It’s hard not to be won over by the mystical, watery beauty of the Tam Coc "three caves" region, which is effectively a miniature landlocked version of Ha Long Bay. The film Indochine helped to put it on the tourist map, and both good and bad have come of its burgeoning popularity – access roads have been improved, though some of the canal banks themselves have been lined with concrete. In addition, Tam Coc has become relentlessly commercial, with many travellers having a wonderful day spoiled by hard-sell antics at the end of their trip. Despite the over-zealous – occasionally aggressive – peddling of embroideries and soft drinks by the rowers, the two-hour sampan-ride is a definite highlight, especially as the men and women row with their feet and make it look easy.
If you are an independent traveller, you can take the bus from Giao Bat in Hanoi. It takes around 3 hours to arrive at Ninh Binh, where you will then need to get a taxi to Tam Coc Wharf. Alternatively, you can get a train from Hanoi. Both take about 3 hours with final stops in Ninh Binh.
The accommodation in Tam Coc has majorly improved to cater to tourists in recent years. Options include regular hotels, homestays in bungalows and dreamy resorts in the rice fields overlooking serene views and mountains and greenery.
Boat rides on traditional sampans are the highlight in Tam Coc, meandering through dumpling-shaped karst hills in a flooded landscape where the river and rice paddies merge serenely into one; keep an eye open for mountain goats high on the cliffs, and bright, darting kingfishers. Journey’s end is Tam Coc, three long, dark tunnel-caves (Hang Ca, Hang Giua and Hang Cuoi) eroded through the limestone hills with barely sufficient clearance for the sampan after heavy rains. On the way back, you can ask to stop at Thai Vi Temple, a short walk from the river. Dating from the thirteenth century and dedicated to the founder of the Tran Dynasty, it’s a peaceful, atmospheric spot.
Be mindful when choosing your boat to stay clear of those with boxes, as these usually mean that your rower will haggle you endlessly until you have purchased something from them - it can ruin your relaxing ride if you do not wish to buy something. Also be aware that hawkers will sometimes convince you to buy a drink for your guide/rower, however, your oarsmen or women will quickly sell this back to them for half the price once you have left.
The landscape here is flat so bike riding through the rice fields is recommended and makes you feel like you are in a movie scene. Ride at ease whilst taking in the breathtaking views and lush green colours.
If you have time after the boat trip, follow the road leading southwest from the boat dock for about 2km to visit the cave-pagoda of Bich Dong, or "Jade Grotto". Stone-cut steps, entangled by the thick roots of banyan trees, lead up a cliff face peppered with shrines to the cave entrance, believed to have been discovered by two monks in the early fifteenth century. On the rock face above, two giant characters declare "Bich Dong". The story goes that they were engraved in the eighteenth century by the father of Nguyen Du (author of the classic Tale of Kieu), who was entrusted with the construction of the complex. The cave walls are now scrawled with graffiti but the three Buddhas sit unperturbed on their lotus thrones beside a head-shaped rock which purportedly bestows longevity if touched. Walk through the cave to emerge higher up the cliff, from where steps continue to the third and final temple and viewpoint over the waterlogged scene.
Featured Image, Tam Coc © John Bill / Shutterstock