An explorer’s guide to Tam Coc, Ninh Binh

An explorer’s guide to Tam Coc, Ninh Binh

Simple life on huge farmlands landlocked between limestone mountains, at peace with the rest of the world. Tam Coc loves its originality and minimalism. Tam Coc gets its name from the three beautiful caves in its depth surrounded by many cliffs and mountains.

After staying for a week in Phong Nha, we arrived in Tam Coc. Though some travelers prefer to stay in Ninh Binh, the bigger town next to Tam Coc, we chose to stay in a quiet homestay in Tam Coc.

Life in this little village 5 km west of the busy, swarming crossroads of Ninh Binh city is a polarized image of the latter; here, you walk the nature’s trails. Transport is rare, and most of it is walking and bike riding, swaying through the windy roads right in between vast paddy rice fields and a lively river flowing by your side.

Unique, yes, it is! The mountains are so magnificent that Ninh Binh is nicknamed to be called Halong Bay on Land (Halong Bay is an underwater wonder of gorgeous rock formations and oceanic mountain chains in Northeast Vietnam).

Currency

Vietnamese Dong, the local currency, is accepted everywhere. 1 USD counts as 23,335 VND, so be ready for all those extra zeroes in your pocket. For Indians, it is 1 INR = 310 VND.

Best time to visit Tam Coc

Like the rest of Vietnam, months of May stretching till October are humid but still not very hot, rice is sowed and changes the field colors from green to golden yellow before it’s finally harvested in November.

Depending on what time you visit, the canvas of Tam Coc might be green, golden, or plain muddy. On the plus, post-harvest months are usually less touristy, and you’d have way fewer people around you (Tam Coc is super touristy nowadays, and a lot of tourists means lots of hawkers and hard sellers, which you would like to avoid). Typically, any time you go, it will be the best of one experience or the other.

How to get to Tam Coc?

The closest town to Tam Coc is Ninh Binh, which is 100 km south of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. Since the capital is connected to the rest of the country through all possible means, it is not difficult to find a bus to Ninh Binh. From Ninh Binh, it’s only a 15 minutes ride to Tam Coc.

By Bus

Multiple options available at all times, luxury and non-luxury. It’s a 3-hour bus ride for Ninh Binh from Hanoi, then a taxi to Tam Coc. As a ground rule, for bus tickets, don’t opt for the cheapest one because the next thing you know, you’d be in a small box adjusting and gasping even for some movable space for three hours straight. After staying in Vietnam for six weeks, we have realized the best option to pick the right bus is to go to the city bus station and buy the tickets there and then. That way, you can see the bus before buying tickets, and there are no surprises.

Buses in Vietnam

By Train

Train rides are great, though they almost take the same time, the scenery is just the thing that you’d crave for after a long day in Hanoi or (for that matter) any busy city in Vietnam. Southbound trains from Hanoi and northbound ones from HCMC most have a halt at Ninh Binh city.

Getting around Tam Coc

Walking through the paddies of Tam Coc and while at it, looking at the most beautiful people, tripping in mud and dipping hands and feet into the river, sowing the rice saplings, when you wait for catching a breath. It’s a charm you can only watch when on a walking spree across the little village of Tam Coc.

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Walking along the river or paddy fields is one of the not-to-be missed experience in Tam Coc

On a light, breezy day, if you feel like doing some adventure, hire a bike. It’s totally up to you whether you want a rumbling geared motor vehicle or a more simple, pedaled bicycle. That doesn’t make a difference as long as you are on the move, beneath clear skies drained out of clouds, all blue against paddy fields and cattle grazing at a distance.

Are you planning to stay at a local’s place or hotel? They might pick you up if you ask for their help, pick up a phone, call them and get to see the local version of Tam Coc, for free!

