When people think of Vietnam, their minds usually go straight to the classic destinations; Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An! However, the hidden gem of Tam Coc was probably one of my favourite places in Vietnam! It’s an ideal place to relax for a few days and unwind from the hectic, hussle & bustle of Hanoi.
Tam Coc is home to some of the most stunning sights Vietnam has to offer and is definitely worth visiting during your time in the north! Known as ‘Ha Long Bay on land’, Tam Coc is part of the Trang An complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although Ninh Binh is larger, with more amenities, the real charm of the area lies in Tam Coc.
This guide will not only cover the best things to do in Tam Coc, but also how to get there, where to stay, food recommendations and other important tips to keep in mind.
Best Things to do in Tam Coc
- Hang Mua (Mua Caves)
- Bich Dong Pagoda
- Trang An Landscape Complex
- Tam Coc Boat Tour
- Thai Vi Temple
If you’re short on time in Tam Coc, the Mua Caves and Trang An Landscape Complex are definite must dos!
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Without doubt, Hang Mua (Mua Caves) was the highlight of my trip to this region. Climbing the 500 steps to Hang Mua Peak will give you breathtaking, 360 degree views of the stunning countryside and rice paddies.
The climb itself isn’t too challenging, however the heat and humidity make it tough. I went at midday (bad planning!) and it was hot! Take it slow and bring water. There are a few steep bits, but as someone who is terrified of heights, I was ok.
The caves themselves can be found at the bottom of the mountain. But they are less spectacular, so go straight for the hike!
The Hang Mua Peak actually consists of two peaks. I highly recommend leaving enough time to climb both, as they offer different views. Luckily you won’t have to climb each from ground level, as the divide for the two peaks is near the top. You’re only have 100 steps, or so, to get to the top.
The highest peak (which most people do) is home to a stone carved dragon, that watches over the valley. It plays an important role in Vietnamese culture, with locals believing it’s crucial for rain and agriculture. The views from here are incredible! I was fortunate that it was too busy when I went…probably as I chose the hottest time of day to go. But I heard from people who went early in the morning, or near sunset, that it was packed at this main peak.
The smaller of the two peaks provides just as breathtaking of a view. The bonus of this peak was it’s much quieter nature than the main one. However, there were sections of the steps that were very narrow. This made it challenging to go at a comfortable pace, if people behind were racing up. The Pagoda at the top of the smaller peak provides a great photo opportunity.
Getting to Hang Mua is easy. With it being 4-5km away from Tam Coc, you can easily cycle, scooter or grab a taxi there. Be careful of scammers here! Parking is right up the entrance gate and FREE. Ignore the guys trying to scam 20-50k per bike and ride past them to the entrance.
The entrance fee to Hang Mua is 100k vnd per person and free for children under 1m tall. Once you’re through the entrance you’ll find a lodge, where people stay to access the caves before the typical crowds arrive. Around here is also a restaurant and a few shops that sell drinks, snacks and souvenirs.
Bich Dong Pagoda
Hidden amongst mountains and natural caves, Bich Dong Pagoda is comprised of 3 ancient pagodas. Situated 2km west of Tam Coc, it’s easy to access via bicycle or scooter. You’ll be met with a grand entrance upon arrival (photo below), surrounded by lily-filled waters. Pass through the entrance and you’ll find the 3 pagodas up around 100 steps. Take your time exploring each one.
As with anything deemed as ’insta-worthy’, expect there to be queues of people taking photos in the entrance way. To avoid queues, and the midday heat, I’d recommend visiting early (6-8am) or during sunset. You’ll also benefit from the colourful skies overlooking the mountains during the evening!
It’s free to enter the Pagodas, however, expect to pay a small fee for parking.
Trang An Landscape Complex
The Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 for both cultural and natural values. Spanning 6,268ha, the complex covers jaw-dropping limestone mountains, tranquil rivers and an impressive collection of ancient pagodas and temples.
Exploring this complex is done via the river – with three routes to choose from! You hire a boat with a local rower and the tours take 2-3 hours. Google ’Trang An Grottoes Tour’ or ‘Trang An Departure Boat Ticket’ to find tickets and where the boats depart. Tickets cost 200,000vnd per person and you’ll have up to 4 people per boat.
This scenic trip will take you through caves, valleys and temples – a number of which can only be reached this way! As temples are sacred places in Vietnam, you must wear appropriate clothes that cover legs and shoulders.
A list of places you can expect to visit include the Trinh Temple, Tran Temple, Toi Cave (dark cave), Sang Cave (light cave), Nau Ruou Cave, Dia Linh Cave and Suoi Tien Temple. Trang An also happened to be a major filming site for the movie Kong: Skull Island. You can visit this film set during certain tours.
Tam Coc Boat Ride
Another boat trip worth doing is one from Tam Coc, around the NGO Dong River and through the limestone mountains. The trip is 3km long and you’ll pass through 3 limestone caves in the mountains. Although it’s not as impressive as the Trang An trip, the relaxing ride around the Ngo Dong River is worth doing.
