Lush rice fields, dramatic cliffs, winding waterways, hidden caves and some of the most stunning hotels in Vietnam.
It’s no surprise that Ninh Binh is often called the Ha Long Bay on land.
Ninh Binh is one of my favourite places in Vietnam, probably because I visited with little to no expectations about the area aside from my cousin’s recommendation who said I would love it. And she was right.
We spent two days in Ninh Binh, specifically staying in Tam Coc and we found it to e the perfect base to explore Tam Coc, Trang An, Bich Dong Pagoda, Mua Cave and so much more in the area.
In fact I wish we had longer than two days in Ninh Binh because there was still so much more I wanted to see and do, besides the fact that the stunning landscape, cheap accommodation and lush rice fields were incredibly relaxing - I could have easily turned my Ninh Binh 2 day itinerary into a week-long vacation!
In short, I highly recommend adding Ninh Binh to your Vietnam itinerary and here’s my itinerary for 2 days in Ninh inh, Vietnam.
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How to get to Ninh Binh?
The easiest way to get to Ninh Binh is by limousine transfer.
Limousines are what Vietnam called minibuses and some of them really are quite luxurious, we had ones with massage chairs and heated seats on our drive back to Hanoi from Ninh Binh!
While you’re in Hanoi, you’ll see plenty of travel agents offering very affordable transfers to Ninh Binh and these are all great options.
Alternatively I would also suggest asking your hotel for a recommendation as many hotels either have their own limousine transfer service, or they are affiliated with a company that runs the transfers. Going by recommendations from either a friend or a hotel is usually my choice as I find recommendations more reliable.
The bottom line is that there’s really no need to book your Ninh Binh transfer months ahead of your trip unless you’re planning a private group trip or luxury tour.
Alternatively you can also reach Ninh Binh from Ha Long Bay which was our choice after our Ha Long Bay cruise.
I’ve shared how we planned this three-stop northern Vietnam itinerary below.
Planning a Hanoi, Halong Bay, Ninh Binh itinerary
We started in Hanoi where we tooked this Ha long Bay cruise which included transfers from our hotel in Hanoi to the boat in Ha Long Bay. This takes around 1.5 hours.
Then I was able to arrange with the tour company that we would not take the return transfer back to Hanoi the following day and instead asked if they had a direct transfer to Ninh Binh which they did.
This journey took around 3 hours.
Hanoi is like the top of a triangle with Ha Long Bay southeast and Ninh Binh to the Southwest so it’s very easy to follow a “triangle” route to start and finish in Hanoi.
From our hotel in Tam Coc, they were able to arrange our transfer back from Ninh Binh to Hanoi which took 1.5 hours.
How long to spend in Ninh Binh
We stayed for three nights and two full days (arrived evening of the first day, had 2 full days then went back to Hanoi on the morning of the 3rd day)
You could do this 2 day Ninh Binh itinerary in two nights and two days but to see a lot of the main attractions, I would recomend having at least two full days in the area and not trying to fit all this into a day and a half.
Is it possible to do a day trip to Ninh Binh?
The short answer is yes, one day in Ninh Binh is possible.
You won’t be able to see everything on a Ninh Binh day trip, but if you’re short on time, I would highly a Ninh Binh 1 day tour from Hanoi which does a great job at visiting the main sights.
This is the tour I originally considered booking until we decided to extend our trip.
There are also different Ninh Binh tours depending on whether you prefer to do the Trang An or the Tam Coc boat tour. If you can’t decide which option is best, I’ve done a comparison of Trang An and Tam Coc boat trips here.
You can also find a Ninh Binh tour 2 days or 3 days long below.
Here are my top picks for Ninh Binh day trips from Hanoi:
The best Ninh Binh itinerary: 2 days
Ninh Binh itinerary: Day 1
Start the first day with an early morning boat ride
Ninh Binh is most famous for its landscape and you can’t spend two days in Ninh Binh without doing one of the famous boat rides at either Trang An or Tam Coc.
These are two very different but equally as beautiful boat rides through the waterways of Ninh Binh.
