Northern Vietnam conjures up images of spectacular rice terraces, limestone karsts, and water buffalo swimming in fields. It’s one of the most beautiful regions of Southeast Asia. The world-famous Halong Bay is the one must-see place in this region for most travelers to Vietnam. But equally spectacular — and far less touristic — is Ninh Binh. The natural attractions surrounding this town earn it the nickname “Halong Bay on the rice paddies.” The best way to organize a Ninh Binh tour is by renting a bicycle and exploring the surrounding countryside.
The top things to do in Ninh Binh are taking a boat trip through Tam Coc and visiting the ancient capital of Hua Lu. But the region has lots of smaller attractions worth exploring. Vietnam’s largest pagoda? Check. Cave temples? Check. Nature reserves? Check. Tiny villages that seldom see foreign visitors, and some of the friendliest people you’ll meet in the country? Check and check. And it’s all just two hours from Hanoi!
In this post, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know to organize your own Ninh Binh tour by bicycle. No need to hire a guide — just grab one of the hand-drawn, photocopied guesthouse maps you’ll see all over town, choose a bicycle, and enjoy!
- 1 How to rent a bicycle for your Ninh Binh tour
- 2 Starting your Ninh Binh tour by bicycle: Tam Coc
- 3 Visit the nearby temples: Thai Vi or Bich Dong Pagoda
- 4 Climb to the top of the Mua Caves for the best view near Ninh Binh
- 5 Hua Lu: An ancient Vietnamese capital
- 6 Extend your Ninh Binh tour: Bai Dinh Pagoda
- 7 Back to Ninh Binh
- 8 How to get to Ninh Binh
- 9 Ninh Binh hostels, hotels and restaurants
How to rent a bicycle for your Ninh Binh tour
Renting a bicycle in Ninh Binh is easy. Most backpacker guesthouses have a handful of bikes that you can rent for as little as $2 a day. Simply talk to the reception desk. Try out a couple bikes for fit, make sure there’s air in the tires, and test the brakes before you choose.
Most bikes for rent are Chinese-made cruisers and mountain bikes. Don’t expect anything super-fast or in great shape. You probably won’t get gears, and you definitely won’t get a bell or lights. But the bikes are sufficient for the flat countryside you’ll encounter on your Ninh Binh tour.
Make sure you get a lock and, if you can, a helmet, before you pedal away. You may need to leave your passport or a cash deposit to ensure you return the bike.
Starting your Ninh Binh tour by bicycle: Tam Coc
The first stop on your Ninh Binh tour is the lovely boat ride through Tam Coc. Ride your bike southwest through the center of town — basically keep the river to your left. Eventually, you’ll see a fairly large intersection, where a right turn will take you on a bridge across the river. (It’s the second bridge you’ll come to.)
Turn here and ride another couple kilometers down the very flat, straight road through the rice paddies. You’ll start to notice the scenery turn much more green as you leave the city behind you. The road is paved and allows motorbikes and cars, but it’s relatively quiet.
Eventually you’ll come to the ticket office for Tam Coc. You can park your bike here. Pay the parking lot attendant a small fee and they’ll watch it for you.
Prices for the one-hour boat trip start at 195,000 dong if you are in a group of two, but shoot up to 290,000 dong if you’re alone. You won’t be the only boat on the river — this trip is off-the-beaten-path for foreign tourists, but extremely popular with weekenders from Hanoi. Prepare for lots of hawkers to hassle you while you’re on the boat.
If you aren’t interested in the boat trip, you can continue on to the next stop on this Ninh Binh tour.
Visit the nearby temples: Thai Vi or Bich Dong Pagoda
After your boat trip (if you decide to do one), the next stops are the nearby temples. You could head north around the lake to visit Thai Vi Temple, or pedal southwest toward Bich Dong Pagoda.
Thai Vi Temple is a typical Vietnamese temple. It has dragon iconography and an elaborate entrance gate. The real reason to come here is to cycle along the lake — it allows you the same views you’d get from a Tam Coc boat trip, but it’s completely free.
