Ninh Binh used to be Vietnam's capital prior to Hanoi, it means, before 1010. The countryside landscape is very beautiful, like a TTer wrote: " The 'attraction' of Ninh Binh is the beautiful scenery among huge limestone 'hills' or 'rocks', interspersed with bright green rice fields and small rivers. It's called "the Halong Bay of the Rice Paddies" and after seeing Halong Bay - ocean, that's a fitting name!".
In Ninh Binh town, there are some great sites that you should visit: Hoa Lu pagoda, Tam Coc (cruise through 3 caves), Bich Dong cave (cruise in a dark cave with a torch on your hand), Phat Diem stone church (built in the 19 century, a mixture of western and asian architecture), Cuc Phuong national park, Kenh Ga, Hang Te floating villages etc.
To get to Ninh Binh town from Hanoi, you can buy a train ticket at "Ga Hanoi" (Hanoi railway station), or get a tourist bus from Hanoi Old Quarter. The cheap option would be a local bus at "Ben xe Giap Bat" (Hanoi southern bus terminal). At this bus station, every hour during the day time, there is a bus that leaves for Ninh Binh, the last bus leaves at 6:00pm. You also can rent a car with a local driver from Hanoi.
Below is a trip report made by Thien, an overseas Vietnamese, who visited Ninh Binh on a 2 day trip. At that time, he could rent a car in Hanoi at a cheap price. He visited Hoa Lu, Tam Coc, Bich Dong and Phat Diem.
The town of Ninh Binh is basically wraps around the main highway, nothing to see. The main attractions around Ninh Binh is Hoa Lu (5 km), Tam Coc (15 km), Bich Dong (20 km), Phat Diem (40 km). To visit all of the above would take you around 2 days with a car or motorbike and 3-4 days via other means from Ha Noi. After reviewing my choices, I took the car option since it offers the most freedom and safety. I could have done it by taking a motorbike but the vision of being flatten by trucks wasn't pretty. With a car, I can leave a place when I wanted and rearrange the trip as I see fit. My total cost for the car and personal driver was $45 for two full days from and back to Ha Noi. I arranged the trip with the hotel that I was staying in.
Hoa Lu is about 5km before you reach the town of Ninh Binh with another 4 km of winding paths through the rice fields from the high way. The temple would take at most 1 hour. It is not that big. If you want a true vista then climbs the steps of the mountain in front of the temple. It is about 300 steps and take some time to climb and a bit of physical strenght. The vista view is another strenous climb on to the limestones some are quite sharp so you have to watch out. It's not overly difficult but requires some dexterity.
When you arrive at Tam Coc, you would have to buy a ticket at the entrance both for the boats at Tam Coc and entrance fee Bich Dong. The ticket for foreigners seems to be 40,000VND while the locals pays 10,000VND (or 15,000 I can't remember which). There is a ticketmaster at the boat quay that will take your ticket and tells you which boat to get on. The boat all carries a number and regulated as a roundrobin, in high tourist season, a round takes 2 weeks, in a low season 1-2 months. The typical round trip tour is around 1 hour but there is an extended water way that you can ask if the normal route is not enough for you. You will have to negociate and pay the boat rower directly for that portion of the trip.
The route from Tam Coc to Bich Dong is very beautiful, don't miss it. Bich Dong have a nice vista at the pagoda at the top of the mountain and yet another climb about only half as bad as the one at Hoa Lu.
Phat Diem is the core of Catholicism in VN. Its main attraction is the Phat Diem cathedral, it's unique in the sense that it has more vietnamese architectural elements than the usual western-style churches that you find in VN. In fact, it looks more like a pagoda than a church.
What I did was to visit Hoa Lu in the morning and Phat Diem in the afternoon of the first day and see Tam Coc and Bich Dong on the second day.
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