This rural area of Vietnam has some of the most impressive landscapes we’ve seen in the whole of South-East Asia. And a trip to Vietnam would not be complete without visiting it. You’ll need about three days to appreciate and explore sights and do all the things to do in Ninh Binh and Tam Coc.
We went in early February (before COVID lockdown), not realising it’s during their winter. The rain and cold weather sucked, but we were still in awe of the beauty of this rural setting. If you’re running out of time, do the first three excursions on this list. Make sure you check out our Tam Coc and Ninh Binh guide for all the details- if you’re planning this trip.
Trang An Boat Tour
One Of The Best Things To Do In Ninh Binh
Boat Ride Cost: 250,000 VND/person, 15,000 VND for parking (cash needed).
The time needed in this area: 4 hours. The total time spent on the boat is about 3 hours.
Floating down a series of rivers in this UNESCO listed heritage site is an experience you won’t forget. It was the highlight of our trip and one of the best things to do in Ninh Binh.
The slow winding Sao Khe river leads in and out of various low hanging caves. Each cave entrance has a sign displaying its name and journey length in meters. Some cave ceilings hang so low, and you have to crouch right down in the rowboat to avoid touching the hanging stalactites. Each cave exit opens up into a different valley where tall limestone karsts surround you in every direction.
As you ride along in your rowboat, you can’t help but be awed by the mystical beauty surrounding you. Beneath you, the water is so crystal clear you’re able to see what goes on right to the bottom of the river bed. Ducks swim and bob up and down from the water’s surface, and fish of all sizes glide around the boat.
The rower stops at numerous temples along the way. You’re able to stretch your legs, take a toilet break and explore these religious sights. Picture a scene from Indiana Jones with hidden temples in the thick of the jungle. You, the great explorer, get to follow along Meandering staircases that go up, through and down ancient architectural structures.
Things to note about Ninh Binh Boat tours:
To ride in a rowboat, you need to be in a group of 4 with your rower seated alone at the back. The Downside to this is that you have to share the boat with two other people and risk starring at someone’s head for three hours. As much as possible, try and sit in the front two seats to avoid this.
If you’re visiting in winter months, take your raincoats, and in summer months you’ll need an umbrella or hat to protect against the scorching sun beating down on you
Mua Caves & Lying Dragon Mountain
One of the most popular things to do in Ninh Binh
Entrance fee: 100,000 VND /person, parking 10,000 VND (make sure you drive right to the end of the road before parking. Parking bays are available for 600 meters once turn off the main road. You don’t need to take the first parking spot when you arrive).
Time to spend here: 3 hours
Mua Caves (Hang Múa) area has so many great attractions and things to do. The entrance welcomes you with a waterfall coming down from one of the many limestone karsts surrounding the area. Shortly after that, you’ll see a sign for lotus lake. This giant water-lily filled pond makes for some beautiful photos with its heart-shaped wooden walkway running from one side to the other.
Other great attractions on the ground level are the two brightly coloured freshwater springs and a series of caves, although the caves are a little underwhelming.
The main attraction when visiting Mua Caves area is the Lying Dragon Mountain. Roughly 450 stairs lead you to the top, where the path splits into two final stages. The way right takes you to a pagoda perched on an outstretched rock. The other road leading even higher and to the left takes you to an ancient dragon statue and a view of Ninh Binh like no other.
Tam Coc Bich Dong Pagoda
Entrance and parking: 50,000 VND.
You’ll need to cover your arms and knees before entering this religious site.
As you pass Tam Coc rice fields, the road bends left and ends at The Bich Dong Pagoda. It’s one of the oldest and most striking pagodas in the region, dating from the 15th century. It’s easy to get to and highly recommended as things to do in Ninh Binh (and Tam Coc in particular), especially if you’re staying in Tam Coc town itself.
Bich Doing is three stories high, going up the side of a mountain. Each level joins onto a cave behind it. At some point you enter the cave, passing through it to ascend steep stairs on the other side. The view from the highest level is incredible.
Before leaving the area, make sure you also explore on the other side of the scooter parking lot. You’ll see the second set of stairs leading up and through limestone hills. On the other side, you’ll find a very secluded pond surrounded by tall limestone karsts. You’ll more than likely be approached by an older man and offered a private tour of a cave in his backyard. The cave entrance is locked, and he’s the key-keeper so you might want to consider taking him up on this offer and pay a small contribution for his time.
Dich Long Cave
Entrance is free
Time spent here: 1-2 hours.
The pagoda is located in the Gia Thanh district of Ninh Binh, 16km’s from Ninh Binh city.
Dich Long, meaning the flute’s sound, is the name precisely given to this pagoda for the charming sounds it creates when strong winds brush past the cave walls.
From the main pagoda, 105 stone steps lead up to a cave area which is further divided into three cave sections -the Dark, the Light and the Budhha-Worshipping Caves. Some of the stalactites in them are said to resemble sacred animals, among them a dragon and elephant.
