On our recent trip to Vietnam we really wanted to explore the beautiful landscape. During our stay in Hanoi we took a day trip out to Tam Coc Bich Dong, a tourist destination that is often, surprisingly, overlooked by visitors. Located in Ninh Binh province, one of the best tours to do here is the Hoa Lu Tam Coc excursion.
Only a two hour bus ride south of the bustling city of Hanoi, Ninh Binh is the perfect place to escape the craziness. Ninh Binh city itself is not pretty, but you don’t have to go far to find the beauty. Not yet packed with tourists, Tam Coc Bich Dong is a low key and amazingly scenic place. It’s not overrun with tourists, although there are many tour groups that visit here daily. After spending a few days in Hanoi, our Hoa Lu Tam Coc experience was a breath of fresh air.
Translated into English, Tam Coc means three caves. Home to karstic rock formations, spectacular canals, rice fields that stretch along the Ngo Dong River, and three natural caves that you can pass through on a boat tour, Tam Coc is quickly becoming a popular tourist destination. The other main attraction in Ninh Binh is Hoa Lu. This was the ancient Royal capital and economic and political center of Dai Co Viet.
Hoa Lu and Tam Coc are two of the most picturesque areas in all of north Vietnam. Our Hoa Lu Tam Coc day tour was possibly the best part of our Hanoi stay. It’s hard not to be blown away by the mystical, watery beauty of the Tam Coc Bich Dong region. As for Hoa Lu, the fascinating history makes this place worth a stop.
Getting To Tam Coc Bich Dong and Hoa Lu
Ninh Binh province is located about 60 miles south of Hanoi, and there are quite a few different ways to get there. We did the Hoa Lu Tam Coc full day trip through Crossing Vietnam so our transport was included.
If you’re interested in doing a day trip, there are plenty of tour companies offering various different packages. The tourist buses leave Hanoi at about 08:00 am, and if you’re staying in the Old Quarter they will arrange for you to be picked up from your hotel. If you’re staying outside the Old Quarter you can meet at the tour company offices in the morning. The trip that we did was very well organized and ran on time. The bus stops for a 20 minute break en route for passengers to use the toilet and grab a snack if they like.
If you wish to take the trip independently, you can get there by train, bus, taxi, or you could rent a car for the day. The small group tour that we did was great and highly recommended. But, it is always nice to have the freedom to visit places at your own pace and on your own terms.
Local buses depart from Hanoi’s southern bus terminal, Giap Bat, regularly, but don’t expect this option to be as reliable. There are also five trains that depart daily from Hanoi station, including the SE5, SE7, and SE19. The train trip will take about 2.5 hours.
If you’re coming by bus, taxi or car from Hanoi, Hoa Lu is about 15 minutes before Tam Coc, so typically this would be your first stop. It will only take you about 45 minutes to an hour to explore this area, and then you can move on to Tam Coc Bich Dong.
What To Expect From Hoa Lu
Protected by high limestone mountains and earthen walls, Hoa Lu is the beautiful ancient capital city of Vietnam. Thanks to the limestone mountains which were perfect for keeping the city well-hidden from potential invaders, Hoa Lu was the natural geographic choice. Tranquil and serene, it’s set in beautiful surroundings beside the Truong Yen village
Hoa Lu was the first stop of our trip and a very interesting one. Tam Coc Bich Dong was all about the scenery, but Hoa Lu is about the history. This is also where I learnt, thanks to our tour guide, that there is a difference between a temple and pagoda. In Vietnam, temples and pagodas are different places. Although they may look the same from the outside, it’s the things inside that differentiate them.
A temple is a place to worship an actual person, like a national hero or a king or queen. Inside the temple you will find a statue of the person being worshipped. A temple is known as a “đền” and has got nothing to do with religion. A pagoda, on the other hand, is a place purely for Buddhism. This is where Buddhists go to pray and worship Buddha. Pagodas are also known as a “chùa” and inside you will find many different Buddha statues.
