Ninh Binh is a town which lies to the southeast of Hanoi and acts as a base for visitors to explore the surrounding area. Slightly confusingly, the state is also known as Ninh Binh, with Ninh Binh town also acting as the capital city, so often when people refer to this part of Vietnam they are talking about the whole Ninh Binh district which comprises several towns, villages and key attractions.
There are not many set ‘sights’ in the town on Ninh Binh itself, but this is a great place to visit if you want to get out and about and spend time in some of the prettiest and most unspoilt parts of Vietnam. Ninh Binh town is usually used as a jumping off point to Tam Coc, Van Long and Hoa Lu and although it is not as well known as other places in the country, it is a great spot for anyone with an interest in nature thanks to its craggy limestone scenery. As other parts of the country such as Halong Bay and Sapa become more popular, if you want to take the road less traveled then Ninh Binh is the ideal choice.
Here are the 25 best things to do in Ninh Binh…
1. Visit Tam Coc
Located outside of Ninh Binh town, Tam Coc is one of the best nature destinations in Vietnam although it remains firmly off the tourist trail.
Tam Coc is known for its karst landscape which is similar to the better known Halong Bay, although here you will find some scenic limestone hills which are dotted amongst emerald green rice paddies.
Halong Bay has larger cliffs, although it is also more crowded, so Tam Coc is the place to come if you want to get off the beaten track and you can explore the area by boat which takes around two hours.
2. Eat at the Snail Restaurants
If you have a hankering for the local food, then head to the lane next to D Luong Van Tuy where you will find a wealth of snail restaurants.
These eateries are known for serving oc luoc xa which is the Vietnamese for snails which are then cooked with a mix of aromatic lemongrass and hot chilies.
If this doesn’t appeal then you will also find a number of bars here where you can grab a drink, although the snails are a delicacy in these parts and are well worth trying.
3. Visit Phat Diem Cathedral
Some 34 kilometers away from the center of Ninh Binh is Phat Diem Cathedral which sits in the middle of some scenic canals and rice paddies.
This would have been the central place of worship for the commune of Phat Diem which was also called the ‘Vatican of Vietnam’ during the colonial period.
The cathedral dates from 1898 and was built using a mix of Vietnamese and Western styles which include two gothic chapels and some massive iron wood columns.
The scale of the cathedral and its location are extremely impressive and this is one of the top sights not to miss in Ninh Binh district.
4. Explore Van Long Nature Reserve
If you want to keep exploring outside of Ninh Binh then you can head to Van Long which is a wetland reserve that is the place to come for keen birdwatchers.
As this is a protected area of land, it is teeming with local flora and fauna, so if you are a nature and want to check out the Vietnamese wildlife then don’t miss it off the itinerary.
The wetlands are the home to a number of Vietnamese species like monkeys, reptiles, and birds.
5. Have lunch at Cho Bop Market
If you want to find some cheap local bites in Ninh Binh town and don’t fancy dining at the snails restaurants then head to Cho Bop Market which is the central market in town.
Here you will find a number of carts and small cafes serving Vietnamese dishes such as toothsome noodle soups and other fried goodies.
They also sell delicious fresh fruit and vegetables if you want to try the local produce but try to go in the morning as this is when you will find the biggest selection.
6. Shop at Van Lan
Van Lan is a small village close to Tam Coc which is famous for its handicrafts.
The real draw here however is the intricate embroidery which is famous in the region and you will find a number of artisans here tending to their craft.
Just some of the items that you can pick up here include napkins, pillowcases, tablecloths and even t-shirts, and you should note that haggling is considered normal.
With that in mind make sure to bargain to get the best price for your souvenirs.
7. Bich Dong Pagoda
Just past Tam Coc you will find one of the most interesting pagodas in the region which dates from the 15th century.
The Bich Dong Pagoda is located on the side of a mountain and is made up of three levels called the Ha, Trung and Thuong Pagodas.
The temples are also built so that they back on to caves which you can also explore as part of a visit here.
