If you visit the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, it is a very good idea to reserve one or two days to tour the territories around the second largest city in the country after Ho Chi Minh. The province of Ninh Binh (whose capital has the same name) is located south of Hanoi, in the middle of the Red River delta. Although the best known jewel of northern Vietnam is the border town of Sapa (Lao Cai), Ninh Binh offers spectacular landscapes and photographs that mix river, vegetation, rice fields, history, culture and picturesque perspectives of Vietnam more agricultural and traditional . Easily accessible by train from Hanoi, Ninh Binh keeps scenes of a Vietnam worth seeing. In this article we propose a one-day excursion from Hanoi to get to know this rural district in the heart of the Red River Delta.

Hanoi, a small introduction


Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and for nine centuries (from approximately 1000 to 1800) the most important political center of the country. Although for some years Hanoi was eclipsed in importance by Hue, the imperial capital, after the reunification between South Vietnam and North Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War in 1976 Hanoi became the capital of reunified Vietnam. The legacy left by the various dynasties that have dominated the city in the form of architecture and culture has made Hanoi known as the Eastern Paris..

Hanoi to Ninh Binh by train or bus

From Hanoi you can find trains to almost any direction in the country. We recommend getting up early to catch the train around 7:30am at Hanoi’s main station, the Hanoi Railway Station. Although this is an old station and somewhat outdated in terms of infrastructure, at the Hanoi Railway Station you can buy tickets for trains departing from other stations in Hanoi and the service staff at the station speak English , which will make it much easier for you to communicate. We recommend that you buy tickets the day before to make sure you have a place (during rush hour trains are usually crowded) and avoid queues and last-minute rushes. Ninh Binh is about 100 kilometers south of Hanoi, which translates into about two hours of travel. Another travel option to get to Ninh Binh is the bus.

Hoa Lu: the first capital of Vietnam

In the vicinity of Ninh Binh our first visit will be to the citadel of Hoa Lu, which was the capital of feudal Vietnam in the 10th century during the reign of the Dinh and Le dynasties. Although little remains of what was Hoa Lu during its time of maximum splendour, several palaces and temples can be visited that have either been preserved or in other cases have been reconstructed and rehabilitated because of their historical importance. Hoa Lu is one of the places most frequented by mass tourism visiting this area of Vietnam, although if you visit Vietnam in low season, when the influx of tourists is much lower, Hoa Lu will allow you to feel the authentic Vietnamese culture and history in all its splendor . Near the citadel and temples of Hoa Lu there is a hill that you can climb and that will reward you with beautiful views of the former imperial capital and the Red River valley in which it is nestled.

From Hoa Lu to Tam Coc by bike

Once the visit to the temples and citadel of Hoa Lu is over it is a very good idea to rent a bicycle to travel the 12 kilometers that separate Hoa Lu from Tam Coc through rural roads, agricultural areas and hundreds of rice fields . As we are in the Delta of the Red River, the area is totally flat, without unevenness. The bicycle ride is sure to whet your appetite: take advantage of the arrival at Tam Coc to enjoy lunch at a local restaurant.

Tam Coc: Halong Bay on land

camino a las cuevas de tam coc

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After lunch it’s time to get going again to visit one of Vietnam’s jewels by taking a boat ride through some of the country’s most spectacular scenery. An excursion in sampán (traditional boat typical of China and Southeast Asia) through the Ngo Dong River to enjoy landscapes that will not leave you indifferent. The route through Ngo Dong runs through green and yellow rice fields surrounded by huge mountains of solid limestone that compete in beauty and remind much of the well-known bay of Ha Long, although in the case of Tam Coc the height of the karst formations is much lower and is not on the coast but more inland. Because of the similarity with Ha Long bay, the Tam Coc area is known as “Ha Long on land”.

The Three Caves of Tam Coc

The literal translation of Tam Coc means “the three caves”, named for the three caves that hide the huge rock formations that cross the river Ngo Dong that is traversed in sampan. The caves are no taller than two or three meters, but the low draught and height of the sampan allows you to go inside and travel the cavities with the boat . The cave names are Hang Cuoi cave, Hang Ca cave and Hang Giua cave. In the surroundings we can observe fauna such as birds and monkeys .

Return to Hanoi

Once back in Tam Coc it is time to return to Ninh Binh and from there to Hanoi by train or bus, depending on the mode of transport we prefer.