Tam Coc was one of my favourite places that I’ve ever been, and likely my favourite place in Vietnam thus far. It had everything that one would look for in Vietnam – the bright green rice fields of Sapa, and the tall surrounding cliffs and mountains of Ha Long Bay – it was a combination of the two, and I absolutely loved it! To be honest, I didn’t actually step foot in the actual city of Ninh Binh because I heard to stay in Tam Coc instead. I ordered a ticket to Tam Coc through my hotel in Cat Ba since I was too tired to walk to one of the travel companies to order a nice bus. However, every time I book transport through a hostel or hotel, it doesn’t seem to be the best option (yet I continue to keep doing it!). I paid 260000 dong ($15.34AUD) for the bus to pick me up at 9:30 on Tuesday morning. I got into an extended golfcart-like vehicle and we drove around Cat Ba to pick up about 10 people to go to the bus. We then got on the bus and it completely filled up. Even though it was cold and rainy in Cat Ba, the trip to Ninh Binh got more and more hot because there was hardly any air conditioning and any time I opened my vent, the guy beside me would close it. The seats also weren’t built for a normal-sized person, so everyone ended up leaning their seats backwards, and you would either have your knees digging into the seat in front of you, or have to try to find some space in the aisle. We stopped at around 12:30 for a bathroom and food break, and then I ended up arriving in Tam Coc just after 3pm. I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be as hot as it was in Tam Coc, because some of the people who I had met in Cat Ba had come from there and said that the weather was the exact same as in Cat Ba. It was a pleasant surprise, especially since it had been so cold for the past week. I decided to stay at Tam Coc Rice Fields Homestay for 115000 dong ($6.79) in an 8-bed dorm. This place was so nice because it was only a five-minute walk from the main part of town (through a dark alley), but then it felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, with a beautiful view of the rice fields off of the patio.
At dawn and dusk, you could hear a chorus of frogs all around you – it was so cool! Julia (the girl who I had met on the Cat Ba tour the day before) had also booked a bed in the same room and she had arrived about a half hour before me, so we went for lunch at the closest restaurant that we could find. We both ordered some chicken pho and a smoothie for 60000 dong ($3.54), but it took so long (which we discovered is normal for most restaurants in Tam Coc). After eating, we decided to walk over an hour to the nearest pagoda, called Bich Dong. The walk was so beautiful, and we both couldn’t believe the views!
The pagoda wasn’t anything special, but we still spent some time exploring it and then made our way back into town. We went back to the hostel to do some research and make some plans about what we’d do the next day, and then decided to go for dinner. We were both exhausted and were only planning to go for dinner and go to bed, but that didn’t end up happening. We stopped at a restaurant right by our hostel because it looked popular (and we continued going there everyday at least once per day – I don’t even know what it was called!). When we got there, there weren’t any free tables available but they directed us to a table with a French lady, who ended up leaving shortly after. Julia and I both ordered burgers (which we were so excited about!) and a coke for 80000 dong ($4.72). After we had ordered, two guys sat at the table next to ours and we got talking. Their names were Mike and Charlie, were from the United States, and were just doing a few weeks away from home. We told the guys what our plans were for the next day because we were starting with a boat ride in Trang An, which needed a minimum of four people. We all agreed to meet back at the restaurant the next morning at 8:15am so that we could order a Grab and get to the boat rides before 9am (which is when it tended to start getting busy).
On Wednesday morning, Julia and I got up and had breakfast at our hostel (I just got a crepe with a coffee), and then we headed to the restaurant, where Mike and Charlie were already waiting for us. We ordered a Grab, which was only supposed to be 160000 dong total. However, we honestly thought it might have been one of the first times that the driver drove a manual vehicle because the amount of times that he stalled or we jerked back and forth was insane. Not only that, but when he found out that the guys were American, he asked if we knew a song, which was ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time.’ He ended up having multiple Britney Spears songs available, so we were all trapped listening to the driver singing along while slowly making his way to Trang An. I was confused when he took a wrong turn down a backroad and we drove the whole way down, only to find out that there was a whole bunch of construction and a tractor was blocking the way. We waited for about ten minutes, while the driver honked his horn and the tractor didn’t change position. We suggested that maybe we should go back and take the highway, so he finally turned around and went the way that we were supposed to go. Then when we got there, he charged us more (200000 dong) because he had to drive all the way around (which wasn’t our faults), so we just paid it and left. We got our tickets to the Ecotourism Trang An Boat Ride for 200000 dong ($11.80) each, and decided to take Route 1. We heard mixed reviews about whether to take the Trang An or Tam Coc boat ride, but I heard that the Tam Coc boat ride is a lot more touristy and they constantly ask everyone to tip the driver. On our boat ride, they didn’t ask for tips because there’s a survey that we have to fill out at the end (which questions whether we were asked for a tip). However, as soon as we filled out the survey, the driver said, “Tip, tip!” He definitely deserved one though, so we were happy to give him one. Anyway, our tour ended up being about three hours long and included boating through 9 caves and stopping at two temples. We were given about 20 minutes at each temple, and the rest of the time was spent on the boat.
