Tam Coc, Vietnam and the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex-icated
The Story -- Tam Coc and Trang An, Vietnam
In 2014, UNESCO named the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex Vietnam’s newest world heritage site. I hate that name. It’s the cause of much confusion and is even responsible for a rare, but necessary, fight between Sara and I. The to-do list of the area includes a boat tour of the Trang An grottoes, which are usually just called Trang An. There’s also a boat tour that’s usually called Tam Coc, because that’s the name of the village that it’s in. So, when I say, “should we do Trang An?” referring to the boat tour, and Sara says, “We are going to be in Trang An.” “What about Tam Coc?” “That’s the village we’ll be staying in.” “No, the boat tour” “Which boat tour?” “Trang An” “Are you not listening to me?” “You’re stupid and I hate you.” “Go to Hell” “I hope a spider lays eggs in your face while you sleep tonight.”
We didn’t end up doing any boat tours.
We arrived at Ninh Binh’s bus station and took a taxi straight to Tam Coc. Ninh Binh is the closest city to the attraction, but we heard that there isn’t much to do there. You can find good accommodations in Tam Coc, and more are being built as we speak. After reading some amazing reviews, we booked 3 nights at Tuan Ngoc Hotel (1,143,000/$53 total).
Sample Budget (for 2)
Transportation from Cat Ba Island: 440,000 boat + 50,000 taxi + 180,000 bus + 100,000 taxi = 770,000
Accommodations: 1,143,000 for 3 nights
Meals: 1,055,000 (3 dinners, 2 lunches, breakfast was included with the hotel)
Scooter: 150,000 + 50,000 gas = 200,000
Attraction admission: 130,000 (Hoa Lu and Hang Mua cave)
Booze and snacks: 94,000
Laundry: 126,000 (30,000/kg)
Total: 3,526,000 dong ($165)
Let’s get the praise out of the way. It’s a very inviting family-owned hotel that almost feels more like a homestay. The daughter, Ngoc speaks very good English. The mother, being old skool, speaks French. Together, they basically run the place. Ngoc was accommodating every step of the stay, including giving us a hand drawn map with a breakdown of the attractions of the area, and how far they were from the hotel. The rooms are simple — bed, table, chair, bathroom with hot water, no TV, no fridge — but clean and warm. They also have a restaurant that serves up some decent food, and they offer motorcycle or bicycle rentals.
Attractions in the area include: boat tours along rivers that are surrounded by limestone karsts and farm fields (it’s sometimes called the Ha Long Bay of rice paddies), a bird watcher’s paradise aptly called Bird Paradise, the ancient capital, a bunch of really old pagodas, caves, climbs, and many many amazing views.
We started our day by renting a motorbike and driving to Hoa Lư, the ancient capital. It was raining and we were cold. We got lost. Ngoc’s cartography skills aren’t nearly as good as her hospitality skills. We found it after a couple of wet and cold hours (see map below). As we pulled up on the motorbike, a lady offered us free parking if we bought something from her restaurant. I saw a sign for 10,000 dong ($0.50) parking, so we went with the restaurant, which we had lunch in after seeing the site. It was bad. Stick to drinks. There really isn’t much to see at Hoa Lu, most of it has been destroyed, but knowing that in the 10th century it was the center of Vietnam’s culture and politics was pretty mind blowing. The temples that remain didn’t look much different than every other pagoda I’ve ever seen, but take a walk around and just soak it in. Walking towards the attraction, there’s a left-hand turn before the first temple — there’s a sign for another pagoda there — if you walk down that way you’ll go along a small road, past houses, along farmer’s fields, and between giant limestone karsts. The pagoda that the road leads to was closed when we got there, but the 10 minute walk was excellent. The admission for Hoa Lu is only 10,000 dong ($0.50), so it’s worth doing. When you’re there, I suggest reading through some wikipedia articles about each temple and the emperors that built them. It paints a bit of a story around the sites, and teaches you something that you will probably forget within 10 minutes.
Next, we went to Mua cave. The actual cave isn’t all that exciting, but it’s also worth a stroll through. The real selling point here is the viewpoint. 450 steps take you to the top of a giant rock. It’s a bit of a challenge, but the views are worth it. A tickets for both is 50,000 dong, plus parking. From the top, you can watch the tourist boats come down the river.
Bich Dong Pagoda was built in the 15th century. It’s spread across three levels, built into the side of a mountain. From Tuan Ngoc Hotel, you can walk there in about 20 minutes. The walk is pretty amazing with lots to look at. The pagoda also offers nice views and makes for an interesting climb. It’s free to enter, but the hawkers are all over the area waiting to pounce you with their goods.
