There are few places in the world that are as visually striking and breathtaking as Tam Coc. Known as "the inland Halong Bay" limestone karst rise up from rice fields while rivers wind themselves between them. With hundreds of homestays, tons of budget restaurants, and a good mix between history and adventure, Tam Coc has quickly grown to be one of the most popular side trips from Hanoi. Hop on a bike and cruise between mountain tops or head to the UNESCO site of Trang An and have a unique row through the stunning landscape.
What to do
The are almost an unlimited amount of things that you can do in Tam Coc. Whether you enjoy outdoor activities or history, there is something for you! Check out Bich Dong Pagoda, or Mua Caves if history is your thing or hop on a bike and wind between the mountains surrounded by rice fields. If food is your jam, then why not try goat, the local delicacy, or fire-roasted duck!
Tam Coc Boats
In the Ninh Binh/Tam Coc area, there are two main spots that you can drift through the stunning landscape: Tam Coc central, and Trang An. Both spots are gorgeous but have differences. Tam Coc is really easy to access as its launch point is the centre point of the town. Payment is well set up and you do not have any issues with having to negotiate or be overcharged. Pricing is 190,00VND/person and a boat can take a maximum of 2 people. While the rowers are not supposed to ask for tips (as it details in the written rules) many will come after you or ask you to buy from the very overpriced vendor boats while on the water. The route takes about 2.5 hours and takes you through several caves before you explore the final one on foot.
It is likely that when you get to Tam Coc and look at all the gorgeous mountain tops with rice fields surrounding them that you would love to see it from above. Luckily for you, there is one area that has been developed to offer that stunning overhead view- but be prepared to climb some pretty steep stairs! The Mua Caves are a series of caves in the valley that have become a popular spot to explore. Leading up from their mouths, are a few hundred stairs
that take you up to the top of two mountains. On one side, you have a small pagoda and views of the rice field valleys between you and Ninh Binh. While on the other top, you have a stunning view into a river valley with a backdrop of dozens of mountains. The spot has also become a hotspot for wedding photos, so dont be surprised to see a few couples decked out in wedding gear trying to climb the steps!
Bich Dong Pagoda
This unique Pagoda is one of the top attractions in Tam Coc. While it may not be the largest, oldest, or most important pagoda in the region, it is in one of the coolest locations. Tucked away in a series of caves connected by staircases hewn right out of the rock, these pagodas have amazing views of the surrounding valleys. The main pagoda was built in the 15th century along with the entrance gate and bridge that leads you across the stunning lotus pond. The pagoda is just a few KMs from Tam Coc so its easy to get to on a bicycle or motorbike but watch out for people overcharging you for parking. A bike should cost 10,000VND MAX but likely 5,000VND so ignore the higher prices and bargain.
Not far up the road from the Bich Dong Pagoda is the sprawling Bird Garden park. This well-manicured area is much more than meets the eye. Not only is it a popular nesting ground for tens of thousands of birds, but it has a few popular caves and great walking/biking trails. Mermaid Cave takes you down into a cave with an awesome river running through it. The boardwalk is set up overtop the water and squeezes through sections that are only 2 or 3 feet tall so be prepared to get on your hands and knees. The stalagmites are not massive but its cool to see them up close. At the entrance to the park is the Vai Gioi Cave. To access it you have to walk up 400 steps but in doing that it opens up a fantastic cave. It seems like the entire mountain is hollow as steps bring you back down over 60 feet or up through narrow crevices at least 100 feet. At the top, there is a viewpoint that offers spectacular views over the bird garden and many mountain tops.
Trang An River Cruise
Not far from Tam Coc is the UNESCO site of Trang An. This area is better developed than the Tam Coc boating system with 3 separate routes but that doesn't mean that it is worse. The routes (A, B, and C) each have different advantages and disadvantages so its important to take a few minutes and decide which one is best. Trang An was one of the main filming spots for the movie Kong: Skull Island and two of the routes (B and C) take you to a mock-up of the plane/boat used as well as the "locals" village. If this of interest to you, take either of these routes to get a taste of Hollywood. Trang An is extremely popular with groups so it is advised to get there early in the day to avoid the day trip crowds that come from Hanoi. As the ticket process is very structured and there are a ton of staff, the rowers don't hound you for a tip and it is against the rules to tip them. The
biggest "downside" (for couples at least) of Trang An compared to Tam Coc is the size of the boats. At up to 5 people + rower, you will have to wait for a minute or two for another few to join in your boat. While this does give you the chance to chat, its not a private venture like Tam Coc. A full breakdown of both the Tam Coc and Trang An River Cruises can be found HERE
The area surrounding Tam Coc is absolutely stunning. The second you arrive, you will fall in love with the gorgeous mountains and rice fields as far as the eye can see. The area that you will likely explore is pretty small so it can easily be done on a bicycle. Rent one from your accommodations or the many shops in town and set off for a nice adventure. One road out of town will take you towards Mua caves and Trang An (a possible but very long bike ride) while the other side will take you towards Bich Dong Temple and the Bird Garden. There are also a number of small lanes and alleys that exit town that takes you into the middle of sprawling rice fields or along rivers.
