Plage de Montaut
I’m about to share my full travel details to Vietnam’s hidden gem. This is a detailed Ninh Binh itinerary to see this fascinating place in two magical days.Some of the most memorable days of my 2-month backpacking trip in Asia were spent in Ninh Binh, Vietnam. The whole province is an extremely low-key and amazingly scenic place, yet still not packed with tourists. It’s the perfect place to get to know the real authentic Vietnam.Being a recently discovered travel destination, information online about Ninh Binh is still scarce and confusing. To make things worse, Google Maps can mislead you, and the locals struggle to understand English.It can be challenging to plan a trip independently to Ninh Binh. It’s still WAY better than to explore Ninh Binh on a soulless and rushed organized tour together with dozens of other travelers.That’s why I’ve shared a complete Ninh Binh guide before. Now I’m going deeper and sharing my full trip itinerary for you to explore this hidden gem in Vietnam in 2 days and have the same amazing experience that I had.
Ninh Binh Itinerary & Travel Plan
The river and rice paddies of Tam Coc
- The itinerary is based on my own trip in December 2016. I spent a total of 2,5 days exploring Ninh Binh and could’ve easily stayed more!
- It’s for independent travelers making their own way in Ninh Binh. This is the way it should be explored!
- It’s suited if you have your own wheels, whether is a bike or a motorbike. I strongly recommend the latter, at least on the first day.
- It’s NOT a rushed itinerary. You can squeeze in more places if you want. However I think is important to allow some time to really take in the scenery, explore the area calmly and even get wonderfully lost!
Sounds like this can suit you? Great, let’s start the engines!
What to do in Ninh Binh – 2-Day Itinerary
Yes, two days. Anything less and you’ll need to cut down on some sights and/or rush your trip. And who the hell wants to stress on the countryside?!There are also some additional sights in case you’ve got more time or want to switch up something.
Day 1 in Ninh Binh
- Trang An Grottoes
- Hoa Lu Ancient Citadel
- Bai Dinh Pagoda
Day 2 in Ninh Binh
- Tam Coc Rice Fields
- Bich Dong Pagoda
- Hang Mua
- Thung Nham Bird Park
I know these shopping lists don’t help much, so now let’s go in detail about these sights!
Day 1 in Ninh Binh
This first day only has 3 places, but each one of them will need a couple of hours to explore. I strongly suggest you get around on a motorbike as distances between these sights are significant.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Trang An Landscape Complex is an impressive set of large limestone karst cliffs covered by forest. In the entire area, you can find temples, dozens of valleys and about 50 different caves.The best way to enjoy this inspiring scenery is to take a boat ride. A lady rower will row the boat for you, the technique they use to maneuver the boat inside the underwater caves is truly amazing. It’s unreal the amount of effort these ladies have to put every day for a living.Since the whole trip lasts for about 2 hours (!), I helped the rower for some time by using the spare oars. Trang An was definitely the main highlight of Ninh Binh and apparently a much more beautiful and relaxing ride than Tam Coc‘s (see below). Being surrounded by the huge mountains in almost every direction while on a tiny boat is truly a spectacular feeling. Don’t miss this!
Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
Hoa Lu is the ancient capital of the Dinh and Le dynasties, dating back to the 11th century. It’s located roughly 14km from Ninh Binh and close to the Trang A boat ride.Today, the remains of this ancient city are just that: remains. The buildings still standing include the royal temples of Dinh Tien Huang, housing a statue of Emperor Dinh Bo Linh and his sons as well as the royal temple of the early Le Dynasty. Still, more than the buildings or temples, I found Hoa Lu to be beautiful because of the scenery. The ruins are just too rainy to be memorable IMHO. It’s still worth to have a stroll around and imagine how the city was a millennium ago.
Bai Dinh Pagoda
Located 15km away from Ninh Binh city in a mountain area, Bai Dinh Pagoda is a HUGE religious complex. In fact, everything is massive here. Within the 539-hectare premises, there are 5,000 Buddha statues, a 36-ton bronze bell and dozens of Buddhist temples, each more opulent than the other. Usually, visitors explore the compound by electric car (!).It’s the absolute largest pagoda in South East Asia. Climbing to the top gives you an amazing open view over the Ninh Binh province.Just like Ninh Binh in general, I honestly don’t know how Bai Dinh can fall this much under the radar. But it does and I guess that’s a good thing!
