Known as the Ha Long Bay on land, Ninh Binh is one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam. With limestone mountain rocks and endless rice fields, this is a destination that you absolutely cannot miss. Whether it’s a day trip from Hanoi, or a couple day visit, there’s plenty of things to do for everyone. If you love the outdoors and enjoy a good hike, this is especially a spot to visit. Here are the best things to do in Tam Coc and the Ninh Binh Province of Vietnam!
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Best Time to Visit & Weather: The best time time to go to Ninh Binh actually vary quite a bit!
• March to May (Spring Season) is full of color, golden rice fields, and ideal weather (not too hot)! If you go in March, you also get the perk of potentially having festival decoration from the Lunar New Year, which often times fall in February, so the temples might be decorated!
• Late September to October (Fall Season) is harvesting season so the fields will be filled with people! Definitely a unique experience. You might find beautiful rolling green hills and valleys too with with comfortable weather– 70’s to 90’s F.
• June is the hottest time of year, but with the lotus’ and water lily’s in full bloom. You’ll most likely get natural vegetation being in full bloom during this time too.
• The only season that is not as ideal is early September which is the stormiest season and the most rain you’ll get in the Ninh Binh and Tam Coc Province.
Getting to Ninh Binh: In order to get from Hanoi to Ninh Binh (95km distance), people normally hire a car service. It takes about 2 hours and can range between $50-$75. If you book a Ninh Binh Tour, they’ll include transportation in a comfortable car.
You could also take the train which is 2 hours and 15 mins ($5USD) and it operates 5-6 times a day
Alternatively there’s bus routes but I wouldn’t recommend just because the schedules may not be reliable.
Getting Around & Transportation: The easiest way (and probably best way) to get around Ninh Binh is by renting a scooter! Driving a scooter in Vietnam can be intimidating, but Ninh Binh is a great place to do it because the roads are significantly less busy — think countryside. Hiring a private car for transfer, as well as taxi is easy too, but you don’t get access to the smaller roads and fields that you would otherwise get on a scooter.
Currency: Vietnamese Dong. As of right now (October of 2022), 1,000,000 VDN = $42 USD. I would highly recommend carrying cash around, as most places don’t accept card in Ninh Binh. If they do accept card, just keep in mind that AMEX is not widely accepted
Languages: Vietnamese — English is very minimally spoken.
Airports: HAN (Hanoi) is the most common airport to get to Ninh Binh.
NINH BINH TOURS
While incorporating Ninh Binh into our itinerary, we had originally planned on doing just a day trip. But after reading more about all of the potential things to do, we decided one day in the Tam Coc & Ninh Binh Province was not enough. However, we still decided to book a day tour with Viator, and had the most amazing time!
For this specific tour, after you select dates and how many people are in your party, there is an option to book a Private and Customizable option, which is what we did. The tour allows you to pick 3 of 5 things to do, including Bich Dong Pagoda, Trang An, Tam Coc, Hang Mua, and Hoa Lu. I would highly recommend this tour! Our guide, Max, was incredibly knowledgable, attentive, and spoke great English. I don’t normally love doing tours, but found this one to be educational, cultural, and so fun!
For our specific tour, we did (left to right), Hoa Lu Temple, Tam Coc Boat Ride, scootered through the rice fields, and ended at Bich Dong Pagoda.
The tour included round trip transportation from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, but because we opted to stay behind, our tour guide and driver arranged a return transportation for us the following day! Otherwise, you would just return with the guide to Hanoi. You can also pick the start time of the tour and because it’s a 2 hour drive to Ninh Binh, we decided to leave at 7AM, which was perfect for us!
WHERE TO STAY IN TAM COC & NINH BINH PROVINCE
We decided to stay at Mua Caves Ecolodge, which was highly recommended to us by several people!! The best part about it is that it is located at the foot of the Mua Caves Peak, so once you walk out of your hotel room, you can begin hiking right up. This was the main reason why we chose it, but the hotel itself was clean, had great breakfast and dinner, and was centrally located to everything in the province. They also have a ton of different room options from regular rooms to bungalows.
Because Mua Caves Ecolodge is quite popular, oftentimes during busy season, they are booked out. Here are some other hotels that I would have chosen as an alternative, and/or were recommended to us by friends!
An’s Eco Garden Resort (top left), Emeralda Resort (top right)
Tam Coc Luxury Homestay (bottom left), Mua Cave Ecolodge (bottom right)
Tam Coc Luxury Homestay — this hotel was our backup if Mua Caves wasn’t available. It has super high ratings, looks very cute, and has bike and scooter rentals on site. 5km from Mua Caves.
An’s Eco Garden Resort — Clean hotel with pool, a little bit further away the other properties. 7km from Mua Caves
Emeralda Resort — The nicest hotel and most luxurious in the region, but also the furthest. It’s located in the Van Long Nature Reserve, so plenty to explore in that region but still 20km away from the Tam Coc village.
Now that we’ve gotten all of the logistics out of the way, here are the best things to do in the Tam Coc and Ninh Binh Province!
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN THE TAM COC & NINH BINH PROVINCE
1. HIKE HANG MUA PEAK
There is technically no entrance or closing time for Hang Mua Peak (or the Mua Caves), but because the foot of the cave is located on hotel property, you might see that their hours are 6AM to 7PM. You can hike the cave at any time, and I would highly recommend you do it for sunrise because the views are unmatched! If you go during these hours, the entrance is 100,000 VDN. If you stay at Mua Cave Ecolodge like we did, you don’t have to pay the entrance fee.