As you would expect from pagodas built into a cliff, the path to the top is steep but the views are well worth it.
8. Spend the day at Hoa Lu
Hoa Lu is yet another spot that makes a great trip from Ninh Binh although some visitors skip it in favor of neighboring Tam Coc and Van Long.
Many people don’t know however that Hoa Lu would have been the ancient capital of Vietnam in the 10th century and there is a large citadel here which is filled with scenic temples that you can explore at your leisure.
For that reason, it is well worth a trip here if you are in the region.
9. Cuc Phuong National Park
Cuc Phuong National Park is one of the main national parks in Vietnam and was established in 1962. This is part of a huge swathe of protected land in Ninh Binh and was set up in order to take care of the wildlife in the region which has been in decline for many years as a result of poaching.
The park now spans 222 square kilometers and is made up of tropical forest which is home to a plethora of wildlife.
On a visit here you will find some 307 species of birds as well as 133 species of mammals and 122 species of reptiles.
You will also find over 2,000 different kinds of plants here making it a must visit for nature lovers.
10. Visit the Endangered Primate Rescue Center
Inside Cuc Phuong National Park you will find the Endangered Primate Rescue Center which is overseen by the Frankfurt Zoological Society.
At the rescue center you will find 150 monkeys as well as 12 kinds of langur and 3 species of gibbon.
The animals here were rescued to save them from illegal traders and the focus of the facility is to educate visitors on how to protect wild animals in Vietnam.
You can also visit the Turtle Conservation Center at the same time as the rescue center using the same ticket.
11. Admire Chua Bai Dinh
Chua Bai Dinh is a colorful Buddhist temple complex that is located on a scenic hill close to Ninh Binh town.
The temple was built in 2014 and has quickly become one of the top attractions in the area.
The entrance leads to walkways which are lined with 500 stone arhats (images of enlightened Buddhists) and inside you will find the Phap Chu Pagoda which extends over some three tiers.
There is also a bronze Buddha inside which weighs 100 tones and is 10 meters high as well as two smaller gilded Buddhas.
12. Explore Mua Cave
Located close to some scenic rice paddies is the Mua Cave which has gorgeous views over the surrounding peaks.
There is a stone staircase that takes you up to the mouth of the cave and past eerie karst formations.
Once you have climbed the 500 steps to the top, you will get to the altar of Quan Am who is the revered Goddess of Mercy and the vistas are spectacular as you can see all the way down to the Ngo Dong River.
13. Try the goat meat
Many visitors won’t realize that Ninh Binh is known for its mountain goat which is known as de nui.
The meat is a specialty in these parts and is usually served with fried rice called com chien.
The meat has a gamey flavor and it is usually barbecued to produce a smoky and delicious dish that is a must-try while you are in Ninh Binh.
The goat is also usually served with rice paper rolls and a plethora of fresh herbs.
14. Take a boat trip in Trang An
Neighboring Trang An is known for its scenic water ways and you can hire a boat here and float along the Sao Khe River.
This will take you through other-worldly caves and you can take in the scenery and also visit the caves and temples at the same time.
Boat trips usually last around 2 hours and Trang An is around 7 kilometers from Ninh Binh town so you can easily visit for the day.
15. Scale the Hang Mua Peak
Hang Mua Peak is known for being one of the most amazing sites in Tam Coc and you will have to walk along some 500 steps to the summit.
It is all worth it when you get to the top however as you can look out over some of the most stunning scenery in Vietnam which include the Red River Delta and the towering mountains.
Make sure to wear proper shoes however, especially in the rainy season as the steps can become slippery when wet.
This is also the same spot that houses the Mua Cave although you can skip this and just trek along the mountain trail if you are not a fan of spelunking.
16. Tour the Turtle Conservation Center
Also located inside the Cuc Phuong National Park is the Turtle Conservation Center which has over 1,000 different aquatic creatures.
These include 20 different species of turtles, and many of the residents here were saved from poachers or smugglers.
