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Hanoi day trip: Solo in Ninh Binh without a group tour

Ninh Binh is one of the more popular Hanoi day trips you can take if you want to explore outside of the city and enjoy a bit of Vietnam‘s scenic mountain views. While there are many group day tours that will take you to Ninh Binh, I experimented visiting on my own this trip and put together this guide to visiting Ninh Binh solo without a tour and what you can expect when planning your own trip.

Why visit Ninh Binh?

Ninh Binh is a town about 95km south of Hanoi city and most well known for its beautiful natural scenery. Often referred to as ‘Ha Long Bay on land’, it’s also home to UNESCO heritage sites and was Vietnam’s very first capital dating back to the 10th century, the perfect place for a little bit of history, culture and scenery all in one.

While you can take a day trip to Ninh Binh from Hanoi like I did, I think it would be nice to spend a night or two in this little town to really take things slow and enjoy the small town vibe fully. You’ll also be able to better enjoy the sights after the day trip tourists have gone for the day.

Map created using Wanderlog, a road trip planner on iOS and Android

How to get to Ninh Binh from Hanoi

The major upside about taking an organised day trip from Hanoi to Ninh Binh is not having to worry about the public transport options. While Vietnam’s public transport isn’t too expensive, it’s also not the easiest to navigate if you don’t speak/read Vietnamese. I suggest enlisting the help of your hotel/concierge if you need to, or fork out a little more for English services.

My guesthouse was very helpful in organising all this for me – WeCozy Guesthouse [ affiliate link] is located right next to the Hanoi Railway line near the Old Quarter. It’s like a service apartment and you get a great bird’s eye view of the railway cafe area as you live right above it, but it can be a bit noisy if you are sensitive to that.

Their counter staff were pretty young folk and spoke good English and were able to help me arrange the limousine service to Ninh Binh as well as the bike hire.

Hanoi Wecozy View Tracks Train Night
My WeCozy room overlooked the train tracks and you could watch/hear the trains passing through every so often from the safety of the room without squeezing with everyone else on the tracks!

By private limousine

Ninh Binh is about 1.5 hours away from Hanoi by road, so driving from Hanoi to Ninh Binh is the fastest way to get there. The thing about the main bus/train stations in both Hanoi and Ninh Binh is that they are not located where the tourist attractions are, so you will still need to figure out how to get there even if you hop on a public bus or train.

What my hostel suggested is a private limousine service – a limousine in this case refers to the smaller vans with aircon and plush seats that seat about 10pax in total, instead of taking a typical tourist coach. These smaller vans are faster and more comfortable overall.

Ninh Binh Khanh An Limousine Car
What the limousine looks like
Ninh Binh Khanh An Limousine Interior
Inside the car – seats with legroom and can recline. Bring a jacket, aircon can get chilly!

The limousine services even provide additional connection services, where they drop off all guests at the main company stop, and then split into separate limousine vans that drop you at a specific location. My guesthouse arranged for me to be dropped off and picked up at the scooter rental company.

The pickup point in Hanoi was located at Thong Nhat Park [Google maps]. Again I think it was a good thing to go through my guesthouse because they kept in touch with me via whatsapp and gave me English instructions on what to do. There was some issue with my GrabBike bringing me to the wrong park entrance, so the guesthouse arranged for another GrabBike to take me to an alternative pick up point instead. Pretty sure I would have been quite lost if I had to deal with this on my own.

My guesthouse booked Khánh An Limousine on my behalf and it cost me 530,000 VND which is about S$28 for a round trip from Hanoi Thong Nhat Park to Ninh Binh.

By private car transfer

Alternatively if you have a small group, you could book a private car transfer from Hanoi to Ninh Binh via Klook [affiliate link] that can take you to the various sights you want to see as well. Here’s another company that offers a similar car transfer from Hanoi to Ninh Binh on Klook [affiliate link] .

It might be a bit pricey if you are going solo as the cheapest rate was about $113 for a same day return trip by car. With the max small group of 3 pax, that works out to about $38 per pax – might be worth paying just a bit more for the personalised door-to-door service and getting around Ninh Binh if you don’t want to rent a bike!

By train

One other option I was exploring would be to take the train from Hanoi to Ninh Binh which would take about 2 hours. You will need to either rent a scooter from around Ninh Binh Train Station or find your way to the tourist areas from there.