Things to do in Tam Coc

Exploring caves, the three famous ones

Tam Coc has a lot to offer apart from the magnificent cliffs and lush paddy fields. An adventurer’s paradise – Tam Coc gets its name from the three caves, which are an excellent choice for your ‘where to get a boat ride to’ doubts. Though caves are pretty much the staple adventure that many come to visit Vietnam for, the experience of boating under these cliffs and bowing down to the stalactite spikes is different.

Boat cruises to Trang An

Minutes away from the hamlet of Tam Coc is this popular ‘off the beaten path’ destination. With its UNESCO World Heritage site title, Trang An boasts incredible sceneries and is sought after for its exceptional boat and cave tours. In many ways, it’s a twin for Tam Coc, except there are some famous temples to visit here!

A woman rower.

Hike to Hang Mua Cave viewpoint and Tiger Cave

Sitting on the top, watching birds fly over crop painted fields and massive cliffs reaching for the sky from this viewpoint is not something that many miss. Gazing the river flowing at its slow pace between those vast farmlands and nothing at all breaking the silence that lives here is one more thing you’ll jot down in your memories forever.

Starting point of the stairs to Hang Mua Cave viewpoint.

The entry ticket to the Hang Mua Cave viewpoint is 100.000 VND per person, but the real catch is parking your bike or scooter. Though there is designated parking inside the main entrance near the ticket window, people will try to scam you to park in their private parking. As soon as you take a left turn to go to the viewpoint, people will come in front of your bike and force you to park the bike there. Luckily we knew that there is a parking lot inside, and we ducked all the people warning us that you can’t take your bike ahead of this point. We paid 5000 VND for the parking, which was 1/10th of the price the people on the streets were asking for.

The Hang Mua Cave viewpoint

There are some 500 stairs to reach the tower on the top, and depending on your pace, it would take you 25 to 45 minutes. The tower is a Vietnamese architecture and is a famous Instagram spot. You may choose to stay in a queue to take a picture, or like us, you can find a peaceful spot to sit and enjoy the beauty of limestone mountains. And if you take a couple of more stairs, you will reach Dragon’s peak.

Lotus pond and the walking wooden ramp.

The Tiger cave at the bottom of the Hang Mua viewpoint is not very impressive, especially if you come from Phong Nha Ke Bang. The lotus pond and the walking ramp are beautifully maintained too.

Riding a bicycle by the paddy fields

Roads in Tam Coc are very average but enough for a good bike ride, though! It’s one thing you would love at all times, early morning after a cup of Vietnamese coffee at a local place when you’ll head to chase the sun at the horizon, and you’d watch farmers beginning their morning field chores.

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A woman sowing rice saplings.

And when it’s sundown time, birds will fly above your head, and the river would start to become silent once again into the nothingness of laidback village nights. The only downside is that the bicycles are not kept very well at most of the homestays and even at the bike rental shops. But we made the best out of that too.

Cycling on one of the misty mornings in Tam Coc.

Places to stay in Tam Coc

Tam Coc Ngo Dong Homestay

Built-in stones and bricks, this homestay is close to the bus park. The owner is very friendly and warm, and will instantly make you feel welcome and accommodate special requests (we checked in at 4:00 in the morning). The rooms were clean and well ventilated. Super budget-friendly, they even have breakfast included in your room’s pricing, rooms are spacious, and beds comfortable at best!

Our room at Tam Coc Ngo Dong Homestay

Ninh Binh Hidden Charm Hotel

Fancy a treat? This hotel is just one big treat. Somewhat fancy, covered in gardens from all around, this one comes with a swimming pool, attached balconies overlooking the mountains and paddy fields. All that and more and still not going to burn any holes in your pockets. A hidden charm it is!

Tam Coc Luxury Homestay

Did you imagine living in the wilderness? Yes, Tam Coc is grounded to its simple living standards, and when you come to this homestay, you’d instantly know you have made a fantastic choice. Locked in the land, surrounded by karst mountain peaks, stone pathways lead you to a private cottage where you can unwind by the window that looks into bushes and flowers out in the garden.

