After spending a few days taking in the sight of Hanoi at the start of my visit to Vietnam in 2014, I realised I had a free day up my sleeve. Beyond Halong Bay and the highlands of Sapa, both of which I had planned, I didn’t know of any other trips you could take from Vietnam’s capital city. Enquiring at my hotel, I found a list of activities to choose from, with one particularly standing out – Tam Coc.
Dubbed the “Halong Bay on Land”, Tam Coc is the name for a series of caves that lie along the Ngo Dong River, among the limestone mountains of the Ninh Binh province. I was already eager to see Halong Bay and the huge limestone mountains that define the region’s landscape, but had booked that for later in the week. The idea of seeing the landscape earlier and a land version at that, had me jumping to book the day trip tour. Few minutes later and I had a place on a tour for the next day, the company of which’s name I never got unfortunately.
Hoa Lu Temples
Once the pickups were completed in Hanoi, we drove south and passed through the city of Ninh Binh to the nearby ancient Imperial citadel of Hoa Lu. In fact, Hoa Lu was the ancient capital of Vietnam during the 10th and 11th centuries, before it was relocated to Hanoi. Today, several temples from the height of its power remain.
Interestingly, it was explained to the group that the location of Hoa Lu was chosen as it sits by a river and the large limestone mountains of the province. These elements of having water in front and mountain behind were considered auspicious, following principles akin to Feng Shui. Having never really learnt about these belief systems, I found it fascinating.
We were brought into the citadel and taken to several temples inside, as the heavens opened and rain poured down upon us. It certainly dampened our enthusiasm to sightsee at that time but thankfully it did clear up soon enough. Despite the rain, and a millennia passing since its height of power, you could definitely appreciate the grandeur of the site. From immense gateways, to the large reflecting pools lining the walkways to the temples themselves, Hoa Lu must have been massive in its day. I only wish I had taken more photos.
The main two temples of Hoa Lu are the Đinh Tiên Hoàng Temple and Lê Đại Hành Temple. The former is named after Dinh Bo Linh who reunified the country and began the first imperial dynasty of Vietnam in 968. The latter temple honours Lê Hoàn, one of Dinh Bo Linh’s generals who would later come to be Emperor himself. The stories of these two men reflect the turbulent and messy period that Vietnam went through at the turn of the first millennia.
Ngo Dong River Cruise
From Hoa Lu, we drove a short 30 minutes to the little town at Tam Coc. When we arrived at Tam Coc we were immediately ushered to small traditional boats called Sampan, seating up to 4 people plus a local lady to row, who would take us along the river into the countryside. At first the refurbished buildings along the bank made it seem like a theme park ride, but thankfully the surroundings quickly changed to a more rural setting and then soon, sheer wilderness.
After passing through the edge of town, we were surrounded by vast limestone mountains high above us. At ground level, were rice paddies with the occasional farmer tending to them. On the tops of several mountains were temples that seemed totally inaccessible. While there had been plenty of sampans at the start of the cruise, they had spread out as we went, adding to the hauntingly beautiful stillness of the landscape.
There was so much to take it an as the boat slowly weaved its way through the majestic landscape. From the features of the rocks, to the water stain marks on the rocky faces, to the sounds of goats and monkeys unseen among the undergrowth, I never grew bored despite our languid pace. Occasionally we would pass a shrine or seemingly abandoned house, adding to the overall atmosphere. And then we reached the caves.
As I said at the top, Tam Coc actually refers to the caves found along the river, but they actually act more like tunnels. With a very low rock ceiling above our heads, we drifted into a small opening at the bottom of one of the mountains and slipped into the cool dark of the cave. From the outside, it was unclear where the other exit was but from inside the cave you could see the light coming through the opening, which put me at ease as I don’t like confined spaces. Floating through the caves made it clear why the area is named after them and not just the river.
We eventually reached the dead-end and then got to enjoy the sights all over again as we were rowed back to the start. Something that was pretty damn cool, was the rowing technique used by the ladies in the sampans. Rather than rowing with their hands like a chump, the local ladies would lean back a bit and use their feet. No matter how many women I saw do this rowing the other way, it left me with a smile and a sense of fascination. Seeing people do life’s simple stuff in a totally different way is a true joy of travel in my opinion.
Once we had landed back at town and enjoyed a sizeable buffet lunch, we were provided with bicycles and began a ride out into the farmland. At first the ride was along wide concrete roads with no traffic and was easy-going. That was until the guide veered off and took us down narrow dirt paths that ran between the fields. Given I hadn’t cycled in God-knows how long, it felt like I’d been rushed into the advanced class and was majorly struggling. That I didn’t crash was a minor miracle.
We soon reached a minor road and I was able to relax and enjoy the surrounds. Cycling along, we passed plenty of quiet, humble houses giving the area a very serene feel. That is, until we passed what looked like a mini-mansion that was blasting EDM music which was both funny and jarring. The ride did take us back through some quiet rural villages, complete with local livestock. In fact, at one point one of our riders got chased off by a mother cow because he had gotten too close to her calf as the group rode past!
Riding through the rural area reinforced how peaceful and simple life was in parts of Vietnam and turned out to be an unexpected delight of the tour. After the ride it was unfortunately time to head back for Hanoi. Sadly I didn’t take any photos along the ride, so here’s another from the river cruise to close out with.
Have you heard of, or visited, Tam Coc before? Would you choose to cruise down this river in Vietnam? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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