Ninh Binh is the capital city of Ninh Binh Province in Northern Vietnam, famous for the nearby Karst scenery around the village of Tam Coc. There is nothing to do in Ninh Binh itself aside from drinking beer with the locals; the town is more useful as a base for the surrounding countryside.
- Tam Coc, (6 km south of Ninh Binh). , in the middle of the rice fields and lime peaks. The area is somewhat similar to Halong Bay (it is well known as “Halong Bay on Land”), but more accessible. The main attraction of Tam Coc is the boat ride between the cliffs of the river and through 3 tunnels dug by the river through the peaks. Entrance fee: 120,000 dong per person per ride. Ticket: 150,000 dong per boat in Oct 2016, maximum 2 foreigners per boat , but this is not enforced on kids. One of Vietnam’s most spectacular sights. If possible, take the boat ride in the morning before the excursion groups arrive from Hanoi, or late afternoon after the groups have left. Last boats start out about 5:30PM in the summer and 4:30PM in the winter. Its an easy bicycle ride here from Ninh Binh, with no hills. Beware, the floating drink sellers can be very persistent. Most will ask if you would like to buy a drink for the rower. This is usually sold back immediately for half price. Rowers can usually row with their feet as well as their hands, which makes quite an interest sight. Some boats have boxes loaded upon departure. They are filled with handicrafts (you can check it), and are meant for you to buy. Rowers are paid a minimum wage and have the right to a few tours a week only, so selling the famous Tam Coc hand-made embroideries, which the women rowers make at home, is the locals’ main income. You are not obligated to buy any, but then, you should give the rower a tip as rowing is hard which they will tell you then ask for a tip. But don’t expect a thank you as they will only complain that it isn’t enough regardless of what amount you give them. The area around Tam Coc is equally beautiful, and is best viewed from the back of a motorbike or by bicycle. In Tam Coc itself, apart from the boat ride, there are 2 beautiful sites to visit ; Bich Dong Pagoda, 3 km after the Tam Coc Pier, built on one of the cliff and which provides incredible views (go all the way to the top of the cliff via the small passage on the right of the last pagoda, which is inside the cliff) and Tai Vi Temple, accessible via the small road on the right of the pier.
- Trang An Grottoes, (7 km from Ninh Binh): An easy bicycle ride away, Trang An Grottoes is similar to Tam Coc but with many more caves to pass through. Most caves have been widened in order for the boats to pass through and as result their natural beauty has been compromised. The first two caves are the most natural and beautiful but are also tight in places, so watch your head. Lots of concrete structures are being built all over the place and rice paddies are disappearing fast but hopefully this area will not lose its splendor. The site was mainly built for Vietnamese and Chinese tourists. However, you are much less likely to be bothered by vendors selling beverages and hand embroidered gifts. As with Tam Coc it is best to go early in the morning or in late afternoon (last boat is 4pm) to avoid the buses of tour groups coming from Hanoi. Ride takes about 3 hours with short couple stops to visit some temples. Each boat leaves with 4 people, but will leave with more or fewer depending on the demand.
- Hang Mua Peak. is one of the most spectacular sites to visit around Tam Coc (5 km from the “pier”). 450 steps bring you to the tip of the peak, from which you have a most spectacular 360° view of the entire region, the Red River Delta on the East and the mountains on the other sides. Definitely a Must visit if all those steps do not scare you. Parking is included with the entry fee; ignore the people just outside the ticket booth attempting to wave you into their paid (10k) parking lot.
- Cuc Phuong National Park, (45km from Ninh Binh) is approximately 1 to 1.5 hours from Ninh Binh. It is a well preserved rainforest with an Endangered Primates Rescue Centre near the entrance. You can visit the primates centre only with a guide, which costs an extra 50,000 dong per person. There are about 150 primates here being prepared for release back in the wild. Most are from other parts of Vietnam and any releases will be where they originally come from. There is also a botanical garden and a turtle center. There are no other major sights. From the entrance you can drive, motorbike or cycle a further 20 km along a densely rainforested road, from which several tracks lead you through the jungle to prehistoric trees and caves. Cycling is probably the most rewarding way to travel this 20 km of often steeply inclined paved road and mountain bikes can be hired at the park entrance. One of the amazing things about this drive is the 1000’s upon 1000’s of colourful butterflies filling the roadway. Peak time for butterflies apparently is during April and May but in later months there may still many to be seen. The road ends at the Park Centre (Bong) with a restaurant and a place to buy snacks, and where several forest walks start. Many of them require a guide, as the trailheads to the guided walks are hidden and in the past, tourists lost orientation in the dense forest, so rescue operations were required. One walk that can be done independ is 6-7 km long and leads through the primary rain forest with lianes etc. to a thousand-year-old tree. Some enjoy to touch the old cho xanh (parashrea stellata) and sau (Dracontomelum Duperranum or Dancorra Edulis) trees, 50-70 m high The best chance to see any animals here is at night. The park is also suitable to watch birds, butterflies and orchid flowers.
- Hoa Lu Ancient Capital. Ancient capital of Vietnam until 1010, this royal city is 15 km from Ninh Binh and Tam Coc. Not too much remains except for some beautiful archways and the temples of Dinh Tien Hoang, Nhat Tru Temple and Le Dai Hanh.