Halong Bay or Ninh Binh

It was never quite pinpointed exactly who was the first person to describe Ninh Binh as ‘Halong Bay on Land’. The phrase has become popular for the sole reason that it is repeated by pretty much every guide before every tour of Ninh Binh in the hopes of inspiring images of the famous, original Halong Bay. It’s certainly not a bad comparison to make, and as the popularity of Halong Bay grows higher, more and more tourists are looking to Ninh Binh as a way to beat the crowds while still enjoying that world-renowned limestone karst backdrop.

Would you choose Ninh Binh or Halong Bay?

These are two of the most popular day trips from Hanoi, but as Ninh Binh’s infrastructure grows while Halong Bay struggles to cope with consistently high tourist levels every year, there seems to be a new momentum shift, and the question of Halong Bay or Ninh Binh is crossing more minds than it did in the past.

Overview of Halong Bay

1. Limestone Islands

The entire reason that the words ‘Halong Bay on Land’ feature in so many TripAdvisor reviews from contented tourists is that Ninh Binh’s scenery matches Halong Bay stride for stride. You could transplant any of Halong Bay’s gorgeous limestone mountains in Ninh Binh and it wouldn’t look out of place at all. A visit to either Halong Bay or Ninh Binh is one with the guarantee of amazement at the near-identical rock pillars jutting out of the water. Of course, it’s the water itself that makes all the difference, as the huge expanse of the Gulf of Tonkin where Halong Bay lies dwarfs the tiny canals found around Ninh Binh.

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Certainly, there is more on offer in Halong Bay, but views are pretty much the same throughout any day or overnight trip. There are a few exceptional limestone mountains in Halong Bay, including Titop Island, Hon Co and Fighting Cock Island, featuring proudly on the 200,000 VND note. Aside from looking at them, you can disembark your cruise and feel the rock and sand beneath your feet, providing a ‘castaway’ feeling that you can’t really get in Ninh Binh.

Fighting Cock Islet - Halong Bay

What you can get in Ninh Binh, however, is a more enclosed feeling, as the thinner water paths are flanked by high-rising cliffs stretching proudly upwards. This makes the atmosphere a little more magical in our opinion, but there are very few opportunities to get up really close and personal with the mountains. In fact, there’s only one: Lying Dragon Mountain, a 450-step climb to a statue of a winding dragon and a view of the valley below, where the river skirts its way around the foothills of forested mountains. If you still wondering about taking one place to visit, why don't you take both at our Hoa Lu Tam Coc & Halong Bay tour?

View from Lying Dragon Mountain

=> Halong Bay or Ninh Binh?

• Halong Bay probably takes this one through sheer quantity, but it’s a very close call.

2. Transportation

A big part of discovering Halong Bay or Ninh Binh is the method of transport used to get around. Obviously, in Halong Bay, there’s really only one, given that it’s on the sea. In Ninh Binh, there are a few, because of its access to land and roads as well as rivers.

Cruises around Halong Bay span the gamut from cheap, no-thrills day boats to 5-star luxury cruises, and the same waterways are shared between everyone. Activities don’t vary too much between cheap and expensive cruises, but the quality of life on board certainly does. The cheaper day boats usually comprise of one large sitting room with benches and an undecorated sundeck on top, while a 3-day cruise on a luxury boat will give you a feeling of royalty with top-class amenities, service and food; though it will potentially be about 10 times more expensive. When you want to get up close and personal with the bay, you can explore via kayak, a sampan boat rowed by a local, swimming or even a seaplane on the most exclusive of cruises.

Halong Bay Day Trip

Cruise in Halong Bay with Incredible Cruise

The 90% of Halong Bay that you will see by cruise is not the same in Ninh Binh, where you have the options of cycling, trekking, climbing, motorcycling and taking a variety of different boats on its waterways. The most popular activity is certainly the local service that operates the sampan boats made of bamboo and paddled by middle-aged ladies (and a token couple of men) with their feet.

