It should come as no surprise that Ninh Binh province is absolutely stunning. One of the most popular tourist districts in Vietnam, its landscape creates its nickname of the "inland Halong Bay".
Mountain karsts similar to those that stick up from the water in Halong Bay, shoot right out rice fields causing numerous meandering rivers. These rivers, once the lifeblood of trade and transportation, are now used to ferry tourists through the scenery.
While there are many spots to jump on board in the area, your two most likely spots will be at the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex, or in central Tam Coc. The two spots have hundreds of rowboats and rowers waiting to take out their next visitors. With both being so beautiful (but being too expensive for most people to do both) it may be hard to choose which one is best. Let's break down what each cruise entails to better see the differences.
Trang An Quick Facts
2.5 hours with multiple stops
5 people +rower /boat
250,000 VND/person (you can rent the entire boat by paying 5 peoples worth)
The Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex is the official name for the most popular departure spot. Here you will find a well-established starting point complete with gift shops, restaurants, and a ticket booth. Trang An covers a huge area and is actually divided into 3 different routes. Each route is different allowing you to experience the beauty of the area with fewer people. Trang An was one of the popular filming locations for Kong Skull Island and 2 of the routes (B and C) will take you to a mock-up of the village and plane/boat that was used in the movie. Many of the extras were people from the greater Tam Coc area and are quite excited about the movie they were a part of. The third route (A) takes you through a series of cave tunnels and far along the river to one of the oldest fort/temples in the area. Each route takes about 2.5-3 hours to complete and stops numerous times to allow you to check out the area. Route A also takes you up to a gorgeous viewpoint that allows you to see into the river valleys.
Tam Coc River Quick Facts
2 people + rower/boat
2.5 hours with 1 stop
190,000 VND /person
Lots of stops for people selling overpriced drinks and snacks
Right in the centre of Tam Coc is the starting point of the second major river cruise. This spot is a little less organized than Trang An but still has a centralized ticketing office ensuring that prices are the same for every person. Depending on if you are a couple or family, it can be a great advantage or disadvantage that the boats only have space for 2 people. If you are a couple you have a nice private cruise that feels a lot less commercial then Trang An. At this spot, there is only one route so if it is high season there may be many other boats zooming past you. The route takes you down a long river that is flanked on both sides by rice fields and massive rock karsts until you hit a large cave. Here you get out of the boat and explore on foot before returning back to the departure point on the same path. On the way home, you will likely stop at a few locals longboats who are selling knickknacks or snacks. They can be very pushy and your guide may ask for a drink but be aware, the prices are heavily inflated. At the end, though they are not supposed to, your rower may ask for a tip and even follow you until you agree.
Which one to choose
There is no "right" or better cruise to take as each has amazing views and interesting rowers.
It is up to you to figure out if the advantages of Trang An outweigh the advantages of Tam Coc. The fact that you can have a private cruise is a huge selling point for the Tam Coc cruise but the stops at overpriced vendors and the lack of a structured system adds to some confusion. That said, many of the day tours from Hanoi prefer to go to Trang An which causes it to be busier on a normal day than Tam Coc. It will be hard to not have an amazing time on either cruise so there is no real bad option just differences. The fact that the Tam Coc cruise does an out and back pattern rather then a loop was the major reason we went with Trang An. We hope to one day return to Vietnam and test out the Tam Coc cruise.