May 19, 2011

Row, Row, Row Your Boat....To Tam Coc

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.

From Hue, we got off
our night bus, which was headed to Hanoi, at Ninh Binh.  The next day we hired a scooter to travel the 9km southwest to reach Tam Coc.  The name ‘Tam Coc’ actually refers to the series of caves/grottos which the Ngo Dong River flows through amongst rice paddy fields and huge rock formations that seemingly rise from them.  From Ninh Binh, you could actually see the rock formations in the distance.  Once at Tam Coc we hired a row boat, complete with rower to take us the 7km return along the river.  Normally foreigners are limited to 2 per boat while up to 4 Vietnamese passengers are allowed, but we were able to get all 4 of us onto 1 boat.  We passed through 3 of the caves, with the shortest cave being 45 meters in length; the longest was 127 metres.   The caves were very low too—it seemed unbelievable as you approached the entrance that you could actually fit through the opening!  At many points throughout the caves, you could just reach up and touch a stalactite.  In between we sat back in our boat as we were being gently rowed, admiring the huge rock formations around us and the lush green rice paddies alongside.  We were fortunate that it wasn’t too busy on the river at that time—there were just a few other boats ahead of us, which our very fit rower eventually overtook anyway.  Our rower at times switched between using his arms and then his feet to row bicycle style as well as regular rowing—talk about coordination, not to mention a great workout for your thighs!!  We even spotted a rower on another boat rowing with her feet while talking on her mobile phone!  After 45 min we reached the turn-around point, and the rower took a brief break which allowed for the floating market boats to come over and try to entice you with a cold drink and snacks (at very inflated prices).   All up, our trip took 1.5hrs, which was 30min quicker than the usual—and with the heat, it was a good thing!  And the cost??  $4.00 US/80,000d for the boat!  Incredible.

Floating Market Boats

Through a Grotto

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.

The Ancient Citadel of Hoa Lu

Entrance to Bich Dong

Temple Atop of Bich Dong

Trang Ang

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.

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