An Unforgettable Overnight Trip to Ninh Binh From Hanoi (+Photos)

Two years, many moves, and one pandemic later, my time in Vietnam had come to an end. I had driven the most dangerous roads, sang karaoke in wet markets, and slept on the beach but one extraordinary adventure still lay waiting: Ninh Binh.

This destination is sadly overlooked for tourism propaganda machines like Ha Long Bay but Ninh Binh is in every way a marvel and a delight.

I was fortunate enough to have three days to spare to discover this enchanting corner of Northern Vietnam but you can, with careful planning, discover it with an overnight visit to the Ninh Binh from Hanoi.

It all starts with a train ride…

In this post, we’ll cover:

Taking the Train to Tranquility

Train to Ninh Binh

One of my Asian bucket-list activities was to take a train. I didn’t care where I went, I just wanted to peer out a window with rice fields whizzing by, listening to the rhythmic clatter of the tracks beneath me. The journey from Hanoi to Ninh Binh seemed like the perfect opportunity to make this dream a reality.

The Reunification Express left Hanoi Station at 6 AM and our 2-hour/ $12 trip was as smooth as can be. I packed some snacks, sat back on my hard seat, and watched the countryside roll by. This is where you need to remember that Vietnam plays by its own rules and the best plan of action is no plan at all.

I walked from the train station until I saw a motorbike rental “establishment”, negotiated a price, and set off. You can also hop in a cab at the station but why take the road more traveled?

Time Travel to the Ancient Capital

Ancient Capital

Your next step is based on your interests and time limit. A logical move would be to immediately head off to Hoa Lư which is a 30-minute drive from the station but completely in the opposite direction of Tam Coc where you will spend the night. It is the ancient capital of Vietnam, a gateway into the lesser-known past of the country.

Here I found peace. Once I walked across the imposing stone bridge and through the gates of the city, serenity washed over me. You stroll through ancient throne rooms and sit by koi ponds, admiring the incredible craftsmanship that has stood the test of time.

Where to Lay Your Head

Where to Stay

Ninh Binh is both the name of the region and the city, but this is not where you want to sleep. When looking for accommodation, Tam Coc is the place to be. It is only a few kilometers outside the city but you will be in the heart of the countryside. Tam Coc brings you close to rice paddies, limestone cliffs, rivers, and every attraction on the menu in Ninh Binh.

Accommodations in Tam Coc offer a unique blend of affordability and luxury, often featuring mesmerizing swimming pools looking out over the green landscapes. My first night was a bit of a miss as I woke up with a cockroach the size of a lobster running over me, but I quickly packed my bags and ran off to something more suitable. Note to self: cheap isn’t always good!

New places are opening by the day so I wouldn’t dare make a recommendation, though. Me and my 70cc steed simply drove until we found something that looked respectable and knocked on their door.

I was welcomed with open arms at a homestay that was so new that it wasn’t even listed on booking sites yet. The family invited me to an outlandishly large feast at their dinner table and I had a relaxing, cockroach-free night as the first patron in their new beds.

Trang An or Tam Coc Boat Ride?

Tam Coc landscape

One of the most captivating experiences in Ninh Binh is the iconic boat rides. You would have seen the images of rivers winding through limestone cliffs and rice paddies, with sampan boats populating the snaking water. But the question begs, Tam Coc or Trang An?

Both locations offer an enchanting journey, each boasting distinct routes and attractions. During my visit, I opted for a boat ride that ventured through the intricate karst limestone formations of Trang An, halting at ancient temples nestled within the cliffs. The journey beneath the colossal rocks added an element of mystique to the entire experience.

Tam Coc shines during the rice season when the vibrant yellow fields create a mesmerizing backdrop. On the other hand, Trang An’s charm lies in its rice-free landscape, making it an ideal destination once the rice in Tam Coc has been harvested.

For those seeking exclusivity and the best photo opportunities, a private boat ride is a worthy investment. It ensures privacy and allows you to tailor the journey to your preferences, capturing the beauty of Trang An without any distractions.

Bird Watching from a boat

Thung Nham Bird Park

Another boat-based activity that I can highly recommend is a visit to Thung Nham Bird Park. This is easily one of the best-kept secrets of Ninh Binh. This sprawling sanctuary, also known as Thung Chim, is renowned for its diverse bird species and pristine natural surroundings.