You could pop down to Hanoi Ga train station to book a ticket though you might have to contend with language barriers, or use a 3rd party service like EasyBook to reserve a train ticket – I’ve used them for booking ferries/buses in Malaysia previously.

Vietnam Hanoi Overnight Train
My last encounter with the train in Hanoi was a long, long, long overnight train ride from Danang back to Hanoi.

Riding a scooter in Ninh Binh

Getting around Ninh Binh as a solo traveller was a key thing I needed to sort out, and one thing I learned from the various Vietnamese tour guides I had in Hanoi was that it seemed pretty easy to rent and drive a scooter around Ninh Binh.

Now a caveat: I would NEVER try riding a scooter in Hanoi or a major city because it really is the epitome of chaos, but Ninh Binh’s traffic situation reminds me of Yilan (in Taiwan) which are generally much quieter overall. I only ventured into the city area to return my bike and even that wasn’t too busy.

I rented my scooter from a small shop that my guesthouse recommended for me, details below.

Ninh Binh Motorbike Rental Shop
The bike rental shop from the outside
Ninh Binh Motorbike Rental Namecard
Contact details

For those who don’t want to ride, cycling is another very popular way to get around Ninh Binh. Your best bet is to take a taxi to one of the major tourist areas and rent a bicycle from one of the shops/guesthouses around there.

Cho thuê xe máy Ninh Bình Hương Dương [Google maps]. It cost me 150,000 VND (S$8) for a day rental. I topped up a full tank of petrol just in case (55,000 VND or S$3) but I really didn’t use that much at all.

1-day itinerary in Ninh Binh

So here’s what I ended up doing: I took an early morning private bus to Ninh Binh and picked up my bike at about 8am. I needed to return to the bike shop by about 430pm for my pick up and return trip to Hanoi. Here’s what I did in that time.

Hang Múa / Mua Cave – climb up for spectacular views

I opted to head over to Mua Cave first to hopefully beat the tourist crowds at this scenic hotspot. Despite the name Mua Cave, the highlight here is actually the hillside climb up the mountain side to enjoy a spectacular panoramic view of Ninh Binh below rather than the actual cave which is pretty pedestrian.

Ninh Binh Hang Mua Peak View Me
Enjoying the view below

You’ll walk pass a few restaurants and photo spots as you enter as well as the Hang Mua Ecolodge [ affiliate links] is located at the entrance – there are actually a few accommodation options here if you want to enjoy the area after the crowds have left, like Scenic Mountain Ecolodge Ninh Binh.

You’ll want to walk towards the back of the park where the steep stone staircases lead up to 2 viewing points on the Núi Ngoạ Long or Lying Dragon Mountain that overlook the area. The steps are uneven and pretty steep at points, and there are no hand railings most of the way, so be careful when you climb.

Ninh Binh Hang Mua Entrance
Entrance to Hang Mua caves
Ninh Binh Hang Mua Stairs
Start of a long, long flight of stairs
Ninh Binh Hang Mua Cave Stairs Top View
Looking down the steep staircase
Ninh Binh Hang Mua Peak View Wide
There is a fork in the road which leads up a slightly lower peak
Ninh Binh Hang Mua View Valley
View on the other side of the mountain is the river area

I climbed up the stair leading to the big pagoda where there is a large stone dragon statue on top. You can climb up on top of the dragon, but there are no railings here either and the rocks there are pretty sharp so definitely be very careful not to hurt yourself or fall off.

Ninh Binh Hang Mua Dragon Me
A nice guy took this shot for me and was unfortunately nagged at by his bitchy gf a lot lol
Ninh Binh Hang Mua Dragon Head Me
Here’s what it really looks like up here – there are a ton of people and honestly I wouldn’t be carrying any kids up here…

I decided to skip the small pagoda area as it involved another stair climb (pretty pooped by that point) and it looked slightly lower, but I did pop by the actual Mua cave itself which is more of an overhang and not particularly interesting.

Ninh Binh Hang Mua Cave Entrance
The actual Mua cave entrance
Ninh Binh Hang Mua Cave Seats
A little picnic area? Beyond that is some foliage but not much else

It might be worth coming back here in June during lotus blooming season as there is a lovely large lotus lake with a boardwalk here.

