Once in a while, we should all make an effort to leave the city and refresh our minds with an excursion to the countryside. Ninh Binh will offer you a majestic landscape of ancient Chinese style temples built into mountains, vast green plains of rice paddies, and freshwater lakes and ponds that curve miles around the area. It’s also known as “dry Ha Long Bay” because the same limestone rocks and islands are rising out of the ground, rather than the sea. This is the real, authentic, Vietnam you’re searching for. Since it’s only a recently discovered tourist location, you can’t rely on Google Maps to find your way around, but you should definitely go before it becomes flooded with tourists.
It was pretty low key when I was there during the month of August. I’ve come to believe that this place only attracts those brave travelers who yearn for something deeper than just eating, drinking, and shopping. From Hanoi, it takes only 1.5-2 hours to get to Ninh Binh if you would like a quiet place to rest. There’s something called the “Open Bus Ticket” and it is a route that goes between north and south Vietnam, making stops in between various destinations like, Ninh Binh, Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, etc. To get to the next four destinations from Hanoi in my recommended itinerary, we will take the Open Bus Ticket. You pay a one time price (depending on how many stops you ordered in advance) and you can hop on and off at any of the pick up points. It’s very convenient and cheaper than train. You can order this ticket at your hostel or hotel by asking the receptionist.
You’ll only need 2 days and 1 night in Ninh Binh to see everything but if you really need a break from the city, definitely enjoy Ninh Binh to the fullest!
Where to stay:
Xuan Hoa 1 Hotel is the place I stayed and it’s very local, cheap, clean, and in driving proximity to the places I wanted to visit. It’s not in Ninh Binh City but you really don’t need stay there because the goal is to find the natural spots. Your Open Bus Ticket will drop you off at its central bus stop (in front of some cafes and late night convenient shops) and the hotel is within 10 minute walking distance. I didn’t know that it was that close by when I arrived. Then some Vietnamese family at the bus stop eagerly tried to persuade me to pay them to drop me off at the Hotel instead of getting an official taxi. It was late and I was tired so I submitted. Afterwards, I realized I didn’t have to pay them for just a 2-3 minute drive. I felt a bit tricked but I only paid 20,000 VND ($1) anyways. Maybe they needed it more than me.
Xuan Hoa 1 Hotel is a family run hotel with breakfast is included. They also have a restaurant inside the hotel that opens late if you arrive past dinner time. The owner is this 60 something year old man named Xuan, who speaks really great English for a person his age living in rural Vietnam. As the owner, he prides himself in his hotel and is always working to ensure his guests has everything they request. I also think it’s funny he has a huge flag of Bavaria hanging in his hotel so I guess he’s a fan of Germans. He’s an honest man who’s not afraid to be direct with you. He can tell you all he knows about the area and the best way to get there. I appreciate that he doesn’t really care how you want to spend your time in Ninh Binh so he’s never going to try to convince you to do anything you don’t want, nor sell you anything you don’t want or need. By the way, he also owns a second hotel called Xuan Hoa 2, which is next door so try not to confuse the two.
The hotel is located a little bit away from the city of Ninh Binh so the best way to get to the scenic areas is to rent a motorbike or a bicycle through Xuan because he has a lot sitting around. His motorbikes are automatic so it’s quite easy to learn how to ride even if you’ve never driven one. I really recommend a motorbike because some of the destinations are quite spread apart. It may be frightening to drive one but I think it’s really by far safer to drive a motorbike in the rural area than in a city like Hanoi since there’s not many people driving around. However, if you’re too afraid, a bike is fine too but will take you longer, a lot of energy, and you won’t be able to reach every place within just 2 days. Whatever you decid in the end, Xuan will provide you with a map and with directions to get to where you want to go, which most are pretty simple to get to anyways.
What to see:
- Bich Dong Pagoda (Pronounced “Bit Dum”)
Ninh Binh truly is a hidden gem. Bich Dong comprises of 3 temples enclosed in a mountain. There’s an amazing view of the entire Ninh Binh countryside from the top that you must strive to find. It’ll be an exciting adventure because you’ll have to venture through a series of pitch, dark caves to reach the top so be careful not to trip or fall! I didn’t have a flashlight so I used my smartphone. I appreciate how the locals preserved these caves and temples in its natural state by not bothering to install any lights to accommodate the tourists, even if they do bring in money. You don’t have to pay anything to explore the temples here but you’ll have to pay to park your bike or motorbike. I paid only 5,000 VND (>$0.01) because I’m Vietnamese but unfortunately, the foreign looking tourists paid double, 10,000 VND ($0.05). Yeah it’s unfair but considering it’s only 5 cents, think of it as a “thank you” to the locals who are sharing their own hometown with you so I wouldn’t be so worked up over it.
