We headed off to Tam Coc after the morning rush hour (or so we thought) – we had strapped out backpacks to the back of our trusty steeds (125cc scooters) and headed off to Tam Coc – a trip of some 110km south of Hanoi that would take a car 2 h 49, according to Google Maps. I had done some investigation online and established that the first 45 minutes are the worst and that the traffic eases after that. This was not the case! I think there was a section of about 10km after kilometre 55 that was quite pleasant – the rest was quite strenuous baring in mind that (besides our outings in Danang and Hoi An where the traffic was a fraction on Hanoi) the furthest I ride a motorbike is 1km to the local shop and back. Once out of Hanoi traffic (which, as I say, lasted about 55km) there was a clear stretch before we then encountered loads of heavy trucks and buses and in Vietnam this means a lot of hooting and being squeezed to the absolute edge of the road. A point to note is that bikes are not allowed on all motorways so it is useful to set your navigator to the “avoid motorways” option.
We eventually arrived after 5 and a half hours on the bikes and headed straight for a beer garden we had been told about – yes even before checking into our hotel! After satisfying our thirst and hunger we rode back to our hotel and settled in (read this as slept!).
Tam Coc is a small village just outside Ninh Binh south of Hanoi. It is almost entirely a UNESCO world heritage site. It is often referred to as Halong Bay on land due to the multitude of karsts. The main road is only about 500m long and lined with hostels and souvenir shops.
We had been advised by friends who had visited to opt for the boat trip at Trang An – 10km out of town as this offers more caves and temples as opposed to the Tam Coc based on which is more of a gentle ride along the river.
There are 3 choices of boat trip – the ticket is 200 000 VND regardless of which route you choose and the depart from and return to the same point. There are literally hundreds of boats and we made sure we got there early to avoid the crowds. Each boat takes a minimum of 4 people so if there are not 4 in your party you need to wait for extra people who wish to do your tour. Two of the tours take you to the site where the last King Kong movie was filmed (Skull Island). We opted for the longest of the three trips – 2.5 hours taking us through 9 caves and to 3 temples.
We were grateful that we were not there in the rainy season as I would imagine a lot of the caves would be out of bounds as the clearance would not be sufficient. The caves form connections between different lakes/bodies of water and exiting each was like going into a new world – the scenery was truly magnificent, and the trip was – for the most part – really peaceful.
The second pagoda stop caught us off guard – we walked up a small mountain of stairs to the temple only to discover that we then had to walk down the other side to actually get to the temple and then of course do the reverse to get back to the boat.
By the time we finished our tour the river was getting quite full of boats so we were really please that we had made an early start.
The next day we headed to Hang Mua (Mua Caves) 1.5km out of Tam Coc. We made sure we had applied sun screen and were armed with plenty of water to tackle this mammoth climb. I would definitely recommend wearing running shoes as the steps are certainly not even and can be slippery and ragged.
It is it a tough climb of 500 steps – at some point it feels like it is more like a ladder than stairs. The view along the way prepares you for the magnificent view from the summit. Coming back down was a tad more scary as there are not always places to hold on and for the first section I was virtually sliding down on my rear. The descent is certainly testing is you have any sort of vertigo – although I spent most of the time looking at my feet to make sure I didn’t misstep.
We spent the rest of the day driving along the country roads and admiring the beauty that is all around. We passed another pagoda on a mountain and discovered that this one has 2000 steps to the summit! Fortunately for me, this one had been closed to the public as it was developed without consent and the authorities have suspended operations – Ivan would happily have climbed this as well.
With much trepidation we headed back to Hanoi the next morning – we timed it that we would head the outskirts of Hanoi at 12 to get here during the lunch break as this should ensure that we avoid the major traffic. We also took a route that took us way East of the city – and although the route was about 20km further that the one we took to get to Tam Coc – it took us nearly 2 hours less.