Around 100km south of Hanoi, Ninh Binh was the last stop-off before we would finish our motorbike journey in Hanoi. And boy, what a stop-off it was. Upon arriving, following our first actual crash (read more about that in our Motorbiking Through Vietnam Blog) we quickly realised that Ninh Binh was strong competition for the beauty we had recently seen in Phong Nha. It's beautiful mountain peaks towered over the landscape with tonnes of mountains silhouetted in the background. We can see why it gets its nickname of the "Inland Ha Long Bay".
One of the best things about Ninh Binh was that there was so much to do! In this article, we will highlight the best things to do in Ninh Binh and our experiences whilst we were there in April 2018.
1 - Go on a Boat Ride
There is no better way to see the mountains than to be rowed right in between them by a cute, little, old Vietnamese lady. We headed down to Trang An Lake and paid 300,000 VND ($13.50) for the both of us to take a seat on the well-know boat tour. When we got there, we were so surprised at how many people were there, it was like an attraction in Disney Land with the queues of people being processed through the zigzagging barriers. We quickly realised the majority of these people were actually Vietnamese and that we had came on a Saturday, hence why it was super busy. We suggest going on a week day if you would want to limit the size of the crowds! We were placed on a boat with 2 other people, who were Vietnamese but spoke great English, which was a bonus as they kindly relayed all of the instructions from the driver to us in English! The scenery was literally amazing as you moved through the water. But what was even more amazing was the caves that you went through during the ride. Some caves didn't even look high enough to enter, but on we went, ducking and weaving from the low-hanging stalactites. Honestly, we couldn't believe how close they narrowly missed our heads each time, it was hilarious! If you weren't paying attention you would of had a very, very sore head after this ride!
The boat stopped off about four times during the few hours that we were on-board. The stop-off's were great, featuring many beautiful temples, pagodas and gardens, right in the middle of the mountains on the water. Lots of street food stalls and shops are also on these islands, if you need to want a bite to eat. One of the stops featured a trip to the movie set of one of the scenes from King Kong - Skull Island (you'll visit many of these over the North of Vietnam). There was a plane crashed in the water and a tribe village set, which had people dressed up as tribes men and women for photo opportunities.
We recommend going on the Trang An boat ride instead of the Tam Coc boat ride. Tam Coc is even more popular with tourists, since it's on the same road as all of the hotels/hostels in Tam Coc Area. Trang An is around a 20 minute drive, but it was definitely worth going a bit further for the experience we had!
2 - Hang Mua View Point
There is no shortage of temples to visit in Ninh Binh. Most of which you will find proudly sitting on top of a mountain. One of the most popular to visit as a tourist is on top of Hang Mua Mountain. Whilst the temple isn't very impressive at the top, the views are totally worth the 500-600 steps you have to climb to get there. There are two peaks to the mountain, one with a temple and one with an amazing dragon monument sitting on top of it. We climbed to both, but we definitely recommend the dragon peak. The views from here are INSANE. You see so much of the city from right side of the peak, paired up with the beauty of the mountains on the left hand side.
Other temples include the Bai Dinh Pagoda, which is less challenging to get to but equally as impressive. Or you could go to see the Bich Dong Pagoda, which is a set of three temples that have been carved into a limestone mountain in the area of Tam Coc!
Another option is the ancient city of Hoa Lua, which was the former capital of Vietnam during the Dinh and Le Dynasties. What did we tell you... There's definitely no shortage of temples to check out in Ninh Binh!
3 - Cuc Phong National Park
Located about 45km North-West of Ninh Binh is Cuc Phong National Park, which is Vietnams largest National Park. There are loads of national parks in Vietnam, however this one is well-known due to being the most important site of biodiversity in the country. It is home to hundreds of species of trees, plants and animals, many of which are incredibly rare. The park has an Endangered Primate Rescue Centre on site and a Botanical Garden, where many of these endangered species can be looked after and preserved. There are many trails throughout the park too, which are great for biking/hiking. Definitely worth dedicating a day of your travels to!
Other places where you can find rare species include the rarely visited Thung Nham Bird Garden, just 5km from Tam Coc centre. Recommended by our hostel owner, we ventured here early morning and saw thousands of birds lining the tree tops. The natural park is in the middle of the mountains and is where thousands of birds, many of them rare species, make their nest. The park has tonnes of hiking trails and caves, so a great place to head to if you are looking to really spend a day with nature.
Sadly we didn't get to visit here because we got rained off and with my burnt leg trekking may have been a little difficult.
4 - Rent a bike and venture into the unknown
We found our best days out are always when you just rent a scooter (or use your own if your motorbiking through like us) and drive it aimlessly around the city.
We drive down dirt paths and tracks in the hope of finding things we can stop and look at, or even just to see parts of the city and culture that aren't usually seen. We did this in Ninh Binh and found the most beautiful spot. Just before the turn off towards Hang Mua Mountain, there is a dirt path to your right that runs along the side of the mountains, with a tonne of signs for the home stays that are located down the direction of the path. We took this as we thought the mountains looked good to scramble up, it turned out they weren't as there was a big restaurant right in front of where we wanted to climb. So we kept on driving and a couple of seconds later... Came across one of the most beautiful sights we'd seen in Vietnam. The photo below doesn't do it justice, but we hope you go there and enjoy it for yourself.
5 - Trip Advisor's No1 Restaurant
And lastly... We don't normally write about specific restaurants, but thought this restaurant was too good not to write about!
We had literally the best meal we've had in Vietnam at Trung Tuyet Restaurant in the centre of Ninh Binh. The portions are given in accordance to how many people will be sharing the plate. Not only are the portions insanely generously, they are also soooo well priced. A plate of spring rolls for two people... Is a plate of TEN spring rolls! A plate of chicken for two people... Is literally nearly a whole chicken served to you! All cooked beautifully as well, this place is our top recommendation for food in Vietnam. To top it all off is their incredible hospitality, they give you a free banana as soon as you sit down with a plate of nibbles to eat whilst you wait and then give you a goodie bag to take home, full of crackers and biscuits. Incredible place and incredible food! Here's a link to their trip advisor if you would like to read more!