Yes Vietnam is dirty, polluted and over-crowded (well my opinion anyway), but it is also home to several spectacular natural attractions that are worth the trip to South East Asia.
Famous for the mighty Mekong in the south, another impressive waterway that’s a great escape from the chaotic cities of Vietnam can be found in Tam Coc, beautifully nestled in Ninh Binh province. The Ninh Binh province is apparently known as the ‘Ha Long Bay in Rice Paddies’, for it’s a fertile-rich region high in rice fields with plentiful rainfall.
Tam Coc, which is named for its three caves, sits along the placid Ngo Dong River and is home to surreal soaring karst topography (those big beautiful rocky mountains). The incredible landscape features an abundance of limestone hills that soar like giant sentries, formed over centuries to create an array of fractures, fissures and caves. It is here you can board a rowboat for a leisurely ride along the river. At first it may seem a bit of an extreme fee, but you can expect to pay 150,000VND for the boat and an additional 120,000VND per adult (max 2 adults per boat) to experience this beautiful sight. Whilst this only roughly equates to $17USD it is a bit of a hike for the relatively cheap Vietnam. Yet do not despair, it is one experience definitely worth the money.
Whilst resembling the rocky outcrops of Ha Long Bay, Tam Coc boasts a unique landscape of its own where the land is sea of green offset by the rust coloured mammoth formations. Arriving early in the morning or late in the afternoon guarantees a quieter experience where only the sound of the flowing river can be heard and you feel that time seems to stand still.
Using their feet to propel the oars, the friendly (predominantly) female rowers take you on a roughly two hour boat ride that winds it way in between the karsts and valleys and through the three caves of Tam Coc.
You’ll begin your relaxing ride out of the bay past many brick-roofed houses that look Mediterranean inspired before you round a bend to be greeted by the standout feature – the magnificent limestone masses that hug the riverside.
On your journey through this enchanted and peaceful world, you’ll pass through caves, grottos and caverns sprouting stalactites and stalagmites formed from historical rainfalls and water flows. Hang Ca, the first cave, is the largest of all measuring 20 meters across and 2 meters high. Hang Hai is the second cave and is noticeable for its breathtaking stalagmites. Hang Ba is the last and smallest of the caves, and combined they form the three caves of Tam Coc, Vietnam – Tam meaning three, Coc meaning caves.
Following the rainfalls when the river is at its peak and the paddies are full, the reflections further strengthen the beauty of this place. The vivid landscape is rich with an abundance of flora and fauna, from the pink and white lotus flowers that dapple the green river to the graceful buffalo that casually graze in the cool water. In between passing through the caves on your boat ride, it’s common to be greeted by smiling local women with their floating marketplaces; their small row boats filled with lotus roots, fresh flowers, luscious fruits, a range of snacks and cool drinks.
A word to the wise, whilst the rowers sit under their mounted umbrellas it can be pretty searing in the direct sun for two hours, so bring a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. You might be lucky to snag a hospitable rower (like I did) who will offer a free umbrella to use. Which leads to my final point – tipping. The rowers are known for being a bit pushy requesting tips; which is not a practice in Vietnam, it’s simply an easy way for them to make a little more money. No matter how much you may give them they will always want more, so nip it in the bud and stand your ground, or simply refuse if you feel it wasn’t great.
If you’re in South East Asia – Japan, Taiwan, Cambodia, China etc., or planning to go, then it’s only a hop-skip-and-a-jump to Vietnam, which is full of rich and beautiful places made to be explored. The pictures don’t do the Ngo Dong River and Tam Coc true justice, but this river ride is a definite must-add to tick off any bucket list!
Know another great bucket-list recommendation? Leave a comment or drop me a line, I’d love to hear about it!
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