Ninh Binh: Explore Ha Long Bay on Land

Tiếng Việt

An exceptionally beautiful landscape of limestone pinnacles, Ninh Binh has a good reason to be called “Ha Long Bay on Land”. This northern province allures visitors with unique experiences that no other place in Vietnam can offer.


Ninh Binh is imbued with otherworldly beauty. That’s my first thought when visiting the land in the southern part of the Red River Delta. Here, limestone cliffs rising majestically out of rice paddies. And subterranean caves open out onto countless dreamlike sceneries. Though located just 110 kilometres from Hanoi, it does look like a different world.

Trang An

If you only have time to visit one attraction in Ninh Binh, make it Trang An. Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this spectacular landscape of forest-mantled rock towers, submerged valleys and mystical grottoes has inspired people throughout history.

Trang An landscape
Otherworldly beauty of Trang An, Ninh Binh
Grotto at Trang An

My breath was taken away as our sampan glided past vertical cliffs, flooded caves and narrow passages. Every turn is another magnificent scenery, featuring dramatic rock formations, pristine tropical forest and emerald green waterway.

Amidst this unspoilt nature stand the ancient temples of various deities and national heroes. Solemn yet serene, they reflect human interactions since the very early times. There is also a hiden military base – the Vu Lam Royal Steps – built during the Tran dynasty. Thanks to this impragnable limestone fortress, Tran Kings and their armies successfully fended off the Mongol Empire.

Vu Lam Royal Steps
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Tam Coc

Similar to Trang An, a visit to Tam Coc will have visitors navigating in their hired boat down the river. They will pass rice paddies, limestone hills and a series of natural caves. In total, there are three marvelous grottoes of different sizes in Tam Coc; hence the name. While in the caves, I was surprised to see how clear the water is. It reflects the colour of the environment, giving the caves a mysterious beauty.

Mystical cave at Tam Coc

Bich Dong

Just two kilometres from Tam Coc is Bich Dong – a charming sequence of cave temples. Established in the 15th century, the entire structure is carved in the side of a verdant mountain. It’s made of three levels: the Lower, the Middle and the Upper Temple.

The entrance to Bich Dong Pagoda

After a short walk from the atmospheric entrance, I found myself at the Lower Temple. It evokes a nostalgic feeling, with mossy roofs and time-faded walls. From there, 100 stone steps led me to the Middle Temple, where there’s a shorter but steep ascent to the Upper Pagoda. Inside, looming statues of Buddha and other deities peer through the haze of burning incense.

The Lower Temple
The Middle Temple
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Van Long Natural Reserve

If you’re into Vietnamese wildlife, Van Long Natural Reserve is a destination that’s worth visiting. Approximately 20 kilometres north of Ninh Binh city, this protective area is teeming with local floral and fauna.

Into the swamp
The maze of reed

In comparison to Trang An or Tam Coc, a boat tour in Van Long has a rustic vibe. You will glide past a maze of reed and through an unlit cave. At some points, the coontail is so thick that your boat-lady has to use a pole to punt through the water. The swamp is kept in its original state, with very limited human interaction.

Scattering around this brown-green landscape are incredible karst peaks – the sanctuary for the endangered Delacour’s langurs (population roughly 160) and various rare bird species. They’ve grown significantly in number because the reedy wetland keeps predators and poachers at bay.

Van Long Natural Reserve

Practical Information about Ninh Binh

  • From Hanoi, it only takes 2-2.5 hours to reach Ninh Binh. Buses and trains run frequently between these two cities.
  • The city of Ninh Binh is not particularly interesting. However, due to its proximity to cliffs, caves and other cultural sites, it serves well as a base for travellers.
  • Currently, there are three routes to explore Trang An. While Route 1 focuses on the historic sites, Route 2 and 3 allows visitors to see the most beautiful parts of the complex. The boat tour takes about three hours.
  • Tam Coc is at its best during May and June as the rice paddies turn gold. Please note that there’s only one harvest season in this area. Some travel websites and agencies claim otherwise to mislead people.
  • In term of service, Trang An is better managed than Tam Coc.
  • To increase your chance of seeing birds and langurs, visit Van Long Natural Reserve at dusk. Beware of the mosquitoes, though!

Visual Story

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19 thoughts on “Ninh Binh: Explore Ha Long Bay on Land”

  1. Laleh Chini – Author of “Climbing Over Grit” - Winner of “Canada Book Award”-Member of Authors Without Borders-lalehchini.com
    Laleh Chini says:

    Stunnying dear Len.

      1. Laleh Chini – Author of “Climbing Over Grit” - Winner of “Canada Book Award”-Member of Authors Without Borders-lalehchini.com
        Laleh Chini says:

        My pleasure.

    1. You welcome! Ninh Binh is less popular than Ha Long Bay. But it certainly deserve a spot on the must-see list. It’s also less crowded 🙂

  2. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    Now I’m really intrigued by Trang An. I’m more interested in seeing this place than Ha Long Bay, actually — maybe because the latter has become very commercialized. Even on a cloudy day, Trang An still looks beautiful, and that clear water where you can see through, so pretty!

    1. Thank you for your compliment, Bama! The landscape is indeed breathtaking. I was surprised as well. But what I didn’t expect is how well they maintain this area. No chaos, no touts, no trash. Did you watch the movie Kong: Skull Island? It was actually filmed in Trang An and Van Long Swamp 🙂

      1. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
        Bama says:

        I did watch that movie, but I had no idea it was filmed in this very location. That’s so cool!

  3. justbluedutch – Bavaria, Germany – Expat- lifestyle Blogger living in the land of Lederhosen & Dinrdls { Germany},self-taught Aquarelle & Mixed Media visual artist.
    justbluedutch says:

    Wow and just simply Wow.I just envy you really.
    A hidden paradise, come to think of it, does this beauty really exist!
    thank you for your awesome virtual Gallery that feeds my thirst to explore and travel in Asia.
    I only know of Halong Bay and yet Trang An and Ninh Binh is a pure gem. If I show this to my husband I am sure he will be delighted.

    1. I’m glad that you like the post, Christina 🙂 Ninh Binh is certainly less popular than Ha Long Bay. But the landscape is no less stunning. It’s also less crowded and better managed than Ha Long Bay.

  4. pattimoed – USA – digital nomad, writer, instructional designer, photographer, eLearning specialist, editor
    pattimoed says:

    Fabulous tour, Len, of a fascinating place. Your images are wonderful. Now, I’ve put Trang An on my to-visit list. Thanks for the recommendation!

    1. My pleasure! To be honest, I didn’t expect much from Trang An. I thought it’s just a group of boring limestone cliffs . But I was wrong. The landscape is fascinating 🙂

  5. Incredible views! We had wanted to include Ninh Binh in our Vietnam itinerary last year – it was just 2 hours or so from Hanoi – but had limited time esp. since we were already booked for Ha Long Bay. Next time…

    1. You definitely should! I really wish that the border closure will end next year. The furthest I can travel this year is VN-China border. It might be counted as a (near) international trip because I was briefly in Chinese territory (few minutes) 😛
      I hope all’s well with you. This typhoon season was terrifying, wasn’t it…

      1. Sorry for this late reply. The past 3 typhoons that hit the Philippines caused a lot of grief and tragedy. We weren’t affected that much but hundreds of thousands of others were. Stay safe!

    1. Thank you, Caroline! Honestly, I didn’t expect it to be so photogenic. I’ve seen Ha Long Bay, so I thought it would be the same. But I was wrong. Btw, Merry Christmas to you! I wish you a cosy time at home 🙂

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