Following our time in Sapa, we returned to Hanoi for one evening before getting the bus to Tam Coc which is located in the Ninh Binh province.
Ninh Binh is only 95 kilometers away from Hanoi, So it felt very much like the natural next place to stop off on our journey down south. We took the bus with Sinh tours, the journey was around 2-3 hours. I mentioned in my last post that Sinh tours were a good bus company, we had purchased a one month open ticket with them, in short the ticket is very cheap, convenient and reliable and I think generally they have a very good reputation and are perfect for travellers going north to south or vice versa. You can read more about their open bus tickets on their website.
According to lots of blogs and travel sites Tam Coc still remains mostly off the main tourist path through Vietnam. I can believe this, considering that when we did our research before our trip, this was not one of the destinations we planned to visit, it was only after speaking to other travellers in Vietnam and it being recommended to us multiple times that Tamcoc found itself on our list of destinations.
Tamcoc is also referred to as ‘Halong bay on land’ and I think that is a very accurate description of it. The area is Surrounded by breathtaking limestone cliffs, rice fields and rivers, so the landscape is very similar to Vietnam EXCEPT it has a fraction of the tourists, if you read my post on Halong bay, you’ll remember my biggest reservation about our time there was surrounding the sheer amount of people there which made it hard to take in really take in everything Halong bay had to offer. Well in Tamcoc we had all of the same amazing scenery but the peace and time to take it all in and it was amazing!
We stayed at Anh Tuan Tam Coc Old Space Bungalow and paid £22 for two nights, which included breakfast each morning (They were amazing pancakes cooked by our host and Vietnamese coffee which we were able to have out in the sun on the patio). The rooms were simple but beautiful and very inventively designed using natural materials. However the highlight for us was the beautiful sun garden directly outside the rooms, we sat here every morning for breakfast and it was a really relaxing way to start our day. Shaun and I loved staying here and would recommend to anyone visiting the area (check out the video to see our room).
We visited Ninh Binh at the end of June and it was SO hot, around 36 degrees most days but the humidity made it feel much hotter than this, it actually made it quite tricky to go out exploring in the day as it felt like a real effort – it was also quite strange to experience such heat and glorious sunshine after only trekking in the rain two days before.
Due to the heat we did a lot of relaxing and chilling in the sun, but we also managed to fit in some really fun activities during our stay, here is are some of the things we got up to:
Visit a pool
As I mentioned due to the heat there were certain times of the day where we felt it was too hot to do anything, even our homestay owner commented that we were crazy for going out in the heat! Our homestay didn’t have a pool but plenty of hotels in the area will let you use their pools for the day for a small fee. On our first day, Shaun and I checked into our homestay, hired a bike and drove to Chez Loan hotel, we payed 210.000 dong which is roughly £7 and spent the rest of the afternoon there relaxing by the pool and playing on the pool table.
Bich dong pagoda
Later in the day when it had cooled down slightly, we went to to visit Bich Dong Pagoda which comprises of three cave temples nestled into the mountains. You enter the lower pagoda via a beautiful bridge over a lily pad covered pond, you then keep ascending until you reach the middle pagoda, you have to walk through some walk ways which are pretty deep in the cave, dark enough to house some bats, and finally you reach the upper pagoda which has some amazing views of the trees and rice fields below. All in all the visit didn’t take very long and was easily accessible via bike, it was extremely quiet when Shaun and I visited so we were able to just wander around at our own pace, unfortunately we weren’t able to learn a lot about the pagodas but it was worth a visit for the views.
Trang an boat ride
There are two main boat rides which operate around Ninh Binh, Tam Coc boat ride and the Trang an boat ride. Both take you through small rivers in the region and allow you to take in the amazing scenery from a new perspective as well as explore some of the caves which are only accessible by water.
When we researched which trip was the best to take, the majority of people had suggested the Trang an boat ride as it was less touristy. (If anyone has taken the Tam coc boat ride I would love to hear about it?) We payed 515,000 dong for the two of us which is around (£19). However, we were not asked to purchase anything else during the trip or made to feel like we needed to give any additional money once we were on the boat, often I think if you’re being pressured to buy extras or continually tip people it can ruin a trip, I much prefer to pay all the money up front so there are no hidden costs or surprises.
