Ninh Binh

Travel Guide Asia Vietnam Ninh Binh



Temple in Ninh Binh

Temple in Ninh Binh

© jamesholst

On the Government Backpacker bus/coach route, Ninh Binh is the first stop from Hanoi. Not many tend to book to get off here. If you fancy a change and are interested in seeing an old area of ancient earth then this is the stopping point for you. Alternatively, if you wish to exchange ancient culture to current rural living, hire a bicycle for US$1 a day and simply take to a road and within a few minutes you are passing wonderful markets and into the fields of the surrounding countryside.



Sights and Activities

Cuc Phuong National Park

Ho Chi Minh established Cuc Phuong in 1962 as Vietnam's first national park, and it remains a source of national pride. The park is a lush mountain rainforest with more than 250 bird and 60 mammal species, including tigers, leopards, and the unique red-bellied squirrel. But the park's many visitors - mostly large domestic tour groups, especially on the weekends - might keep you from the kind of wildlife experience you expect in the brush. Cuc Phuong is just 120 kilometres south of Hanoi and a 30-minute ride from Ninh Binh. A little town with very basic services (food stall, gasoline stand) is outside the park's first gate. Once in the park, you'll pass first the visitor center, a small museum on your right, and then the park's popular Primate Research Center on your left before reaching the main gate. There, check in at the main information booth, pay the 40,000 VND ($3) entry fee (children 20,000 VND/$1.35), and connect with the park's able guides and rangers (ask to talk with a guide named Mr. Som). Your entrance fee includes a guide who will accompany you on a visit to the Primate Research Center and who can be hired for $15 a day to take you on hikes in the park.

A well-paved road runs through the length of the park, and the many short hikes and roadside sites are all well marked. Cuc Phuong hosts good hikes, including ones to the park's 1,000-year-old tree, a waterfall, and Con Moong Cave, where prehistoric human remains have been discovered. The park holds 117 species of mammals, 307 types of birds, 110 reptiles and amphibians, 65 species of fish, and 2,000 kinds of insects. The rare Asian black bear and the golden leopard live here. Also, the Delacour's langur is unique to the park. It's an endangered, protected species that you can see at the Primate Research Center.

Cuc Phuong National Park Endangered Primate Resource Center (tel. 030/848-002) is the highlight of a visit to the park. Run by an international team of primate experts, mostly from the Frankfurt Zoological Society and supported by zoos worldwide, the project houses some 150 animals in cages, large monkey-houses with swinging bars, and, at the back, a sprawling semiwild jungle enclosure (good for the animals, not great for viewing them). Find many species of gibbon, multicolored langurs, including the very rare, protected Catba golden-hair langur as well as the endangered Delacour's langur, and the teacup-size slow loris. Animals are lovingly cared for, in the best situation possible, and they put on quite a show - hopping, hollering, and swinging from ropes in large enclosures. Note: Though you pass the Primate Center on your way to the main gate, you must still check in at the park's main entrance and backtrack, with a guide, to visit the animals; this policy ensures some measure of control of the number of visitors and their impact on these very intelligent, sensitive creatures.

The goal of the center is to create stable captive populations of endangered animals and eventually, through socialization and acclimatization in the semiwild habitat, reintroduce animals to the wild. If you visit the park on a day tour from Hanoi, you'll come at the wrong time: midday when animals are listless and resting in the heat. Folks with an interest in primates will want to spend the night and might even have a chance to meet up with staff or researchers who can provide more in-depth information. A small civet-breeding program is next door.

The 1,000-year-old tree is at the end of a good loop hike that starts at the park's interior visitor center, some 30 minutes' ride past the gate. The path is well marked and mostly paved and set up with convenient walkways, but the jungle scenery is dense and if you walk quietly, you might catch a glimpse of some wildlife (especially in the morning or evening).

The Cave of the Prehistoric Man is just a roadside attraction, a short hike off the main drag up a hillside with a wide cave. The cave was discovered in 1966 and the remains of an early man along with his stone tools and relics are said to date back as far as 12,000 years ago. The walkway to the site is a good place to sit still and see what kinds of wild things you can spot.

