Ninh Binh (pronounced Neeng Beeng) is the capital city of Ninh Binh Province in North Vietnam, famous for the nearby Karst scenery and the village of Tam Coc. There is nothing to do in Ninh Binh itself aside from drinking beer with the locals; the town is more useful as a base for the surrounding countryside.
There are regular buses from Hanoi's southern bus terminal (Giap Bat) that leave every 15 min (or whenever full) 60,000 Dong. Note that this may rise to 90,000 per person with luggage.Journey time for the 90km is 1.5-2.5 hr traffic depending. Buy a ticket in the ticket hall or you will likely have to pay more than 60,000 or be removed from the bus.the service is slow but relaxed and comfortable using one of the very common Hyundai 20-odd seat buses.
Open tour buses will drop passengers off upon request (Ninh Binh is not a regular stop). Most open tour buses from Hanoi will arrive at 9:30PM. Tour buses from Hue arrive at a rather early 4AM.
Ninh Binh is a regular station for the Reunification Express, with trains coming from both North and South. It is usually a quick stop, with few people getting off, especially at night, so get off quick or miss the stop. Hard Seat 35-45,000 depending on train number 2-2.5 hours.
A motorbike is the best way to view Ninh Binh and the surrounding areas. Most hotels can arrange for a motorbike driver/guide to take you around the sites for about US$15 a day.
Hire a motorbike (commonly Honda 110cc) for 100,000 Dong. These take 3 litres of fuel costing 50,000 which will last a day of exploring.The local roads are bad, the local driving ranges from nuts to insane.
Tam Coc, (9 km south of Ninh Binh, along Hwy 1). One of Vietnam's most spectacular sights. A boat can be hired that will take you through the waterways. Vast limestone cliffs rise out of the rice paddies. The area is somewhat similar to Halong Bay, but more accessible and much less touristy. Beware, the floating drink sellers can be very persistent. They are located after the third cave. Most will ask if you would like to buy a drink for the rower. This is usually sold back immediately for half price. To get a boat for 2 persons you pay 140,000 dong(?). Rowers earn 80,000 dong per trip. They can usually row with their feet as well as their hands, which makes quite an interest sight. Possibly the best time to go is in the morning or late afternoon, when its quieter and cooler with more shade. Also the drink sellers will be tiring and might be more prepared to sell you a cold drink cheaper if you need one. Last boats start out about 5:30PM in the summer and 4:30PM in the winter. Its an easy bicycle ride here from Ninh Binh, with no hills. When leaving (motor)bike to the harbor, beware of scamming thieves (such as removing a mirror while the moto is parked then selling it back to you for 100,000 dong) and look for official parking areas to avoid such scams. When you catch the boat from the harbor, don't accept a boat that is loaded with some boxes upon departure. They are filled with handicrafts (you can check it), and are meant for you to buy. During the return trip the rowers might suddenly turn from friendly rowers to pushy sellers. Don't ruin your experience by allowing this. Demand a rower/boat without handicraft/souvenir boxes. The area around Tam Coc is equally beautiful, and is best viewed from the back of a motorbike or by bicycle. There is also a temple atop one of the hills which provides incredible views.80,000 dong per boat, maximum 2 foreigners per boat (plus entrance 30,000 per person). edit
Trang An Grottoes, (7 km from Ninh Binh). An easy bicycle ride away, Trang An Grottoes is similar to Tam Coc but with many more caves to pass through. Most caves have been widened in order for the boats to pass through and as result their natural beauty has been compromised. The first two caves are the most natural and beautiful but are also tight in places, so watch your head. Lots of concrete structures are being built all over the place and rice paddies are disappearing fast but hopefully this area will not lose its splendor. It might be worth bringing a torch in case the power fails and the lights go out, some of the tunnels are quite long and your rower may have forgotten their backup torch, as was the case for the boat in front of us and had to wait for our boat to provide light for them to navigate the last cave.edit
Cuc Phuong National Park, (45km from Ninh Binh), . A well preserved rainforest with an Endangered Primates Rescue Centre near the entrance. You can only visit the centre with a park guide, which costs an extra 20,000 dong per person and doesn't take long. There are about 150 primates here being prepared for release back in the wild. Most are from other parts of Vietnam and any releases will be from where they originally came from. There is also a Botanical Garden near the entrance. Note that as at feb 23rd 2013, these gardens have no animals, but you are told that at the visitor centre so you can decide whether to proceed.Animals will be re-introduced when it gets warmer.From the entrance you can drive, motorbike or cycle a further 20 km along a densely rainforested paved road, from which several bypaths lead you through the jungle to prehistoric trees and caves. Cycling is probably the most rewarding way to travel this 20 km of often steeply inclined paved road and mountain bikes can be hired at the park entrance. The road ends at the Park Centre (Bong), from where there are several forest walks. The Park Centre has a restaurant and a place to buy snacks. The best chance to see any animals here is at night. Guided night tours for overnight stayers are available. There are other points of interest along the narrow 20 km road such as a cave, ancient trees and walking trails. One of the amazing things about this drive is the 1000's upon 1000's of colourful butterflies filling the roadway. Peak time for butterflies apparently is during April and May but in later months there may still many to be seen. It is especially enjoyable to touch the thousand-year-old cho xanh (parashrea stellata) and sau (Dracontomelum Duperranum or Dancorra Edulis) trees, 50-70 m high. The park is also suitable to watch birds, butterflies and orchid flowers. They are more concentrated than in a typical butterfly farm enclosure. A limited amount of overnight accommodation is available in either a detached bungalow or a stilt house. 20,000 dong. edit
Mountain goat (de nui) meat is a local speciality, often eaten with fried rice (com chien). Another local specialty is com chay, which is the burnt rice off the bottom of the pot, served with pork. Duck features in many restaurants, and there are numerous dog-meat restaurants scattered throughout town (look for signs with a picture of a Great Dane or similar breed and the words thit cho).
