After I had to stay for a few days in Hanoi whilst processing my Chinese Visa in Vietnam, I was looking forward to go back to nature and to go backpacking in Ninh Binh was a great start!
Ninh Binh is just a couple of hours south of Hanoi and you can reach it either by bus or train.
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I stayed at one of the nicest homestays I found in Vietnam, the Wild Flower Homestay is a bit far from the train station and you can get either a Grab moto taxi (about $1) or the guys from Wild Flower can pick you up as well (less than $2)
The accommodation itself is pretty standard (I took a bed in a dorm) but every night they cook a family dinner which is really nice, not only the food is homemade, tasty and abundant but it’s also great for meeting the family and other travellers.
At Wild Flower Homestay they rent scooters (a bit more expensive than other places) but they give bicycles for free, and you can do most stuff in Ninh Binh and surroundings by bike!
Day 1 Ninh Binh Caves and Mua Cave
You can clear the two most famous things to do while backpacking in Ninh Binh in just one day in case you’re short of time.
The famous boat rides around the caves can be done either at Trang An or Tam Cóc, at the advise of the staff at the homestay I went to the first one and I’m very happy I did so. This one is not only a little bit cheaper than in Tam Cóc but most importantly, there’s less people around and it was super beautiful.
You need to cycle about half an hour from town to get there, it’s quite an easy ride but check maps.me just in case as there are a few turns to get out of town and then it will be just a straight road.
You will eventually arrive to a rather large tourist center where they sell the tickets for the boats. There’s also parking for either your bike or scooter.
The ticket for the boat ride, in Feb ’19 was 200000 VND (about US $9) and it takes about 2-3 hours to complete.
There are three possible itineraries and they explain how many caves and temples you will visit.
After asking some of the staff on which one was their favourite they mentioned the routes 1 and 3. I took the route 3 as apparently was less crowded.
The boats are normally paddled by (relatively) old woman, no idea why there were no guys there, but they are pretty strong to paddle for a long time, they will also hand you a spare paddle in case you want to help (which we did).
The boat can fit up to 4 people but as there was no many people wanting to do the route 3 it was only two of us plus our paddler.
As soon as the ride start you can already indulge in the beauty of the place.
This Unesco World Heritage Site is also called Ha Long Bay on Land as all the karst formations resemble the other famous site in Vietnam.
On the route 3 you get to see 4 temples and 4 caves. The first of the caves was the best one as it was about 1 Km long, having it only for ourselves made it even better.
At one point there was a stop in King Kong island, which was a set for the movie.
I didn’t enjoy this bit as it was pretty crowded, I also have not seen the movie so it all felt really fake to me.
Perhaps you may like it more if you have seen the movie.
After a bit more paddling we eventually made it back to the tourist center. By now it was just past noon so I decided to cycle to the other attraction in town, Mua Caves.
From the boats it was about a 30-40min bike ride to get to Mua Caves.
Tip: when you’re approaching Mua Caves, you will start seeing many parkings (for scooters and bicycles) keep riding until you reach the ticket office and you will be able to park your bike for free there.
The entrance fee was 100000 VND (about US $4.50)
At first I was a bit wary of the place as it seemed pretty touristy, but then you get the stone steps towards the Lying Dragon Mountain and it becomes fun.
Apparently it’s about 450 steps, some of them kind of steep so make sure to bring some water with you.
You will also find a mini shop half way selling drinks though.
Please don’t just throw empty bottles at the top of the mountain.
As soon as you climb a bit you will start having some fantastic views and that’s the best encouragement to make it to the top quickly.
Almost at three quarters of the climb, you will have the path splitting in two.
You can take any as I recommend to do both summits as they offer fantastic views from one another.
Tip: try to go a bit late in the day to catch up the sunset, I didn’t think of this and went earlier, still got some really awesome views though.
After enjoying the views for a fair bit it was time to start heading down and find some food as I went straight from the boat and was starving by now.
On the way back to town you will find lots of local restaurants with good prices.
But wait, there’s a lot here of the Lying Dragon Mountain but wasn’t it supposed to be the Mua Caves?
Well, I finally found the cave when I went down from the mountain, it’s just a little cave with not much to show, not really sure on why the put the “name” of the sight to it instead of the mountain itself.
Day 2 Cúc Phuong National Park
Another famous sight to visit when backpacking in Ninh Binh is the Cúc Phuong National Park, this place is out of town and you will need a scooter to get there as it’s 40 Km away.
I teamed up with the friend I met at the boats the day before so we could split the cost of the scooter rental and petrol.
The road there is almost a straight line all the time, but still, is good to have maps.me handy as there are pretty much no signs pointing to the park direction.
The entrance fee for the National Park was 60k VND (less than US $3) and if you go solo the options for sightseeing are limited as certain areas are only open to go with a guide. Still, there were a couple of good sights.
The Prehistoric Man Cave is the first one you reach, this is a cool little hike to an ancient shelter dated 7500 years ago, the cave itself is pretty cool, with no people at all and it’s not prepared for the tourists, so it’s the cave as it’s supposed to be, natural and wild!
Tip: make sure to bring a head torch as it’s handier than using your phone lantern when climbing and walking inside the cave.
After looking at every single corner of the cave we moved on towards the loop trail about 20 Km away.
We parked the scooter next to a tourist centre (which is abandoned) and started the hike, it’s mostly up and down with the first half climbing and the second half more downhill.
The most famous sight is the 1000 year old tree and another smaller cave.
Apart from that, the walk is pretty but it’s in closed forest so you don’t get any viewpoints of the park. Still, a nice walk to keep the day busy and not be back to town too early.
Day 3 Cycling around Tam Cóc
On my final day backpacking in Ninh Binh I took another bike from the homestay and cycled around town with a couple of friends, we found a huge square close to the homestay which is the typical example of Soviet-Communist architecture, large, really large.
After taking a couple of pics there we headed towards Tam Cóc to find out on why is that place more famous than Ninh Binh.
It’s about a 45min bike ride to get there. You start going towards the Lying Dragon Mountain and then keep straight.
At first sight it was easy to see why this place is more famous, as it’s much closer to nature.
But this also means that they have built many more hostels/hotels there, so it feels super touristy.
The boat rides were really crowded compared to the one I did two days before.
So, if you ask me, I’d recommend to stay in Ninh Binh. The town itself has nothing to show, but at least is not crowded and you can cycle everywhere from there.
I left Ninh Binh happy after a few stunning places and great people on the way.
After a few days backpacking in Ninh Binh it was now turn to take a night bus towards the beautiful town of Hoi An for more backpacking adventures!