Vietnam‘s Tam Coc is referred to as the miniature landlocked version of the famous Halong Bay and both the places are indeed spectacularly breathtaking in their natural beauty. Though far from being untouched and offbeat, both Halong Bay and Tam Coc are some of the most unmissable places to visit in Vietnam. If you have seen the stunningly cinematographic movie, “Indochine” which won the Oscar in 1993, you will realize the allure of Tam Coc and complete with quiet rural scenery, limestone outcrops, serene rice fields, languorous silvery river, and lotus forests, it makes a captivating day trip from Hanoi. Conveniently located only 90 kilometers away from Hanoi, Tam Coc is a part of the famous Trang An Landscape Complex UNESCO World Heritage site and means three caves in Vietnamese. Being one of Vietnam‘s most popular destinations means that Tam Coc comes with the unbecoming annoyances of the crowd, overzealous hawkers, and cut-throat commercialism, yet the place has an almost magical charm and is worth a visit.
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Tam Coc is straight out of a movie scene
Tam Coc is literally straight out of a movie scene. Many scenes of the amazingly beautiful Oscar-winning movie Indochine was filmed here and the landscape is simply scintillating. The Van Lam boat pier of the village stole my heart at first sight and it looked pristinely laidback. Crowds of wooden sampans bobbed in the still water and reflections of a local temple shimmered like a mirror. As our foot rowing boatman gently drifted the boat down the river, away from the village, gigantic limestone karsts started dominating the scenery. Young harvested rice fields bordered on both sides and soon the three caves came into view. The craggy low ceiling of the caves made us bend down as water dripped from them, down our backs. Tranquil tunnel of lush trees, lotus forests, rows of paddling yellow beaked ducks, and little stone temples mark the rest of the trip until the emerald green turnaround point for the boats. Immediately we got surrounded by clawing, vicious hawkers who tried pressurizing us into buying overpriced water, snacks, drinks, and souvenirs. That was the biggest downside of Tam Coc, but then again, “every rose has its thorn”. Despite all this, Tam Coc is amazingly charming and here are the different options to experience this astonishing landscape of Asia.
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Opt for a packaged tour to visit Tam Coc
I visited Tam Coc on a packaged tour from Hanoi and it was combined with Vietnam‘s ancient capital Hoa Lu. Though, time-crunched, the day trip was comfortable enough and came with transfers, an English speaking guide, buffet lunch, and entrance fees to all the sites. Boat tickets were included in the price of 40 USD and I found it a pretty value for money deal. Being very young and inexperienced, it saved me from the hassle of learning the ropes of solo traveling in Tam Coc and if you read my introductory post on Vietnam, you will know that I was already emotionally bruised from being on the road alone.
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Or go for the DIY boat trip
The most popular option to explore Tam Coc is by a boat tour. Travelers head to the Tam Coc village as early as possible and hire a boat which takes them through the rice fields and the caves. The boats are handled by boatmen (and women) who are famous for rowing with their feet and the price for 1-hour ride is usually 120000 VDN (around $6). Unfortunately, this tour comes along with a huge downside in the form of persistent sometimes vicious hawkers who throng to sell you just about anything and everything. The boat turnaround points are the most difficult parts of the trip and it is advisable to bring your own refreshments to avoid buying overpriced items from them. A complete lack of interest or a firm “No” helps in combatting this annoyance.
Hike through Tam Coc for unforgettable views and quiet moments
This is for the adventurous explorers and by far the best option to experience the stunning landscape of Tam Coc. Start early for a short, but lung bursting steep hike to the Hang Mua peak which offers 360 degrees views of the surrounding region. Check out the astonishing beauty of the craggy limestone karsts, the meandering Ngo Dong river dotted with boats, paddy fields (either lush or watery) and jagged mountains on all sides. On clear days the reflections on the crystal clear river are heart-stoppingly beautiful and you might even be able to see the Red River delta on the east. Simply hire a sturdy bike or a motorcycle from your homestay or hotel, and wear good climbing shoes. Carry your own water and refreshments to spend quiet moments at the peak.
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Tam Coc travel tips
When to visit
- You can visit Ninh Binh almost at any time of the year. May to October months promise hot, humid weather with heavy rainfall and the chances of typhoons peak in September. November to April is dry and cool, and the rainy season reveals Tam Coc‘s rice fields in their best vivid green colour.
How to reach
- From Hanoi – Tam Coc is located in Ninh Binh province and is only 90 kilometers away from Hanoi. For DIY travelers, there are two options to reach Ninh Binh by public transport. From Hanoi, you can easily reach Ninh Binh city by train. At least 3 southbound trains are available on this route (SE5, SE7, SE19). A one-way ticket from Hanoi to Ninh Binh costs around 2.50 USD. From Ninh Binh you have to take a taxi to Tam Coc wharf or rent a bike. A taxi ride from Hanoi to Ninh Binh is around 70 USD and it takes 3 hours to reach the pier. Alternatively, you can opt for the more convenient option of the bus which goes from Hanoi‘s Giao Bat terminal. The buses leave quite often, and the ticket prices start from 7,000 dongs. Avoid the cheapest one so that you don’t end up being cooped up in a tiny seat in an overcrowded bus for 3 hours. You can buy the tickets at the waiting hall of the bus station. The buses stop at Ninh Binh from where you have to arrange your own transport to go to Tam Coc. Alternatively, use a reputed tour company for a comfortable and easy packaged tour.