At Tam Coc in Ninh Binh, these boats will carry you down the Ngo Dong River, while at Van Long Nature Reserve, they fan out into the wide basin of wetlands. Taking a cycle around the village of Tam Coc also finds regular appeal with tourists and visitors can rent bikes easily for a very good price. Motorcycling and trekking are usually reserved for Cuc Phuong National Park and its long path that cuts through the jungle, while multi-day treks to villages of the Muong minority tribe can be made at the northwest corner of the park.

Hoa Lu Tam Coc Day Trip

Boating in Tam Coc

=> Halong Bay or Ninh Binh?

• With a wider range of activities for getting around, Ninh Binh wins here.

Check out our best tours to Ninh Binh from Hanoi:

Hoa Lu Tam Coc Day Trip, Trang An - Bai Dinh Full Day Tour

Tam Coc Bich Dong Full Day Tour

Cuc Phuong National Park Day Trip.

3. Caves

Neither Halong Bay nor Ninh Binh has Vietnam’s best cave systems; you’ll have to go to Phong Nha for that, but there are some pretty amazing offerings in both locations. 

Halong Bay’s caves are a big part of the reason that UNESCO has inducted the region twice into the World Heritage list, once in 1994 and again in 2000. Its most famous by far is Sung Sot Cave, translating to the ‘the Surprising Cave’ allegedly after a French explorer was surprised by its presence and the hundreds of differently shaped rock formations found throughout. This cave features on a lot of tour itineraries alongside the less frequent appearances of Me Cung, Trinh Nu, Trong, and Thien Cung, but quite possibly its most incredible is Luon Cave, a very short corridor of water that, when kayaked through, reveals an enclosed emerald lake shimmering on the other side.

Sung Sot Cave

By comparison, Ninh Binh is relatively lacking in the cave department. You will be rowed through a few in Tam Coc, Trang An, and the Van Long wetlands, though they are really just short gaps in the mountains. The caves still create a wonderful atmosphere, but nothing like the grandeur of Halong Bay, where stalactites and stalagmites dwarf people and are illuminated in colorful lights for a more dramatic effect. The best example of a Ninh Binh cave is definitely the Cave of the Prehistoric Man in Cuc Phuong National Park, excavated in 1966 to reveal an array of human graves as well as sharp weapons and tools dating back over 7,500 years.

=> Halong Bay or Ninh Binh?

• Halong Bay. It is famous for its amazing caves and will continue to best Ninh Binh until more are potentially discovered.

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4. Farming

Two of the most beautiful sights you’ll see in Vietnam are locals going about their farming in both Halong Bay and Ninh Binh. They use vastly different methods and harvest vastly different products, but the process of planting (or breeding) to harvest affords the most amazing views.

One wouldn’t assume Halong Bay would be able to engage in much farming, but the villagers here are very adept at the cultivation of fish, which is the origin of human habitation in the bay. Fishing villages such as Cua Van and Ba Hang, as well as Vung Vieng in Bai Tu Long Bay, remain stalwarts of a way of life that’s becoming more and more redundant and being kept alive for the tourism trade. These colorful floating houses sit atop huge buoyant drums and bob up and down with the water, just meters from a backdrop of gorgeous limestone. It’s clear to see how the allure of tourist money has replaced the meager living families can make with traditional fish farming, but you can see examples of this past practice through enlightening farming demonstrations.

Cua Van Fishing Village

About 220km southwest of Halong Bay, Ninh Binh is a completely different level of agriculture. Rice paddies took over the perfect flat valleys in the past and Ninh Binh is now known as one of the best spots in the country to see golden rice paddies stretching far into the distance. Tam Coc and Trang An especially are favorites for their views, aided heavily by the presence of undulating mountain scenery rolling further beyond the rice fields here. A visit between the start of May and the end of June will allow for views of the typically crisp, golden fields that tourists come from afar to see. 

Tam Coc Panorama

=> Halong Bay or Ninh Binh?

