Ninh Binh: Exploring Bai Dinh Pagoda & Kong Island

Ninh Binh is a fascinating place where apart from an inspiring scenery, you have easy access to the most rural and authentic side Vietnam. It boasts of the most majestic and impressive natural landscapes in Southeast Asia, yet so many travelers overlook it.

Is Ninh Binh worth to visit?

Definitely yes! If you’re still in doubt if you should go to Ninh Binh or not, my answer is yes. Ninh Binh is located in northern Vietnam, about 100 km south of Hanoi. With its hundreds of limestone cliffs emerging from the ground scattered across the rice fields, this region is appropriately nicknamed the “Halong Bay in land”. Apart from this stunning scenery, Ninh Binh is a great opportunity to peek into the rural way of living. It’s all very laid-back and serene, just how the Vietnam experience should be.

Lovely countryside view of Vietnam in Ninh Binh

How to get to Ninh Binh

From Hanoi, you can reach Ninh Binh city by train and bus. There are regular buses from Hanoi’s southern bus terminal (Giap Bat) with prices starting at 70,000 dong. Both the train and the bus take 2 hours. Do your research. And you can book the trip from any travel agent, that’s the easiest way if you are first timer to Ninh Binh.

What’s the best time to go to Ninh Binh?

Here are some annual weather facts I collected from our historical climate data. During the months of January, February, October, November and December you are most likely to experience good weather with pleasant average temperatures. On average, the temperatures are always high.

Rainy season falls in the months of April, May, June, July, August, September and October. Ninh Binh has dry periods in January, February and December. On average, the warmest month is April, and the coolest month is January. August is the wettest month. This month should be avoided if you don’t like too much rain. December is the driest month.

Getting around Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh is one of those places you absolutely need to get your own transport. Otherwise you’ll miss out tremendously. In fact, one of the highlights of the place was to make my way through the rice fields on a motorbike with the wind in my face. It’s hands down the best way to explore the surroundings. You can rent it from 100k dong/day from hotels or travel agents.

The other option is to rent a bike. Almost all the region is pretty much flat and the roads – both the main and secondary – are in decent conditions, don’t expect luxury though. Biking is a great option to get around Tam Coc. However, if you want to cover all main sites prepare to cover around 30km per day. Places like Bai Dinh Pagoda or even Trang An can be just too far away. In any case, make sure you leave the main roads and travel between places along the more authentic country lanes.

Bai Dinh Pagoda

Bai Dinh Pagoda is Southeast Asia’s largest Buddhist complex. It consists of several temples and over 500 intricately carved statues of Buddha, including one that’s made of bronze and is 10 meters in height. Set within the Gia Sinh Commune, it attracts a huge crowd of local devotees and travelers looking to pay their respects and have their fortunes told by the resident monks. There are two main pagodas of the same name, one of which is located on the slopes of Dinh Mountain. Accessible via a 300-step stairway, this quiet shrine houses a main prayer hall and natural caves, where locals pray to Buddha and mountain spirits such as Saint Nguyen and Genie Cao Son.

Walking to Bai Dinh Pagoda main gate

The second Bai Dinh Pagoda is about 800 meters away, covering a total of 7 million square metres. Built in 2003, it’s made with materials that are sourced from local handicraft villages within the Ninh Binh Province, including Bat Trang ceramic tiles, Y Yen bronze casts, and embroidery from Ninh Hai Village.

The pagoda area is the largest one in Vietnam
Hundreds of statue along way to main site of the pagoda

Not only does the temple offer breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, you can also enjoy a variety of events and activities during your visit. On the sixth day of the Lunar New Year the temple hosts a vibrant festival during springtime, usually between February and March. After visiting Ba Dinh Pagoda, many travellers often explore nearby limestone grottoes and hike through the Ba Chua Thuong Ngan forest.

A tower inside the pagoda complex
The pagoda also recognized as Southeast Asia’s largest Buddhist complex
There are over 500 intricately carved statues of Buddha inside the pagoda

Aboriginal village in Trang An, Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Have you watched the 2017 blockbuster Kong: Skull Island? The film was shot in various famous destinations in Vietnam such as Ha Long Bay, Quang Binh Province, and Ninh Binh was one of the chosen places in this list as well.