- From other places – The train going to Hanoi from Hue stops in Ninh Binh and there are buses going to Ninh Binh directly from Halong Bay or Cat Ba. It is a very convenient and time-saving option since you go to both areas without having to pass through Hanoi. There is a bus from Bay Chay station (Xe Be Bay Chay) that goes to Ninh Binh and make sure to ask where does the bus stop. There will be buses heading to Ninh Binh town and others to Tam Coc (7km away). The latter stops in front of The Long Hotel.
Getting around Ninh Binh
- Your own transport is a must for a comfortable hassle free Ninh Binh experience. The two options are to rent a motorcycle or a bike. Both are available at the local homestays, hotels and travel agents. Make sure you leave the main roads and travel between places along the more authentic country lanes.
Where to stay
- There are plenty of homestays available in TamCoc and Ninh Binh town has some pretty doable hotels. The most popular accommodation choice is to stay at one of the homestays and soak up the local life in this breathtakingly beautiful natural destination. For those looking for international standard hotels, Hanoi is the closest option.
Attractions in Tam Coc
With limestone outcrops amid serene rice fields, Tam Coc is best experienced on a feet rowing-boat ride along the meandering Ngo Dong river. It is hard not to fall in love with the mystical, watery beauty of the Tam Coc “three caves” region and there are plenty of attractions are around
- The caves and the grottos – There are three caves namely the Hang Cam, Hang Giaua, and the Hang Chateau, which were created by the erosion of rocks. A river runs through Tam Coc‘s famous grottos and be prepared to crouch down while passing through these tunnels some of which are only 2 meters high. Head over to Trang An complex, which is a few miles away from Tam Coc for more natural and spectacular grottos.
- The landscape – Tam Coc is surreally beautiful. When sailing down the NgoDong river past the looming black karst mountains and shimmering green rice fields, you feel as if you have entered a magical mystical kingdom. The Vietnamese call Tam Coc The Green Sea and the whole area is a visual treat.
- Foot rowing boatmen of Tam Coc – The local men and women row the wooden paddles of their boats with their feet. It sounds similar to the feet paddling boatmen of Lake Inle in Myanmar and they are so skilfull in this technique, that many are masters multi-tasking while rowing their boats. This technique is believed to ease pressure on their backs and arms and helps them face forward while paddling.
- Other Attractions – While in Tam Coc if you have time on your hands, you can add the Trang An Grottoes and the Bich Dong Pagoda to your itinerary. Bich Dong Pagoda is an interesting 15th-century pagoda that is built on three levels near the Ngu Nhac mountain. Climb to the top for some spectacular views of the surrounding karst landscape. Many tour companies in Hanoi offer excellent traditional visits of Tam Coc. Book yourself into one of the 2D 1N tours which include trekking through the jungle of the Cuc Phuong National Park, an overnight stay in a remote village, and a rowing boat ride. Alternatively, you can also visit the ancient Vietnamese capital of Hoa Lu which is only 7 kilometers away from Tam Coc.
Tam Coc annoyances and survival techniques
- With its growing popularity, Tam Coc has become relentlessly commercial, so much so that many travelers despite being mesmerized by the astonishing natural beauty go back with a bitter experience due to the hard sell antics of the local hawkers. Incidentally, this happens most when you are at the turnaround point of your boat ride and the over-zealous peddling of embroideries and soft drinks by the rowers, ruin the entire experience. Having said this, the boat ride remains the highlight of the region‘s experience and meandering through the dumpling-shaped mountains in a flooded landscape where the river and rice paddy merge serenely into one shimmering uniformity is simply magical. Look out for the adventurous mountain goats perched high on precarious cliffs and the rare Delacour langurs.
- Carry your own snacks and refreshments with you for the ride. When the hawkers see you having your own food, they will not insist you into buying something from them.
- The sailing trail in Tam Coc gets pretty busy around lunchtime, and if you stay in the overnight, then you can enjoy a quiet, lonely morning ride on the boat. Otherwise, opt for the boat ride after 1600 hrs when most of the day trippers have left and the place is tranquil again.
- Entrance fee is included if you visit Tam Coc on a tour. Otherwise, the fees are 120.000 Dongs ($5 USD) / route for an adult and 60.000/route for a child (under 1.40 m high). An extra boat ticket of 150.000 Dongs ($6.5 USD) / boat is mandatory and no more than two tourists are allowed per boat.
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