the way to the stadium of Ninh Binh Vissai FC), ☎ +84 91 553 1317. Owners (family) will help you in every possible way. Cook food that you want, english-speaking staff, motorbike rental, wifi, clean, washing clothes, convenient location, far enough from main road to provide peace and quiet. US$12.

Queen Mini Hotel, 21 Hoang Hoa Tham (One block in front of the train station). Near the train and bus station, always packed with tourists and often full. Particularly popular with the French. Rooms are clean enough, but filled with insects. Wifi in the lobby, but it doesn’t reach all the rooms. The owner’s refrain is “You pay now”. They are affiliated with “Good Food” restaurant across the street. Be warned: there are four hotels sharing this name, and it’s not clear if any of them are related: The Queen Mini (this one), the Queen Hotel (across the street, upscale), the New Queen Mini Backpacker’s Hostel (on the same street, often has grille down; they advertise rates of $3 incl. breakfast!), and the New Queen Mini Hotel (two streets south). US$6-15.

Thanh Binh hotel, 31 Luong Van Tuy St, ☎ +84 30 872 439. Some members of the staff are somewhat helpful and friendly. Possibility to rent (motor)bikes for US$6/day. Breakfast is not included. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is added to some of their foods. US$10-12 (double room).

Thanh Thuy’s Guest House and New Hotel, 128 Le Hong Phong, ☎ +84 30 387 1811. The guest house rooms are large and pleasant with a shared bathroom. Hotel rooms are en-suite and quieter as they’re set back from the road. There’s a reasonably priced restaurant adjacent to reception. Motorbike and bicycles available for hire. Staff are a little brisk but helpful and speak good English. US$6-10 (guest house), US$15-35 (hotel).

Xuan Hoa Hotel, 37 P Minh Khai (On the eastbound road from town center, next to a reservoir), ☎ +84 30 880-970. Owner will help you in every possible way. Great food, bicycle and motorbike rental, convenient location, though far enough from main road to provide peace and quiet. US$15-35.  edit
Kinh Do Hotel, 18 Phan Dinh Phung St (100 metres east of main [Hwy1]), ☎ 030 3.899.152. Newly purchased and managed by two brothers, Luong and Anh, who both speak good English. Clean quiet [despite proximity to main road] rooms, good food in clean restaurant, a/c, ensuite, free wifi in rooms,laundry,massage. Genuinely friendly staff. Very helpful [advice, bicycle/motorbike rental, tours to local attractions, pickup-dropoff at bus or train]. US 7-25.

How to get out

Laos – There is a nightly bus from Hanoi that can stop in Ninh Binh on request. From there it is a grim 20 hr ride to Vientiane.

Hue – Sleeper bus 300.000 dong, leaves at 9pm. It comes from Hanoi and stops at Ninh Binh on request. You can book at the bus station which is at walking distance from the train station, or at your hotel in most cases. Many accidents reported but budget travellers still choose this option. Not recommended even by the locals, unless they want to sell you a ticket. Trains take 12h and leave at 8.32, 11.17 and 21.12, cost spans between 290.000 and 700.000 dong depending on seat/sleeper type.


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