North Vietnam,  Vietnam

Hidden Gem – Ninh Binh Province Vietnam

Before I arrived in Vietnam I had never heard of Ninh Binh. I don’t know whether I was ignorant or if it feels like I see it everywhere now because I am paying attention to it. To tell the truth, I had no idea what to expect from this tour, but Ninh Binh really is a hidden gem of Vietnam.

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Hidden Gem – Ninh Binh Daytour

Bright and early at 7:30 am I was picked up in front of my homestay with a small, modern minivan. This driver, Cuong, obviously had more experience than the bus driver the day before. He stopped for a few seconds in front of the homestay, giving our tour guide, Cuong / Kevin, just enough time to jump out of the car, greet me and walk with me to a spot where the van could stop for long enough to let us on board.

Inside I marvelled at the leather seats and the pleasantly cool temperature. I met half of our group, three women from New Zealand and our guide informed us that the last two people we would be picking up were a couple who had their first wedding anniversary on this trip, that he had planned something and that we please don’t spoil it.


The couple from the Netherlands got on last, then our group was complete and we started towards the outskirts of the city. Our tour guide introduced himself as “Kevin”, his chosen “western name” that he got from the movie Home Alone, and explained the planned itinerary to us.

First came a hearty, hot breakfast of “Bún Chả” (noodle soup with pork belly, a whole plate of noodles for each of us, herbs and greens), with a choice of drink. Of course, I chose the Vietnamese Cà Phê, because coffee. The other popular choice among our group was fresh coconut.

Invigorated by the delicious food, we embarked on the two-hour drive to Ninh Binh. We stopped about halfway, at a motorway service station that looked almost identical to the one the day before, despite being about 100km south.

On the drive, we learned about the region of Vietnam’s history with cement and about the richest person who lives there, saw the palace he built for himself and two more he built for his sons.

Just before we arrived Kevin had a surprise for us: Each person in the group got a hand-embroidered cloth which looked like a combination between a scarf and a face mask. Small touches like this really made this tour stand out and made it clear that they cared about showing off Ninh Binh as a hidden gem.

The ancient capital of Hoa Lư

Around 10:30 am we arrived at the ancient capital of Hoa Lư, we left all our stuff in the car (save for cameras of course) and followed Kevin through the east gate into the city. He told us a lot about the almost thousand-year-old history of the fort we were standing in the middle of, pointing out how its location, surrounded by mountains and rivers was perfect to defend it but less perfect for trade. Then we had time to explore on our own, take pictures and just enjoy having most of the place to ourselves since the big tourist buses hadn’t arrived yet.

We headed to a homestay in Tam Cốc and grabbed bicycles, water bottles, rain ponchos (since it was looking like rain all morning) and a conical hat. Riding along rice fields we occasionally passed tourist groups of around 30 people at a time, all heading in the same direction. Instead of following them, we turned from the road into quieter paths through the countryside.


Linh Coc cave

Those dirt roads led us through the rice paddies, to a Buddhist monastery in the countryside. From there we followed a monk along a very steep rocky path up a limestone mountain until we reached the entrance to Linh Coc cave. With the rocks still wet from the day before, it was a very slippery endeavour.

The cave rewarded our daringness with cool temperatures and absolute silence. When none of us moved, all we could hear was the occasional drop of water falling from a stalactite. We explored as far as the flashlight would allow, exiting the cave in a different way than we had entered and finding stairs that some locals had hewn into the mountain.

Back in the monastery, the monks gave us bananas, oranges and tiny plums to give us energy for our way back.


Around 12:30 pm we got back to the homestay where we picked up the bicycles and gathered around the table to have lunch. For our meal, we had a myriad of foods, served family-style. This means everything is laid out on the table and you can take whatever you fancy.

My favourites were the fried spring rolls and the deep-fried crunchy rice that we dipped in a strong broth. The most surprising food was goat testicles marinaded and fried. They had a very chewy texture but didn’t taste weird at all!

After everyone had eaten as much as they could, because we didn’t want to look rude and leave the food they had prepared for us with so much care, we got back onto the bus and drove to our last stop for the day.


Tam Cốc

The last stop of the hidden gem Ninh Binh tour was at the bank of the Ngô Đồng River. We boarded a sampan, but since only two foreigners are allowed per boat we paired off and our small fleet of four boats departed the docs.

In the boat, we navigated through floating paddy fields and several caves, the Tam Cốc grottoes. They are only accessible by boat, which makes them another quiet and breathtaking location to visit. At some points, there was complete darkness around us, which made me wonder how they found their way through them, not only without crashing into the walls or the stalactites but also without crashing into each other.

Some of the rowers pedal the oars with their feet to ease the pressure on their backs and arms. Some use the occasion to check their phone or gesture in a conversation with the person rowing the boat next to them.

Both Hoa Lư and Tam Cốc are part of the Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex in Ninh Binh province, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, also known as “inland Ha Long Bay”.

We got out about halfway back and instead walked back to the nearest road, through fields and paddies where parts of the movie “Kong: Skull Island” were filmed in 2015/2016.

We got into our van for the last time and headed back to Hanoi. On this last part of the tour Kevin had one more surprise up his sleeve: The van had Wifi! We created a WhatsApp group and exchanged pictures we had taken during the day.

Recap of the Hidden Gem – Ninh Binh tour:

This tour was more expensive than the one to Ha Long Bay, but it was worth every penny. The itinerary was well-planned, our guide was knowledgeable and funny and the food was incredible.

The tour I went on sadly doesn’t exist anymore, but on Klook* you can find other great tours for affordable prices.

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