Tam Coc luxury homestay is right below the cliff.

Run by a family, the breakfast comes included with your stay, and guess what? You might even get picked up and dropped to for a reasonable charge.

The homestay illuminated by soothing lights at night.

Tam Coc Banana Bungalows

With a huge pool in the middle of it, Banana Bungalows has more than a room a night, you can virtually choose a shared, private, or luxury room, and that comes with the perfect ambiance of the place. They have a provision to give out bikes to their guests to explore the village on their own plus their centrally placed pool is a total lifesaver on the hot days. The lotus ponds, sunbeds, community dining hall, it’s just a whole bunch of amenities that you can get at unbelievable prices.

Best places to eat in Tam Coc

NGON Vegan Restaurant

The food so great, you’d roll on it day and night. What completes this place other than the finger-licking good food is the humblest, friendliest people who run this restaurant. There’s so much choice at this completely vegan place, you’d go bananas! Honestly, this was one of the best Vegan food we had during our entire trip, and you totally cannot go to Tam Coc and not try their coconut chickpea curry, dumplings, and mango and sticky rice.

Chickpea Curry- Red rice and fresh spring rolls at NGON Vegan restaurant.

Brick Coffee Shop

You can sense the love and warmth that this little humble coffee corner has nestled around itself. Coffee that you’d happily take a caffeine overdose for and pastries that are so fresh, Brick Coffee is run by a super sweet couple. And this couple is doing it all with the same energy and love every single day. Interiors are sophisticated and sharp, and multiple windows offer beautiful views of the outside; exteriors are covered in thick green plants and trees.

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Warm interiors at Bricks Coffee

Aroma Ninh Binh

Lovely fine dining seating, flavorful and enticing Indian curries and bread, this is where your cravings will drive you to. The food variety is excellent, and since the chefs are Indians, the food is close to the original.

Budhha Belly

One of those old town wood and stone cafes where you’d love spending a lazy afternoon is Buddha Belly. A superb ambiance and playful, cheerful staff make it a total go-to hideout. A fantastic choice would be burger and fries that top the menu, though most other menu items are average.

Family Restaurant

Run by a local friendly family, they have an enormous menu for meat and chicken lovers, and if you love to interact and have a fabulous non-veg meal, this is your kind of place. Though less, you can still get some vegetarian choices, and of those, most are scrumptious!

Banh Mi Hanoi

A humble bakery cum cafe, this one’s probably your average local street food place. The owner is super adorable and what’s good is that she makes the Banh Mi live, so its freshness goes unquestioned. Trust me, you won’t mind sharing the seats with some locals who are already waiting for their turns.

Pizza Factory

If you are looking for a freshly baked, wood-fired pizza in Tam Coc, then the Pizza factory is the right place for you. From Volcano pizza to vegan choices, they have a lot of pizza varieties to offer. The drinks are reasonably priced, and the service is fast.

Wood-fired Pizza at Pizza factory.

Know before you go

  • Most buses drop at Tam Coc at odd timings (for the record, we reached at 4 in the morning). However, courtesy the genuinely kind people and more than a couple of homestays and hotels near the bus park, you can place a request in advance requesting an early or late check-in, sometimes free, other times with an extra charge.
  • Your cash is your best friend when you come to a remote village like this one. Though there is an ATM in front of Ninh Binh Hidden Charm Hotel, you cannot rely on it enough. Some ATMs are there in Ninh Binh city, but it’s a 15 minutes bike ride until there.
  • Haggling vendors can get on your nerve in Tam Coc, for one, they’d click pictures of you when you’re on a boat ride, and once you’re done, they’ll put up their best efforts to try and hard sell those photographs to you (even when you don’t want them). Two, when you’re on your boat, the boat rower will sometimes ask for an extra tip; other times, he’ll ask you to buy drinks or food which they eventually sell back to the vendors and keep the commission. Better be firm and politely refuse to do what you do not want to.
Boat point, Tam Coc.

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