Covid Conscious Activities
With Covid-19 being such a huge factor in daily life, it is important to take steps towards a safer holiday like trying to limit your daily contact with others. Keep up to date with the latest local advisories and information.
Once you are in the smaller communities of Vietnam, your trip can become quite covid conscious. Tam Coc has so much to see and do and much of it is outdoors. Some of the areas top sites like Trang An or Mua Caves will likely be busy so chose your time wisely or maybe only check out one major attraction. Trang An has boats for up to 5 people while the Tam Coc river boats only hold two which can be advantageous depending on how many people are in your group. Either river cruise offers stunning mountain views and water caves so you wont "miss out" by doing just one. Tourist attractions aside, hop on a bike or motorcycle and just choose a direction. You will pass countless mountains, hundreds of rice fields, and truly feel like you are around locals. It is a feeling that few other places offer!
Where to Stay
For those just starting to look at the area, it may be a bit confusing to figure out the difference between Tam Coc and Ninh Binh and which to stay in. We felt the same way and were expecting to stay in Ninh Binh but are so happy we decided to change our minds. Tam Coc is what the area is all about and where are the action is. Ninh Binh is like staying 5 KMs inland from the beach while Tam Coc is a gorgeous beachfront resort. It is not saying that Ninh Binh is bad by any means, but for the majority of tourists, Tam Coc is the ideal choice. There are so many places to stay in Tam Coc that there is something at every price point. This has also meant that there are a ton of restaurants so you won't struggle finding a place to eat. We spent over 2 weeks in the town so we checked out at least 20 places to find one that would be a perfect home base. We found that there were 2 that stand out.
The first is a small homestay called Viet Anh Homestay, where you truly feel like you are with a family. Greeted with tea and snacks, the hosts are amazing and the accommodations are in small bungalows that face towards a small garden. If you are lucky you can even chat with the house Grandma who was a "villager" in Kong: Skull Island. This place should be your choice if you are a pretty tight budget.
The second place (and one of the most amazing places we have ever stayed) was Tam Coc Green Garden Homestay. On the edge of town, the dozen stand-alone bungalows form a ring around a beautiful pond with more fruit trees then you can imagine. Everything from papaya to jackfruit to bananas and even starfruit, the setting is amazing. To top it all off, the homestay looks out at a massive rice field and several mountains. Every morning you will wake up to a stunning breakfast and be able to watch the farmers tend to the fields.
How to get there and around
Tam Coc is one of the most popular destinations for tourism in Vietnam so it is really easy to access. If you are on a "open" or "Hop on Hop off" bus ticket, Tam Coc is one of the stops going both north and south. It is just a few hours south of Hanoi so it’s a good way to break up your bus journey if coming from the south. Ninh Binh is on the train line and has numerous trains coming through at all hours of the day. Take a look at DSVN.VN for schedules and pricing. From Ninh Binh, your best bet is to grab a taxi to take you to Tam Coc. When you get off the train there will drivers trying to flag you down constantly. Haggle with one of them but don’t be scared to walk away. The posted rates (from Tam Coc TO Ninh Binh) are 80,000VND so don’t pay more than that. If it is the slow season you can get it even cheaper (we got it for 70,000VND). Lastly, Tam Coc is just off the main highway so if you are cruising the country on your own motorbike or bicycle, it is an easy stop.
Getting around Tam Coc is pretty much solely done by foot, motorbike, or bicycle. We don’t think there is actually any public transit system within the town so you are on your own. Ninh Binh does have public busses but we are unaware of any additional information. There are so many motorbike and bicycle rental places around town so you shouldn’t have any issues finding one. It is also a good idea to enquire if the place you are staying offers free bikes as spending 25000 VND more per night may be cheaper in the long run!
Motorcycle tour around the region
Just outside of Tam Coc are 2 main attractions that cannot be missed. The best part is they can be explored on the same day by renting a motorbike from your hotel or any shop in town. You can also add on Trang An if you are ready for a long day! The motorbike is an adventure in and of itself as you pass many rivers, mountains, and go up and down many rolling hills. After heading northeast from town and passing Trang An you will come to the Hoa Lu Ancient city. These ruins span several centuries starting in the 10th century and were the capital city of the empire. It only costs 20,000VND to enter and is a nice spot to explore for a short time.
Back on the bike, head 9 KMs west to Bai Dinh Temple- the largest Buddhist temple complex in Vietnam. The numerous temples, bell towers, halls, and caves are spread out across a 700-hectare area. The main temple is 13 stories tall and offers a commanding view over top of the rest of the complex. While it is free to enter, it is a VERY long walk so it is recommended to take a golf cart for 30,000VND/person.