Day 2 in Ninh Binh
Contrarily to the first day, this one can be done on a bike as distances are shorter. All the sights are in or around Tam Coc.
Tam Coc Rice Fields
The boat ride in the Tam Coc rice fields is the main reason tourists come to Ninh Binh. The area is surrounded by hundreds of stony outcrops similar to the ones found in Halong Bay. For this reason, the area is nicknamed “Halong in Land”. I skipped the boat ride when I heard it’s a hotspot for scams and hawkers. Apart from the ticket fee, the rowers often “ask” (aka demand) tourists a tip on the middle of the ride. Plus, when you get back on shore, you’re coerced to buy some food for your rower. Since I had already experienced the awesome boat ride in Trang An, I decided I could live without it. A great alternative option to explore the rice fields is on a bike. It’s hassle-free, way more adventurous and cheaper in the end. Cycling along the paddies, waving to the people working in the fields and getting up close with some cute animals on the way felt like the absolute right choice!
Bich Dong Pagoda
If you’re coming from Tam Coc, the road to Bich Dong Pagoda is simply gorgeous. At a given point, you’ll be surrounded by huge rice fields with limestone cliffs as a backdrop. Definitely worthy of stopping for some selfie moments! Bich Dong Pagoda itself is a set of 3 temples enclosed in a mountain. To explore the highest one you need to pass through a series of caves. At some point it’s pitch dark inside, so watch your step! Inside you can find several Buddhist images carved in stone and hollow stalactites on which you can play some tunes. Some of these caves were used by the Viet Minh to hide from the French during the First Indochina War.
Everyone addresses this place as the Hang Mua Caves, but to be honest the caves are nothing special. In fact, if I had it skip completely, I wouldn’t have missed anything. Even the ones in Thung Nham Bird Park are better IMHO.
The real appeal of this place lies on the temple on top of the mountain. You can see the set of stairs to get there from a distance. It’s a fair climb of almost 500 (!) steps. Yes, it’s exhausting, especially because they are uneven – some are really tiny, others can be made for giants.
But don’t get discouraged. Once you have had this proper workout, you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular 360° view over the Tam Coc valley. The views over the countryside and paddy fields are truly amazing. There’s no better place to catch your breath and find your inner zen again. Totally worth the effort, believe me.
Thung Nham Bird Park
During my research about Ninh Binh, I’ve NEVER heard of this place. It was the lovely girl on the reception of our hotel that not only suggested us to go to Thung Nham but offered to be our guide there!
For those who love nature and an adventurous bird-watching trip, the natural reserve of Thung Nham (Nham Valley) is a must go. Deeply enclosed in the mountains, it’s a place with great natural beauty with many underwater caves and rivers. The Hang But (Buddhist Cave) is one of the largest. With lots of stalactites and stalagmites inside sitting beside an underground river, going inside is quite an adventure.
A total of 150 different animals (beware of the snakes!) and more than 40 species of birds – some of them critically endangered species – can be found in Thung Nham. There are so many there’s even a place inside dedicated to them – the Bird Park.
We took the boat to watch the birds at dusk, the peak time for foraging birds. Picture a small rowing boat on the mangrove forests, with HUNDREDS of birds hanged on the trees, all wrapped around in a drop dead gorgeous forest. The only noise comes from the birds while the sun is setting in the background. Magical.
I went there knowing absolutely nothing about this place and came back mesmerized (can’t thank you enough Trang!).
Where to stay In Ninh Binh
Don’t stay in Ninh Binh city. I can’t understand how people come to such a nature-gifted place and stay in an uninspiring and ugly city. Instead, base yourself in Tam Coc, in the countryside. It’s a much more pleasant small town close to the main attractions – including the rice fields. The only downside from the place we stayed (below) was the location: 2,5km from Tam Coc center, with all the shops and restaurants. On the other hand, we had a quieter location with much better views!
Find your accommodation in Ninh Binh I usually use Booking.com to find accommodations. It’s safe, easy and reliable and you use my shortlist of the top-rated places to stay in Ninh Binh with WiFi included. In Asia, you might also try the hotel listing of Agoda is larger and often with better deals.