Looking for one of the best side trips from Hanoi? Ninh Binh, Vietnam’s ‘Halong Bay on Land’, is a magical landscape of limestone karsts, winding waterways, and hidden temples. This guide to travelling to Ninh Binh from Hanoi covers transport, accommodation, and the ideal Ninh Binh itinerary.
1/ Ninh Binh travel FAQ 2/ Getting to Ninh Binh from Hanoi
3/ Getting to Ninh Binh from elsewhere in Vietnam 4/ Where to stay in Ninh Binh
5/ The best things to do in Ninh Binh – Ninh Binh itinerary 6/ Ninh Binh travel video
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The very first side trip we took after moving to Hanoi for a year was a weekend away in Ninh Binh. We jumped on a train one Friday after work and the next morning, woke up in one of the most magical landscapes I’ve seen in Vietnam.
Our first trip to Ninh Binh was one of those rare ‘perfect’ travel experiences. In fact, we loved Ninh Binh so much, we went back again a few months later—and again for a third time later in the year!
This guide to visiting Ninh Binh from Hanoi is based on my own experience travelling to Ninh Binh. It includes everything you need to know about visiting Ninh Binh from Hanoi—including travel planning advice, transport options, and the ideal Ninh Binh itinerary.
Ninh Binh travel FAQ
Why go to Ninh Binh?
Ninh Binh City, capital of Ninh Binh Province, is a relatively small community in Northern Vietnam’s Red River Delta. Its location less than 100km southeast of Hanoi makes it an ideal day or side trip from the capital. Despite its close proximity to Hanoi, Ninh Binh is still a little quieter than other destinations in Northern Vietnam. It’s very popular among local tourists, and by no means off the beaten path. Still, many international travellers tend to skip it.
What makes Ninh Binh an ideal destination is its proximity to Tam Coc (7km away) and Trang An (8km away). Tam Coc-Bich Dong and Trang An are two protected landscapes that tourists can explore by boat. Most people travel to Ninh Binh for the natural beauty—limestone karsts (the same rock formations you see in Halong Bay), winding waterways, vast rice fields, and hidden temple complexes and ancient ruins are some of the highlights. Vietnam’s capital was formerly located in Hoa Lu, just outside of Ninh Binh, and there are many historical points of interest to see around there, too.
A lot of people (especially Vietnamese tourists) come to Ninh Binh for the food. Goat is the local dish of choice here, and you’ll often see stalls by the side of the highway selling whole spit-roasted goats (vegetarians, be warned). If you see goat on the menu and you’re so inclined, I highly recommend trying it in Ninh Binh.
Ninh Binh or Halong Bay?
Because of the limestone karsts and waterways, Ninh Binh is often compared to Halong Bay. In fact, it’s sometimes referred to as the ‘Halong Bay on land’. (I actually grew to hate this phrase because it’s so overused by tourism operators in Hanoi! But it is a fair comparison.)
There are some big differences between Halong Bay and Ninh Binh. Most obviously, touring Ninh Binh doesn’t involve boarding a boat. We did a cruise of Halong Bay back in 2012 (the first time we travelled to Vietnam). Having come away from that experience less than impressed, we weren’t fused on repeating the experience. If you’re in the same boat, Ninh Binh is a good alternative to Halong Bay.
Both Halong Bay and Ninh Binh are worth seeing once. Which one you choose is ultimately a personal preference. Ninh Binh is a lot easier to visit from Hanoi, so I would lean towards recommending it over Halong Bay (which I strongly believe is overrated and over-touristed, anyway).
When is the best time to visit Ninh Binh?
Ninh Binh is located in Northern Vietnam where there are four distinct seasons. Summer is very hot and winter, by contrast, can get very cold. Ninh Binh’s delta location means the landscape is very flat. The area often experiences flooding and sometimes even landslides during the rainy season (approximately May to September), so it might be wise to plan a trip outside those times to be on the safe side.
Ninh Binh is surrounded by rice fields, so it’s a good idea to consider the timing of the rice harvest when planning your visit. November to early February (peak winter season) has nice, cool temperatures—but the landscape is parched and brown. The fields are fully developed and fluorescent green around September (when I took most the photos featured here) and again in March/April. They turn a brilliant shade of golden yellow in October and May/June ahead of the bi-annual rice harvest.
Ninh Binh is a favourite spot for families travelling from Hanoi, and it can get very busy on weekends. I strongly recommend avoiding Ninh Binh on public holidays, when Trang An and Tam Coc balloon with domestic tourists.
How long to spend in Ninh Binh?
