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Tucked within the province of Ninh Binh, just two hours from Hanoi, lies the picturesque Tam Coc. Tam Coc literally means three caves, through which the Ngo Dong River flows amidst a landscape of spectacular karst limestone, similar to those found in Ha Long Bay. It’s a parcel full of idyllic glistening waterways, charming villages and jagged limestone mountains that rise out of the lush green rice paddies. With a description like that, I just had to put it on my itinerary!
After exploring Halong Bay, I’ve decided to go straight to Ninh Binh instead of going back to Hanoi. You can definitely go back and join a day tour from Hanoi if you want to, most travelers do that. It’s a cheaper option and the route is less complicated. But I wanted to do it independently and save time, if you are in the same boat with me, then I suggest you do it as I did.
The ride took less than 3 hours and cost $50 by private car (for public bus it would only cost around $5). When I arrived, I grabbed my luggage and found refuge in the beautiful Ninh Binh Legend Hotel – an imposing tower block with French colonial style and views of surrounding mountains. It’s so peaceful, the room was beautifully decorated with high wooden ceilings and the staff was quite friendly and welcoming. Although I would have been happy to simply relax while sipping cocktails and taking in the surrounding scenery, that was not the point of coming to Ninh Binh, so the afternoon was spent walking the old lanes to experience that laid – back lifestyle atmosphere of the village.
The town was not touristy at all, and it took me a while to find a good restaurant to dine. Not that there’s isn’t any but everything seemed to close at sunset. Luckily, I found this travel themed restaurant called Chookies. The food was really good and they provide excellent customer service! The owner, Van is a nice Vietnamese guy who speaks great English. I found that he will answer any questions regarding trips around Ninh Binh. He can also arrange a car for you to self-build where you want to go or what you want to see. Just order some food and he will help you organize your time in Ninh Binh. I really enjoyed chatting with him. I would recommend coming here as soon as you arrive.
The next morning, I went early to Van Lam wharf to beat the crowd going to Tam Coc. There were a few other individual tourists when I arrived but it was not crowded. Interestingly, there’s an authentic feel to the area, with few signs in English, and minimal infrastructure for tourism. If you ever want to escape the chaos of Hanoi for a couple of days to find some peace and tranquility, then this is an option to consider.
After buying the ticket for Tam Coc Caves ($9 per person) and for the boat, a man in uniform greeted me with a shy smile and asked me in decent English where I am from so I replied that I am from the Philippines and his response was so confusing that I couldn’t tell if he was excited or annoyed but he gladly asked me to board the small metal boat. He grabbed the long pole and pushed me offshore and began to control the small boat which had been rigged up to paddle with his feet and not with his hands. I curiously asked him why this method is used and he replied that it allows them to face in a forward position, as well as alleviating the pressure off their backs and arms. Yeah, talking about coordination eh? And not to mention a great workout for your thighs!!!
I sat back as I was being gently rowed. Everywhere I turned my head, it was the same colors – that timeless blue sky and lush greenery. Unfortunately, it was the wrong season to see the rice fields in their prime with the bright green and yellow colors as shown on postcards and photographs of the area. Nonetheless, the place is still downright magical.
Along the way, I was approached by a local cameraman trying to persuade me to let him take photos of me. Even though I said NO, he still took some shots, thinking probably that I might change my mind and buy it after the tour. LOL!
We continued to sail till we reach the first cave. It seemed unbelievable as we approached the entrance that we could actually fit through the opening! It’s pretty dark and so cold inside but I’m sure you will be impressed by the mysterious falling stalactites. At many points throughout the caves, you could just reach up and touch the beautiful stalactites of different shapes and colors sparkiling like gem stones. The other two caves are quite similar to the first one but they are shorter and lower.
After exiting the third cave, we arrived at a place called the “Fairy Stream” a pure mirror-like stream where you can even see through to the stream-bed to contemplate with flocks of fish swimming and looming in the moss layers. The legend says that fairies used to land here to swim, hence the name.
Then we reached the turn-around point, and the rower took a brief break which allowed for the floating market boats to come over and tried to entice me with a cold drink and snacks at a very inflated price. I think it’s all conspiracy, they all worked together. I told the approaching vendor that I would buy one drink for my rower, nothing more and she said two dollars and I told her absolutely not, one dollar was four times the normal price! I bought sliced green mangoes instead and the lady who I bought it from was not so happy with her sale. You see, each boat has a little locker where they keep their goods and looks like they really do not drink or eat the food that you are going buy. I think they will just resell it and divide among themselves the collected money . Unbelievable!
When we arrived back to the shore, I handed $2.00 to my rower – and he grinned wide and thanked me and even the woman who had helped him land the boat was thanking me and they were all smiles.
In summary, my trip took 1.5 hours, which was 30 minutes quicker than the usual. It was indeed a unique experience, I liked it. I have to say that for some intangible reason I found it extraordinary and breath-taking, a good scenic day out from Hanoi. I would definitely recommend visiting this place.
1. The best time to visit Tam Coc is in the crop season. Where the whole area is covered by the green and yellow color of ripe paddy-fields.
2. Visit the place early morning and evening when the weather is cooler and fewer tourist.
Have you been to a cave as spectacular as this? I would love to hear from you, write down your thoughts in the comment box below. If you enjoyed this post, why not follow me on my Facebook or Instagram page, bringing you travel tips and inspiration.
Happy travels everyone!
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