The boat ride was so relaxing, and the caves were so cool to boat through, with only the soothing sound of the oars rhythmically going through the water. It was also so impressive how the rower was able to navigate his way through the caves without bumping into the sides! Some areas would have been so difficult to get through, and we had to duck down quite a few times to avoid hitting our heads on the top. They call Ninh Binh the “Ha Long Bay of the land,” and even though I didn’t technically get to see Ha Long Bay, I could definitely see why it got that name.
We finished our boat ride at about noon and decided to head back into Tam Coc to get lunch. After lunch, the plan was to rent some bicycles in order to bike to one of the lookout points about five kilometres away. However, considering the last time I was on a bike was in 2012 in China, I was trying so hard to get out of it. I suggested going for iced coffee and everyone agreed, but only after we rented the bikes for 50000 dong ($2.95). Julia was more nervous than I was because not only had she not been on a bike in 7 years, but she was also in a motorcycle accident before, so she was really hesitant about getting on a bike. However, despite both of us hesitating, we ended up going through with it cause we didn’t want to let down the rest of the group. And I’m so glad we did! We got to see so much more on a bike, and the scenery was beautiful to bike through.
Despite taking a really bumpy path that I was actually nervous to bike on, we ended up making it to Mua Cave. There was a parking lot quite far from the entrance, where locals were saying we had to put our bikes. I was 90% positive that there would be another parking lot closer to the entrance, so we were going to try to look, but the locals started shouting at us and blowing whistles when we tried to leave. Charlie tried to bike ahead and one of the kids (who must have been about 8 or 9) grabbed onto the back of his bike and wouldn’t let him go. I couldn’t believe it! I actually talked to someone else about this later on in my travels, and the same thing happened to her. We biked to the entrance, where there was another parking lot, so we paid 5000 dong (30 cents) each and then bought tickets to the entrance, which cost 100000 dong ($5.90). We then started the 500 steps up the Lying Dragon Mountain. It was an extremely hot day, which didn’t help keep our sweat levels down. However, we finally made it to the top and enjoyed the incredible views for the next 1-2 hours.
The weirdest thing happened at the top. I was sitting and talking with Charlie, when Mike came up to us with Dana (the girl who Julia and I had met on the Cat Ba tour). Turns out Charlie and Mike had hung out with her in Hanoi! Such a small world when it comes to travelling!! Dana ended up joining us for the rest of the night, so it was nice to reunite without even having to plan it. We stayed for sunset but it ended up being a cloudy day, so we didn’t actually get to see it. We headed back down and biked back in the dark to make it for the last half hour of happy hour at our “regular” restaurant (they give free beer for an hour every night!). We then did a bit more biking to look at where the guys were staying (they have a way bigger budget than Julia and I, so it was NICE!) and then stopped at another bar for drinks. Then we headed back to the regular restaurant for dinner and more drinks, and ended up staying there until about 1. It was a fun night!
On Thursday morning, I woke up after not having the greatest sleep (thanks to the roosters and the plastic wrap on the mattress, which seems to be a common occurrence in Asia). Julia and I had breakfast at the hostel and then decided to rent bikes for the day again (since we were pretty much experts at that point!). I had to pack up all of my stuff since I’d be catching a night bus that evening. We biked around for a bit before deciding to stop for lunch and then Charlie and Mike met up with us to have some beer while we ate our lunch. For the rest of the day, we didn’t do a whole lot – just biked around, enjoyed the views, and chatted with random people who we ran into. We followed as many trails as we could find on maps.me, which was so useful! Julia and I biked to an area that we had seen from the viewpoint, where we could watch everyone on their boat tour.
It was crazy watching the rowers use their feet to paddle – I don’t understand how they’d be able to survive the three hour tours! We then went for an iced coffee before getting on our bikes again and finding the Beverly Hills of Tam Coc. The houses were so nice, and they even had cars parked out front (Tam Coc mostly only had bicycles or motorbikes). Everyone was so friendly too – if anyone was outside while we biked by, they’d always yell out hello.
We headed back to our regular restaurant to catch happy hour, and then Charlie and Mike wrote and asked where we were. They met up to join us for a drink and then we went to an Indian restaurant for dinner. However, I think we waited too long to go because I had to be back at the hostel by 8pm to catch my 9pm bus. I wasn’t too sure why I had to be there so early, but I didn’t want to risk anything so I ended up asking to get my meal packed up so that I could bike back to the hostel in time. These goodbyes were so difficult – this was one of the first places in all of my travels where I forgot that I was actually travelling. I just felt so comfortable, and absolutely loved my time there and the people who I was able to spend it with. I got back to the hostel and the lady gave me a towel and asked if I wanted to shower. Guess I didn’t have to be in a rush.. I said I was fine, and tried to eat my food as fast as I could but after I was about halfway done, the hostel owner got off of the phone and said that we’d have to leave in five minutes. I put on my big backpack while holding my day pack in one hand and a plastic bag in the other, and jumped on the back of the pregnant lady’s scooter. I was definitely a pro at this point! She drove me five minutes down the road to the bus terminal (basically a random parking lot) and then after about ten minutes, my bus to Phong Nha arrived, which will be for another post. Love always