Food, History and Culture, Asia
Certainly, you’ll find a lot of Ninh Binh cycling tours on the internet. A quick search reveals that bike trips depart from Hanoi for around 750,000 VND ($32.50/£25) per person. This is for a day trip. For around that price you can also get a dorm room, bicycle hire for 2-days and bus tickets there and back from Hanoi. I’d rather have the time to explore the area than be rushed around on a tour, but it’s a personal thing.
This guide offers a couple of easy-going do-it-yourself Ninh Binh cycling tours with maps. As always with meaningful travel, we don’t recommend you stick to these to the book, but rather use them as guides, being spontaneous and wandering down any backstreets that take your fancy.
These are the routes we took when we explored Ninh Binh and cover some of the major sites, including Hang Mua Caves, Trang An Grottoes, Bai Dinh and Hoa Lu. They also take you across some of Ninh Binh’s most beautiful countryside with plenty of paddies and lakes to see on the way (which you can do for free without the need for queuing).
You also don’t need to worry too much about bike security as the tourist resorts here have supervised parking facilities.
Our routes started from Trang An Mountain House, one of the more popular hostels/guest houses in the region. There are a lots of other accommodation options nearby to here, so you’re spoiled for choice. You should be able to hire bicycles at these places for an inexpensive 40,000 VND per person per day ($2, £1.33). Motorbikes will cost just over three times that, excluding petrol.
So, without further ado, here are two tried and tested Ninh Binh cycling routes that we recommend.
Ninh Binh Cycling Tour 1:
Hoa Lu Ancient Village and Bai Dinh Pagoda
20 km, 130m ascent, 130m descent, difficulty: easy
This cycling route will take you through the former Vietnamese capital (during the 10th and 11th century) of Hoa Lu. After that, it will take you around gorgeous lakes through the karst landscape, as well as the lakeside pagodas surrounding Bai Dinh. You’ll have a chance to sample goat or local bun cha (different to what you get in Hanoi) and have the chance to visit the largest Pagoda in South East Asia.
The Road to Hoa Lu
Start off heading north from Trang An Mountain house. The aim is to stay on this road for as long as possible, so you’ll have to cross the main road once. This road can be busy, so be careful as you cross. After that, you’ll need to turn left on the main road (don’t forget traffic drives on the right in Vietnam) and then follow the river north for a while.
It’s a fast road and you’ll travel about 2 kilometres on this leg in total. But you should get to Hoa Lu in about 20 minutes. Pass by the first bridge and ignore anyone who tries to call you in for parking. They can be quite aggressive about it, but there’s parking inside the Hoa Lu site.
Once you reach the second bridge, turn left and pass under the archway. The parking is on the corner ahead of you and costs 5,000 VND ($0.25/£0.16) per bike.
Exploring Hoa Lu
Believe it or not, Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam (then called Đại Cồ Việt) in the 10th and early 11th centuries, before the capital was moved to Hanoi. The towering karst peaks provided natural fortifications, and the inhabitants at the time built ten sections of wall to create a virtually impenetrable enclosure.
Closest to where you drop of your bikes, you’ll find the Temple of Đinh Tiên Hoàng (r. 968-979). Locals constructed this as a homage to the first emperor of Vietnam who ruled from here. At the back of this temple is a bed made of bluestone with a golden throne(or at least when we visited) on top.
Also look out for Nhat Tru pagoda, dedicated to Đinh Tiên Hoàng’s daughter, Phat Kim. There’s also a recently constructed memorial to Lý Thái Tổ, the emperor who moved the Vietnamese capital to Hanoi (then called Thăng Long).
Lunch in Trường Yên
If you take the second exit from Hoa Lu, you’ll end up in the neighbouring village, Trường Yên.
Look out for local mountain goat (dê), traditionally served slightly rare. This is cooked with Thai basil or duckweed and it’s one of the Vietnam’s most treasured dishes. In this village you should be able to get it relatively cheap, under 60,000 VND ($2.60/£2).
