Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Ninh-Binh-dragon-hike-2We decided to do a last minute day trip from Hanoi. Really last minute. Like at check out we decided to get an Uber.

Carrie found on Google Maps a weird town called Ninh Binh the day before.

Weird karst stone pillars and cliffs separated by flooded rice fields and rivers.

This post is about why this is such a cool day trip (or longer), why it’s super easy and cheap to do, and the “things to do” in Ninh Binh, Vietnam.

Also, if you missed the TravelisFree Instagram Stories we were posting live on the trip, we saved and posted the videos on Facebook – so here is our video of our 24 hours in Ninh Binh.




This was a fantastic 24 hour trip from Hanoi.

It appears to be the in land version of Halong Bay. I could not help but compare it to Yangshuo, China.

Yangshuo is quite an experience, with karst rock formations that form a ton of pillars along a river.

Ninh Binh has karst rock formations that aren’t always in pillar form, meaning sometimes the hills form into long thin walls. And instead of rivers at their feet, it’s almost one giant marsh. The water on our boat ride was seemingly still. And it wasn’t really a river, but more like a canal that went through permanently flooded rice fields separated by these cliff walls.

We rented a scooter for a day via the hotel, and we rode around looking at different spots, but by far there were two highlights.



The Dragon Statue

Dragon statue at the peak of a hike in Ninh Binh, Vietnam. Follow live via Instagram Stories.

A post shared by Drew and Carrie (@travelisfree) on

I found a 360 photo just by dropping the google maps guy on street view / sphere photos (I wrote about this technique here). So I knew that there was an awesome view at a dragon statue, but the photo I found was placed in the wrong area… which sent us on a wild goose hunt.

How to find the dragon statue: Save the “Mua cave Ecolodge Resort“, here, on Google Maps. It is at the bottom of the stairway hike up.

It costs 100,000 VND ($4.38 USD) per person to enter and walk up. It is really only a 10 minute walk up, but a little steep.


The view was fantastic. It was an hour before dark, so there weren’t a ton of people up there.


Tam Coc Boat Tour

Walking distance from our hotel was the Tam Coc launching point for boat tours. Carrie said it translates to the “3 caves” boat tour, and indeed, we boated right through three caves.

The boat ride is 1.5 hours long, and out of curiosity I wish I would’ve gotten out a 50k bill or something and asked the driver to keep going (“asked” via charades of course).



It was the perfect pairing with the Dragon statue hike (and with our hotel), as we went right under the Dragon statue.

Just as it was special to see the 360 view from above, it was awesome to see from below. Only from the boat tour did I realize that the narrow areas I looked down onto were actually being farmed by locals.

All along the “river” (or swamp canal thing) were rice fields being tended to by locals wading in the water.

And the “river” was separated by fish traps. Nets, for seemingly miles, were being tended to by locals who cruised around on their little boats.

While, getting a ticket at a ticket counter for $20 makes you feel like you’re in a tourist trap… you get on the water and realize people are actually farming this stuff.

They use their feet…



The way the locals paddle their boats is with their feet. I can’t make this stuff up.

They have their boat oars set up like the dual rowers you and I would think of… and then they use their feet. Barefoot, they grab the oar, and then they sit back and make a bicycle motion… and paddle the boat.

When we started out, I said to myself, “what kind of weird trick did he learn to get a tip from the tourists?”, and then realized that locals transporting stuff were doing the exact same thing.

Here is a 10 sec clip I posted on our Instagram of a local couple in a boat who flew by us, powered by a barefoot woman.

I hope that’s enough proof that I’m not making this up. 😀

Pro tip: get out early and beat the tour groups. We only saw other boats periodically passing, but on our return a group of dozens of boats were heading out. Imagine all our photos, but with loads of bright orange life vests crowding us. We started at 8:30 and probably would’ve started earlier if it weren’t so cloudy before then.



If not obvious, there are no points hotels in Ninh Binh. But I did have some Orbitz points (left over from the golden days of $200 Orbitz BRGs), plus I combined it with a promo code, which I’ll explain. In a minute

We stayed at the Ninh Binh Hidden Charm Hotel, which is way nicer than its price tag suggests! Location and quality were excellent.

First, just after a quick glance it appeared to be the nicest hotel in the area, and it was. It would’ve been $68 for the night.

Also, know that the hotel gives you bicycles to use for free. This would’ve been enough to get to all the sites we visited.



motorbike rental in ninh binh

But upon checkin I asked if I could rent a motorbike (scooter). They quoted me 170k (~7 USD) and had one at the hotel in 5 minutes. I wasn’t clear that I would get it for the rest of “a day” and not “a day” (as in 24 hours…) but no big deal as Tam Coc was our plan in the morning.

Personally, I was impressed that a hotel so nice was quoting me $7 for a scooter… I’m not sure I could’ve bargained for much cheaper. Seemed fair.

The scooter showed up at the security gate with a key in it, and no one asked me anything. While I do have a motorcycle license (not that they would know what an “M class” US driver’s license means), they didn’t even ask if I knew how to ride. Or normally someone slightly worried shows me how to use the turn signal.

