Things to do in Ninh Binh, Vietnam – Boat Trips, Day Hikes, Day Trips
“Hello, Temple,” our boat guide said as she paddled us through the karst grottoes of Trang An Landscape Complex. “Who’re you calling Temple,” I thought, “and why are you just greeting me now after we’ve been literally in the same boat for an hour?”
This was my introduction to the language barrier in northern Vietnam, and where I learned that in Ninh Binh, “hello,” isn’t so much a greeting, as it is everything, from “your dinner is served,” to “you’re about to step off that cliff.” In this case, I was being notified that we were approaching an ancient temple built on a rock outcropping.
My husband and I visited Ninh Binh in November, taking a 2-hour ride on the Reunification Express train from Hanoi. Referred to by enterprising tour companies as “The Ha Long Bay of the Land,”
Ninh Binh is a small inland town in the Red River delta, marked by limestone cliffs and rice fields. It’s the site of the ancient capital of Vietnam, established in 968 CE, after seceding from China’s Southern Han Dynasty.
Our trip featured boat tours, hiking, and eating Chinese-style food. The sites visited are listed below in order of least to most physically demanding. We spent 2 days in Ninh Binh, however, 3-4 days would have been ideal.
Trang An Landscape Complex (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
I’m not sure what was most impressive, the towering limestone, the ancient temples, or the boat guide paddling with her feet. Visitors choose one of several boat routes from a map, some of which feature tight cave passages. Our guide navigated the caves with ease, while we cowered in the bottom of the boat to avoid hitting our heads on the rocks. The tour included several stops where we could walk around ancient temples.
By mid-morning when we finished our tour, the area was crowded with boats of tourists and the occasional wedding party. Similar boat tours in Ninh Binh include Tam Coc (said to be a brilliant lime green just before the summer rice harvests), and Van Long Nature Reserve, known for its birds and wildlife.
Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
Although the ancient capital may be Ninh Binh’s reason for being, the complex itself was a bit underwhelming. Much of the architecture has been destroyed, leaving a few Confucian temples connected by flat walkways. The interpretive signage is mostly in Vietnamese, so our language limitations stifled our appreciation for the area. One interesting sight was the ruins of an ancient foundation and several gilded artifacts, housed in a 1970s structure of teal-painted concrete blocks. The contrast of ancient grandeur and socialist efficiency was striking.
Bai Dinh Pagoda
I know what they say: “If you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all,” but the impressive size of this complex, plus the (optional) punishing hike up Bai Dinh Mountain, was incredible. Visitors can take a tram or walk up a steep climb to the main portion of the complex.
The biggest temple, completed in 2010, features enormous gilded status and seemingly never-ending walls of niches. The scene evoked an eerie sense of awe in me.
To counter my mental overload of beauty, I suggested that we take on the physical challenge of climbing to the ancient portion of the complex. Most tourists seem to overlook this hike, but the challenge is rewarding indeed. Breathless at the top of a mountain, we took in the expansive view, just before ducking into a small cave with an altar. Despite the tough hike to get here, we noted that someone had kept incense burning and freshly stocked offerings of fruit, beer, and snack cakes.
Ironically, this site is known more for its stone steps up a karst mountain, rather than the diminutive cave for which it is named. The complex entrance is like a carnival, featuring noisy snack bars and brightly decorated souvenir stands run by Mua Cave Ecolodge.
We bought some snacks and packed them away to enjoy at the top of the climb. After climbing hundreds of stone steps, we reached the Lying Dragon Statue adorning the peak. Signage tells visitors to stop at the top of the steps, but many people climbed the rocks to access the statue. The jagged limestone makes great handholds for humans, while also serving as a bathroom for local mountain goats. Hand sanitizer is crucial.
On the advice of locals, we arrived at sunset, only to have our view hampered by cloudy weather and throngs of people. Since the view from the top is 360 degrees, it seems that sunrise would be equally good, and perhaps less crowded.
Bich Dong Pagoda
Our homestay host pronounced it “beek dong,” but however you say it, this pagoda offered a great hike with very few other tourists. The 3-tiered complex features Buddhist temples carved into a mountain, accessible by stone steps. A sign at the top warns visitors not to climb above the steps. We could tell from items left behind that neither goats nor humans heed this sign.
Although China relinquished control of Ninh Binh in the 10th century, its influence on local cuisine remains. We tried a few mediocre Vietnamese dishes before finding better luck with Chinese stir-fries. My favorite dish was “burnt rice,” a crispy cake of rice served with a warm and goopy, cornstarch-thickened soy sauce. Although this sauce may have been unappetizing on its own, it complemented the rice perfectly and tasted great after a long day of hiking.
As Ninh Binh’s tourism industry grows, the construction of new hotels and restaurants abounds. Watch out for areas that may be next to a noisy construction site. Check online hotel reviews or Google Earth photos to investigate. We had a great experience at Tam Coc Westlake Homestay, where we got a quiet room and made-to-order breakfast for the cost of just breakfast in the USA.
While cash is the only form of payment accepted in most of Ninh Binh, ATMs are rare. Bring all the cash you’ll need.
The tourism season is year-round, however, summer offers brilliant green rice fields, with the tradeoffs of heat and rain. We chose to visit in November when it is a bit cooler and typically sunny. Unfortunately, we were met with unseasonably misty weather, but perhaps the mist enhanced the mountain landscapes.