Hoa Lu is home to two temples; Dinh Tien Huang, which is the royal temple that houses a statue of Emperor Dinh Bo Linh and his sons, as well as the royal temple of the early Le Dynasty. The surrounding mountainous areas of Hoa Lu are beautiful, making it worth a visit for the views alone.
The one thing to be aware of here is the hawkers. As soon as we stepped off the bus they surrounded us trying to sell hats, fans, food, and all sorts. Our guide did warn us beforehand and advised that if we don’t want to buy anything we should say “no thank you.” You shouldn’t just shake your head and smile as they take this to mean that they should pursue you further. Most of them don’t speak any English, but they understand “no thank you.”
Of course, it is great to support them if you want to. It was extremely hot there and the folding fans and hats came in very handy. But, obviously you can’t buy everything, so as soon as you’ve had enough, you can just politely respond with “no thank you.”
What To Expect From Tam Coc
Tam Coc looks like something out of a movie, and in one way it is. Effectively a miniature landlocked version of Halong Bay, the movie “Indochine” helped to put this place on the tourist map. It’s truly beautiful and well worth a visit.
Although the tourism industry is steadily growing here, it’s still very peaceful, especially in comparison to Hanoi. Sure you may have to endure a few hard-selling antics from local vendors, but I promise you, it’s worth it.
Two of the most popular things to do in Tam Coc Bich Dong are a boat ride on the Ngo Dong River and a bike ride through the rice fields. I really loved both activities, but if you’re short on time during your Hoa Lu Tam Coc tour, the boat trip is a better bet!
Tam Coc Boat Trip
The Tam Coc river voyage is the main reason that tourists come to Ninh Binh. You will cruise along the scenic countryside on a traditional sampan taking in some breathtaking view. The trip is about 1.5 hours long and involves meandering through stunning limestone hills and through three long, dark tunnel-caves. These caves are; Hang Ca, Hang Giua and Hang Cuoi.
If you’re part of the Hoa Lu Tam Coc tour, the boat ride will be included in the package. But if you are exploring the area independently you can expect to pay a fee of 120,000 VND per person and 150,000 per boat. Only two passengers are allowed on one boat and you will be given life jackets to wear, although you don’t have to wear them unless you want to.
It’s a rather long trip and you won’t be getting off the boat at anytime, so make sure you go to the bathroom before the ride. We were told that there was a floating market, but all we came across was a one-stop cooldrink boat. So don’t be expecting any fantastic market, unless we were there at the wrong time.
The boat trip was so enjoyable and is highly recommended. The only downside is that the boat operators have to paddle manually – many of them use their feet. While it’s incredible to see, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for the effort that goes into this. It’s extremely hot and humid, and it’s a really long trip – about 6 km in total. We could have easily done with a much shorter trip. But we had such a happy and friendly lady for our ride. She couldn’t speak a word of English, but she tried hard to communicate with us and made our trip so enjoyable.
Bike Ride through the rice fields
I cannot remember when last I was on a bike, but this was such a wonderful experience. The landscape in the area is very flat so biking through the rice fields is not too strenuous. The scenery is exquisite and the views are breathtaking.
We biked around the rice paddies for about 45 minutes. The roads are a little uneven and bumpy, but nothing too hectic. The best time to visit the rice fields is between late May and early June when you will get the beautiful vision of golden rice fields mixed with green rice fields. But, if you’re not able to visit during this time, you can still expect beautiful scenery.
There’s nothing quite like cycling around rice fields in the countryside with the wind blowing through your hair, and NO noisy traffic sounds. All you can hear is the sound of nature.
Tip: Be sure to do a safety check on your bike before you ride off into the horizon. My brakes didn’t really work and Peter’s chain kept slipping off his bike. Many of these bikes have been used hundreds of times by tourists without being serviced. So it’s good idea to check that everything works.
Things To Be Aware Of On Your Hoa Lu Tam Coc Tour
Thankfully we didn’t have any bad experiences on our Hoa Lu Tam Coc tour, but there are a few things that you should keep in mind. Our tour guide informed us of most these “issues or scams” which I have since read about online.
Firstly he told us to try and avoid getting into any sort of altercation with the locals. To most people this seems obvious, but apparently there are quite a few tourists who have had bad experiences in the area. This is due to miscommunication with the locals, most of whom can’t speak English. Our guide told us that although they may seem rude or abrasive, we should just ignore them and move on if things start to get intense. Again, we didn’t experience any of this, but it’s good to keep in mind.
Quite a few tourists have also reported bad experiences on the Tam Coc boat tour. There are “photographers” in boats all along the river. They will offer to take your photo as you go past and then practically force you to buy the photo, or get very upset if you don’t want to. Thankfully, this is also something that our guide warned us of. He said to just say “no thank you” immediately to avoid any issues. This goes for anything that is being sold in the area – if you don’t want it, let them know straight away.
Another tip for the boats is to try and avoid the ones that have boxes on them. These boxes are loaded with souvenirs and once you’re sailing, they will try to push you into buying something. A lot of tourists report that they are very pushy, no matter how hard you try to explain that you don’t want anything. If you do the boat trip as part of an organized tour you shouldn’t have to worry about this. The tour companies are aware of the issue and try to avoid the “souvenir “ boats.
What I Wish We Had Done
Since we were on an organized Hoa Lu Tam Coc tour, there were a few things that we didn’t get to do. Our time was also limited – there’s only so many things that you can fit into one day. This is why many tourists choose to spend at least two or three days in the Ninh Binh area.
Here are the other things that you should try do do if you have more time:
Mua Cave Viewpoint
One of the things I really wanted to do in Ninh Binh was check out that beautiful view from above. Unfortunately we weren’t able to. If you’ve seen those stunning aerial view photos of Ninh Binh it’s most likely from the Mua cave viewpoint.
The Mua caves themselves are apparently not all that fantastic. The real appeal here is the view from the temple on top of the mountain. 500 steps need to be climbed to reach the top, but the views are said to be absolutely phenomenal. I really regret not doing this.
Bich Dong Pagoda
Bich Dong Pagoda is a series of three temples surrounded by mountains, and is located about 2 km from the centre of Tam Coc. They have been built in ascending order, and to explore the highest one you will need to pass through a series of caves, and climb some steep stairs. Once at the top, the view is spectacular. There’s no entrance fee here.
If you have more time in Ninh Binh, Trang An is also a great area to visit. The Trang An Landscape Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and consists of an impressive set of huge limestone cliffs covered by forest. You can find several valleys, about 50 different caves, and a few temples in the entire area.
You can also take a boat trip in Trang An and it’s said to not be as “touristy” as the Tam Coc one. The photos I’ve seen of the area are beautiful and it certainly seems as though it’s worth a visit if you have time.
Thung Nham Bird Park
For anyone who loves nature and is looking for a bit of adventure, check out the Thung Nham Bird Park. Nestled in the mountains, about 7 km from Tam Coc, you can expect a place of great natural beauty, with many rivers and underwater caves. The entrance fee is 100,000 VND and you would probably spend about an hour or two here.
Crossing Vietnam: The Hoa Lu Tam Coc Tour
While I don’t have any other experience to compare our trip to Ninh Binh with, I will say that we were very impressed with the tour we did through Crossing Vietnam. It was very well-organized, our guide spoke great English, and our trip included a buffet lunch at a local restaurant. The highlight of our trip was definitely the boat trip on Tam Coc river. I would also highly recommend going to the Mua Cave viewpoint, which we unfortunately did not get to do. But no matter how you explore Ninh Binh, I’m sure you will love it. The area is so beautiful and the views are breathtaking.
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