Tam Coc Vietnam: Taking A Chance On A Small Town
Limestone karsts, boat tours through shadowy aged caves, panoramic views of a village filled with peaks, paddy fields, and pagodas—Tam Coc Vietnam in the Ninh Binh district of Northern Vietnam has plenty to keep a thirsty traveler satiated.
But after a 3-hour bus journey from Ha Long Bay to Tam Coc Village, it was a vigorous walk through the long main street, (bursting with restaurants and kiosks selling the best banh-mi) and a grid of shambolic, tiny lanes that took us to our quaint guesthouse ‘Tam Coc Mr. Loa Homestay’.
From the moment we arrived, all we wanted was to stay put – to melt into the rickety cane chairs on the porch of our room, and stare endlessly at the paddy fields dwarfed by limestone karsts in front of us, as the evening sky changed colors, and the wind danced around, bringing to life the mise en scene of our dreams.
The sublime landscape and many ancient relics are the reason we chose to make Tam Coc village our home base, eschewing the industrial town of Ninh Binh 15km away. So, follow us as we take you on a tour of ‘Ha Long Bay on land’.
The road not taken
Less than 150km from Hanoi, Tam Coc Vietnam is the perfect escape from the big city with its amazing weather and host of rivers, streams, lakes, and canals. And hordes of excitable foreign tourists seen in Ha Long bay replaced with more discerning travelers.
One of the best ways to explore the scenic landscape is boat tours, and your two options are the Tam Coc and Trang An complexes. On our first day, we picked the supposedly lesser frequented Trang An boat ride (entrance fee-200,000 dong (US$8.60)) to explore the UNESCO heritage site – three routes are offered, and we picked the second, 2.5 hour tour that stops at the film set of Kong: Skull Island, four caves, two temples, and palaces. Small row boats that accommodate about 4-6 people line up at the start and take off when full.
The languorous boat ride takes you through low-ceiling limestone caves that are wordlessly ominous, like something out of a loch ness monster fantasy film, while the pagodas are silent and striking.
Quiet down, and let the crisp green air, the strong winter sun and the occasional specks of cold water calm your nerves as your rowboat bobs along.
Make sure you get there early in the am to avoid the long queues and harsh sun, wear sunblock/ a hat, stay hydrated, carry snacks and keep your head down while in the caves or risk a concussion, Indiana Jones — and then prepare to marvel at the sheer bicep strength of the wizened woman rowing you for hours through magnificent grottos, limestone karsts and temples from an a different time.
If you like us, feel guilty that a tiny old lady is rowing you-you can help out as we attempted, but all it did was make us hungrier, and her possibly, annoyed.
After a quick pizza at perhaps the most authentic Italian joint (The Napoleon Fine Italian Cuisine) we’ve tried in Vietnam so far, we hid out of the sun at our homestay, spending time with the family’s crazed puppy Coca, to conserve energy for a sunset walk up to the most scenic viewpoint in town.
Five hundred steps, five hundred stone stairs, some weathered, some wasting, took us to the top of the Hang Mua Peak (also known as Mua Cave or the Lying Dragon Mountain – entry fee of 100,000 dongs (US$4)). After a 20-30-minute walk to the top, we were rewarded by a panoramic view of the Tam Coc Valley. I barely noticed my jelly legs as I watched the sunset cast a soft glow over the limestone cliffs, rice fields and flocks of birds making their way home.
On the top of Hang Mua’s highest peak, sits a stone carved dragon watching over the valley, a creature that holds great significance in Vietnamese culture and at the base of the peak sits the Mua Cave Ecolodge, for those who want to have easy access to these views. We trudged back down only as it began to get dark, and returned to the village for some hot chocolate and banh mi on the main street.
Our meal that night was at Chookies Beer Garden — in the company of a raging bonfire, blankets to curl up in, wood-fired pizza and old-school chocolate cake. The omnipresent soundtrack to any travel film—80s rock music played softly in the background.
Our next day took a more devout turn as we headed to the famed, sacred Bich Dong Pagoda complex, just 3km from Tam Coc. Composed of three separate layered pagodas, you have to climb a substantial amount of stairs to visit all three.
But once you’re up there, the peaceful and well-preserved Buddhist monk-constructed shrines envelop you in a cloud of calm. (Just after you make your way through a dark, rather scary cave to make it to the last pagoda.) Remember, there’s no entrance fee, so anyone trying to con you out of it, is doing just that—conning you.
Our next stop was Hoa lu Ninh Binh – the ancient capital of Vietnam. Relics from the past dotted the area filled with temples and museums— and as green and lush as the fields surrounding the space are, this was one of the more underwhelming spots of our visit. However, if you are a history buff, we suggest hiring a guide to take you around the complex to truly understand its significance!
We worship food more than any deity, so we headed to a religiously good-reviewed restaurant for our last meal—Trung Tuyet, a traditional Vietnamese spot in Ninh Binh town. Their quantities are massive, they don’t take tips and the host is warm and friendly. If there was ever a perfect way to say goodbye to this little hidden gem, it was with this epic meal.
Close your eyes
Travel, in its simplest form, is literal escapism—getting away from routine, reality and the race that is life. But on a chaotic day in the office, all I have to do is close my eyes – and I can almost feel the chilly wind hitting my face as I sit on the back of a bike, I can nearly taste the bitter cocoa and syrupy condensed milk of my hot chocolate and I can hear the splish-splash of water as the oars work their way through the river. At that moment, I’m back to being carefree and content — and therein lies the true power of travel, it can take you places, without moving an inch. And Tam Coc, both a quiet, unobtrusive gem and a tourist haven- I’d blink away to you any day.
Location: Tam Coc Vietnam, Ninh Binh, Northern Vietnam
Getting there: Buses and trains from Hanoi buses directly from Halong Bay
Must do: Hire a bike during your time there, as public transport is nonexistent – your homestays can lend/ help you find a bike. Alternately, rent a bicycle to explore the village and nearby areas