If you’re looking for a relaxing break during your time in North Vietnam, the serene Tam Coc Village, in Ninh Binh Province, is the place to go! The area is located an easy 2-3 hour bus or train journey from the capital, Hanoi.
Framed by lush green rice fields and limestone karsts, the area is a stunning, yet peaceful, getaway from the buzzing cities and whizzing motorbikes of Vietnamese cities! Translated as “three caves”, Tam Coc is often referred to as “Halong Bay on Land” due to its incredibly scenic landscape of limestone cliffs rising from the rice paddies. Even the foggy conditions during our visit couldn’t diminish the beauty of this picturesque part of Vietnam!
Explore 1,000-year old pagodas, take a trip on a sampan (an old Chinese fishing boat) with a local fisherwoman on scenic river Ngo Dong or cycle through the rice fields… There are loads of ways to discover this ancient and beautiful part of Vietnam. In this guide, we’ll discuss a few ways that you can visit Tam Coc in Ninh Binh Province, so that you can decide what works best for you!
When is the best time to visit Tam Coc and Ninh Binh Province?
The best time to see Tam Coc in all its glory is May and June when the rice starts to ripen and the colours change to a spectacular green-yellow offering amazing views, especially from the top of Huang Mua Cave! (See below). Weather-wise the area can be visited all year round. Read more in our Vietnam Travel Guide about the best time of year to visit Vietnam.
Tam Coc + Ninh Binh Tour: Taking a Trip from Hanoi
If you’re looking for an excellent value for money tour to Tam Coc and Ninh Binh, we recommend this one or two day Tam Coc and Ninh Binh Tour run by the Hanoi-based company, Friends Travel Vietnam.
One Day Tam Coc Tour
Due to time restrictions, many travellers decide to take one day trip to Tam Coc from the capital, Hanoi. This can be a great option if you’re short on time and don’t want to miss out on visiting ‘Halong Bay on Land’. If you had to pick just one day tour, out of all of the day tours, that you can do from Hanoi, a trip to Tam Coc would definitely be it! A day tour with Friends Travel Vietnam costs just $49 US and includes transport to and from Hanoi, a 2-hour boat trip on Tam Coc River, a cycling trip, a Vietnamese lunch and an English-speaking guide.
2-Day Overnight Trip to Tam Coc and Ninh Binh
Another great option is to take an overnight trip from Hanoi to Tam Coc, where you’ll have more time to relax and explore the beauty of Ninh Binh province. The trip includes everything that you’ll get in a day tour, plus a free day to explore Ninh Binh at your own leisure. You can get a tour for as little as $79 US including all transport to and from Hanoi, a night’s accommodation and all meals and activities included. This is a great deal and to be honest, you’d be hard pushed to do this trip much cheaper by yourself!
About Friends Travel Vietnam: This Dutch-Vietnamese company run a series of trips known as the “Real Tours” in the North of Vietnam. These tours aim to take you off the beaten track and away from the crowds and they employ local guides who are friendly and extremely knowledgeable about the area. As well as their Real Ninh Binh Tour, their Real Sapa Trek is highly-rated for this reason!
Where to stay in Tam Coc, Ninh Binh?
If you are planning on visiting Tam Coc independently without a tour and staying for a night or two, you will need a place to stay. We love the following places:
1. Tam Coc Homestay – Our Pick! The thing that makes this place really special is the incredible location! There’s an amazing sun terrace, restaurant and a gorgeous natural swimming pool overlooking mountains and rice paddies. If you’re looking for peace and tranquillity in the heart of nature with lovely staff, food and views then choose this place! You can rent a motorbike or bicycle here to explore Tam Coc and it’s just a short ride to the town. The price starts at just $5 US for a dorm bed and $16 US for a double cave room (yes you really do sleep in a cave in the rocks!).
2. Tam Coc Nature – Another place that gets excellent reviews! The hostel is located just a short walk from the town, yet in a tranquil spot amidst rice fields and a small picturesque lake with a bamboo bridge. There’s an absolutely amazing buffet breakfast which you can devour whilst enjoying amazing views (don’t miss out on the pancakes!). Dorm rooms start at $6 US per night and private rooms start at around $30 US.
3. Tam Coc Vinh Thinh Homestay – With deluxe bungalows starting at $22 US per night, this lovely homestay is a great option for couples. The rooms are spacious, clean and tastefully decorated which will appeal to the flashpackers amongst you! The local hosts (Juan and Houng) are warm and helpful and the breakfast (included in the price) is delicious. All in all, a great value-for-money, better-than-basic option.
4. Tuấn Ngọc Hotel – A family-run hotel tucked away from the main road. A lovely breakfast is included in the room rate. Delicious lunch and dinner can also be ordered here and enjoyed on the terrace overlooking the beautiful surrounding scenery. The large swimming pool is also a bonus, especially after a day’s cycling or trekking! You can rent bicycles and motorbikes from the hotel, as well as book onward transport.
5. Tam Coc Bungalow – If you’re looking to treat yourself to something a bit special, check out Tam Coc Bungalow with their quirky barn-shaped bungalows. The location is perfect, right by the river where you can watch all of the boats going up and down during the day. Breakfast is included in the price and the bungalows start at $36 US.
Things to Do in Tam Coc, Ninh Binh
1. Experience the Bích Động Pagodas:
Start your day by exploring the Bích Động, a complex of mountain pagodas located a short bike ride south of Tam Coc. This UNESCO site, located near Ngu Nhac Mountain and dating back to 1428 has three tiers, the Lower pagoda Ha, Middle – Trung and the Upper Pagoda Thượng.