If you want to see everything Ninh Binh has to offer, I recommend spending two or three full days. Having said that, you could comfortably spend a weekend in Ninh Binh (arriving on Friday night and departing on Sunday afternoon) and still see the highlights. One of the best things about Ninh Binh is the relaxing atmosphere. If you’re at the point in your Vietnam itinerary where you need a break, Ninh Binh is the perfect place to chill out and do nothing for a few days.
• Planning on staying the night? Check out my round-up of the best Tam Coc bungalows, lodges and hotels.
Can I do a day trip to Ninh Binh from Hanoi?
Yes—it’s certainly possible to visit Ninh Binh as a day trip from Hanoi. I never tried it myself, but I have a few friends who did. Considering the journey time from Hanoi, it will be a long day and your time in Ninh Binh will be a bit rushed. But if you’re on a tight itinerary, an organised day trip is a perfectly acceptable option. Check out this day trip to Ninh Binh from Hanoi.
Another option is to join a tour from Ninh Binh. This would be ideal if you have just one full day and you want to see everything. I recommend this full-day small group tour itinerary.
Getting around Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh’s attractions are quite spread out so it’s ideal (though not essential) to have access to your own transport. 24-hour motorbike hire is a popular option; expect to pay between 120K and 200K VND.
Since we don’t drive, we used bicycles to get around the mostly flat landscape. (Free bicycles came include with our hotel rate, but it’s also possible to hire bicycles in Tam Coc for around 50K/day). If the weather is bad or you’re short on time, you can hire a car and driver to take you around for the day. The price for a car ranges from about 50 to 100 USD, depending on how far afield you want to travel. Your guesthouse or hotel should be able to organise this for you.
Getting to Ninh Binh from Hanoi
There are several options available for travelling between Hanoi and Ninh Binh.
Hanoi to Ninh Binh train
There are six trains daily connecting Ninh Binh City and Hanoi. The journey between stations takes between 2.5 to 3 hours. We travelled by train the first time we visited Ninh Binh and found it easy and convenient. It’s also extremely affordable, with soft-seat tickets starting from just 80K VND (less than $5) per person. Domestic trains in Vietnam have come a long way since we first travelled in 2012. The train to Ninh Binh from Hanoi is clean and comfortable for the most part, with bathrooms and snack carts on board.
If you’re travelling during peak time (high season or on a weekend/public holiday), you might consider buying your Hanoi to Ninh Binh train tickets in advance. If you’re in Hanoi, you can book online through Vietnam Railways. Once you purchase tickets, you have a 24-hour window to present yourself at the station, pay in cash, and collect your paper ticket. Alternatively, use the link below to book tickets through 12GoAsia.
Hanoi to Ninh Binh trains depart from Hanoi’s main railway station at 120 Le Duan, and stop at Phu Ly and Nam Dinh before calling in to Ninh Binh’s railway station. The train crosses over a river bridge right before the Ninh Binh station—this is a good landmark to look out for so you know when to jump off (but don’t be too worried—there are always other passengers alighting at Ninh Binh). See below for details on how to travel from Ninh Binh City to your accommodation in Tam Coc.
Hanoi to Ninh Binh bus
Hanoi has several large bus stations servicing different locations in Northern Vietnam. Giap Bat (pronounced ziap bat) Bus Interchange is located in the city’s south and has buses and vans frequently departing for Ninh Binh. To get to Giap Bat from the Old Quarter, take a Grab or taxi, or use public bus number 03A or 08A.
If you haven’t taken a bus in Hanoi before, this is basically how it works: A number of different companies use the interchange and there’s fierce competition for who can fill up a bus first (a van usually won’t leave until it’s full). Once you enter the station building (or sometimes just the carpark), company reps will descend on you and try to recruit you onto their bus. You can either ask them for Ninh Binh and pay the conductor or driver once you get to the bus out the back, or bypass them and head for a ticket window (look for Ninh Binh painted above the window). Once you have a ticket, someone will appear to chaperone you out back to the right bus.
The journey from Hanoi to Ninh Binh by bus can take anywhere between 1.5 to 3 hours depending on traffic, and costs between 100K VND and 160K VND per person. The most annoying thing about travelling by minivan (apart from the Hanoi traffic) is trying to make it out of the station—drivers will often spend up to an hour hanging around the front of the station trying to recruit more passengers. We once sat outside Giap Bat for a full 60 minutes while the driver tried to fill the empty seats. If you’re really savvy, you can do as the Vietnamese do and walk south along the road Giap Bat is on. You’ll see crowds of people waiting to flag down almost-full buses. From there, you can just wait for a Ninh Binh van to pull up and pull you inside.