Bich Dong Pagoda is the more interesting option. To reach it, pedal west around the lake, and then turn right and head northwest at the intersection after Ninh Binh 365 restaurant. Follow this road past Thach Bich temple and take a left shortly after you reach Tam Coc Ecolodge. The temple will be on your right.
Bich Dong Pagoda doesn’t look like anything special from the outside. A parking attendant will collect a couple thousand dong to watch your bike and direct you through the entrance gate. The temple has some nice walkways along the water, and a few caves you can enter. You can climb a staircase in one of the caves to the second story — a pitch-black room with a small opening on the far side. From here, you can go out onto the “balcony” and get a panoramic view of the surrounding rice terraces.
Of the two temples, I highly recommend visiting Bich Dong. The cycling route to reach it is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen — all vibrant rice paddies. Better yet, there were exactly zero other tourists when I went.
Climb to the top of the Mua Caves for the best view near Ninh Binh
After you’ve done your temple-spotting for the day, continue your Ninh Binh tour by bicycle to the spectacular Mua Caves.
First, you’ll have to backtrack toward Tam Coc. This time, head north around the lake until you reach a Y-shaped intersection. Take the fork to your right down the (very) narrow road. After a couple kilometers, the road will cease to be more than a small path. You’ll pass a couple tiny villages here, and the occasional motorbike. But for the most part you’ll be the only one around. Don’t worry — you’re still on the right path!
The road widens again shortly before you reach the Mua Caves. Keep an eye out to your right for the pagoda at the top of the enormous limestone karst — that’s where you’re headed.
First, pay your 100,000 dong admission fee to the groundskeepers and leave your bicycle with them. Then, spend a couple minutes exploring the lower slopes of the mountain. You’ll pass dragon statues and other tributes to various Buddhist gods. You may find some locals (or foreign religious tourists) meditating here.
When you’re ready, begin the 800-step ascent to the top of the Mua Caves. It’s not a climb for the faint-hearted, especially in the mid-day heat. Make sure you bring some water with you. But it’s one of the most rewarding things to do in Ninh Bin. You’ll know it was worth it when you reach the top — one of the most eye-popping panoramic views in all of Vietnam. You’ll be completely surrounded with the greenest countryside you’ve ever seen, with small mountains of limestone jutting out every so often.
Going down is far easier than climbing up. Use the opportunity to snap even more photos. When you reach the bottom, wander around the area a bit more — you can find the caves themselves down a small pathway, and if you hike a little further along you can find a stream to swim in.
Hua Lu: An ancient Vietnamese capital
I hope you saved some energy after that massive climb, because the longest bicycle ride of this Ninh Binh tour is coming up. It’s a full 9 km to Hua Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam.
To start, continue north along the access road for the Mua Caves. Eventually that will intersect with a larger road, which sees some traffic (nothing bad enough to make riding a bicycle feel risky). If you’re starting to get hungry, keep an eye out — you can stop for lunch at one of the small roadside noodle stands. A bowl of pho will run you about 12,000 dong here. Don’t expect any English, just point at what you want.
Soon thereafter, you’ll pass the starting point for Trang An boat tours. If you skipped the Tam Coc boat trip, this one is a good alternative. It’s cheaper and takes you into some of the more interesting caves in the region. Better yet, travelers report much less hassle. It takes almost three hours.
After or instead of your boat tour, continue north along the same road. After another few kilometers you’ll come to a large intersection with a bridge over the river — don’t turn; continue straight. Pedal on for less than one more kilometer and you’ll see the entrance to Hua Lu to your right.
Hua Lu was the capital of Vietnam beginning in the 10th century. Here, you can see what remains of the ancient citadel and explore a handful of temples dedicated to former emperors. Unfortunately not much is left, but you can easily spend an hour wandering around. There is no English signage — if you’re deeply interested in Vietnamese history, hire a guide.
Extend your Ninh Binh tour: Bai Dinh Pagoda
If you still have time and you’re not too tired after visiting Tam Coc, the surrounding temples, the Mua Caves, and Hua Lu, you can add one more stop to your Ninh Binh tour. The Bai Dinh Pagoda is the largest temple in Vietnam, and it’s just another 9 km down the road.