You can also try out the local bun cha (a kind of sweet peppery soup with noodles), different to what you get in Hanoi. This has sausage and a kind of cabbage wrapped meat in place of bacon and meatballs.
Remember, however, in Vietnam that many local places will close for lunch during the early afternoon. I recommend you aim to get here before 1.30 p.m. to ensure variety.
Hoa Lu to Bai Dinh
The next part of this route takes you to Bai Dinh pagoda, the largest pagoda in Vietnam and allegedly the tallest in South East Asia. But the best part about this isn’t the pagoda itself, but the lakeside views you’ll see along the way.
You’ll need to hit the main road for a short while. Keep to the right on this and you’ll soon see a side road with some views of the rice paddies.
We didn’t go into Bai Dinh Temple itself, as we were visiting during Tet (Lunar New Year), when the queues were huge. But there were a lot of gorgeous pagodas dotted around the lakes which served as beautiful backdrops for photos. For anyone who says you need to go on a boat tour to see Ninh Binh, this lakeside cycle will prove them wrong.
Our route includes a little diversion at the South East corner of the lake, where we followed a path through what looked like a jungle leading to local farms. This was a pleasant diversion, although if you prefer you can just carry on westwards along the lake.
Also, if you do want to see the temple, you’ll need to turn left to head south instead of carrying on north up the lake. There’s some parking down there where you’ll be able to leave your bike for around 15,000 VND ($0.65, £0.50).
Don’t expect anything ancient in this temple. The Vietnamese government started building this in 2004. Its status as the largest temple in Vietnam will also soon be eclipsed by a new temple under construction in Ha Nam.
Bai Dinh to Trang An Mountain House
Once you’ve passed Bai Dinh temple, the route follows the lake all the way back around. There are some restaurants at the north east of this lake where you can stop off for water, or even goat. After that, the route follows the main road for a little while, before you turn right onto a much quieter road.
After leaving the lake, you’ll pass some local temples if you want to stop off for a look. Just a word of warning, there aren’t many street lights in this area. So, unless you have lights on your bike, I recommend making sure you have an hour left to get back before dark.
Ninh Binh Cycling Tour 2:
Trang An Grottoes and Hang Mua Viewpoint
26 km, 180m ascent, 180m descent, difficulty: easy (moderate if you include climb)
The second bike tour takes you to the Trang An Grottoes, where you can take a boat tour through what’s been deemed as Vietnam’s Inland Halong Bay. After passing by a local restaurant for fish hotpot, the route then heads to Hang Mua viewpoint, a place that’s become famous on Instagram for offering panoramic views over Tam Coc and the surrounding landscape. Both Trang An and Hang Mua are UNESCO World Heritage sites, so prepare to be blown away.
I’ve planned Trang An first on this itinerary, to help avoid queues. However, if you’d rather take your tripod up Hang Mua for some stunning early morning photography, you can equally well do this route in reverse.
Note, although this route is an easy cycle, there is a climb of 500 steps up Hang Mua, if you choose to do it. The way up is steep, so make sure you reserve plenty of energy.
Trang An Boat Tour
If you’re staying at Trang An Mountain House, or one of the surrounding accommodations, then you can get to Trang An by bicycle in around 10 to 15 minutes. I recommend heading out as early as possible, however, to avoid queues as well as the heat of the day.
Start off by heading south from Trang An Mountain House, then take the first left onto the main road. This will take you directly to the Trang An resort.
Because we visited Ninh Binh during Tet, we actually spent the whole day at Trang An, queuing for 3 hours through the morning. Usually, it won’t be that bad, but expect to queue for up to an hour. You’ll find the car park on the road as you approach and parking costs 15,000 VND ($0.65/£0.5).
After parking, head out of the car park towards the tourist area. Don’t cross the road yet, but instead head over to your left to find the ticket booth. You have to buy the tickets before joining the main queue, which may mean queuing twice.