Cuc Phuong is a good day trip from Hanoi, and some tourist cafes offer programs for as little as $30 (if you have four people in your group), but note that a day trip to the park means arriving in the middle of the day when jungle animals are fast asleep and when the heat and humidity, especially in the spring hot season, can be too much. It is also possible to overnight in the park headquarters or at the visitor information center in the park center. They offer basic rooms in a block building at the entrance. Doubles go for from $15 to $25. One of the most pleasant aspects of visiting Cuc Phuong is the possibility of connecting with visiting naturalists and scientists (when I was there, I met a large contingent from the Philippines), and the overnight accommodations, though rustic, make for a fun evening - especially with a gaggle of scientists in the canteen. There's also a lake just inside the park, which is set up like a small summer camp for large groups, usually Vietnamese school kids, and the site echoes with good Vietnamese campfire songs.

Foreigners comprise only a small percentage of the 70,000 people or so who visit the park annually, and the large groups of Vietnamese tourists - and many school groups - are not yet well versed in ecotourism practices. (I kept coming across a group of more than 50 school kids, all dressed in the same bright yellow T-shirts and wearing oversize straw hats, led by a guide with a bullhorn blaring instructions and information - so much for animal spotting.) Talk to guides about good night-spotting trips and rigorous overnights in the jungle.

Hoa Lu: Ancient Capital

For a short period at the end of the first millennium (A.D. 968-1009), Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam under the Dinh dynasty and the first part of the Le dynasty. The area was chosen because the limestone formations surrounding the site - the same ones that attract tourists by the thousands - were a stalwart natural defense against the Chinese. The temples of Hoa Lu are worth a visit and part of most itineraries out of Ninh Binh. The two temples, both dedicated to respective Le and Dinh kings, are ornate 17th-century re-creations on the site of some ancient ramparts and walls, but what makes the trip interesting is the beautiful scenery of the area, especially along the rural road connecting the site with nearby Tam Coc. The whole valley is hemmed in with high limestone walls of karst much like the dynamic setting of Tam Coc. One temple honors Dinh Tien Hoang with an imposing statue. The other temple, farther from the road across a large field often used for large festivals, is dedicated to Le Dai Hanh, one of Dinh's generals and the first king of the Le dynasty, who grabbed power in A.D. 980 after Dinh was mysteriously assassinated. Hoa Lu can easily be seen on a day trip from Hanoi. The temples are 113 kilometres south of Hanoi.

Kenh Ga: Chicken Village

Here, tour among floating villages teeming with life, where local oarsmen (and women) row with their feet. Photographers delight. Reach the site by motorbike, either your own rented machine or on the back of a bike with a driver. The village is more than 10 kilometres west of Highway 1 starting at a juncture 11 kilometres north of central Ninh Binh. Expect to pay at least 50,000 VND ($3) per person for a few hours exploring this beautiful waterside town and floating village.

Phat Diem Stone Church

Popular in conjunction with a visit to the ancient city of Hoa Lu, a visit to Phat Diem cathedral is an important pilgrimage for the faithful or the architecture buff. Nowhere will you find such a unique melding of contemporary Christian motifs with Asian-style architecture.

The site is 121 kilometres southeast of Hanoi, and about 25 kilometres south and east of the town of Ninh Binh. The road passes through beautiful areas of lush lowland rice fields and past many lesser cathedrals and Christian burial sites: Note that Ton Dao Church, just outside of town, is a particularly imposing edifice with high stone spires, intricate carvings on lintels and facade, and reliefs of St. Francis ministering to the sick and impoverished. The town of Phat Diem is just a little commercial strip - not much to see really.

Follow signs to Phat Diem from the main road, down a narrow street that spills onto a broad courtyard at the end of its length. At the center of the courtyard is a pond with an expressive statue of Jesus, and beyond that is your first glimpse of the cathedral. Enter to the right, but be sure to go back and experience the temple starting at the large Chinese-style gate. The church and grounds uniquely blend East and West. The main cathedral, an imposing wooden structure, has Chinese-influenced parapets, the roofline upturned at the corners, and out front are elaborate lintel bas reliefs of saints that would elsewhere be Buddhas. All of the structures are decked out in Chinese roofs of terra-cotta tile, and small Chinese pagodas pepper the grounds around the main cathedral. The building stands flanked by a number of small chapels.

