The north of Vietnam has so much natural beauty to offer. You probably have seen photos of Halong Bay or Sapa. South of the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, there is another magical place to explore: Ninh Binh. Or rather, the surrounding of Ninh Binh. The village itself is not that interesting. Ninh Binh has been attracting quite a lot of tourists in these past few years, but it is still not the same amount as you will see in Sapa or Halong. For me, the place still had an authentic vibe. Ninh Binh is actually perfect for Dutch travelers because it can easily be explored by bicycle. The roads are mostly flat, in good shape, and offer stunning views of limestone karst mountains. In this blog post, I will share my recommendations for a 2-day self-guided cycling tour in the Ninh Binh area, plus the best things to do.
Day 1 – Watching Buddhas at Bai Dinh Pagoda
Our cycling adventure started at Bai Dinh Pagoda. The guesthouse where we were staying was located near the temple complex, so it made sense to start here. Bai Dinh is huge. In fact, it is the largest Buddhist temple complex in Southeast Asia and houses four big temples spread out over multiple levels. It is quite a work-out to see everything, but you can lighten the load a little bit by taking an electrical golf cart. The cart brings visitors from the ticket booth to the entrance of the site.
In my mind, I call Bai Dinh the ‘temple of many Buddhas’. Immediately after entering the site, you walk through a long corridor with a seemingly endless row of Buddhas on the right side. In total more than 500, life-size and all different. And behind them more tiny golden Buddha statues in glass coves. It doesn’t stop there. Inside the temples, you will see large golden Buddhas sitting side by side, and at the top of the mountain stands a 10-meter high bronze Buddha statue.
Entrance fee for Bai Dinh Pagoda: free – if you walk. For a ride with a golf cart, you pay 30,000 VND. At the entrance, there is a parking space for scooters and bicycles. You cannot miss it, because there will be guys pointing you in the direction. I remember paying around 10,000 VND per bicycle for parking.
Day 1 – soaking up the lush green views
After spending about three hours at Bai Dinh, we had lunch at one of the restaurants near the temple and spent the rest of the day exploring the smaller villages in the area. Cycling in the Ninh Binh Area means constant lush green views with karst mountains and all sorts of colorful temples. I couldn’t resist stopping every ten minutes or so to snap a picture. My advice would be: don’t rush from one site to the other but take some time to enjoy the scenery and to wander off the main roads.
Day 2 – Lunch at a local family via ResiRest
For our second day in Ninh Binh, I had found a special place for an early lunch. Through the app of ResiRest I booked a meal with a local family. We were met by a friendly lady, her husband, and their two children. In the living room, the table was filled with little bowls for everyone to share. Steamed vegetables, corn cookies, papaya salad, spicy tofu, and rice. Also on the table: little glasses for the rice wine. The man of the house used every opportunity to make a toast. A toast for the guests, for the food, for the weather, for life, for our health, and so on. The fact that he had to go back to work that afternoon didn’t seem to be a problem.
After filling up our tummies, the lady of the house showed us the entrance to a secret viewpoint next to their house. She told that the view on top was wonderful. It made us curious, so we hit the steps. And yes, when we arrived at the top the view was indeed remarkable. And the best thing: we had it all to ourselves!
Day 2 – Climbing the two peaks of Hang Mua
We got on our bikes again to make our way to Hang Mua, also known as the Mua Caves. Definitely, the most touristic place that we saw during our Ninh Binh stay, which is something that you will immediately notice near the entrance. The road to the site is filled with local guys telling (or waving at) you to stop and park your bike at their parking spot. Ignore them, because it is a scam. They want you to pay for parking, but parking is free at the ticket booth. Só many tourists fall for this trick.
Hang Mua consists of two mountain peaks. The first part of the ascent is a wide staircase leading to a junction. If you go left, then you will be treated to a gorgeous view over the Tam Coc valley and the Hang Mua dragon. This is a stone dragon statue with a long tail that meanders over the top of the mountain. Dragons are an important symbol in Vietnamese culture. This specific dragon is seen by locals as a symbol of rain and agriculture. He oversees good harvests. For tourists, the dragon is an invitation to climb to the end of the tail and take the best possible photo. I gave it a try but returned quickly to safe ground. Too dangerous for me!
The peak on the right side is even higher and offers a phenomenal view of yellow and green fields and pointy karst mountains. The climb will be a sweaty one, but worth it.
Entrance fee Hang Mua: 100,000 VND. Parking is free, so don’t fall for the parking scam.
other Ninh Binh things to do
- Trang An boat trip: a very popular excursion that takes you to the caves and a few hidden temples. There are three route depending on how many caves you want to see. Price is 200,000 VND per person.
- Bich Dong Temple: a collection of cave temples with a photogenic entrance gate. I would have loved to see this, but it simply didn’t fit into our cycling itinerary. Renting a scooter might be more convenient as you can see more of the area, but I don’t like scooters.
- Hoa Lu: the imperial capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th century. Much of is destroyed, so I wouldn’t put this stop on the top of your list. Entrance fee is 20,000 VND.
An alternative 2-day cycling tour itinerary
During our cycling tour, we choose scenery over the sights. However, if you want to focus more on sights you can follow the itinerary below. It will be hard to cover this all by bicycle, so renting a scooter might be better.
- Day 1: a lap of Hang Mua, Bich Dong, and Trang An (or a Tam Coc boat trip).
- Day 2: Bai Dinh and Hoa Lu. Please note that Bai Dinh is far from everything (17 km from Ninh Binh), so it takes time to get there.
Tip: use the Maps.me app to navigate (also works without internet, download the map before you hit the road).
Where to stay in Ninh Binh?
We stayed at Ninh Binh Friendly Homestay. Located a half-hour from the city center, but easy to get to by bus (bus no. 8 near the KFC to Bai Dinh). Biggest plus: they have a swimming pool. Perfect for cooling off after a day of cycling. Also, the bicycles were free and breakfast was included. The owners are friendly (hence the name), perhaps a bit too friendly. Hugs, kisses on the cheek. One of the owners especially loved touching the nose of my boyfriend. Every day he tried to do it!
Click here for an overview of accommodations in Ninh Binh. Most tourists choose to stay in Tam Coc, a village next to Ninh Binh and close to Hang Mua and the boat tours.
Final tip: when you go to the town of Ninh Binh, I recommend you to check out Chookie’s Hideaway for a bite or some coffee. Lovely place!
And there you have it: a list of Ninh Binh things to do. Would you consider a day of cycling in the Ninh Binh surroundings?
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