“You must go to Ha Long Bay!”
“Are you going to Ha Long Bay?”
“Ha Long Bay is AMAZING”
OK, I GET IT.
Going to Vietnam has pretty much become synonymous with visiting Ha Long Bay
, Vietnam’s most famous natural wonder, and with good reason.
Ha Long Bay is stunningly beautiful with its many Islands jutting out of the turquoise water populated by old-style Vietnamese ‘junk boats. Incredibly picturesque and magical, there really is nothing else like it in the world.
But everyone and their dog goes to Ha Long Bay. Unfortunately like every other insta-famous world wonder, the over-saturation of tourists all year round is enough to make you think twice about visiting Vietnam’s flagship attraction. More and more tourist companies every year are operating multi-day junk boat tours around the area. ‘Touristy’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Fortunately, Vietnam is a big country, and there are more wonders to be found that aren’t completely overridden with tourists. Not yet anyway.
ENTER Ninh BINH
“Ninh Binh is the destination the Vietnamese don’t want to tell you about.”
Situated about 100km south of Hanoi, locals refer to Ninh Binh as ‘Ha Long Bay on land’. Which is pretty much spot on. Not just because of its level of natural beauty, but because if you drained Ha Long bay 90% and took out all the Junk Boats, Ninh Binh is what you’d be left with. Endless limestone cliffs and vibrant rice fields scatter the region, along with temples, caves and winding wetlands that are as still as glass.
The best thing about Ninh Binh is that you don’t need to pay for a tour to experience its beauty. You can feed that adventurous spirit of yours and explore the region yourself. You can decide what you want to do and where you want to go.
And to top it all off, it’s virtually free.
A day tour of Ha long Bay starts at around $50. Overnight will be $100+. The Ninh Binh province is like anywhere else in Vietnam where you can rent a room and a scooter for $15 total. Depending on where you go in the area there may be entrance fees but these are pretty minimal, we’re talking $5-$10.
HOW TOURISTY IS NINH BINH
Not very. Granted we went in January when the weather wasn’t the best so it was bound to be less busy(hency all the striking winter style photos). It wasn’t too cold but it was very misty. However, friends who went to Ha Long Bay at the same time with the same gloomy weather still described it as extremely touristy, even then.
NINH BINH ATTRACTIONS
Whilst Ninh Binh is described as ‘Ha long Bay on land’ that doesn’t mean it is devoid of water. In fact, Ninh Binh is in the Red Delta Region of Northern Vietnam and so is full of plains and distributaries that wind their way through caves and limestone cliffs.
There are two different boat tours you can take. Tam Coc is the most popular and well known whilst Trang An can be a little less busy, but by no means any less stunning. The tours cost around $7 and last 2 hours.
We took the Trang An tour. You take a rowboat powered by an old Vietnamese lady with insane maneuvering skills that take you around the mountains and through tiny caves. There was 3 us on the tour, all big guys. I want to know her workout routine.
There were moments on the Trang An tour where we found ourselves alone surrounded by cliffs, floating on crystal clear completely still water with zero background noise. You could hear your own heartbeat. Truly an out of this world experience.
There is no shortage of temples and pagodas to visit in Ninh Binh. Each one unique and beautiful in it’s own way.
Hang Mua Temple
Sitting dramatically at the top of the mountain, you’ll find the best views over Tam Coc at Hang Mua Temple. You’ll also get a sweet workout in as you have to climb 500 steps to get there. There’s an incredible Vietnamese dragon statue that guards the top of the mountain. To get a photo with this guy you have to climb an extra 10 feet and endure tenuous footing – be warned.
Totally worth it.
Bich Dong Pagoda
Three separate 600-year-old temples that are carved into the side of the mountain.
Bai Ding Pagoda
Unlike the other temples and Pagodas, Bai Ding Pagoda is actually only 15 years old. Bai Ding Pagoda is a stunning religious complex, a great example of modern but traditional Vietnamese architecture. It took 500 craftsmen all experts in traditional Vietnamese skills such as embroidery and bronze casting to complete the masterpiece that is Bai Ding Pagoda.
Dich Long Cave and Pagoda
A tranquil and spiritual complex. The Pagoda is found in the grotto after climbing 105 steps.
Hoa Lu is the ancient capital of Vietnam(only about 1200 years old!). The city is mostly destroyed but still worth visiting. Found in the city is the temple of Dinh Tien Hoang, the temple of King Le Dai Hahn, Nhat Tru Pagoda, and on top of a hill, Dinh Tien Hoang’s tomb.
Phat Diem Cathedral
A little further out but still technically in the Ninh Binh province, Phat Diem is a stunning blend of Vietnamese and European architectural styles.
GET A SCOOTER
The best way to travel around Ninh Binh is by renting scooters. They cost $5 a day and most homestays can rent you them themselves. There’s nothing like grabbing a map and just exploring by yourself, you’ll never know what you might find.
“Sometimes getting lost is the best thing that can happen to you.”
Once set up with your scooter, you can, of course, visit all the temples, pagodas etc listed in this post. But in between these attractions, you can also just enjoy riding through endless rice paddies, taking in the dramatic mountains and exploring small side roads where you might encounter locals, street food, cattle and other wildlife.
There are two main areas to explore, Vân Long Nature Reserve and Cut Phuong National Park. Both rich in flora and fauna, wildlife and of course Ninh Bin’s signature giant limestone rock islands all surrounded by an expansive bio-diverse wetland.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO TO NINH BINH NOW
Lets recap, here are 7 reasons why you should visit Ninh Binh when in Vietnam.
- Way less busy than Ha Long Bay
- Accommodation is far cheaper
- The tours and entrance fees are cheaper
- Better range of attractions and activities
- You can DIY your entire itinerary
- Far more authentic experience than Ha Long Bay
- Experience historical ruins and local culture
Do yourself a favor and visit the Ninh Binh province and transport yourself into a world out of a fantasy novel.
Have YOU been to Ha Long Bay on Ninh Binh? Tell me about it in the comments below