This whole area of caves has a history of being used by the Viet Minh to hide from the French soldiers during the First Indochina War. Today, it’s left in peace to some carpenters and wood sculptors who working diligently as tourist roam around and take photos. There was this cute, old grandmother around her 80s who was handcrafting little wooden boats. Besides a wood sculptor, no one else was around but her. As I was the first tourist to arrive, she was eager to sell her mini boats to me for 40,000 VND ($1.75). I didn’t really need one but I admire the fact that she was still working at her age to support herself. After coming back down from the peak, I bought one boat which really brought joy to her eyes. There were barely any tourists around so I was probably one of her first customers. People in Vietnam earn comparatively less income than where I’m coming from so as a tourist, I personally think it doesn’t hurt to show appreciation by buying some of their handcrafts because you’re walking on their home that they’ve opened up to you. However, I still firmly ignore the aggressive and pushy locals but the grandmother was a complete sweetheart <3. I still remember her kind face until today.
2. Tam Coc Boat Ride
You’ll arrive by a river where there’s many boats sitting idly around. Each boat ride can hold a maximum of two passengers so it’s a flat rate of 100,000 VND ($4.5) to have one boat, if you want to share with your travel companion. If you’re alone, it’ll costs 80,000 VND ($3.50). The boats look like they’re a bit shabby, as if made from recycled war materials but you won’t capsize if you don’t move too abruptly. 😀 The boats are paddled by mostly local women using their feet (it’s interesting to watch) and it lasts an hour or a little bit more.
It’s a very relaxing and tranquil boat ride, especially if you’re on your own because you’re left without any interruptions to selfishly take in all the mysterious caves and paddy fields as the sound of the paddle brushing gently across the waters. At the end of the trip, it would be nice to tip your boat rower since I don’t think they make that much money. I suspect most of the boat ticket profit are hoarded by someone else. However, be careful of getting scammed because there will absolutely be locals doing anything they can to make you pay for random things, like coercing you to buy food or drinks for your rower, buying their handcrafts, or taking photos of you and forcing you to pay for it. You have to remember that in the rural areas, you’re unfortunately viewed as money bags just because you are a foreigner. If you put yourself in their shoes, you will understand not to take it too personal.
3. Rice fields
I mean, that’s what Vietnam is known for. The rice farmers in triangle, straw hats plucking the rice crops in the green fields that you’ve seen in national geographic magazine are now live in action in front of you. The best place to indulge in your photography hobby. It’s located all around the Tam Coc area so you can’t miss it.
4. Secret valley
Somewhere the rice fields, I stumbled upon a very beautiful valley that seemed to still remain unknown to tourists at that time. Things may have changed or perhaps I was just there during a low season in tourism.
Aside from one or two locals walking around, probably doing daily errands, it was just me and three other travel companions so it was great to have the small valley to explore ourselves. I don’t remember how we reached there but maybe you can also find it as well. Ninh Binh is filled with surprises at every corner so just be curious and explore everything. Since the land is very flat, it makes driving very easy! The valley I came across had a small rock pathway that curled around a river where you can take a rest and admire the green covered limestones reflecting from the river basin. I left completely mesmerized!
What to eat:
Back in the central part, the city of Ninh Binh, you’ll find restaurants everywhere and it doesn’t matter too much which restaurant you choose, it’s about the type of dish you decide to go for.
Goat meat is the famous delicacy in Ninh Binh because there’s a decent population of mountain goats that dwell inside the huge limestone mountains. It’s not just any kind of goat meat you’ve had before though. Since the goats are raised on rock mountains, Ninh Binh goat meat are much more delicious than goats raised on hills. Ninh Binh locals cook goat meat in a variety of different ways to enhance the flavors. For instance, you can even get raw goat meat mixed with lemon (dê tái chanh). I really wanted to try this since I’m a huge fan of raw meats but I was with Germans who were cautious against uncooked meats. If you do try this while there, please let me know how it is!
Instead we ordered goat meat stir-fried with zesty lemongrass (dê tái lăn), as seen from the photo above, and ate it with rice. There’s also coconut goat, steam goat meat, grilled goat brisket, goat hotpot, goat gruel and roasted goat, and so on… Just order anything with goat and you’re good. In case you’re too afraid to try goat meat, Ninh Binh is located quite close to Hanoi so you still can get the typical dishes eaten in big cities such as pho, bun cha, spring rolls, etc. But I still recommend you to try the Ninh Binh goat meat as you will never get the chance in another area.
Next stop, the Ancient City of Hue!