Once you begin hiking Hang Mua, you’ll notice the trail of stairs breaks off into two paths. The trail on the right side will lead you to the Pagoda (shorter side), and all the way up 500 steps on the left hand side, is the tallest peak with a stone dragon statue at the top. This view is my absolute favorite. You can see so much of Ninh Binh and the Ngo Dong River from here. The hike really only takes 15-20 minutes depending on your fitness level, but it is really quite manageable. Because it’s carved into the mountainside, the steps are very uneven and there isn’t much railing to grip on, so just be careful!
2. TAKE A BOAT RIDE DOWN TAM COC RIVER
The Tam Coc Boat ride is one of the most unique experiences you’ll ever have. The beautiful limestone mountain rocks emerge from the river, and you can explore right through the caves. Tam Coc translates to the three valleys or three caves!
Duration: 1 hour to 2.5 hours (the heat is strong, and you can turn around at any time).
Cost: 120,000 VDN per person, and an additional 150,000 for the boat. Each boat will only accommodate 2 people — not including tip ($16 for 2 people).
Operating Hours: 8AM to 6PM — I would recommend going before noon so that the heat is more bearable.
Where: Van Lam Port is the main entrance to the Tam Coc boat tours!
Make sure you bring sunscreen or buy a hat/umbrella before you get on the boat. Even if it doesn’t feel too hot, the sun and UV Index is quite high in this region! There are stands right outside the gate that will sell water, hats, and more. Half way through the boat ride (right before you turn around), there are other small boats that will sell goodies like snacks, fresh fruit, and water.
Disclaimer: I’ve seen a lot of blog posts say tip anywhere between 20,000 VDN to 40,000 VDN, which only comes out to $0.80 or $1.60. Our boat ride was at 11AM in the middle of the day, and our rower was working really hard in the heat. We bought him a water and some snacks and tipped him $10 for the boat ride. As always, there’s no pressure to tip, but as an American, our $10 goes a much longer way for them and their family than for me. Would love for you to consider that too when supporting their local economy if you’re in a position to 🙂
3. BICH DONG PAGODA
Bich Dong Pagoda is a three tiered pagoda carved out of the mountainside in Ninh Binh. It is one of the most beautiful pagodas I’ve been to. In order to enter, you cross a small bridge over a river with water lilies. There is no entrance fee, but there is a parking fee of 20,000 VDN. The ladies working the parking lot and convenience store in front may convince you to buy some incense on your way in, so just politely decline if you are not interested.
We hiked up all 3 tiers of the pagoda, and the views are beautiful, but it’s really the facade and grand entrance to the Pagoda that people come to visit.
4. THE LOTUS FIELDS
If you visit during peak summer, (June to July) you’ll find the lotus fields and water lilies in full bloom. We went in September and saw just a handful of flowers in bloom, but during summer, I can only imagine how stunning it is. Right behind Mua Caves Ecolodge is a famous walkway of the lotus flowers with the mountain back drop. We came during sunset, and it was beautiful. Just beware of mosquitos and other bugs since the walking pathway is over the swampy river!
5. STAY AT AN ECO LODGE OR HOME STAY
As I had mentioned earlier on this blog post, we stayed at Mua Caves Ecolodge, which was so beautiful and had such a great range of rooms. We stayed in the bungalows and loved it. But there are also so many beautiful homestay properties right in the heart of the valley!
6. RENT A MOTORBIKE / SCOOTER & EXPLORE
As part of our Viator experience, biking to Bich Dong was a part of the excursion, but we opted for a scooter instead! Being able to explore like a local, especially in the countryside, is so special. We were able to bike the same paths that the farmers and locals use and see some of the most beautiful sights. We loved it so much that we rented a scooter the following morning as well! Prices range from shop to shop and by duration, but it’s about 100,000 VDN to 200,000 VDN per day ($4-10).
7. VISIT HOA LU ANCIENT CAPITAL
Hoa Lu was the Ancient Capital of Vietnam, led by the Dinh & Le dynasties. They made the province of Ninh Binh the capital because of the natural fortress and that came with the mountainous region and winding rivers. Being a new kingdom in the 10th Century, it was almost like an impenetrable fortress that naturally protected from invasions. We went to Hoa Lu as part of our Viator Tour and learned a lot about the Dinh dynasty and their kingdom, and if you go here without a guide, I would presume you wouldn’t get as much culture and history! However, it’s a beautiful temple to visit as well!
8. TRY LOCAL NORTHERN FOOD
Ninh Binh’s main cuisine is goat, and most restaurants will have it cooked in many different styles. We had grilled goat at one of the restaurants, and it was actually very delicious. If you have the opportunity, make sure you stop by a traditional Vietnamese restaurant!
9. VISIT TRANG AN
We did not have the opportunity to go to Trang An, but a lot of people compare the boat ride of Trang An to the boat ride of Tam Coc. The main differences is that Trang An is a bit longer and the wetland is much larger, so the duration is almost double the amount of time. However, the water of Trang An is known to be more clear because Tam Coc has more rice fields, so the water can often times look murky. If you visit prior to harvesting season, you’ll see the rolling golden rice fields in full bloom though!
10. DAY TRIP VAN LONG NATURE RESERVE
Van Long Nature Reserve is in the Ninh Binh Province but outside of the Tam Coc Village, about 17km from Ninh Binh City center. You’ll find the biggest wetlands here from fresh water to swamps and marshes and has a very complex biodiversity. Van Long is also most known for avid bird watchers. Aside from this area, you can also explore the Trang An Ecotourism Complex and Cuc Phuong National Park.
Hopefully you’ve found this blog helpful, and that you add it to your itinerary while visiting Vietnam! Let me know if you have any questions in the comment section below!
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