Many of the turtles swim in the ponds of the center and there is also a visitor center which will fill you in on the conservation projects in place to protect the turtles.
17. Have a beer on the waterfront
Ninh Binh Town is known for its bia hoi which is the local draft beer.
As such, if you want to relax with a cool drink at the end of a long day of sightseeing then this is the place to do it.
The main bia hoi part of Ninh Binh is located along the riverside and you can look out over the water and enjoy the sunset at the same time.
18. Take a bicycle tour
One of the best ways to explore Ninh Binh is by bicycle.
The reason for this is that the land here is mainly flat which means that you can easily rent a bicycle and ride to many of the sights in town.
Many of the guesthouses have free bicycles for guests, or you can sign up for a dedicated tour with a guide who will show you all the key attractions in the area and fill you in on the history and culture of this part of Vietnam.
19. Take a trip to Chicken Village
Chicken Village is called Kenh Ga in Vietnamese and is made up of a floating village in Ninh Binh which is known for the local oarsmen and women.
One of the reasons that people come here is to see the locals rowing their boats with their feet, so if you want a glimpse of an authentic fishing village in Vietnam then this is the place to visit.
You can take a tour of the floating village by boat and observe this quirky way of rowing up close.
As well as the actual waterways, this riverside town is also very pretty in its own right and well worth an afternoon spent browsing in the little alleyways.
20. Check out the Thung Nham Bird Garden
Strangely, the Thung Nham Bird Garden is not well known in Ninh Binh which is a shame as it is a picturesque attraction that is worth a visit.
The park is located in the mountains and is known as a place where a huge number of indigenous species of birds make their nests.
If possible try to visit in the early morning or late afternoon as the trees in the park are covered in a plethora of colorful avians.
In addition to the birds, you can also go fishing in the park and can even camp here depending on the season.
21. Try the local food
Ninh Binh is known for its local specialties and one of these is called com chay.
This dish is made from rice which is burnt and then scraped off the bottom of a cooking pot.
This may not sound like the most appetizing dish, but it produces a nutty and crunchy result.
The best part about com chay is that it is served topped with juicy pork.
You will find plates of com chay all over Ninh Binh and it is also often served as an accompaniment to goat meat which is swapped for the usual pork.
22. Visit the Hoa Lu Temples
Nestled against Yen Ngua Mountain are two of Hoa Lu’s temples which are adorned with gorgeous pillars covered in dark red lacquer.
The most famous of these is called Dinh Tien Hoang which is dedicated to the time of the Dinh Dynasty and was restored in the 17th century At the front of the temple you will find a stone throne and the interior features a statue of Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang with his children.
You will also find the usual bronze bells here that feature in all temples across Vietnam.
23. Have a drink at Chookie’s
If you are looking for a place in Ninh Binh town to have a drink, then head to Chookie’s.
This is known as the prime spot to get a beer in the evenings and they also serve up some delicious Vietnamese and Western food at cheap prices.
The nightlife scene in Ninh Binh can be a little sparse and this is your best bet if you are looking for something to do in the evenings.
They also offer tours and bicycle rental if you want to explore the rest of the province.
24. Eat at Father Cooking
Many visitors and locals alike in Ninh Binh will tell you that one of the best restaurants in town is Father Cooking.
This is certainly the place to come if you want to try local bites at great prices, and this is a family owned establishment where you can get noodle and rice dishes.
Ninh Binh is known for its regional delicacies like goat meat and snails, so if you want to try a slice of authentic Vietnamese cuisine when you are in town then this is hard to beat.
25. Hike to Silver Cloud Peak
If you are in Ninh Binh and like hiking then you need to make your way to Silver Cloud Peak in Cuc Phuong National Park.
It is around a four hour trek to Silver Cloud Peak, so you need to be in relatively good shape if you are going to attempt it, but the views across the park more than make up for it.
You can either hike with a ranger which is recommended, or go it alone if you are feeling adventurous.
There are also some night treks here which are the perfect opportunity to look out for nocturnal animals in the park.