The area near the train station has become a mini-backpacker area, and there are 4-5 backpacker cafes there with English menus and tourist prices (40,000-70,000d; coffee 15,000-20,000d). The three most popular restaurants are called "Good Food", "Cheap Good Food", and "Fast Food Cheap" (all on Hoang Hoa Tham).
There are a number of cheap hotels just outside the train station and next to the bus station. Other hotels are located near the center of town. As there is nothing to see in town, either area is suitable. The area near the train station has become a mini-backpacker district, complete with travel agents, touts, overpriced drinks and English-menu restuarants.
Kim Lieng Guesthouse, Ngo 212, No. 54 (still listed on google as Van Thanh No. 54) (On a small and quiet sideroad not far from the center of town), ☎ +84306250800, . Situated on a small and quiet sideroad this place is run by the charismatic Madame Kim Lienh, and is a no frills yet very honest place to stay. Rooms are clean ($17 for a double, +3$ for aircon) but basic. Kim is very friendly, provides help with local transportation, arrangement of public bus tickets and transportation and also sometimes offers to cook dinner for VND 70,000 per person (be prepared for loads of food). Doors close at 10.30pm, but the staff can be woken by simply knocking on the doors (or preferrably informing them of late arrivals or excursions beforehand). For our amusement, the rest of the pretty young staff seemed to get quite heavily stoned as it got late, to a point where ordering a beer scores you only puzzled looks.US$16-US$19. edit
Ngoc Anh Hotel, 30 Luong Van Tuy St, ☎ +84 30 3883-768, . Family hotel, friendly staff, good location, rooms are clean, all rooms have A/C, en-suite, cable TV with good reception, wifi. Deluxe rooms also have a computer, a fridge and balcony. There are 2 modern computers in reception/restaurant area.US$12-25. edit
Nha Viet Hotel, Đường Lê Thái Tổ, phố Đẩu Long (On the way to the stadium of Ninh Binh Vissai FC), ☎ +84 91 553 1317. Owners (family) will help you in every possible way. Cook food that you want, english-speaking staff, motorbike rental, wifi, clean, washing clothes, convenient location, far enough from main road to provide peace and quiet.US$12. edit
Queen Mini Hotel, 21 Hoang Hoa Tham (One block in front of the train station). Near the train and bus station, always packed with tourists and often full. Particularly popular with the French. Rooms are clean enough, but filled with insects. Wifi in the lobby, but it doesn't reach all the rooms. The owner's refrain is "You pay now". They are affiliated with "Good Food" restaurant across the street. Be warned: there are four hotels sharing this name, and it's not clear if any of them are related: The Queen Mini (this one), the Queen Hotel (across the street, upscale), the New Queen Mini Backpacker's Hostel (on the same street, often has grille down; they advertise rates of $3 incl. breakfast!), and the New Queen Mini Hotel (two streets south).US$6-15. edit
Thanh Binh hotel, 31 Luong Van Tuy St, ☎ +84 30 872 439. Some members of the staff are somewhat helpful and friendly. Possibility to rent (motor)bikes for US$6/day. Breakfast is not included. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is added to some of their foods.US$10-12 (double room). edit
Thanh Thuy's Guest House and New Hotel, 128 Le Hong Phong, ☎ +84 30 387 1811, . The guest house rooms are large and pleasant with a shared bathroom. Hotel rooms are en-suite and quieter as they're set back from the road. There's a reasonably priced restaurant adjacent to reception. Motorbike and bicycles available for hire. Staff are a little brisk but helpful and speak good English.US$6-10 (guest house), US$15-35 (hotel). edit
Xua Hoa Hotel, 37 P Minh Khai (On the eastbound road from town center, next to a reservoir), ☎ +84 30 880-970. Owner will help you in every possible way. Great food, bicycle and motorbike rental, convenient location, though far enough from main road to provide peace and quiet.US$15-35. edit
Kinh Do Hotel, 18 Phan Dinh Phung St (100 metres east of main [Hwy1]), ☎ 030 3.899.152, . Newly purchased and managed by two brothers, Luong and Anh, who both speak good English. Clean quiet [despite proximity to main road] rooms, good food in clean restaurant, a/c, ensuite, free wifi in rooms,laundry,massage. Genuinely friendly staff. Very helpful [advice, bicycle/motorbike rental, tours to local attractions, pickup-dropoff at bus or train].US 7-25. edit