Note that Giap Bat bus station closes at around 5.30/6pm. After that, it can be difficult to get a bus to Ninh Binh City. We tried it once and ended up having to change buses in the middle of a highway halfway between Hanoi and Ninh Binh. The first bus for Ninh Binh from Hanoi departs at around. Also note that not all Ninh Binh buses go to the city itself—remember that Ninh Binh is also the name of the province, and some buses just service the more rural parts. Most drivers should recognise that tourists want to go to the city, but to be sure, you can ask for Ninh Binh City (Thanh Pho Ninh Binh).
Once in Ninh Binh, the bus will make lots of stops along the highway to let people out. Most buses continue all the way to the centre of town around Ninh Binh Train Station. From there, it’s easy to pick up a taxi.
Ninh Binh to Tam Coc
Since most decent accommodation is located outside the city, you’ll next need to travel from the train station or bus stop in Ninh Binh City to Tam Coc. The easiest option is a metred taxi. We did this several times and never paid more than 150-200K VND. Expect to pay significantly more at night. In all likelihood, the driver will ask for a flat fee rather than using the metre if you’re travelling after dark. Alternatively, you can ask your guesthouse to organise a car transfer for you.
Hanoi to Ninh Binh taxi
A taxi (i.e. private car and driver) to Ninh Binh from Hanoi will cost you between 60 and 100 USD one-way. Organise through your accommodation in Hanoi or Ninh Binh, or book in advance using the link above.
Hanoi to Ninh Binh by motorbike
It’s also possible to travel to Ninh Binh from Hanoi by motorbike. We had a few friends (relatively experienced drivers) who did this with no trouble. Follow the route marked out on Google Maps; you can also stop off at the Perfume Pagoda along the way. If travelling by bike, familiarise yourself with the local road rules (or lack thereof) first, wear an international standard motorbike helmet, and check that your travel insurance will cover you in case of an accident.
Getting to Ninh Binh from elsewhere in Vietnam
Cat Ba Island to Ninh Binh
To get to Ninh Binh from Cat Ba, you’ll first need to transit through Haiphong (the closest town to Cat Ba on the mainland), and again through Hanoi. It’s not possible to do this all on the one ticket—but agents might be able to organise transfers for you. Otherwise, travel from Cat Ba to Hanoi with a company such as Cat Ba Express and from there, make your way to the bus station and pick up a van to Ninh Binh using the instructions in the previous section. The journey will take about 6-7 hours all up.
Halong Bay to Ninh Binh
There is one direct bus service from Halong Bay to Ninh Binh. The journey time is about 7 hours, and the fare is 11 USD. Book using the link above.
Sapa to Ninh Binh
The best way to travel to Ninh Binh from Sapa is to first take the overnight sleeper train from Lao Cai to Hanoi, and then transfer to a bus or minivan. You can buy a combo ticket through 12GoAsia using the link above. Otherwise, organise your train to Hanoi, jump in a taxi to the bus station, and make your own way to Ninh Binh by minivan using the instructions in the previous section.
Read next: An authentic Hmong homestay experience in Sapa.
Phong Nha (Dong Hoi) to Ninh Binh
There are overnight sleeper trains from Dong Hoi (the closest town to Phong Nha) that go all the way to Ninh Binh City. The journey takes 8.5 hours, arriving in Ninh Binh around 9.30am. If you prefer to travel during the day and see the landscape, there is also a day train departing Dong Hoi at 5am and getting into Ninh Binh just after lunch. Tickets start from 14 USD if you book using the link above.
Where to stay in Ninh Binh
Give Ninh Binh City a miss; it’s much, much nicer to stay out of town near Trang An or Tam Coc. Most homestays and bungalows are located closer to Tam Coc, with some properties featuring water views.
Budget | Tam Coc Homestay is a good budget option in Ninh Binh, with prices starting from 14 USD/night. The location in Tam Coc, with views of rice fields and karsts, is divine. This is probably the best value you’ll find for bungalow-style accommodation in Ninh Binh. Check availability & prices for Tam Coc Homestay on Agoda.
Mid-range | For something slightly more upmarket, try renting an entire private bungalow at Nguyen Shack. The location, close to the entrace to Mua Cave, is convenient if you plan on walking up to the lookout for sunrise or sunset. Check availability & prices for Nguyen Shack on Agoda.
• Need more options? I have a whole post about Tam Coc accommodation—including how to choose a place and 12 of my favourite properties. check it out here.