After that, you’ll pass through a large hall inside a pagoda, before being ushered on to a boat.
Tours last around 2 hours and involve multiple stop-offs. Before embarking on the tour, someone will ask you which tour you want: 1, 2, or 3. If you’re not sure, it’s best just to pick a random number, as they won’t take, ‘you choose’ as an answer. The travelling couple we were in the boat with recommended Tour 2, so we ended up going on this.
Each tour will stop off on various islands, many of which have famous pagodas. The boat will also pass underneath grottoes, with stalactites dripping deposits into the water. Route 2 ends at Skull Island, so called because it was one of the filming sets for King Kong Skull Island.
If you’ve not tried the local goat yet, you can also get it from the restaurant here. The food is decent, although this restaurant can get quite packed with tourists. And, there’s an even better place to have lunch along the route.
Ninh Xuan Village and Fish Hotpot
After Trang An, this Ninh Binh bicycle tour will take you along the main road for a while. Keep going straight until you cross the river and then turn right into the village of Ninh Xuan. Keep going past Limestone View Homestay. After a few hundred metres, look out for a restaurant on your right called “Nhà Hàng Xuân Tân”.
This family run establishment serves fantastic fish hotpot, with the fish fresh from a pond they have in the back. My wife and I paid 200,000 VND ($10/£6.60) in total for the both of us, but actually the portion was large enough to feed at least four.
Make sure you have a good meal, as you’ll need some energy when you climb Hang Mua. Once you’re well nourished, head back on the road, back up a little and take the first left towards the river. The east side of the river is less busy than the west, with great dirt tracks for cycling on. Your goal is to head south until you reach the second bridge across the river (the first is just outside the village).
After that turn right, left, then right and you’ll be on the road towards Hang Mua.
Hang Mua Caves Viewpoint
Just as with Hoa Lu, you’ll be hassled on this road for parking. Keep going as far as you can, you want to get as far as you can to the site. Apparently, there’s free parking when you get over there.
Unfortunately, a policeman stopped us, who for some reason was only stopping foreigners. So, we had to park around 200 metres down the road. Again, I imagine things are quite different when it’s not Tet.
Hang Mua is named after the cave at the bottom of it. But the place is much more famous for the panoramic view you get at the top, after climbing just under 500 steep steps. There’s plenty of restaurants and coffee shops before the climb if you want to stop off for a quick breather.
At the top, you’ll find a pagoda and a statue of a dragon. But people climb for the view over the Tam Coc river, with the tourist boats floating lazily, which makes it well worth the climb.
Hang Mua to Trang An Mountain House
We mixed up the route a little on the way back to pass through the valley close to the accommodation. Simply head back on the road from Hang Mua and turn left once you reach the river. After that, keep going straight until you reach the main road. Don’t turn onto the road this time but carry straight on. After that, turn right onto the dirt path when you reach the cross roads.
This will take you over a causeway through more lakes and then over a bridge at the river. This is another great place for photographs, where there’ll be few tourists. Hopefully you’ll reach here around sunset, allowing you to take those shots in beautiful golden light.
How to Get to Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is on the Hanoi to Hoi Chi Minh train route, and only a 2-hour train journey from Hanoi. You can also take a bus to Ninh Binh from Hanoi bus station. If you contact your accommodation, they can probably also arrange comfortable minibus transport using local services.
Where to Stay in Ninh Binh
All the itineraries above start at Trang An Mountain House, which has dorms from around 150,000 VND ($6.50, £5.00) and double rooms from around 480,000 VND ($20.50/£16.00). A decent breakfast is included in this price and you can also buy lunches and dinners there.
We really enjoyed our stay at Trang An Mountain House and we’d recommend it to other travellers.
Thank you for reading my post on cycling in Ninh Binh. I hope you found it useful. Have you tried cycling in Vietnam yet? How did it go for you?
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