Dich Long Pagoda is considered one of the three most beautiful in Vietnam and offers a plethora of architectural wonders and breathtaking landscapes. It’s worth adding to your Ninh Binh and Tam Coc travel itinerary.
Visiting Tam Coc Rice Fields
Entrance is free.
Time spent: 1 hour
The Tam Coc rice fields are located at the end of the main road in Tam Coc, Ninh Binh. It’s positioned just after passing all the restaurants and shops. If you’re heading towards Bich Dong Pagoda, you’ll pass the fields on both sides of the road. There’s no specific entrance or parking but as you drive by you’ll be able to pull over on the side of the road, snap a few pics and admire as the rice farmers go about their daily activities in the fields. On the far end of the grounds is a small restaurant called Nhat Linh, it’s the perfect location to watch the sun slowly setting over these fields.
Tam Coc Boat Ride in Ninh Binh
If you’ve got the extra time to explore Tam Coc, consider taking the Tam Coc boat ride located on the opposite side of the road to the Bich Dong Pagoda. The reason why we’re not recommending this boat ride over the Trang An one in Ninh Binh is that the sheer size of Trang An and the views it presents are far superior.
At the Tam Coc boar rides, the sweet old rowing ladies are persistent and known to haggle. Their over-eager and persistent ways can be a little off-putting, and before you know it, you’re buying people lunch and saying ‘no thank you’ way too often. It’s a pity because the Tam Coc boat rowers row with their feet unlike at the Trang An.
Bai Dinh Pagoda
Entrance is free.
Time to spend here: 2-3 hours
Bai Dinh (Chùa Bái Đính) is the largest pagoda complex in the whole of Vietnam. It consists of a series of Buddhist Temples, halls and courtyards set on a mountain. It’s an area where old meets new. The new complex includes an area of 700 hectares and took seven years to build, from 2003-2010. The ancient temple is 800 meters away in a series of small caves. You’ll get there after ascending 300 stone steps. Both areas are spectacular and well worth the drive out to witness. It’s rated a really impressive sight to see and one of our top things to do in Ninh Binh Province.
Visiting Hoà Lu. The Ancient Town
Entrance fee: 10,000VND/person (15,000VND with a motorbike)
Time to spend here: 2-3 hours
Hoà Lu was the capital of Vietnam throughout the 10th and 11th centuries. Back in the day, it used to comprise of citadels, palaces, temples and shrines but today all that’s left are a few relics and temple remains. Since its desertion, new pagodas stand in dedication to Hoa Lu’s former officials and influencers.
Hau Lau lies in a fog-enshrouded mountainous area surrounded by frangipani blossoms. So even if you’re not interested in the historical tales found in Hau Lu, it’s a grand visit for the breathtaking scenery.
Vang Long Nature Reserve
Entrance: Expect to pay around 100,000 VND for two people and 50,000VND tip for the rower at the end.
Time to spend here: 2 hours. 90 minutes boat ride.
If you want to explore a little further, there are things to do in Ninh Binh along its outskirts. Head to Van Long wetland reserve for an adventure and a sightseeing destination visited by fewer tourists.
It’s about a 30-minute drive from Tam Coc; some 25km’s away. The reserve covers 3,500 hectares and is home to countless birds, Spoonbills, geese, and the critically endangered Trachypithecus Delacouri monkey, only 250 of them left and only found in Northern Vietnam.
A boat ride in this area has similar natural features as the other two locations, but on a smaller scale and run by fewer locals. Nine caves are on display, and the wildlife in the nature reserve makes the trip here unique.
Thung Nham Bird Garden
One of the more exclusive things to do in Ninh Binh
Entrance: 100,000 VND, Boat ride 30,000 VND for 20 minute ride.
Time spent here: 2-3 Hours
Thung Nham is such an underrated and somewhat undiscovered place in Ninh Binh. It’s a relatively large park with a centrally placed lake and multiple bird lookout spots surrounding it. The ideal time to visit the park and see flights of birds is daily between 4 pm-6 pm.
Like so many other tourist destinations in Ninh Binh, boat rides are on offer at this spot and although not necessary, will elevate the park experience from good to spectacular. The rowers take you past the floating bird village housing thousands of nesting birds and through Mermaid Cave reaching 300 meters in length. The ride takes about 20 minutes, and the cost is minimal, besides what you get for it far out ways the price.
Phat Deim Catherdral
Entrance is free, with maintenance box displayed for donations.
Time to spend here: 1-2 hours
A combination of European culture and Vietnams architecture splice to create what is known as one of Vietnams most spectacular churches.
The cathedral is in a very rural district of Ninh Binh, 35 km south of Tam Coc, Ninh Binh. Phat Deim town, also referred to as Kim Sơn, is considered a catholic area.
The Cathedral was closed in 1954 forcing Catholics to seek safety in Southern Vietnam. Once again the cathedral is functional and accompanied by other churches in the district.
Visiting this site makes for an exciting day trip and offers something different when viewing Vietnamese architectural structures. There’s a peaceful atmosphere in the beautiful gardens.