We read about Tam Coc in our Lonely Planet guide—it described it as “Halong Bay on the rice paddies...(it) gives Halong Bay a run for its money”. With a description like that, we just had to put it in our itinerary! And it didn’t disappoint—we found it simply breath-taking and it epitomised Vietnam as we’d envisioned it.
Besides Tam Coc, the area around Ninh Binh also offers many temples, caves, an ancient citadel, and plenty of opportunities to be rowed serenely down small rivers while surrounded by sublime scenery. Nearby Tam Coc, we climbed the steps to Bich Dong, where we found the ‘temple within a cave’. Further beyond the cave, we climbed higher still to reach another temple and were rewarded with terrific views of the rice paddies below. We stopped in at Trang Ang, a relatively ‘new comer’ to the tourist scene, offering boat rides among the rock formations, but seemingly minus the rice paddies (we gave that one a miss). We finished off our day with a visit to the ancient citadel of Hoa Lu, which was once the capital of Vietnam under the Dinh Dynasty (968-80) and the Le Dynasty (980-1009). While very modest compared to the citadel in Hue, it was still very impressive especially for its natural setting and its age.
As for Ninh Binh itself, well, it’s a strange city. The main highway to Hanoi runs through it so it is very busy with trucks and buses rushing through. The city itself is has a few nice narrow tree lined streets and there are small canals and ‘lakes’ here and there. There is nothing ‘interesting’ though about the city, other than the rocky outcrops in the distance. During the day, the streets are quite empty, probably due to the heat—it’s hard to even find a place open to eat. But at night, they do come alive and hawkers set up impromptu coffee stands along some streets. And there aren’t a lot of eateries either, which is a huge problem. Most tourists that do come to Ninh Binh are only using it as a base and by day, they are out in the countryside, only returning to the city at night for sleep.
While sand dunes, ostriches, island trips, and alpine coasters have all been fun, they weren’t what we expected to find in Vietnam. Tam Coc and the countryside around Ninh Binh with its combination of rice paddy fields, rivers, and iconic rock formations have finally given us the experience that we had hoped for. Interestingly many tourists seem to overlook Tam Coc in favour of Halong Bay, which is more strongly on the ‘must-do’ list. Although we will eventually make our way there too, we will always cherish our morning spent at Tam Coc, being rowed placidly down the river in the bright sunshine surrounded by surreal beauty and utter peace. Even with two kids in tow.