While Tam Coc is more traditional with your boat guide rowing the traditional way with their feet, it’s also a shorter boat trip and cheaper. There are some caves but the views are more of the open and lush landscape dotted with protruding limestone cliffs.
On the other hand, Trang An is more commercialised, the boat ride lasts longer and it’s also more expensive. However there are multiple stops as you wind through caves, waterways and cliffs where shrines and pagodas emerge seemingly from nowhere, surrounded by lush green, you can get onto these islands, visit and learn about the pagodas so you aren’t in the boat the whole time.
I have a full guide on which Ninh Binh boat ride to pick, but where Tam Coc is 1.5-2 hours long, Trang An is 3 hours - if you’re visiting in the peak heat of summer then this could be a deciding factor.
This is why I recommend doing the boat ride first thing in the morning to avoid the midday heat during the summer months!
Cycle through the rice fields to Bich Dong Pagoda
Our hotel, along with many others in the area provide bike rentals for free or a small fee.
From Tam Coc we were able to cycle along the quiet country roads and visit the Bich Dong Pagoda, tucked in one of the cliffsides and surrounded by rice fields and small villages.
The pagoda itself is free to visit, although there is a small 10,000 VND fee to park your bike at the entrance.
There is a cave inside (if you’re afraid of bats like me, consider this your warning!)
Dinner on main street in Tam Coc
We thoroughly enjoyed our evenings on this street, I can’t find the name of it despite it being the main street in Tam Coc, but it’s the busy one with lots of pubs and vars behind Tam Coc road.
It felt like the right level of music, outdoor bars and relaxed atmosphere without being too “Party” destination for us!
Most bars had outdoor seating and it was a fun, relaxing and cheap place to find dinner and drinks with beers costing around 30p each and a full mean just £2-3.
We enjoyed these places to eat in Tam Coc:
HOANG CUISINE Vietnamese restaurant
Chookie's Beer Garden
Ninh Binh itinerary: Day 2
Early morning hike up to Mua Cave viewpoint
Another one which I fully recommend you do early in the morning if you’re visiting in the summer.
There are 500 steps up to the Mua Cave viewpoint and while it’s worth it for the view, there is no shade and the steps are steep!
We cycled to the Mua Cave from Tam Coc but you could also take a cheap Grab (or hire scooters). Bike parking is 20,000 VND and entry to Mua Cave is 100,000 VND.
While there is a cave here, most people visit for the viewpoint at the top. From here you can see the famous landscape that is so often called the Ha Long Bay on land. With winding waterways and dramatic jutting cliffs just like the islands of Halong Bay.
It took us around 15 minutes to get to the top but most people report it taking 20-25 minutes depending on fitness levels.
TIP: Make sure to take a hat, water and sunscreen!
Lunch at the cafe and visit the lotus fields
At the bottom of Mua Caves you’ll find plenty of opportunities for refreshments after your climb.
There are several beautiful cafes overlooking the lotus ponds and fields and during June and July the main field is in bloom with lotus flowers.
There is a wooden walkway among the flowers and depending on the time of year you visit, it’s well worth following these trails and seeing the landscape from this perspective. Or you can just enjoy the view of them from cafes!
Afternoon at the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
After your morning at Mua Caves, take a taxi to Hoa Lu (or scooter if you’re hired one).
This was once the capital of Vietnam and dates back to the 10th century. Now the area is full of temple ruins and fortress.
Don’t miss the tomb of the first Emperor and Temple of Emperor Đinh Tiên Hoàng. You can learn about the heroic Emperors during the Chinese Wars.
Bai Dinh Pagoda is also in the area and is the largest Buddhist temple complex in Vietnam.
Summary: how to plan the best 2 days in Ninh Binh itinerary
As I said at the start, this Ninh Binh two day itinerary was probably the biggest surprise on my Vietnam trip and I wish we had spent longer there.
Although a Ninh Binh one day tour from Hanoi is possible and definitely worth it if you’re short on time, I would really encourage staying for a couple of nights to truly experience the natural beauty of the region and everything there is to see and do in Ninh Binh.
Save it for later to plan your trip to Ninh Binh!