• Ninh Binh. Though beautiful, the token offerings of Halong Bay’s fishing villages pale in comparison to the splendor of Ninh Binh’s rice fields.

5. Relaxing vs Exploring Culture

Of course, you can relax and explore in either Halong Bay or Ninh Binh, but overall there is a pretty clear divide between the two of them when it comes to available activities.

Halong Bay’s beaches are another of the region’s huge attractions, and while certainly not the most remote in the world, the white sand coupled with the feeling of being on another, much more beautiful planet equates to one hell of a relaxing time. Some of the more luxury cruises commit entire days to hanging out at the beach, with just the serving of lunch and the availability of swimming and kayaking to tempt you away from the sands. Well, this is actually more of a feature of both of Halong Bay’s neighboring bays, Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay; Halong Bay features a small number of accessible beaches, which can get pretty touristy. For the best time in the Gulf of Tonkin, head to Ban Chan and Ngoc Vung beaches in Bai Tu Long Bay, or Ba Trai Dao Beach in Lan Ha Bay.

Kayaking in Halong Bay

The more adventurous readers might prefer to head to Ninh Binh, and in particular Hoa Lu, for an interesting look at Vietnamese culture throughout its history. Hoa Lu was once the capital of Vietnam for 44 years, spanning the reign of two separate kings who had set up shop here and is now a fascinating area with temples, statues, and monuments behind a gorgeous palatial gate and moat. Bich Dong Pagoda sits near a lily pond in Tam Coc, rising high as you climb up steps and through temples and caverns to the amazing view provided from the top.

However, Bai Dinh is the jewel in the crown of Ninh Binh’s religious buildings; its Buddhist complex spans 700 hectares, all of which stems from one tall pagoda built over one thousand years ago. If you get the understandable feeling of ‘temple fatigue’ in Ninh Binh, you can visit Phat Diem Cathedral, sure to be one of the most unique mixes of Asian and Western architecture that you will ever see.

=> Halong Bay or Ninh Binh?

• This one is down to personal preference, so we’re going to call this round a draw.

6. Tourism

Every tourist hears the same stories of overcrowding on Halong Bay’s waters and islands, and that sometimes makes the decision of whether to head to Halong Bay or Ninh Binh an easy one. Rumors aren’t always true, however.

Though Halong Bay indeed gets substantially more tourists than Ninh Binh does (what a doubly-recognized UNESCO World Heritage site wouldn’t?), it is certainly not the picture of converging crowds that people like to paint. In its 1,553km2 frame, believe it or not, Halong Bay, can still be postcard-perfect, free of tourists, and utterly serene. Areas like Ho Dong Tien (Fairy Lake Cave) and Luon Cave can bestow the ultimate feeling of calm through the isolation they provide. There are many, many more examples of tranquil spots across the neighboring bays, which are quieter still during the Gulf of Tonkin’s off-season over winter and summer.

Van Long Nature Reserve

Ninh Binh, on the other hand, is a province on the rise. There are big plans by the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism to make Ninh Binh the next destination recognized internationally, as Halong Bay is now. There’s a long way to go, but the entire province boasts nature and variety in abundance, so there’s no reason to assume it won’t happen. This means that right now is probably the best time to see Ninh Binh to avoid eventual crowds. Crowding can be a small problem for the more popular activities such as the boat trips in Tam Coc or Trang An and some of the cycling paths when the rice paddies are golden. There are always alternatives though, and Van Long Nature Reserve, as well as Cuc Phuong National Park, provide two great ones with plenty of space for the future.

=> Halong Bay or Ninh Binh?

• For sheer levels of tourists on an average peak season day, you’ll probably get more space in Ninh Binh.

So Ninh Binh just tips the balance at the end there, but of course, all of these aspects of both destinations are meant to suggest and guide, not instruct. Fantastic times can be found in both Halong Bay and Ninh Binh, and you can enjoy both on day trips from Hanoi with Incredible Asia Journeys.

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