To reach the pagoda, continue north from Hua Lu, past the turnoff back to Ninh Binh. When you reach the river, take a left and pedal along it for several more kilometers. You’ll pass a lake to your left. Pedal another kilometer and take your first major left. It’s another 1.5-ish kilometers south from here, clearly marked.
The Bai Dinh Pagoda complex is enormous, and you could easily spend half a day exploring it. If you have limited time, take the train (30,000 dong) into the heart of the complex. From here you can visit various temples and smaller pagodas, or climb to a viewpoint.
The temple is modern — construction ended in 2014. It’s also enormously popular with domestic tourists. Expect big crowds. It’s still one of the top things to do in Ninh Binh though, and it’s worth the trip.
Back to Ninh Binh
By now, it’s probably getting dark out — time to head back to the city. If you went to Bai Dinh, head back toward Hua Lu and turn back to Ninh Binh just before you reach it. If you didn’t to go Bai Dinh, simply cycle north from Hua Lu until you reach the main turnoff back to Ninh Binh to your right — it’s clearly marked. This road is unfortunately quite busy and dusty.
After about 5 km, you’ll reach the main Hanoi-Ninh Binh road. Here you’ll see truck traffic, so be very careful, especially if it’s getting dark. Consider covering your mouth with a bandanna. It’s a further 5 km back to the center of town and the end of this Ninh Binh tour.
How to get to Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is just a couple hours south of Hanoi. You could visit on a day trip from the capital (although you wouldn’t have time to do this entire cycling tour), or break up the long journey between Hanoi and Hue with a stop here.
The quickest and easiest way to get to Ninh Binh is by train. Trains run regularly from Hanoi (63,000 dong, 2.5 hours). You can take an overnight train to/from Hue (268,000 dong). The train station is along the river just outside the town center.
Hop-on, hop-off bus companies like Sinh Tourist will sometimes drop off passengers in Ninh Binh. Book in advance. The trip is 10 hours to Hue or 2 hours to Hanoi, and the bus usually leaves from an office in town rather than the main bus station.
If you’re only traveling to/from the capital, the easiest option is to take the public bus. These leave from the southern bus station (Giap Bat) in Hanoi every 15 minutes and cost 75,000 dong. They take slightly longer than the train and drop you off at the main bus station, just across the river from the town center. The only downside is getting to central Hanoi from the Giap Bat station will add 30 minutes to your trip by taxi, or up to two hours by public bus.
You can also reach Halong Bay directly by bus. Local buses ply this route several times a day (roughly 75,000 dong), or you can arrange a tourist shuttle.
Ninh Binh hostels, hotels and restaurants
Due to its popularity with domestic tourists, Ninh Binh has tons of hotels, homestays and hostels. You can choose between a guesthouse in the town center or stay in a homestay near Tam Coc. The former is more convenient for the bus and train stations and to avoid touristy restaurants. The latter offers the chance to spend the night in the beautiful natural scenery, but you’ll have to take a taxi to reach it.
If you opt to stay in town, the best places to look for hotels are in the town center and along the river. Ninh Binh hotels and hostels don’t have much glamour, but they are cheap — I stayed at Thanh Thuy Hotel for $8 a night.
Ninh Binh’s food options are limited, but you can eat well if you eat as the locals do. One local specialty is duck noodle soup. Sample it (in huge portions) at one of the stalls clustered in the center, around the corner from Thanh Thuy Hotel.
Goat meat is another local favorite. Most restaurants have it, but the locals head out of town to the road toward Trang An. You’ll find a strip of restaurants here that all serve it with rice paper and herbs.
The one popular traveler cafe in town is Chookie’s. It has all the typical Western staples, including veggie-friendly dishes. It doubles as a bar and cafe in the evenings. Meals start at 40,000 dong.
There’s no doubt about it — Ninh Binh is one of Vietnam’s best hidden gems. Far less touristic than Halong Bay, but with scenery every bit as beautiful, it’s well worth a couple days of your trip. And a Ninh Binh tour by bicycle is the perfect way to explore. Don’t miss your chance to see this area’s natural beauty for yourself!
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