In a nutshell
Although Ninh Binh may not be one of the first destinations on your list when planning your trip to Vietnam, this small town makes a perfect place to settle down for a few days or a week to get off the tourist trail and explore the surrounding countryside.
Why go to Ninh Binh
Most visitors head straight for Tam Coc, a stunning natural wonder that is less crowded and, in its own way, just as impressive as the more well-known peaks of Ha Long Bay. Also on the town's doorstep is Hoa Lu, home to the ruins of royal palaces that acted as the capital of Vietnam until 1010.
Ninh Binh has established itself as a destination for visitors almost solely due to its location and proximity to Tam Coc, whilst there's little to see in the town itself, jump on a bike and set off into the countryside. You won't be disappointed. If you're brave and choose to hire a motorbike you'll have great fun driving through villages and stopping to take in the beautiful views.
Where to stay in Ninh Binh
Budget travellers are well catered for here with a small backpacker area around the train station with guesthouses offering affordable rooms. However, many visitors head outside of the town into the countryside or to the area around Tam Coc.
Many visitors, especially those planning on staying for a few days or a week, prefer to stay in some of the guesthouses or homestays outside of the town where you can enjoy spectacular views in more peaceful surroundings.
Where to eat in Hinh Binh
You can try most of your favourite Vietnamese dishes in and around Ninh Binh but make sure you save room for some of the local specialities.
The most popular delicacy is mountain goat served with rice, you won't have trouble finding this on a menu here as the locals love it! Duck is another highly rated meat around here, you'll find duck included in some of the meals you tasted elsewhere with chicken, it's worth trying as it gives the dish a different twist.
There's plenty of budget options in the small backpacker area by the train station, with many of these places offering western menus, which aren't always available elsewhere in town.
How to get around in Ninh Binh
The town itself is fairly small and easily walkable and there may only be one or two occasions where you would need a taxi for trips within the town. And even then, only when you're crossing the whole town.
Most visitors spend the majority of their time in the neighbouring countryside, with many opting to hire a bike and explore the area by themselves. There's plenty of sights as well as beautiful scenery on your doorstep, so this is a perfect way to spend a day or two.
For longer distances, it is of course possible to hire motorbikes or motos who will be able to take you anywhere you want to go, but you'll have to haggle.
How to get to and from Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh lies about 2 hours from Hanoi by bus with several services a day running along the route (VND200,000). It's worth to book in advance to be on the safe side.
It's also possible to get to Ninh Binh directly from Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba island. It will take around 5 hours (more if you connect via Hanoi) and cost approximately VND250,000.
Like most tourist towns in Vietnam, Ninh Binh is on the Reunification Line, although relatively few people get off here when compared to other stations, especially at night, so make sure you've got your bags prepared as it doesn't stop for long! The journey to or from Hanoi takes around 3 hours, with 5 or 6 trains running each day costing VND180,000 depending on the class of the train.
If you're arriving by train from the south, it's best to arrive from Hue, which is approximately 12 hours away with seats available from VND462,000 and sleepers from VND587,000. This will break up the journey nicely, cutting down on travel time and allowing you to enjoy the journey.
The closest major airport is Hanoi so you'd need to either get the bus or train here. Transferring from the airport in Hanoi to the bus or train station will take much longer than you'd think so it's always worth spending at least one night in Hanoi before moving on. Also, travelling during the day lets you soak up the scenery.
When to go to Ninh Binh
As most of the country, Ninh Binh is best visited between October and February when there are warm temperatures and little rain. This offers the best conditions in which to view the stunning countryside and sights such as Tam Coc, with temperatures under 30°C.
The rainy season lasts from April until early October with April being the hottest month. As a result, it can be quite difficult to sightsee in temperatures hitting 35°C so visitors might want to think about heading here at a different time. Similarly, August is best avoided as it will rain most days making the boat rides around Tam Coc and Trang An far less enjoyable!
Safety in Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is generally pretty safe. Like everywhere you should be careful when walking alone at night, especially in some of the quieter areas of town, but crime is relatively rare. You're in more danger of falling victim to scams from tour companies or taxi drivers than anything else here.
Finally, anyone considering hiring a motorbike should be very careful. Always ensure the company provides you with a helmet and take extra care when driving, the mountain roads will often not be in as good condition as you might be used to at home.