The best part of our stay in Tam Coc was the second day when we decided to just explore the area on foot. Behind the hotel, there’s a cool back street that takes you to the lake where the Tam Coc boat tours leave. You can walk around the lake, then take a road that meets up with the river that the boats go down. At the end of that road there is another ancient pagoda. Another street (more like a path) juts off from the pagoda and goes to a cave then ends at another part of the river where you could have a pretty nice picnic as you watch the boat ladies paddle tourists by. With the giant karsts and the flooded fields all around us, it was one of the best walks we’ve taken. There are many little roads that we didn’t bother exploring. Perhaps if we had a bicycle or motorbike we would have, but it was nice to walk and snap photos of the farmers and farm animals. I think the boat tour would have been great, but it would also be a bit stressful. Apparently, they take you around a corner and you’re suddenly swarmed by boats with ladies trying to sell you something. I’ve heard many stories about the different high pressure sales tactics used to sell you everything from photos of yourself in the boat, to drinks for the driver. Have a read through some of the Trip Advisor reviews. They make me cringe. Perhaps, Trang An’s grotto tour is better. I’ve heard that Van Long Nature Reserve is far less touristy than both, but we stayed on dry land for this visit.
There are two great restaurants that we went to in Tam Coc: Viet Bamboo and Father Cooking (Delicious Food). Props to the latter for having a unique name. They are both located right at the main intersection by the lake. I think they’re actually one store down from each other. Their menus are similar — most restaurant’s in the area are. At Viet Bamboo we tried the grilled goat. It’s a specialty to the area and was very good. I was a bit worried that it would be dry, but it wasn’t at all. You should also try the Ninh Binh specialty Com Chay. It’s a buttery chicken soup served with crisply cooked rice. On the menu it will probably say “burnt rice”, which is a bit of a turn off, but trust me it’s really good. Father Cooking (Delicious Food) cooks a really mean pork and pineapple. I can’t choose between the two restaurants. They were both delicious and the owners were both very friendly.
Tam Coc was a great little village, even in the off-season when the fields are empty, and the air is cold. I imagine when the rice fields are in it’s absolutely incredible, but I’m also pleased that we didn’t have to suffer the swarms of tourists. I can’t imagine how a small village like that could handle bus loads of people.
After 3 nights, we rented a scooter, stored our bags, and headed out of town to Vietnam’s first national park, Cúc Phương.
The Facts -- Tam Coc and Trang An, Vietnam
Get In and Out
The best way to get to Tam Coc is to first get to Ninh Binh. From Hanoi, it’s about a 3 hour bus ride from Hanoi’s southern station, Giap Bat and costs 70,000-90,000 dong (they leave every half hour or so until about 11:00PM). The mode of transport is minibus, so you can expect fast speeds, but multiple stops. You can also get a large bus from Luong Yen bus station for about 130,000-140,000. It seem like a no-brainer, but Giap Bat station is about 7 km from the old quarters, while Luong Yen is about 3 km. A taxi to Luong Yen costs 50,000, while a taxi to Giap Bat is about 120,000. If you’re traveling alone, you might want to consider the closer bus station, but if you’re 2 or more people, the cheaper option is most likely Giap Bat.
You can also take the train to Ninh Binh as it’s on the Reunification line that runs from Hanoi to Saigon. The official train site has all the details.
If you’re coming from Cat Ba Island, you can take a boat-bus combo that leaves at 9AM and takes about 5 hours (about 230,000 dong). Buy your tickets from one of the travel agents along the main road in Cat Ba Town.
There are both tourist buses and local mini buses that go between Haiphong and Ninh Binh. The trip is about 2 and a half hours and costs 90,000 dong.
Once you’re in Ninh Binh, you’ll have to take a taxi to Tam Coc. That will cost about 100,000 dong and only take 15 minutes or so.
If you’re lucky and crafty, it’s possible to get to Tam Coc on a tourist bus from Hanoi. Talk to the travel agents in the old quarters. If they have room on their bus, they may work out a deal with you to catch a ride. This can also work coming back to Hanoi, but you have to know the right people. We were hooked up with a ride to Hanoi straight from Tam Coc by the owner of Tuan Ngoc Hotel. It was a bit awkward when the tourists, who had been hanging out together all day, climbed on their bus to find us sitting quietly in two of the seats, but we got back to Hanoi quickly and for only 90,000 dong each.
The Best Budget Hotel in Tam Coc
We love Tuan Ngoc Hotel. It’s simple, but the staff is very nice and it’s in a great location. A double for one night costs us about 380,000 dong.
The Best Budget Restaurant in Tam Coc
This was a tough choice. We really enjoyed two restaurants — luckily they’re right next to each other. At the main intersection by the lake, Viet Bamboo and Father Cooking (Delicious Food) will be able to take care of all your culinary needs while you’re in Tam Coc. For more details read the paragraph about food in THE STORY section.
The Map -- Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex
Next Stop Recommendation -- Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay
Make sure you do a day, or two day, trip via scooter to Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam’s first and largest national park. After that, head to Ninh Binh bus station and find a local bus to Hai Phong. There are tourist buses that cost about 160,000 VND each, but the local buses run more frequently and only cost about 70,000 VND. The ride takes 3-4 hours, so make sure you get to the station early so you can catch the last boat to Cat Ba Island. Once in Hai Phong, you’ll want to take a taxi (about 50,000 VND) to the port (Bến Bính) and buy a ferry ticket (240,000VND) to Cat Ba Island. Ferries leave throughout the day starting at 8:30AM until 4PM. You shouldn’t have to wait more than an hour, unless you hit the 10:30-12:30 gap when no ferries run. Some boats will drop you off at the port in Cat Ba Town, others will take you to a different port then put you on a bus to Cat Ba Town. Depending which one you get, the trip will take 1-2 hours.