Ninh Binh – Vietnam’s “Dry Halong Bay”

About 100 km south of Hanoi lies the city of Ninh Binh with the “dry Halong Bay”. What was once an insider’s tip as an alternative to the highly frequented Ha Long Bay is no longer an insider’s tip – yet Ninh Binh is definitely worth a visit. After all, the name “dry Halong Bay” is no coincidence. The rock formations are indeed similar to those in the world-famous Ha Long Bay, but here they are on land and not in the sea. Ninh Binh has just under 160,000 inhabitants and is a good starting point for excursions in the area.

General information about Ninh Binh

We found Ninh Binh itself rather less spectacular, which is why we decided to take a homestay in Tam Coc, about 8km away. Tam Coc is a small village surrounded by rice fields and karst rocks. Tam Coc is also the starting point for boat trips through the dry Ha Long Bay.

The top sights in Ninh Binh

Most of the highlights are outside Ninh Binh, so we recommend renting a scooter. The sights of the area are all within a 20-25 km radius. For the sights mentioned below, we recommend exploring by scooter. The scenery is beautiful everywhere and offers great views. Beautiful rice paddies, karst rocks and the Ngo Dong River make for stunning scenery. We have picked out some of the main attractions and explained them in more detail.

Tam Coc Boat Tour

The classic is the tour by paddle boat along the Ngo Dong River. The tour starts in the centre of Tam Coc. The tour lasts about 2 hours and takes you past great rock formations, rice fields and through caves. The trip itself is beautiful and highly recommended.

To escape the heat, you can go in the morning or in the afternoon, although the latter is much more crowded.
What we found a bit annoying, however, was our boat guide and the surrounding area. Boats came up to us to take photos of us and sell food at overpriced prices. The trick is quite simple: if we don’t want anything to eat or drink, we can at least buy something for our guide. Shortly before the end, they stop again and offer souvenirs before telling us again that they expect a tip. When we wanted to offer her a tip, it was too little for the boat driver and we were starting to get pretty fed up with it.

The boat tour itself costs 120.00 VND (~ 5 €) for the entrance to the … I don’t know and 150,000 VND (~ 6.30 €) per boat. So we paid almost 200,000 VND (~ 8.40 €) per person. We also found the classification crazy. Are non-Vietnamese so fat that only two are allowed on a boat, whereas 4 Vietnamese are OK? On the way, you will certainly come across boats with considerably more than 4 guests on board.

The Bich Dong Pagoda

The Bich Dong Pagoda is located in a dreamlike setting, surrounded by lush greenery, situated at the foot of a rock and surrounded by a pond full of water lilies. There is no entrance fee to the pagoda and it is well worth a visit, which will not take more than 30 minutes as the site is very small. The Bich Dong Pagoda is just 3km away from Tam Coc and is therefore easily accessible by scooter or bicycle.

Hang Mua Viewpoint

The Hang Mua viewpoint is one of the most popular places in the area. But the view of the surrounding countryside from the top is also damn beautiful. Surrounded by karst rocks and rice fields, the viewpoint offers a wonderful 360° view. There are 2 viewpoints in total, one with a huge dragon sculpture and one with a small pagoda at the top. Both have their advantages, of course, but the main viewpoint is the one with the dragon statue, which means it is also better visited. The downside of it all is that it’s quite touristy and gets pretty crowded towards sunset. Of course, the well-being of Instagrammers should also be taken care of with tens of sculptures, designated photo spots and a photo walk amidst water lilies. Likewise, the entrance fee of 100k VND (just under €4) is relatively expensive compared to other places in Vietnam. The viewpoint is located about 8 km from Tam Coc.

The Bai Dinh Pagoda

The Bai Dinh Pagoda, built on the mountain of the same name, is the largest Buddhist temple complex in the country. From the entrance, you take an electric car to the actual entrance of the pagoda. The railing of the pagoda is situated on a slope and offers a great view of the surrounding countryside. The entrance fee to the pagoda is 150,000 VND per person. The area is huge and has some interesting buildings, such as the observation tower, the golden Buddha statues inside and the thousands of small Buddhas housed in the wall of the covered corridors that surround the whole area. As it quickly becomes unbearably hot and crowded here, it’s best to go early in the morning. The buses usually arrive around noon and the pagoda is extremely popular with the locals.

Advide for Ninh Binh

We recommend visiting Ninh Binh before heading to Ha Long Bay. This way you get a step up from the rocks on land to the rocks in the water. This way, you simply avoid missing the “wow effect”, as you have already seen the most spectacular formations. But don’t leave out Ninh Binh!

Stay overnight in Nin Binh

In Ninh Binh as well as in Tam Coc there are many different hotels, homestays and accommodations. As already mentioned, we chose accommodation in Tam Coc because we are not fans of big cities. Tam Coc offers numerous accommodations by the river or in the rice fields or simply in the middle of it all. The Banana Tree Hostel seems to be very popular among travellers. We stopped by here for a beer in the evening. We treated ourselves to a homestay in the rice fields.

Journey to Ninh Binh

It depends on where you want to go. From the south, it is usually best to take the night bus. From Hanoi, we recommend the public bus. You can also take the train. However, we decided against it because it was much more expensive than the bus.

From Hanoi:
The bus station is called Ben xe Giap Bat and is located in the south of Hanoi. The best thing to do is to ask at your accommodation for the buses to Ben xe Giap Bat or go to the main train station and take a bus or train from there in a southerly direction to the above-mentioned bus terminal. Bus lines 3A and 32, for example, go there. Buses run continuously from the Ben xe Giap Bat Bus Terminal to Ninh Binh. The fare is 80,000 VND ( ~ 3.50 € as of ’22). The journey takes about 2 hours. If you want to continue to Tam Coc, you can take a taxi from there or continue by bus.

From the south:

Here you will most likely arrive by night bus, some of which go via Tam Coc to Ninh Binh.

Food & Drink in Ninh Binh

Culinary-wise, the centre of Tam Coc did not convince us, but of course that could also be due to the wrong choice of restaurant. The local food was unfortunately far worse, probably made for the tourist palate, than in all the other places. Therefore, we mainly ate on the way back from our excursions instead of in the centre itself and were then very satisfied.

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We are Julian & Naomi and we love to travel the world and immerse ourselves in other cultures. We have an adventurous, spartan, sustainable and reflective travel style. In our opinion, the greatest adventures are experienced when you do things on your own and try to live like a local. The taste of a country is best captured on the road
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