Ninh Binh Hang Mua Lotus Pond Path
February is definitely not lotus season

Mua Cave / Hang Múa [Google map]. Open 7am – 7pm. Entrance fee – 100,000 VND (S$5)

Tràng An – cruise through karst pillars

One of the must-dos in Ninh Binh is take a ride on a traditional boat through its waterways dotted with limestone karsts. There are two places you can typically do this in Ninh Binh: Tam Coc is one popular option where you will also be surrounded by paddy fields, but since I was there after the rice harvest season, I opted for the UNESCO world heritage site Tràng An instead, often described as Ha Long Bay on land.

Ninh Binh Trang An Boat Start
Boat ride in Trang An

Maybe because Trang An is very well visited and UNESCO rated, so its facilities were all top notch for tourists – even the more remote islands that we stopped over at had decent toilets. Some may argue this isn’t as ‘authentic’, but I was impressed that overall it was quite well taken care off and a smooth journey.

Ninh Binh Trang An Ticket Counter
Getting my ticket
Ninh Binh Trang An Queue Tunnel
Surprisingly modern and fancy underpass area leading to the boat station

After buying my boat ticket at the entrance, I followed the pathway that went through a tunnel that led to the river side. The river was lined many little wooden boats manned by a local (I spotted more women than men) with wooden paddles and can usually take up to 4 adults, though I did see some boats with 5-6 pax as some are children. Because I was solo, I joined a boat with a group of 3 Germans.

Ninh Binh Trang An Start Pier Boats
Waiting to get going

You can choose from 3 routes that will take you to different spots along the way. I wasn’t too fussed about which one I did so I ended up doing Route 3 – while it looks like it has the least stops, it turned out to have the longest cave route. You choose the boat route at the beginning of the tour when you are queuing for the boats and you can’t change your mind halfway through.

Ninh Binh Trang An Routes Map
The 3 routes you can choose from
Ninh Binh Trang An Route 3
A closer look at Route 3 from the brochure

Here’s what I saw on Trang An’s Route 3:

Đền Trình / Trinh Temple

This temple is apparently over a thousand years old and dedicated to four generals in the Dinh Dynasty. Love the giant carp sculptures in the front (there are a ton of fish in the water too) – it’s the first stop for both Route 1 and Route 3.

Ninh Binh Trang An Trinh Temple Pier Water
Trinh Temple
Ninh Binh Trang An Trinh Temple Front
Lots of these crane on tortoise sculptures can be seen in Vietnamese temples – supposed to represent power + longevity

Hang Đột / Dot Cave

Hang Dot is a pretty long cave system that your boat master will expertly paddle you through. Keep your head down and you’ll need to duck down in places! The caves are lit so it won’t be pitch dark. After Hang Dot, you’ll transition to another cave which is a lot shorter called Hang Van (Cloud Cave) before the 2nd stop of the boat tour.

Ninh Binh Trang An Hang Dot Entrance Boat
Hang Dot’s entrance is right next to Trinh Temple
Ninh Binh Trang An Hang Dot Low Ceiling
Stay low
Ninh Binh Trang An Karsts Boat
A little valley view between caves

Đền Suối Tiên / Suoi Tien Temple

Our next stop was Suoi Tien Temple which is dedicated to a saint credited with protecting the ancient capital or what we know as Hoa Lu today. We alighted from the boat and walked a short distance to check out the temple which is surrounded by tree-covered mountains all around. There’s a cute little jetty that extends from the shore that’s a perfect photo spot.

Ninh Binh Trang An Suoi Tien Sign
Suoi Tien Temple
Ninh Binh Trang An Suoi Tien Temple
Mountains all around
Ninh Binh Trang An Suoi Tien Jetty
Cute little jetty for pix amidst the lake/mountains
Ninh Binh Trang An Suoi Tien Bridge
This bridge is also very picturesque

Hành Cung Vũ Lâm / Vu Lam Palace

This beautiful palace deep within the Trang An area was established by the Tran Dynasty that was also a military base. We stopped over here and popped into the temple, but the popular thing to do here is to take a shot with the floating pavilion on the water.

