We had heard about the Ninh Binh (pronounced Ning Bing) region of northern Vietnam before we even landed in Hanoi. Would we have time to go there? How would we find out what to do there? What would be the best way to experience it all?
Luckily, we had the chance to go on a Ninh Binh excursion from Hanoi with Go Asia Travel, one of the largest tour operators in Vietnam. Go Asia Travel offers day trips, multi-day excursions and experiences in neighboring countries of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
How we found a tour provider to Ninh Binh
We do most of our research regarding food tours, experiential tours, restaurants and cafes on TripAdvisor. We like when we find tour companies that take their presence seriously on TripAdvisor and work toward great experiences to get great reviews. Go Asia Travel has 1300+ reviews on TripAdvisor, averaging 4.5 stars.
We did our research and looked into the types of tours that the company offers. Among their offerings for the north of Vietnam are Halong Bay, Sapa and the Ninh Binh-Tam Coc region. With two days to spare, we opted for a two-day Ninh Binh and Tam Coc experience, from Hanoi, in order to see and do more than we would get with only one day.
Door-to-door round-trip service
What we liked about this tour is that we were picked up from our accommodation in Hanoi and brought back there when the tour was over. Because Ninh Binh is three hours away and because the tour groups are relatively small, this is part of the whole experience.
While we were given an estimation of a pickup between 8:00 and 8:30 am, our guide Tiger picked us up at 7:59 am and was already in the building when we walked out the door. He brought us around the corner to where a small bus was waiting for us.
We sat down and he briefed us on our itinerary for the next two days, and showed us some photos on his phone of where we’d be going. We got excited about lots of photo-worthy scenery!
Exploring Bai Dinh Temple
Bai Dinh Temple is not what we expected. Well, we did not have much expectation having not looked specifically into this place, but it turns out that this is the largest Buddhist temple complex in all of Southeast Asia. What’s more, is that it’s not historic - it was built in 2003!
The Bai Dinh complex has a huge amount of walkways lined with statues. There are also several different temples you can visit, to see the large golden Buddhas, which are some of the largest. They are made of bronze and covered in gold.
Bai Dinh is a popular place for Vietnamese families to go, especially for Buddhist pilgrimages. We finished our sightseeing with looking up toward the top of the tall pagoda, and then we walked back through a market (where Tiger bought us fresh sugarcane juice) to the parking lot.
Boating and rowing in Trang An
What’s spectacular about the Ninh Binh region is its landscapes. The landscape is a limestone karst landscape, which is why people call it “Ha Long Bay on Land.”
One thing that helped us out by going with a guided excursion to the Ninh Binh region was that our guides were able to handle logistics like bringing us to the Trang An boating before the weekend. When we arrived at the entrance to the Trang An river boating site, we didn’t wait on line at all. We found out the next day (Saturday) that other groups trying to do the same activity faced wait times of two hours and had to opt for a different boating location.
Even though we did not wait on line, thanks to the guides’ planning, the Trang An boating river was still busy with tourists. We went boating for two hours (lifejackets for safety!) and had a boat driver (or rower) in the back of our boat. We floated down the river through three different caves (one was 1000 meters long) and saw the mountains right next to the water.
The last stop was an island where all the boats let off their passengers for fifteen minutes to explore the site at which the movie Kong: Skull Island was filmed.
Accommodation in Trang An, Ninh Binh
Part of going on a trip with a tour means that you don’t need to plan anything, and for this reason, we had no idea where we would be staying or what it would be like.
We were pleasantly surprised to see our private bungalow when we checked in at Go Asia Travel’s partner accommodation property in Trang An. Our bamboo bungalow faced the water and had a mountain view. The walls were bamboo, the bed was made of bamboo and the exterior of the bungalow was bamboo!
Our guide’s special attention to our food allergies and preferences
All meals during our trip were included, and what was most impressive was our guide Tiger’s handling of Becca’s allergies and Dan’s preference for vegetarian food.