The Cathedral of Saint Joseph - the first building you reach when making a clockwise circuit around the main temple - was built in 1896 and is made of wood and covered in elaborate engravings and carvings. Behind it is the Chapel of St. Pierre, also built in 1896. Usually the interior is closed to the public (most chapels here are), but if you peak along the sides of the altar, which is a 1-ton block of stone, in the back you can see reliefs of the Twelve Apostles and their names in Chinese letters.
Far back on the left is the diminutive Stone Chapel (Legise de Pierre), a very refined structure of glossy marble. The chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and out front is an engraving (in four languages) that reads: "Immaculate Heart of Mary Pray for Us." Relief works on the cornices of the building depict mythical beasts.

Completing the circuit, and near the entrance of the cathedral grounds, the temple to St. John the Baptist is where locals once came during a cholera epidemic to invoke the help of St. Roch and, when miraculously healed, the building was renamed the Roch Chapel.
The interior of the main chapel is like any Chinese temple, with thick wooden pillars supporting a raised gallery. Red and gold filigree at the altar would be more familiar in a small city temple in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, which makes this cathedral unique. Statues of Mary and Jesus take the place of an expected Buddha, and stained glass depicts both European and Vietnamese martyrs. The main altar was cut from stone block and was consecrated on October 6, 1991, on the 100th anniversary of the temple that was originally built in 1891.

Tam Coc (Three Grotto)

Located near the village of Van Lam, kilometres southwest of Ninh Binh, the Tam Coc area is a highlight of any visit to Vietnam. Called "The Halong Bay of the Rice Fields" after the UNESCO World Heritage Site north of Hanoi, the stunning limestone karst towers hearken to the famed landscape of the bay as well as Guilin in southern China - a landscape that has inspired poets for centuries.

The karst towers of Tam Coc are set in wide lowland fields of wet rice, and visitors can experience a 1-hour boat ride along a meandering river. Take in the stunning scenery as you listen to the hypnotic clacking of the oars against the side of the boat, and enjoy the meditative progress of the boat along the winding river.

The name Tam Coc means "Three Grottos," after the three caves you'll pass through on the backtracking route. Numbered, not named, the caves transport you through a seeming portal in time, ever further from the familiar into the misty mountain valley along this meandering stream; there is Hang Ca, Cave One, which is over 100 metres long, then Hang Hai, Cave Two, at 70 metres, and lastly the smaller Hang Ba, Cave Three.

At the large gated entrance, you can buy your ticket (cost is 40,000 VND/$2.65), which entitles you to visit the caves, enjoy a boat ride (you must present your coupon to the rower), and see a few adjoining temple sites. The rowers are a friendly lot and are happy to chat; some speak English, others smile, and everybody sings as they row, often in unison. Your new friend turns into salesman by the end of the ride, though - kind of a drag. The item up for bid is embroidery, which they'll tell you was executed by the shaking hand of an ailing grandmother, anything to get you to fork over a few dong. Your rower has a tacit agreement with other sellers along the route to bump your boat against anyone with even a few bananas for sale. In these cases, if you whip out your wallet, you might as well shout "Free for all! Come and get 'em!" Best to just quietly decline. In lieu of a purchase, a small tip to your rower at the end of the ride is a better bargain, but know (and accept) that there's no way to fend off the sellers at Tam Coc. Tourists are like ducks on a pond. The most important thing is not to let it get you down, keep it light - but say "no" - and keep your eyes on the passing scenery.

The time to go to Tam Coc is after 10:00am (the morning fog obscures the shape of the precipitous peaks). If you arrive too early and the place is still foggy, take a ride by road out to Bich Dong Temple, then come back for the boat trip when things have burned off. By midday, though, the sun is blistering and the open boats offer no shade. Local hucksters are quick to make the most of your misery and sell (or rent) umbrellas to ward off the sun, but it's best to just bring a good hat and cover up with sunscreen. Along the route you'll see shy kingfishers flitting about as well as cranes padding around the paddies and floating weeds. Local fishermen, quite used to the steady stream of tourists, are busy setting nets and paddling about in boats the size of snow saucers. Some fishermen row with their feet, while others use the unique standing technique of leaning forward and pushing the oars in a heaving forward lunge; the stroke is beautiful to watch, but try doing it and see how difficult it is.