Ninh Binh Trang An Vu Lam Temple
Vu Lam temple looks fairly nondescript outside…
Ninh Binh Trang An Vu Lam Gold Hall
but very rich and gold inside! You can’t take pix inside the temple, but I took this from outside the door
Ninh Binh Trang An Vu Lam Construction
Looks like they’re restoring or building some new stuff here
Ninh Binh Trang An Vu Lam Water Pavilion
Pavilion floating on the water

Trang An boat tips

Take note of the number on your boat as well as your boat captain, or at least make sure your fellow boat mates know which is their boat so you don’t board the wrong one. I suggest wearing a hat because you’ll be pretty exposed on the boat, and thin long sleeves and long pants should stop you from getting any sunburns or weird tan lines, and will allow you to be properly dressed to enter the temples as well.

Tràng An [Google map]. Open 7am – 5pm. Boat fee – 250,000 VND (S$13)

Where to eat at Trang An: Nhà hàng Xuân Thắng

I popped by Nhà hàng Xuân Thắng for lunch right outside of the Trang An entrance. I was there around 2pm+ – weird timing for a meal so it was just me in this restaurant, and it’s a decent basic little eatery very conveniently located on the way in/out of Trang An.

Ninh Binh Restaurant Xuan Thang Exterior
Nobody at 2pm+
Ninh Binh Restaurant Xuan Thang Menu
A look at the menu – goat is apparently one of the specialities of the area
Ninh Binh Restaurant Xuan Thang Noodles
Mi Xao Thit – Fried noodle with meat!

Nhà hàng Xuân Thắng [Google map]. Open 6am – 10pm.

Hoa Lư – Vietnam’s ancient capital

My last stop on this trip to Ninh Binh was to Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s capital in the 10th and 11th centuries before it was shifted to Hanoi, so it has lots of historical buildings and sights to see. I was a little tired by this time so I definitely. got a bit lazy exploring this area compared to the other spots.

Ninh Binh Hoa Lu Main Gate
Main entrance to Hoa Lu

You can rent a bicycle to cycle in or around this area. It doesn’t look like you’re allowed to ride in on scooter though I saw some locals doing so, but it’s easy enough to just park your scooter outside and stroll in. Don’t really think there’s a need to cycle here unless you plan to explore further afield.

Hoa Lư [ Google map]. Open 7am – 5pm. Admission fee – 20,000 VND

Đền thờ Vua Đinh Tiên Hoàng / Temple of Dinh Tien Hoang

There are 2 temples within walking distance of the main entrance to Hoa Lu. The first is dedicated to Đinh Bộ Lĩnh, the first emperor of the Dinh dynasty and established Đại Cồ Việt, Vietnam’s first independent dynasty way back in the year 968. Apparently the interior is shaped like the Chinese word for King 王 with 3 ‘layers’ of courtyards to enter, with the temple right at the far end.

Ninh Binh Hoa Lu Dinh Ten Hoang Temple
Dinh Tien Hoang Temple

Next to Dinh Tien Hoang Temple is the Đền thờ Vua Lê Đại Hành or King Le Temple – King Le was Lê Hoàn, whose Le dynasty succeeded the Dinhs in 981. There was a museum of sorts located around the back of this temple which showed some archaeological digs of the site that I thought were a bit more interesting than the actual temple – everything was starting to look very similar at this point.

Ninh Binh Hoa Lu Archaelogical Site
Archaelogical site

After Hoa Lu, I decided to call it a day and ride back to drop off my scooter and wait for my limousine pick up at about 430pm. The limo dropped me off back at the park at around 630pm and I called for a Grab Bike so I could get some Hanoi street food for dinner.

Book Ninh Binh day trip tours from Hanoi

If all this just convinces you that doing your own day trip is too much work (especially if you’re solo) or you want someone who can tell you more information about the places that you are seeing, consider booking one of Klook’s many Ninh Binh day trips and save yourself the hassle of figuring out your the logistics.

[Klook affiliate links below]

Make sure to take a close look at the itinerary you book to ensure you get exactly what you want. There are many different tour stop options – usually you have to pick between Tam Coc and Trang An, and Hoa Lu and Bai Dinh. There are also different group sizes (some are large groups, some small groups, some private) as well as guides that speak different languages available.

Visiting Hanoi soon? Check out my various Hanoi posts for some inspiration: