Believe it or not, Tam Coc is frequently overlooked by those visiting Vietnam, and I simply cannot understand why! Located 100 kms south of Hanoi, Tam Coc is considered the Halong Bay of land due to the similar limestone formations.
While many will refer to it as Ninh Binh (myself included prior to arrival), Ninh Binh is actually a non-impressive city 7km from Tam Coc. Do not make the mistake of staying in Ninh Binh instead of Tam Coc; staying in Tam Coc allows you direct access to some of the prettiest sites in the region, if not all of Vietnam.
The entire landscape is scattered with limestone cliffs, vibrant rice fields, and all around jaw-dropping scenery. You’ll also get a glimpse into authentic living in Vietnam, and I could only wish that my hometown was as beautiful as Tam Coc. Be sure you allocate at minimum two full days to explore one of Vietnam’s most hidden gems.
It is absolutely necessary to rent yourself a motorbike while in the region though (about $5/day) as it spans about 45 kms. Plus, you’d miss out on experiencing the beautiful rural roads where you’re left in awe at every turn.
So while you’re visiting Tam Coc, there are 7 things you must do.
1. Bich Dong Pagoda
Located 3km from Tam Coc, you’ll stumble upon the Bich Dong Pagoda. This is a three-tiered cave pagoda built by two monks, surrounded by lily pads, which leads to spectacular views from above.
Ha Pagoda is located at the foot of the mountain, Trung Pagoda in the middle, and Thuong Pagoda atop the mountain. Each is seemingly built into the mountainside itself. It’s most definitely worth climbing up to the highest pagoda, as it will reward you with some incredible panoramic views of the surrounding limestone mountains.
2. Tam Coc Boat Ride
In town (right where the local bus drops you off), you’ll find the Tam Coc boat ride. Many will say that it’s a tourist trap, but I beg to differ. In fact, the Tam Coc boat ride was the highlight of my time spent in the region. For 195,00 dong per person ($8 USD), hop in a boat with a local for a 1.5 hour boat through the limestone cliffs.
If you’re lucky, your guide will even row the boat with her toes (please tell me that someone other than myself remembers this challenge from The Amazing Race?).
Throughout the experience, your guide will navigate you through three caves – Hang Ca, Hang Hai, and Hang Ba.
Do yourself a favor and get on the last boat ride of the day (for us it was 5pm) so that you’re back just as the sun is setting over the mountains. It was truly an astounding site.
3. Bai Dinh Temple
The Bai Dinh Temple is the largest Buddhist Temple complex in all of Southeast Asia. It covers 539 hectares and there was nowhere to purchase water on site, so be sure to visit with plenty of water on hand! I highly recommend taking the trolley from the car park to the entrance for 30,000 dong ($1.20 USD), otherwise you’re in for a long, hot walk.
The Bai Dinh Temple is, understandably, massive. If you don’t have the 2 hours or so that it takes to explore the entire grounds, be sure to make your way up to the Maitreya Buddha as it offers outstanding views of Tam Coc and the Bai Dinh Pagoda.
4. Trang An UNESCO & Skull Island
If you were astounded by the Tam Coc boat tour and looking for yet another boating adventure, make your way to Trang An for a 2 hour boat ride (costing about $9 USD). The only downside is that two people is considered a private boat in Tam Coc, whereas Trang An requires 6 people per boat…unless you buy out the boat. We bought out the boat for 800,000 dong ($35 USD) so that we could have it to ourselves.
Trang An Scenic Landscape was officially deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 due to its outstanding and cultural values. While at first it seems flooded with tourists, they quickly disperse in about ten minutes depending on which route you take (we took Route 2).
This boat ride differs from Tam Coc in the fact that the caves are smaller and more difficult to navigate, and it also allows for stops throughout the tour to get out and explore various ancient temples and shrines, and even the film set for “Kong: Skull Island.”
5. Mua Cave (Hang Mua)
The Mua Cave is an absolute must when visiting Tam Coc – Ninh Binh. At first I was turned off by the name, as I’m not much of a cave person, but it turns out that Mua Cave offers absolutely spectacular views of Tam Coc. There’s a 100,000 VND entrance fee (about $4 USD) then… 500 stairs up a mountain. It took us about 10 minutes from the bottom of the mountain to the top at a steady, sweaty pace. Upon reaching the highest peak, prepare yourself for 360-degree views of Tam Coc’s breathtaking limestone cliffs and gorges.
While we didn’t get a stunning sunset due to rain, I highly recommend visiting at sunrise or sunset (if that’s your thing, as it is mine) and veering left up to Dragon Mountain when you get to the fork in the path as that offers the best viewpoint over Tam Coc.
6. Hoa Lu
Hoa Lu is known as the ancient capital of Vietnam, being the native land of the first two imperial dynasties of Vietnam. It served as a great spot for a capital, as it was protected by the limestone cliffs. While it’s obviously no longer the capital, a small fraction of the citadel of the 10th Century that once was still exists. Wander through the temples on site to get an idea of what ancient Vietnam looked like.
7. Simply explore.
One of my highlights of Ninh Binh was simply hopping on the back of my friend's bike and exploring the little side roads. There are places where you won’t see any people, and the roads won't necessarily be in great condition, yet they’re incredibly beautiful. Spend a morning simply riding around, taking back roads, and enjoying the journey not the destination.
Where to Stay?
Whatever you do, be sure that you stay in Tam Coc and not Ninh Binh, as it’s not only closer to the sites, but far more beautiful. You will find plenty of hotels, homestays, and bungalows in the area; something to meet each person’s needs. I stayed at Zuli Zen Homestay. The lady that ran it, Ly, was as sweet as could be and runs the place on her own. I have incredible respect for what she does (she’s younger than I!) and she’s in a prime location.
Tam Coc – Ninh Binh was potentially my favorite spot in Vietnam, and certainly one of the most underrated. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t factor this region into your Vietnam plans!
**Big thanks to Jerre Stead for the photos!**