Beautiful Tam Coc and Rural North Vietnam

David Pettitt

Tam Coc lies two hours south of central Hanoi, capital of Vietnam. Close to its more famous neighbour Ninh Binh, Tam Coc sits in the heart of a region popularly known as ‘Ha Long Bay on Land’. With its glistening waterways, emerald green paddy fields, picturesque villages and spectacular karst limestone scenery, this is an area of outstanding natural beauty and a place few know outside of Asia. Here are some thoughts from David Pettitt on his recent visit to Tam Coc.

To truly understand Vietnam you have to experience the countryside and leave the noise and smells, hustle and bustle of the city behind. After fighting though Hanoi’s maddening rush hour traffic, passing through the suburbs and past the industrial buildings on the city limits, the paddy fields started to appear. Dotted with tombstones and broken with cemeteries and memorials to the Vietnam War, women wearing conical hats and children on their way to school dodged the careening juggernauts and impatient coaches that were thundering south from the capital.

Like them, we also headed south. We were going to Tam Coc, a small collection of villages close to Ninh Binh. Although the majority of visitors to Vietnam make the pilgrimage to Ha Long Bay, we decided Tam Coc was worth a try. The literature sounded good, promising stunning rural scenery, fewer tourists and a chance to explore under our own steam. As we approached Tam Coc, it certainly did not disappoint.

River scenery in Tam Coc

Our base during our stay was the Tam Coc Garden (http://www.tamcocgarden.com/en), a pretty boutique hotel tucked away from the main road down a winding lane and bumpy track. Recreating a ‘traditional’ village, small huts form a horseshoe around a scenic wild garden and central building which overlooks a lovely pool and bar. The beautifully decorated rooms with high wooden ceilings and tiled floors were welcoming and also very much in keeping with their surroundings.

Although we would have been happy to simply sit by the pool, supping cocktails and taking in the surrounding scenery, that was not the point of coming to Tam Coc so the afternoon was spent walking the old lanes and taking the obligatory sampan ride. Although geared for visitors, the sampan is a must and the scenery quite breathtaking. Tam Coc actually means ‘three caves’ and the tranquil ride up the river travels through all three, each larger one than the next. Bats fluttered by, disturbed by the rowing and flashlights, multi-coloured dragonflies buzzed through the air and electric blue kingfishers dived for fish. Spending time on the river was a real highlight.

Karst landscape in Tam Coc

The following day we took bikes, provided free by the hotel, and cycled through the surrounding villages, stopping to visit small local temples and chat to the locals over an iced green tea. We received a tip off and headed further through the paddy fields to Hang Mua, an impressively sited mountain-top temple, where we were promised spectacular views if we could make it to the top.

Hillside pathway in Tam Coc

Struggling up the 400 or so steep snaking steps was a challenge in the heat but it was well worth itwith a staggering vista of jungle-covered lumpy karst limestone mountains disappearing into the distance for many a mile. Eventually dragging ourselves away we returned down the mountain and cycled back to the hotel tired but elated, celebrating our memorable day with a cold beer and well-deserved dip in the pool.

Small river boats in Tam Coc