Ninh Binh is a must-do in Vietnam. Especially if you're looking for authenticity and nature. But what to do there?
If you go to Vietnam, you must stop by Ninh Binh! The region is called the terrestrial “Halong Bay” for its splendid landscapes. Only 2 hours away from Hanoi by train, you could stay there 3-4 days easily without getting bored. We loved Ninh Binh province. We didn’t visit the city itself as we wanted to enjoy the nature after one week of agitated urban life in Hanoi. We stayed in the green area of the city, there are quite some lodges and homestays. From this location in the park, you can fully enjoy the beauty of the region, and there would be no need to go to the city itself except for taking the train.
The train in Vietnam is very safe , convenient and cheap. Around 12$ (11€) for a hard seat to do the trip between Hanoi and Ninh Binh. Once you reach the train station in Ninh Binh, you can either arrange the transfer with your homestay or if you came by bicycle, as we did, then it would be much easier (and greener).
We arrived in the park around sunset and were astonished by the colors of the stunning yellow-green paddy fields. We actually got lost in those beautiful fields as there was no sign on where to find our homestay and our GPS was out of battery. Luckily we found a village boy to help us find our homestay. It was in the middle of the rice paddies and were to stay there 3 days. We strongly recommend to stay a minimum of 3 days in Ninh Binh province. It is a wonderful place full of beautiful landscapes.
Visit Cuc Phuong park
The easiest way to get to the park is to arrange a tour with an ecotour agency. You can check that with your hotel. Another fun way, for the bravest ones, is to go on a cycling trip. Its about 40km distance to go to the park, but the scenery is magnificent and the road is flat and easy.
The entrance fee at the park is 40, 000 dong (1.6euros). The park is quite big therefore it is best to do it in 1 or 2 days. We recommend a day trek with a local guide that you can hire for 20$ for short treks and up to 40$ for longer ones. Just make sure you negotiate properly as people in Vietnam bargain a lot and will always give you the highest price at the begining. Visiting the park is a good opportunity to get a close look at Vietnam’s nature and fees generated from tourism help protect the parks wildlife and improve the local economy. The best time of the year to visit the park is during the dry season, from November to February.
Take the boat to visit Trang An Grottoes and enjoy beautiful scenery landscapes
Trang An is a little less touristic than Tam Coc but has many more caves. Ideally you would do both. But for those who are a bit short on time, we recommend Trang An. On 23 June 2014, Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s really beautiful to do the tour on a boat , that you typically share with up to 6 other people. We paid 150,000 dong per person to go on a 3h boat trip. We found it quite expensive (around 5-6 euros per person) but it is worth the trip. The boats are paddle boats, pushed most of the time by a woman. She sits at the back with two large oars and paddles down the large river towards some of the impressive limestone karst peaks. Be aware there is no protection from the sun so don’t forget your sunscreen and sunglasses.
Climb to the top at Mua Caves
Nearby our lodge, there were the Mua Caves. The caves themselves are not really impressive or worth to visit. But you have stairs to climb up to the top where you have a stunning panoramic views on the Ninh Binh wonders. You have about 500 steps to reach the top where you can really enjoy the view.
Visit the Bich Dong pagoda
On the north of Tam Coc, you have a cluster of old pagodas. What is amazing about those pagodas is that they are completely part of the caves. It is apparently the second most beautiful cave in Vietnam.
Visit the Bai Dinh Pagoda
This huge pagoda is probably one of the biggest of Vietnam. It is pretty recent as they started to build it in 2003. It totally worth the visit, there are about 500 Arahat statues and a temple meters high where you have the full view on the pagoda complex. You can easily go by bicycle. There is no entrance fee but it is mandatory to take a small golf car to reach the pagoda entrance. The price for the ride is around 2 euros per person.
Stay in an ecolodge
We stayed at Nguyen Shack. The homestay is composed of 5 or 6 bungalows in the middle of a wonderful vegetation and with views on the river. The bungalows are simple but practical and there is a fan to cool down a bit in the hot days. The whole bungalow is open on the nature and you feel completely part of it. This one is built out of bamboos and seemed to be pretty eco-friendly. We didn’t ask for the chemicals, but if you have the chance to stay there, we would be happy to hear your impressions about their green practices. We truly enjoyed our stay at Nguyen Shack because of its location (5 min away from the Mua Caves and 15 minutes away from Trang An grottoes by bike) and its charming bungalows.