All-out | Mua Caves Ecolodge is an ideal choice if you’re looking for something that’s not a bungalow but is still in Tam Coc. Check availability & prices for Mua Caves Ecolodge on Agoda.
Ninh Binh City | If you find yourself needing to stay overnight in Ninh Binh city, I recommend Viet Nhat. It’s located right opposite the train station (literally just a 5 minute walk), so it’s perfect if you’re getting in late at night or wanting to get an early start the next day. Rates are very reasonable, rooms are basic but clean, and breakfast comes included in the rate. Check availability & prices for Viet Nhat on Agoda.
Heading to Hanoi next? Here are my top Airbnbs to stay at in Hanoi.
Things to do in Ninh Binh – Recommended Ninh Binh itinerary
Try out this full-day or two-day Ninh Binh itinerary. You’ll also find some attractions further afield if you plan on spending more time in the area.
Day One – Ninh Binh highlights
If you’ve only got one day to spend in Ninh Binh, start with these essential Ninh Binh must-sees.
Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex
Location on Google Maps
Time to spend there: 2 hours
Entrance fee: 200K VND/person (including the boat) + a tip for your driver
The UNESCO-listed Trang An Scene Landscape Complex (Tràng An) is Ninh’s Binh’s crowning jewel and by far the best thing to do in Ninh Binh. Sampan boats take tourists on two set routes through the complex, which features caves and grottoes, temples, and incredible limestone formations. When we did the tour, we stopped to get out of the boat twice: First to visit the set of King Kong: Skull Island (part of the movie was filmed in Trang An), and secondly for the Vu Lam Royal Step-Over Place, a 13th-century sanctum from the Trang Dynasty.
Trang An is an incredibly slick operation, with ticket windows, turnstiles, and a snack shop on site. Every passenger must wear a lifejacket. Boats are new and well-maintained; and the boat drivers wear uniforms. After the two-hour ride is finished, guests are encouraged to fill out a feedback form.
Cycle through the rice fields to Tam Coc-Bich Dong
The ride between Trang An and Tam Coc-Bich Dong is 7km (about 40 minutes) if you follow the roads. We decided to take a few shortcuts through the rice paddies instead. We ventured off road at times, navigating the narrow, muddy dykes that separate the fields. It took us a bit longer to get there, but riding through the green fields between the karsts was one of the highlights of our time in Ninh Binh.
Tip: As you approach Tam Coc, ladies try to corral you into their parking lots. This is paid parking (although the fee is very small). It is possible to take your bike all the way into town and park closer to the dock.
Tam Coc-Bich Dong
Location on Google Maps
Time to spend there: 2.5 hours
Entrance fee: 120K VND/person (plus 150K VND for boat hire)
Tam Coc-Bich Dong (Tam Cốc-Bích Động) is part of the Trang An complex and offers similar views and similar water-oriented activities. The Tam Coc part of the site is a set of three limestone caves; Bich Dong is a 15th century pagoda complex set on a nearby mountaintop. Like at Trang An, there are sampans waiting at the Tam Coc dock to paddle tourists through the caves and along the waterways. If you’ve ever seen footage of women rowing with their feet, this is where the magic happens (although we didn’t see it ourselves).
Tam Coc is much less organised than Trang An and the boats and gear are not so well-kept. There is a ticket booth at the dock, but many people opt to approach a boat driver independently and haggle for a better price. The 3km route takes about 2 hours to complete, and costs 150K VND per boat (charged on top of the entrance fee), making it significantly more expensive than Trang An.
If you’re not up for another boat ride, you can just spend some time wandering around the dock and admiring the brightly painted sampan boats.
More Ninh Binh inspiration: My top photos of Tam Coc boat dock.
NOTE: If you only have time for one boat ride, I recommend Trang An over Tam Coc.
Tam Coc cafes & bars
Tam Coc town (the area around the boat dock) is pretty touristy. Amidst the backpacker hostels, dive bars and local restaurants, we were surprised to stumble on La Carte Lounge Bar, a gorgeous cafe and boutique hotel. It’s a nice spot to stop off for a smoothie or beer before the last leg of your journey.
Mua Caves & Lying Dragon Mountain
Location on Google Maps
Getting there from Tam Coc:
Time to spend there: 2 hours
Entrance fee: 100K VND/person (or free for Mua Caves Ecolodge guests)
Mua Caves (Hang Múa) is a series of grottoes of various sizes set in the bottom of a limestone mountain. What most people come here for is the climb up to the top of Lying Dragon Mountain. Roughly 450 stairs lead to the top, where the path converges into two final stages. One side—the higher path—leads to a stone dragon statue and a view of the staircase and tower below. The climb is quite steep, so it’s advisable to wear appropriate shoes and carry drinking water with you. There is no shade, so I strongly advise against doing the climb in the hottest part of the day. Sunrise and sunset views are both nice. Note that the path has no lights and so closes at dusk—budget enough time to get back down before it gets too dark.