Bich Dong is a stunning temple complex at the base of high cliffs about 2 kilometres past the starting point for boat rides to Tam Coc. A pond is near the entry, and the main temple courtyard gives way to a series of pagodas along the short path up the high rocky hillside: a good vantage point over the surrounding countryside.

Note: At this sacred place, as at other temple sites, it's best to be well behaved and stay covered up (no shorts), even though no one is officially checking or enforcing a dress code.

Van Long - Van Trinh

In addition to Dich Long, the Kenh Ga springs are also close to two other popular sites in Ninh Binh Province, Van Trinh and Van Long. Van Trinh cavern, is just 30 minutes from Kenh Ga by boat and at 3,500sq.m matches the Thien Cung Cave in Ha Long Bay. Van Trinh, or as the locals call it, Giang Tien, is located in Mo Mountain in Nho Quan District's Thuong Hoa Commune. Legend says that a young fairy wanting to help the local people feed their children found the place so marvellous that she chose the cave as her living quarters. The fairy's swimming pool inside the cave is always filled with clear water. The poor sought the fairy's help by leaving a piece of cloth in the temple as an offering.
When they returned, they found the cloth had been replaced with a baby's jacket that helped the child grow quickly. The people repaid the fairy by building a temple in her honour at the foot of Mo Mountain. The Van Long Forest hosts many species of flora and fauna including conifers, Tibetan bear and the king cobra. It has a range of mountains - Nghien, Hom Sach, Da Ban, Meo Cao, Co Tien, Voi Dung, Canh Cong and Mo Coi - reachable reached by boat. Van Long also boasts 32 caves. The most attractive is the Ca (Fish) at the foot of Hoang Quyen Mountain.



Events and Festivals

  • Hoa Lu temple festival - 10/03

Tết Festival

The most important and busiest festival in Vietnam, everyone returns home to be with their family. For visitors, it is a colorful time, as streets are decorated with lanterns and lights. The celebratory meal consists of four dishes, giò (Vietnamese sausage), ninh (stew), nem (spring rolls), and mọc (meat balls).

Tết Trung Thu

On the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, many celebrate the harvest by worshipping the Moon genie. It is one of the most impressive festivals in Vietnam and is particularly exiting for children, as they get plenty of toys. Square moon cakes are eaten by all, while children light lanterns and participate in a procession. Lion dancers accompanied by gongs and bells roam the streets.

Tet Doan Ngo

Tet Doan Ngo (Killing insects) or Dragon Boat Festival in Chinese is one of the oldest festival of Vietnam, occurred around June or July in Lunisolar Calendar and May in Lunar calendar. This festival is to celebrate a new section of the year and erase all the illnesses and worms in the body by using glutinous rice wine and lotus seed sweetened porridge in northern Vietnam or sticky rice dumplings in the south. Tet Doan Ngo often occurs from the breakfast to the noon, Vietnamese people eat this festival’s specialties before they take the meal whom believed that it’s the most suitable time to cleanse the body. The origin of this festival was started when people were celebrating for having a good crop and then the pest suddenly destroyed all of what they have been worked on, people couldn’t find a way to overcome this disaster so a man called Doi Truan appeared and guide the farmers to started a simple feast which included lime-water dumplings, fruits and doing exercises. The after day people realized that all the insects have been wiped out, Doi Truan reminded people that the pest was dominating at this month and must do what they’ve been guided to keep the crops away from the pest.

Tet Han Thuc

Tet Han Thuc or Cold Food festival at the end of the spring season, commonly in March 3rd (Lunar Calendar) and April or May (Lunisolar calendar), the festival was originated from China’s classic reference which is about the exile time of Duke Wen of Ji when he was so hungry that his royal advisor Jie Zhitui cut a part of his thigh to cook a soup for the duke, after he found out what Jie did, he was so grateful and promise that he’ll repay the favour. By the time Duke Wen regained his throne, Jie Zhitui had resigned and taken care of his mother at home hill, after many failed attempts to repay him, Duke Wen set fire to the hill and hoped that Jie would come out but he and his mother died in the firestorm. Duke Wen felt regret about what he had done so he created Cold Food Festival and named that mountain as Jie to pay tribute his advisor. The main specialties that Vietnamese people eat in this occasion are: floating cakes and glutinous rice dumplings. Vietnamese marked this day as the change from cold weather to hot so the name Cold Food Festival is to celebrate this season-changing time of the year.