Lunch on day one and breakfast and lunch on day two were both buffet-style at the bungalow dining area. There was something for everyone.
During all four meals (lunch, dinner, breakfast and lunch again on the second day) the kitchen staff surprised Becca with meals that adhered 100% to her dietary restrictions of numerous allergies and food intolerances. Never before had she experienced such special treatment and she felt safe knowing that she would not get sick.
With Tiger’s help, the kitchen surprised Becca with some of her favorite foods - rice noodles in soup with meat, Vietnamese summer rolls that contained no fried ingredients, a big bowl of rice to accompany steamed vegetables, soup with greens for breakfast and an entire baked egg omelet in the morning as well. It was incredible!
Biking in Trang An and Tam Coc
On our second morning, we awoke to another breakfast buffet and special foods for Becca (yum!) and left on bicycles with Tiger for Hang Mua. We biked for approximately 40 minutes through rice paddies, and then through small villages until we reached Hang Mua.
Here, the scenery changed dramatically, and that is because there were tons of people, whereas only twenty minutes before, there had been none.
We parked our bikes and headed through small crowds both Vietnamese and foreign to begin hiking 500 steps to the top of one of the Hang Mua peaks.
Hang Mua is one of the must-see sights in the Ninh Binh region, and from the top of the mountains where we had some time to catch up on our breath, we could see the city of Ninh Binh for the first time. Neither of us expected Ninh Binh to be so big! Ironically our “weekend in Ninh Binh” didn’t involve going into Ninh Binh city at all.
The tops of each mountain peak (they’re not so high) on the Hang Mua hike have a small pagoda. These make for such nice photos with very Vietnamese architecture, even in such a natural setting. From above to one side, you can see the small sprawl of the urban Ninh Binh metro area, and to the other side, you can see the Tam Coc river, with small boats floating down and rice paddies on either side.
On the hike down, we met a model and Tiger showed off his superb flute-playing abilities for everyone around.
Biking to Hoa Lu, the ancient capital
After another filling meal at Trang An Bungalows, we got back on bicycles and followed Tiger’s lead to our next-to-last stop, Hoa Lu.
Hoa Lu is the ancient capital of Vietnam. Tiger detailed the story for us of how there was a child king and how after multiple attacks from Vietnam’s neighbor to the north, China, Hoa Lu became the capital of the country in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Lucky for Hoa Lu, it’s set among some very nice scenery! Its two sides each have nice stone architecture and ponds of koi fish. Each side has a temple and various shrines that pay homage to the original royals.
Inside the temples, we saw people praying, lots of incense and offerings like giant pomelos to the Buddhas. Further inside and behind glass are the statues of the emperor and empress, each on his and her own sides of the complex.
If you visit Hoa Lu, be prepared to be given a rental skirt if you are a female not wearing appropriate coverage on your legs! Becca brought a scarf and a jacket for her shoulders just in case it was needed.
We biked back to Trang An Bungalows, where we packed up and waited for our transport pickup back to Hanoi! We arrived right on time and got dropped off one block from where we were staying.
Why travel with Go Asia Travel?
Overall, we were impressed by the logistics employed by Go Asia Travel. Our bus sat around 15 people, all of whom had slightly differing itineraries of one or two days. The company made it such that we were able to link up and deviate from the main group plan based on our extended trip.
We were also overly impressed with our guide’s attention to detail like our food allergies and preferences. This stood out above the rest because it means so much to us, in order to have a stress-free travel experience.
In two days, we saw a lot, and had a nice mix of active time and resting time.
How to book Vietnam tours with Go Asia Travel
To book any type of tour with Go Asia Travel, you can browse the company’s website based on the type of time you have and your travel style (adventure, day trips, full multi-day tour).
We’d like to thank Go Asia Travel for an excellent travel experience and we hope to be back in Vietnam in the future so that we can explore more!
Disclosure: we attended a two-day tour experience in exchange for a review of this tour operator on our website.
Last updated on September 22nd, 2020