By the time we had arrived in Tam Coc, we had traversed over 2,000 km on Vietnamese soil, and were amazed at the diverse landscapes that existed within the country. Tam Coc also known as “Ha Long bay on land” or “inland Ha Long bay” is an area of spectacular beauty showcasing tall limestone karst interspersed among rice terraces and rivers. In 2014, Tam Coc and a few other sites close by (Trang An, Hoa Lu and Bai Dinh temple) were grouped together as the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Highlights of Tam Coc
While we spent 3 nights which were more than enough to see the main highlights, we could’ve spent longer to discover some of the places on the outskirts of town.
Trang An Grottoes
We chose Trang An as opposed to the pier in Tam Coc for the boat ride between the karst formations and caves. This was mainly due to the fact that at Tam Coc, there is much more haggling and tourists get accosted by local women to purchase their wares.
The Trang An boat pier is located about 10 km from Tam Coc, and is an easy bike ride. The boat ride takes approximately 2.5 hours, usually with 4 people per boat. There are two different routes with one visiting more temples and pagodas along the river, and the other visiting more caves. The caves have been widened to enable boats to flow through, and the view was breathtaking. One of the stops included a part of the set where Kong: Skull Island was filmed, and a number of the props (including the tribesmen) are now part of the tourist attraction.
Boats are rowed by women, who sometimes show their expertise by rowing with their feet. Despite getting there reasonably early, we happened to board the boat just ahead of a large tour group. Our lady rower was fantastic and quite powerful, as she made sure that when necessary she rowed faster than her colleagues to ensure that we enjoyed the view without the crowds. This was definitely one of the places we will never forget.
Boat ride cost: VND 200,000
Hang Mua peak
We had always seen pictures looking down on the river running through the limestone karsts and were keen to discover where they were taken. Once we found out that they were taken at the peak above Hang Mua, the fact that we would have to climb about 500 steps did not put us off.
It is barely 5 km from Tam Coc, and we rode through picturesque rice terraces and villages. We followed signs to Mua Cave Ecolodge to ensure we did not get lost, since the ecolodge is at the base of the mountain. We first visited the caves at the base of the mountain which were not all that impressive, and then made our way up. At the end of the climb, there is a temple and dragon, but the main reward was the awesome 360 degree view.
Admission fee: VND 100,000
Thung Nham Ecotourist Bird Garden
While we wouldn’t necessarily rate the bird garden as being a must-see, on a cloudy day with nothing much else to do, it was the perfect destination for us as we wanted to cycle through more rice fields and enjoy the views of the karst formations from land.
Within the bird garden complex are several caves, an orchard, a moving banyan tree, a lake and a thousand year old tree.
Admission fee: VND 100,000
Dining in Tam Coc
On our first night we decided to try out Father’s kitchen after reading excellent reviews. The place is basic but popular with both backpackers and other travelers. While we did not happen to meet “Father” the first night we came for dinner, the food was decent and the service was good. We ended up going back for all 3 nights and eventually got to meet “Father”.
Sleeping in Tam Coc
Nam Hoa Hotel
This family-run hotel is located right in the middle of the village. While facilities are very basic for the price, the room was spacious and clean. Breakfast included Western options, and was decent. The staff were exceptional and at the end of our stay they provided me with a pretty gift. Complimentary bikes were provided daily.
Getting around Tam Coc
The area around Tam Coc is relatively flat, and thus the best way to get around is by bike.
Getting to Tam Coc
The closest city to Tam Coc is Ninh Binh. The journey from Dong Hoi to Ninh Binh is 8 hours by train. We booked upper and lower berths in a soft-sleeper cabin. As the train had come from Saigon, and there had been other passengers previously in the cabin, the sheets had not been changed and were filthy. Nevertheless, we cleaned the cabin as well as we could and settled in prior to our cabin mates arriving.
After arrival in Ninh Binh we took a taxi to Tam Coc, which is 7 km from the train station.