Vu Lan or Ghost Festival

This festival is common in Asia countries: China, Japan, Vietnam, etc. The main purpose of Vu lan is to pay the gratitude to parents and helping the homeless, hungry souls. According to Vu Lan Sutra, a Buddha’s discipline named Maudgalyayana had trained many powerful abilities and he had purposed of meeting his mother one last time, he used his power to search and find out that his mother was in underworld and punished for her karma to be a hungry ghost, he brought rice bowl to his mother but she afraid of her food being taken away so she cover her hand to hide it but the bowl suddenly turned into fire. To seek a way to save his mother Maudgalyayana come to Buddha and the Buddha said that he cannot save his mother unless asking for help from the monks in the fifteenth day of July, after doing what Buddha said Maudgalyayana saved his mother. Vietnamese people often go to pray at the pagodas at this month and prepare a feast at home in the daylight to make offerings for the wandering ghosts. Since Vietnamese considered this is unlucky month, most of the activities from trading, building house, going at night are minimized, so the stores often close earlier than usual.



Getting There

Ninh Binh is 90 kilometres from Hanoi. The transport system is convenient with national highways 1A, 10, 59, 12A, 12B, 12C running across Ninh Binh Province.

By Train

Ninh Binh Railway Station is on the North - South Express train route: No 1 Hoang Hoa Tham, Ninh Binh City: Tel 873619.

By Car

If the starting point is Hanoi, visitors to Hanoi Railway Station is located on the way Le Duan to train or to Hanoi Bus South (commonly referred to Giap Bat Bus Station) is located on the road to catch the bus to go Liberation Ninh Binh;guests also can take the open tour departure of tour companies in the area of Hanoi Old Quarter. Besides public transport, visitors can go to Ninh Binh by motorcycle transport, this means visitors both save money, mobility and comfort in traveling. From the city center of Hanoi, along Liberation, through South Bus Station about 3 kilometres from Hanoi, travelers turn left 1 km on the highway Phap Van - Cau Gie and followed by Phu Ly Cau Gie - Ninh Binh.



By Bus

Ninh Binh Bus Station: No 207 Le Dai Hanh, Ninh Binh City: Tel 871069.

Distance from Ninh Binh city to touristic site:

  • Tam Coc/Mua cave - from 6-7 kilometres
  • Hoa Lu temple - 12 kilometres
  • Trang An Eco tourism - 10 kilometres
  • Phat Diem cathedral - 30 kilometres
  • Cuc Phuong National park - 65 kilometres
  • Van Long nature reserve - 20 kilometres
  • Kenh Ga floating village - 25 kilometres





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Keep Connected


See also International Telephone Calls

Vietnam's international dialing code is +84. To call to other countries from Vietnam, start with 00, followed by the international number, usually without the first 0. International and domestic phone calls are available in almost every hotel or internet café. International phone charges are high in Vietnam and hotels often add a mark up fee so it is smart to always check the rates before dialling. Public phones require phone cards, which are available at post offices.

Some common and useful phone codes are:

  • 00 - International call prefix
  • 110 - Operator
  • 113 - Police
  • 114 - Fire Department
  • 115 - Medical Aid/Ambulance
  • 116 - Directory Assistance
  • 1080 - Information


Vietnam Post is the government owned national postal service of Vietnam. Services are generally fairly reliable, cheap but not overly fast, except express services. Express Mail Service (EMS) ensures that letters and small parcels are delivered within 24-48 hours domestically. International EMS is associated with over 50 countries worldwide, with a delivery time ranging from 2 to 10 days. Regular services are cheaper but much slower. Most post offices keep much longer hours than most other official businesses, usually starting from 6:30am until 9:30pm and also open on Saturday and even Sunday. You can buy stamps here and they also offer other services like money transfers. You can also try other companies to send parcels, for example with DHL, TNT and UPS.


Quick Facts


  • Latitude: 20.2535
  • Longitude: 105.9787

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This is version 31. Last edited at 16:03 on Mar 11, 19 by Utrecht. 1 article links to this page.

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