Although, in all honesty, I did have to ask the security guard how to work the thing as I had never seen the star shaped key. At that point the owner probably would’ve been worried, but the security guard was probably more worried for me than the bike.

Back to the hotel…



Understand that the hotel isn’t in the city, nor would I want it to be. It’s on a road in the middle of fields on the way to the parks.

There are a number of tourist restaurants on the way to Tam Coc, and the hotel serves decent food.

I think you can do a lot on the free bicycles the hotel provides, just going west. Keep in mind nearly every tourist spot charges you either entry, or charges you to park your bikes. Instead of bike locks, there are security guards who charge you $2+ to park.

I’m not saying this is the best hotel… but it had nice rooms, internet, it was cheap, and it was really close to the boat tour and relatively close to the Dragon status hike. Great for a day trip.

If there was a hotel more in the middle of the park, I’d also consider that, after all, it’s not hard to get a taxi or tuk-tuk from the train station.


Getting there

Uber / Grab

Uber exists in two Vietnam cities (as of Feb 2017), Hanoi and Saigon. So we used Uber down to Ninh Binh, and we could’ve used the slightly more expensive Grab to get back.

The Uber down cost $38 USD. However, I tipped / covered the tolls back with another $10 cash. Uber said the tolls down were only $3 of the cost, but the guy did go two hours the wrong way. Judging by the guys face, I’d say he very much appreciated the tip.



Booking a day in advance, we could book the train on the way back. It was only 300k VND for two people ($13.14 USD).

Our hotel was near the train station, and it really didn’t take that much longer. Maybe 2.5 hours. Plus, I had my computer out working on both rides.

I booked the train here, which I found via



Again, here’s the video from our trip (taken from Instagram Stories) post on the TravelisFree Facebook:

24 Hours in Ninh Binh, Vietnam24 Hours in Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Posted by Travel is Free on Wednesday, March 15, 2017


We saw a very small corner of what I imagine is a large area with similar landscapes. We never went further than 5 miles from our hotel, even on a motor bike.

My guess is that other hotels, and other parts of the park are just as awesome And I’m guessing someone will someday tell me that I “completely missed the best part”.

But the entire day trip was super cheap and booked at the last moment.

Would I recommend others go? To be honest, I don’t know how to compare it to Halong Bay or Sapa, but it was pretty unique and while the only people at these sites were tourists… it was relatively few.

The thing I can compare it to most is Yangshuo, as it’s similar in a number of ways. In fact, the thing to do in Yangshuo is bike around and take a boat ride.

Yangshuo was super cool because the city was built in the middle of these karst cliffs. Plus, it feels like it goes on forever… Perhaps I didn’t get that feeling in Ninh Binh because I didn’t keep going west, so I have no idea how far it goes that way. But everywhere east of our hotel was flat and normal.

But my assumption is that Ninh Binh is a lot easier to get to, because it’s so close to Hanoi and Hanoi is super easy to get to. And in China we came from the Guilin train station, which was interesting partly because we ourselves seemed to be tourist attractions.

I think what I’m saying is that Vietnam is easier. Almost in every way. I mean the fact that I found all the details on Google isn’t possible in China. But that “otherly” aspect, and “hard to get to” aspect, adds to the mystery of Yangshuo.


Overall, it was cheap, easy, interesting and a quick trip from Hanoi. I felt if I was going to go to Halong Bay or Sapa I’d need more to justify the longer transit. But this was so quick and easy it was a no brainer. Like I said, the walk to the Tam Coc boat area was minutes from the hotel Day trips don’t get much easier.

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  1. Nice story. We stayed at the Emeralda Resort in Ninh Binh once and also had a great day biking and boating in Tam Cốc which I believe is where you went, as I’ve never heard of Tom Cac.

  2. Take a quick flight to Phu Quoc! My wife and I just checked in and staying at the JW Marriott (Category 5). Using the Marriot Package for 7 nights. Big fan of your site! -David

  3. Dang, I am torn between the hinterlands of SE Asia and Tibet/Nepal/Bhutan (Bhutan!)for my next trip overseas.

  4. This looks great! I’m excited to check it out when we’re in Hanoi in June.

  5. I thought Ninh Binh was really interesting as well. I stayed in an AirBnB near Tam Coc for two nights and the family fed me, which was quite interesting.

    I didn’t have it, but apparently goat is the local food of note. I saw it on a lot of menus.

    For me the high point, literally and figuratively, was the Bich Dong pagoda. After you wander through the first part of the pagoda, you can walk through a cave that has a shrine in it, up around another shrine, and then climb up the rocks to the top of that spire. There were mud marks on the rocks suggesting that it was done fairly often, but that day I was up there for an hour and I only saw one French couple and a herd of goats. Fantastic views of the landscape from the top.

  6. Great article Drew! Makes me wanna go there already. This is what travel is truly about. No vendoming here.

    I appreciate the good pictures too.


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We have spent the majority of our marriage traveling full time, living out of hotels.   All the while, we list our expenses publicly, budgeting $25,000 a year for our nomadic life while still staying in mostly 4 or 5 star hotels across ~20 countries a year.
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