We shared the boat with two other passengers (side note: they were a couple in the 50’s who sat behind us and kissed the entire boat ride, so Shaun and I were sat at the front of the boat like two old prude parents rolling our eyes at each other) and the ride lasted 3 hours, we saw some amazing views, and it just emphasised to me how it’s earned it’s nickname as halong bay on land. As part of the trip we went through 9 caves, some were so small that we had to duck just to fit through them. The Skull island scenes from the new King Kong movie were also filmed in Trang an so you’re able to see the set on this ride also.
Okay, so where do I start with Mua Caves…
This is honestly one of the most spectacular places I have ever been! and probably in the top 3 things we did in our entire south east Asia trip. The really surprising thing about this was that I had never heard of this place or heard any other travellers talking about this throughout our time in Vietnam, we literally stumbled across it when searching ‘things to do in Ninh Binh’ one morning.
You have to climb around 450 steps to get to the top of the caves, at the top there is an amazing dragon statue, to the left you can take in the view of the river and rice paddies and from the right you can see Ninh Binh, this is one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. Once Shaun and I had caught our breath from climbing the steps we sat at the top for around an hour, barely saying a word to each other just taking in the views. We decided to climb it in the late afternoon to avoid the midday heat, so the sun was just about setting as we were making our way back down. I would go as far as saying it’s worth visiting Ninh Binh, just to come to this!
Food and drink
One of the restaturants which was continually being recommended to us and is rated as the best restaurant in Tam Coc is Minh Toan Restaurant Father Cooking. Due to all the great reviews Shaun and I decided to eat there one evening and whilst I enjoyed my meal, it didn’t blow me away, perhaps I was expecting too much due to its reputation. Shaun ordered beef pho and after a few mouthfuls Shaun couldn’t eat anymore, he was convinced it was goat meat and not beef (How he knew this I will never know, because he had never eaten goat meat before, but he insisted that it smelt like goat) so he didn’t finish his meal. In hindsight, we should have just returned the food and asked for beef, but we both hate complaining so we just paid and Shaun went hungry. (There have even been occasions in the past where we have been accidentally overcharged for meals and just paid anyway because neither of us can face complaining.)
Of course, we aren’t sure if it was goat meat because we never asked the staff. However, goat meat is a speciality of the area, we discovered this when we were driving around Tam Coc, and much to our surprise, Shaun pointed out to me that there was a goat stood on top of a food truck in the distance, the two of us were crying with laughter wondering how this goat had managed to get on top of a food truck, as we got closer we realised that the goat was actually skinned and cooked whole and was for sale, needless to say we didn’t buy it!
One day we also stumbled across the only Indian restaurant in Tam Coc Aroma Indian Restaurant, after our goat meat incident Shaun wasn’t really feeling another tradtional vietnamese meal, and going for an indian felt like a bit of a home comfort. It is slightly more expensive than going for pho, but we were able to work it into our budget and it was still much cheaper than you can get it back home. We weren’t really sure what to expect but it was actually one of the nicest Indian meals I had ever had. Admittidly, this may have been due to the fact that we were rarely having indulgent meals and this felt like a real treat. regardless, the meal was so tasty! Shaun and I decided that curries tasted better here than at home, so made it our mission to eat out at another Indian restaurant before we headed home to test our theory.
Chookies Beer Garden is a really great place to stop and have a drink. Shaun and I stopped off here one day around midday when it was too hot to be out in the sun. We grabbed an ice tea and sat and played cards for a couple of hours, the atmosphere is very relaxed with some music playing in the back ground which made it a great place to chill for a couple of hours. They also do food, a lot of it is very Europeon too, so pizzas, burgers etc.
Drive/ Cycle around
Ninh Binh/ Tam Coc is so beautiful that I would suggest spending some time just cycling or driving around. I know many places do provide a cycling tour around the area so you can book on to a guided tour. However, Shaun and I literally just filled up the moped and drove wherever the road took us, or wherever looked interesting and this is such a great way to see all of the beautiful scenery that this area has to offer.
Whilst Ninh Binh may not be a tourist staple just yet, I don’t imagine it will be too long before it does – I feel very grateful that Shaun and I got to enjoy it whilst it was still very quaint and quiet.