I will show you the Kong Skull Island filming location in Trang An, Ninh Binh  with a special guide to the aboriginal village. When the Kong Skull Island crew finished filming in Vietnam, they left and cleaned up all the scene setting. Even though they left nothing back, the government took the chance and restored the filming location to attract domestic and foreign tourists. The plan works out and this place becomes one of the must visit when you get to Vietnam.

A bridge on the river located near entry point
Magical view of Ninh Binh during summer morning

The movie was filmed in Trang An, a scenic area near Ninh Bình, Vietnam. Therefore, you just need to come here and take the boat tour. There are several boat tours daily, so you don’t need to book any tour in advance. You just need to go there and purchase the ticket. Note: You must choose the 2nd Tour which includes the Aboriginal village. If you choose the first route, you can only see the caves and some temples.

To reach Skull Island you can go by boat with it’s breathtaking view

The Film location tour price is already included in the whole Trang An tour, which is only 200 000 VND ($8.8). You will get a 3-hour-boat-tour around Trang An and a free time visiting the village. You can enjoy the view and explore this film set in 3 hours with a boat-rider. How about a life jacket? You don’t have to bring it one because it is already included in a tour.

Dau Lau Island with thousands of limestone mountains on land and a system of caves stretching along the river and green rice fields
There are also plenty of pagoda and temple on the islands

The restored part is Aboriginal Village. There are about 40 pyramidal tents in the shape of an African Aboriginal house, terracotta kilns, and red flagstaffs. There are also long wooden boats used by aboriginal people, with bamboo trestles used to hang fish and dry fish. Many flags, representing the tribe with the tents here make up the mysterious and wild beauty of this area.

Here is the path to the Skull Island Village. Take time observing the nature around
Skull Island village

Some architectures, such as aircraft and guns of American soldiers in the film, were also restored alongside streamsides. The path from the entrance to the film scenery is paved with stones. Aboriginal people images are also re-created. Dozens of people have the opportunity to play a supporting role in the film dressed as aboriginal people, standing at each hut or walk to attract the visitors. Local products such as corn, onions, garlic are also used as props.

The village is so cute with many houses on the way. You can actually go inside each house and experience.
Picture of the boat. The combination of the boat and nature is amazing.
You can see this boat in the Kong: Skull Island movie

What to pack?

Camera: A good camera is a must! The scenery is amazing, so you will miss a lot without a camera.
Hat: Vietnamese weather is so hot and humid, so sitting under the sun for 3 hours without a hat is not a good idea.
Mineral water: Keep you hidrate during trip.
Comfortable shoes: You need to walk around a lot, so it’s better to wear something comfortable.
Small cash: It will be a nice gesture to tip the boat riders around 50,000 VND to 100,000 VND. They work really hard to provide the service, so they deserve with all that rowing. Also, they cannot work every day, and they have to clean up the area for free when they’re not working. So, a bit tip is necessary in this case.

Ninh Binh Travel Tips

Take your time to unwind

A day trip is not enough to truly feel the essence of Ninh Binh. Try to stay a couple of nights and don’t rush your daily activities!

Make sure you bring enough money

There are no ATMs in Tam Coc. If you’re staying there and in need of cash, you’ll need to go to Ninh Binh city (7km away) to withdraw money.

Keep your calm when driving!

Vietnamese can be a bit crazy on the road and if you hear a lot of honks, you’re not doing anything wrong. They just like to announce their presence to everyone.

The area also known as Halong Bay on The Land because of it’s beautiful scenery

I’ll say it straight away: Ninh Binh is one of the most underrated places I’ve been in Vietnam. It totally exceeded my expectations. The region boasts a breathtaking, sometimes surreal, landscape. The Karst limestone scenery is truly a wonder and always present as a backdrop on everywhere you go.

What I liked the most about Ninh Binh however was what I discovered inside: authenticity. For some days, you don’t have to face the hectic streets of Saigon, the vendors in Hanoi, or the the massive crowds in Halong Bay. It’s all about the peaceful rural and real Vietnam, the one I wanted to find in the first place when I booked my flight. I can see this dormant state quickly shift and Ninh Binh become a powerhouse as a travel destination in the upcoming years.

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