As visitors enter the park, they are greeted by the melodic symphony of countless birds, ranging from colorful kingfishers to majestic herons. It boasts lush vegetation and tranquil waterways but the park is not only a birdwatcher’s paradise, it also features caves, grottoes, and ancient temples, adding layers of cultural and geological intrigue to the overall experience.

This is the perfect activity to end your day with as temperatures cool down, insects start to settle down and the birds fill the sky on their way to their nests. Your sampan effortlessly glides over the mirror-like surface, bringing you to the nesting grounds of thousands of birds without disturbing the fragile ecosystem.

A Spiritual Sojourn at Pagodas


Complementing the grandiosity of many of Vietnam’s sprawling temple complexes like the nearby Bai Dinh is the Bich Dong Pagoda. This ancient pagoda, carved into the mountainside, is another often overlooked treasure.

You enter the ancient gates of the pagoda over a narrow stone bridge spanning a lotus pond. From August to early November this pond blooms with pink and white lotus flowers but it is equally as beautiful the rest of the year, when the calm water reflects the historical structures on its surface.

The inside of the pagoda commands your attention with its simplicity. You will climb around 200 steps to reach the three tiers of the pagoda, each adorned with carvings, statues, and multi-layered roofs,

A Panoramic Vista of Ninh Binh at Mua Cave

Panoramic Vista

For the adventurous souls, a climb to Mua Cave promises a breathtaking panorama of Ninh Binh’s karst landscapes. As you ascend the 500 steep steps, a sense of anticipation builds, culminating in a stunning view that stretches as far as the eye can see. The panoramic vista from the peak encapsulates the beauty of Ninh Binh and here you will see why this is called “Ha Long Bay on land”.

The climb to Mua Cave is a rewarding endeavor and worth every step. At the pinnacle, visitors are greeted by a majestic dragon sculpture, its sinuous form coiled against the backdrop of the endless karst peaks and rice fields below. This dragon, intricately crafted and poised as if in flight, symbolizes strength, power, and good fortune in Vietnamese folklore.

Surrounding the dragon, two ornate pagodas named Giap Van and Quy Hoa add an extra layer of cultural richness to the experience. The pagodas are adorned with exquisite carvings and vibrant artwork, creating an enchanting ambiance that invites contemplation.

Try to be there when it opens at 6 AM to beat the crowds and the heat and also get a glimpse of the mist rolling through the cliffs.

BIKERS BEWARE: If you are driving to the cave on your own bikes, DO NOT PARK AT THE TURNOFF! There are very persistent locals who block the road and insist you have to park your bike with them but this is simply not true. There is ample parking around 500 meters up the road and it is only 10,000 VND.

Cycling Through the Rice Paddies

Tourist on bicycle in Ninh Binh

One of my favorite moments in Ninh Binh was simply cycling through the rice paddies. You get to immerse yourself in the rhythmic beauty of rural life as the sun slowly sets behind the cliffs. Bicycles are widely available for rent but the best option is to book accommodation that has bicycles for guests to use.

The cycling routes wind through idyllic villages, offering glimpses of traditional Vietnamese life. As you pedal along the narrow pathways, the vibrant greenery of the rice paddies surrounds you, creating a tranquil and immersive experience. It’s a journey that allows you to connect with the heart of Ninh Binh, embracing the simplicity and beauty of rural Vietnam.

Always remember the food


The best part of any trip in Vietnam is to explore the food. Each region is endlessly proud of its traditional cuisine and Ninh Binh was no different.

Among the myriad of delectable dishes, one that stands out is the iconic Bun Cha. This local favorite consists of grilled pork patties, fragrant herbs, vermicelli noodles, and a dipping sauce for your crispy spring rolls that harmoniously blend sweet, sour, and savory notes. Each bite of Bun Cha is a symphony of textures and tastes, making it a must-try culinary delight in Ninh Binh.

Another northern specialty that captured my attention was Vietnamese Egg Coffee—a cup of anxiety-inducing coffee topped with a velvety layer of custard. In Tam Coc village I scraped together every Vietnamese word I knew to convince a local shop owner to teach me the art of this devilish drink. Patiently, the owner guided me through the meticulous process of whisking egg yolks with condensed milk until they formed a frothy, creamy texture.

For something a little more adventurous (slash brave), stop at any one of the roadside stalls selling whole roasted mountain goats. The roasted goat sits grinning at passersby, waiting for you to taste a bite right off the bone.

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