The Ninh Binh Province is a mere 2-3 hour drive south of Hanoi, and has come to be known as ‘Halong Bay on land’. In reality it is Tam Coc – a small village to the southwest of Ninh Binh town – that gives the area its nickname, and it is the limestone karsts dotting the land that draw the comparison to the famous bay. However, many choose to skip it on their way through Vietnam, missing out on exquisite natural scenery and peaceful Vietnamese countryside.
There is little to see in Ninh Binh town itself, and as it is now possible to stay in Tam Coc – there is a hotel and a couple of cheaper hostels – there is no need to go to the town at all. Some of the tourist buses will drop you off right in the village itself.
The area is nicknamed ‘Halong Bay on land’
Tam Coc literally means ‘three caves’, and refers to the three caves through which the Ngô Đồng River runs. The main event for most who visit Tam Coc is a boat ride along the river and through the caves (200,000 dong/$9 per person, May 2016). However, it is also possible to cycle along the majority of the route (although obviously you won’t see the caves), and through the rice paddies that sit between the karsts, avoiding the throngs of boats that make the journey along the river.
Taking a boat trip is a popular way to see the caves of Tam Coc
Hiring a bicycle also allows you to explore more of the area beyond the river, taking narrow pathways that run between rice paddies, and visiting other nearby sites such as Mua Cave and various pagodas. The best thing about Tam Coc is its idyllic countryside setting, where you will come across few other tourists when making your way around during the day. What better way to enjoy it than explore it on two wheels? Bicycle hire is around 40,000 dong for the day.
The main attraction of Mua Cave is not actually the cave itself; its primary draw is a fantastic viewpoint over the river, across the limestone karsts and into the distance. You must climb up around 400 steps to reach the viewpoint, so try to avoid visiting during the hottest times of the day. Entrance to Mua Cave is 100,000 dong/$4.50 (May 2016).
Mua Cave’s viewpoint offers the best views across the Tam Coc area
Bich Dong Pagoda
Bich Dong Pagoda is a temple complex of several pagodas set into a limestone karst. The first pagoda is on the ground; climb up some steps and you will enter a cave to see the second; and climb up and out of the cave to find the third. They’re not the most striking temples that Vietnam has to offer, but they make a nice stop on your bicycle tour. Entrance to the pagodas is free, but make sure to dress respectfully during your visit.
Bich Dong Pagoda makes a nice stop on your bicycle tour
There are many more sights to visit in the Ninh Binh region, but I would say a day is enough to explore the best that Tam Coc has to offer, whether you choose to hire a bicycle, a motorbike or a driver for the day. This makes a trip to the village a great excursion from Hanoi, or a perfect stop-over on the long journey from North to South Vietnam. It is an idyllic place that you should definitely visit if you’re in the region.