Make sure you admire the panoramic views as you ascend the first 120 rocky steps to the Middle pagoda. If you are lucky, you might even witness the local ladies performing a sacred ritual. We sure enjoyed seeing this unusual sight and hearing some chanting before proceeding to the highest temple.
From here, look for a narrow tunnel on the left side of the temple and slip through it into the dark cave beyond. This dark cave will lead you to the Upper pagoda, offering a rather slippery further 40 steps to take you to the top. You might need a torch here to illuminate your way up.
On arrival, you will be able to park your bike at a parking lot monitored by the local chap but remember to have some spare change with you.
2. Visit Tam Coc Lake
Next up is Tam Coc Lake, the star of the village, abundant with sampan (old Chinese rowing boats). These long narrowboats are just waiting to take you on a fascinating journey. Sit on the crescent-shaped steps leading into the lake and take a moment to admire the beauty of the towering karst in the distance whilst soaking up the peacefulness of the place.
3. Take a boat trip on the River Ngo Dong
Take a ride in Sampan with a local lady. Only women row the boats here and if you take the tour, prepare to be astounded at how skilfully they row with their… feet! Once you manage to peel your eyes away from the unusual rower, inhale the stillness of the surrounding landscape. Hold your breath and duck a little as you approach and slide into the spooky and rather claustrophobic caves along the river. Tam Coc is named after the caves for good reason, it’s the main draw.
Boat tours usually start from the small village of Van Lam and can accommodate up to four passengers per boat. A word of warning though – as well as skilful rowers, these business-minded women are accomplished saleswomen and we challenge you to get off the boat safely without buying one of their handmade handicrafts!
4. Visit Hang Mua Cave
You can never have enough of viewing points and panoramic vistas when travelling and Hang Mua Cave is a perfect spot for one more! So jump on a motorbike and head north into the green jungle for your chance to pay your respects to the Goddess of Mercy (Quan Am). That is if you don’t mind conquering another 500 steps up to the very top! The structure resembles The Great Wall of China…
Hang Mua means “Dancing Cave” in Vietnamese because legend has it that this was the spot where an ancient King used to come to enjoy dancing and singing shows performed in the cave. The best time to visit the cave is the early morning or early evening when the sun isn’t so strong. Of course, the views at sunrise and sunset are pretty spectacular as you can imagine! The entrance fee to visit Hang Mua Cave Complex is 100,000 VND (approx. $5 US).
5. Have a chilled bicycle ride
Not keen on a motorbike? Not to worry, most of the accommodations in Tam Coc have bikes to rent (or even borrow for free) for a chilled cycle through the surrounding neon green paddy fields. But watch out for muddy trails, it gets very slippery in places!
6. Explore Tam Coc village on foot
This is also a great option as nothing is too far away. Therefore you can easily get around and do the sightseeing at your own pace, just be aware of stray dogs down some of the alleyways.
7. Visit Hoa Lu
Have some extra time to explore further? Then you should visit the Imperial Hoa Lu, the former capital of Vietnam between 10th-11th centuries. Here you will be able to explore ancient tombs, temples and pagodas built to celebrate the Vietnamese emperors and their sons. Each with its own stunning limestone karst backdrop tells a story of the ancient Imperial Vietnam from almost a thousand years ago!
8. Visit Trang An and Hang May Cave
Trang An, also a UNESCO World Heritage sites, is one of the most beautiful areas of Ninh Binh province with winding mountain ranges, natural streams and mysterious caves. Recently, there’s a new boat trip opened to tourists wanting to explore the scenic Trang An area and visit Hang May, a beautiful water cave with sparkling stalactites that is nearly one kilometre long. The boat trip is 200,000 VND per person (around $10 US) and you will spend three hours visiting around 6-9 caves along the route. As not as many tourists visit the area of Trang An, the boat trip is a lot more chilled than Tam Coc and the local rowers are not as pushy with their sales tactics!
How to get to Tam Coc, Ninh Binh Province?
By Train from Hanoi – There are regular trains connecting Hanoi to Ninh Binh which cost around $15 for a soft seat and $12 for a hard seat. The journey takes around 2.5 hours but be ready to hop off the train quickly as this is a very short stop. We really enjoyed railway rides in Vietnam and would always recommend train journeys over a bus.
By Bus from Hanoi – If you are taking a bus from Hanoi, you can catch a direct one at the Giap Bat station direct to Ninh Binh. The journey takes around three hours or even longer depending on the traffic.
By Motorbike – If you fancy an adventure, who not hire (or buy) a motorbike in Hanoi and plan a road trip to Tam Coc! You can read more about Motorbiking in Ninh Binh Province here!
To reach Tam Coc village from Ninh Binh – Take a Taxi. 100,000 VND ($4.50 USD) seems to be a standard taxi price to and from the village.
Travelling from Cat Ba Island to Tam Coc? If by any chance you will be travelling to Tam Coc from Cat Ba Island, like we did, it’s easy to make it in one day. First, get to Haiphong via a public fast boat at the Cat Ba town harbour. Tickets can be purchased just before departing. It takes around 1 hour to get to Hai Phong on a rather speedy boat. No more scenic Ha Long Bay views, but still interesting scenery. We stayed at Haiphong overnight and the next day took a bus to Ninh Binh but it’s easy to make a direct connection. The bus to Ninh Binh from Hai Phong leaves from Niem Nghia Bus Station. Tickets can be bought at the bus station. The journey from Haiphong to Ninh Binh takes around 3 hours but mind you, local buses on this route aren’t the most comfortable.