Day Two – Historic Ninh Binh
If you have a second day up your sleeve, take a closer look at Ninh Binh’s historical and religious points of interest.
Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
Location on Google Maps
Time to spend there: 2-3 hours
Entrance fee: 10,000VND/person (15,000VND with a motorbike)
Capital of Vietnam throughout the 10th and 11th centuries, Hoa Lu (Cố đô Hoa Lư) was once a vast complex of inner and outer citadels, palaces, temples and shrines. All that remains of Hoa Lu today is a few relics—the remains of an ancient temple and a collection of new pagodas dedicated to Hoa Lu’s former dignitaries. Đinh Tiên Hoàng (Tien Hoang Temple) and Đinh Lê Đại Hành (the Temple of Le Dai Hanh) are the two most popular points of interest. The Truong Yen Festival is held in Hoa Lu every year for Tet (Vietnamese New Year).
Bai Dinh Pagoda
The largest pagoda complex in Vietnam, Bai Dinh (Chùa Bái Đính) consists of a series of Buddhist halls set on a mountain and interlaced by a road. The old original temple and newer temples (many are still under construction) are a popular pilgrimage site for locals. Many of the newer temples are ostentatious—with huge gold-coloured Buddha statues, flashing lights and decadent alters. It takes about 20 minutes to walk from one end of the complex to the other. There is a vegetarian restaurant inside the complex if you want to break here for lunch.
Phat Diem Cathedral
Built between 1875 and 1899, Phat Diem (Tòa Giám Mục Phát Diệm) is a Catholic Cathedral and one of many churches that pop up out of the ricefields around this part of Northern Vietnam. It takes a bit of effort to get down to the cathedral, which is very close to the coast, but it’s worth it to see the magnificent and ornately decorated stone and ironwood construction. Mass is held inside the cathedral at 6am, 10am and 4pm daily.
If you have more time to spend in the Ninh Binh area, try one of these nearby national parks.
Van Long Wetland Nature Reserve
Located 18km (30 minutes’ drive) north of Ninh Binh City on the way to Cuc Phuong, the Van Long Wetlands (Khu Bảo Tồn Thiên Nhiên Vân Long) is the place for bird-watching in Ninh Binh. Spoonbills and geese, along with the Delacour’s langur (an endangered species of monkey only found in Northern Vietnam) are regularly spotted inside the reserve, which covers about 3,500 hectares. The best way to see the wetlands is by hiring a boat to take you out on the water.
Cuc Phuong National Park
Vietnam’s oldest national park, Cuc Phuong (Vườn Quốc Gia Cúc Phương) is located 60km (1.5 hours’ drive) from Ninh Binh City. Pristine rainforest, caves and grottoes, and thousand-year-old trees are among the park’s highlights. There’s also a lake, a Hmong minority village and a primate rescue centre located within the park. Anyone interested in wildlife or trekking would do well to spend a night or two inside the park at one of three accommodations, exploring the furthermost reaches of the forest on foot, motorbike or bicycle. If you only have time for a short visit, hire a bike at the park reception and try one of the shorter routes. You can find more information about visiting Cuc Phuong here.
Pu Luong Nature Reserve
It wouldn’t be possible to visit Pu Luong Nature Reserve (Khu bảo tồn Thiên nhiên Pù Luông) in a day from Ninh Binh, but it does make for an ideal next-stop, especially if you’re travelling onward towards Mai Chau. Located 130km (4 hours’ drive) northwest of Ninh Binh, Pu Luong is even bigger than Cuc Phuong and boasts some incredible trekking, waterfalls and village homestays. It’s one of my favourite off-the-beaten track spots in Vietnam. This is also the best place to see Vietnam’s famous bamboo waterwheels, which are built by certain ethnic minorities to channel water from streams into the rice fields.
Read next: Our visit to Pu Luong Nature Reserve—one of the most unique destinations in Northern Vietnam.
Ninh Binh travel video
I decided to try something new in Ninh Binh and shot a bit of footage in Trang An and Tam Coc. Here’s some footage to get you inspired for your next trip to Ninh Binh from Hanoi!
Over to you! Have you been to Ninh Binh? What activities would you recommend for other travellers? Is Ninh Binh the kind of place you’d like to visit in Vietnam?