Tam Coc translates to the ’three caves’ – Hang Ca, Hang Hai and Hang Ba. You’ll visit these along the Ngo Dong River. The first cave is the longest – at 127m. Here you’ll be met with a cool climate and stalactites hanging from the ceiling! After finishing here, you’ll travel slowly 1km down the river to the second cave. It’s smaller at 60m but still has many stalactites to admire. The third, and last cave, is much shorter (50ish m) and is much lower.
The entry fee is divided into two tickets – one to visit the landscape (120,000vnd) and one for the boat ride (75,000vnd). Child tickets were 100,000vnd. The boats are quite small, and it ended up being just two of us on my ride.
Some tips for the day: You’ll be sat for quite a while, often in the direct sunlight, so come equipped with sun protection (cream/hats etc). There was a chance to buy drinks at the return point, but we were glad to have brought water with us given the heat. We stopped halfway round to be shown a series of bags and hand embroidered table clothes. We were made to wait here a while until they gave up trying to sell to us.
Be sure to tip the rower too as they’re peddling for hours with their feet in the heat! Our guide was very knowledgable and gave us a great experience.
Covid update: I did this ride pre-covid. However, there are reports of ‘surcharges’ if you want more than two adults and two children in the boat.
Thai Vi Temple
Thai Vi Temple is an ancient temple dating back to the 13th century. Here you’ll be able to get an understanding of the Tran Dynasty; with some of it’s architecture and artefacts. It’s fairly small, so it won’t take long to see. Afterwards, you can enjoy a cycle or walk around the surrounding areas of rice paddies, peaceful fields and limestone mountains
It’s located less than 1.5km from Tam Coc, making it walkable from the town centre. If you’re planning to do a Trang An boat tour, you can visit Thai vi on the way!
Make sure to cover your knees and shoulders out of respect when visiting the temple. There is no entrance fee, but if you plan to cycle, you’ll need to bring some change for the parking.
How to get to Tam Coc
Located in North Vietnam, Tam Coc is approximately 90km south of Hanoi. There are several ways to get to Tam Coc including shuttle bus, train, taxi and motorbike.
As my month in Vietnam started in Hanoi, I took a 2 hour shuttle from my hostel in the Old Quarter straight to Tam Coc. I organised it through a agency near my hostel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, but most accommodations and local agencies can help with this. They seem to offer similar services and prices. The shuttle was spacious, comfortable, with capacity for 10 and free water was provided. Shuttles go to both Tam Coc and Ninh Binh.
There are bus and train options. For the latest information, check out this Hanoi to Ninh Binh schedule. Factor in the extra cost and time to travel from Ninh Binh to Tam Coc.
Given how easily accessible it is from Hanoi and Ninh Binh, expect to see frequent day tours here. The evenings are typically quieter, usually only occupied by the travellers staying in the area.
Vans and shuttles will likely drop you at a taxi point, central to town. As they’re too big to drive down the winding path along the river, be prepared to walk with your bags if you’re staying somewhere there. It’s an easy, short walk to the other side (10 minutes max) – but it’s an added journey in the heat with backpacks. Surprisingly a car was able to get down the narrow path to collect me for my train to Hue.
Getting around Tam Coc
During my stay, I hired a bicycle from my homestay. If your accommodation doesn’t provide this option, there are shops along the main strip that rent bicycles. Bicycle helmets often weren’t provided, unless you hired a scooter.
Hiring a scooter is another great way to explore the area easily. Given how quiet the area is, it’s much safer than riding in any of the Vietnamese cities.
An alternative would be to hire a taxi for the day and be driven around all the main sights. This doesn’t quite give you the same flexibility as bicycles or scooters, but is convenient and takes the stress out of map reading!
The Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Tam Coc would be during spring or autumn – where temperatures aren’t too high and conditions are drier. North Vietnam has defined summers and winters. Winter months are between November and April, with temperates ranging from 17-22°C and limited rainfall. Summer months fall between May and October, bringing very hot and humid weather. The wettest months are between July and September.
Places to stay in Tam Coc
There are numerous hotels and hostels dotted around, but the real heart of Tam Coc can be found in the many homestays! After many recommendations in Hanoi from people arriving from Tam Coc, I decided to cancel my hostel reservation and go for my first homestay in Vietnam.
I booked at the Tam Coc Lake View. Although the accommodation was very basic, I loved being able to stay with a local family. They were fantastic at recommending local things to do and they loaned bicycles cheaply to explore more far afield places. I did find it harder to meet other travellers though, so I would suggest solo backpackers to take this into consideration when booking.
Where to eat in Tam Coc
For such a small town, Tam Coc does have a generous number of restaurants and bars. During my short stay, I loved Vinteca Bar and Chookies Beer Garden for drinks! Both offered great vibes and were reasonably priced.
If you’re at a homestay, it’s worth seeing if the hosts are organising anything in the evening. Although my homestay didn’t, I met a few people who had hosts organise a large dinner for all guests for a small fee. I would imagine this is a great way to meet other backpackers whilst getting to know more about the local area.
Otherwise I would recommend strolling on the ‘main strip’ where the majority of bars and restaurants are. Most seating is out at the front of the restaurant so you can gauge a vibe of each place and what food they have to offer. One of my favourite places to eat along here was at Ngoc Ninh – great food, lovely owners and a free beer during happy hour!
Other things to note
Bring ample supplies of anti-mosquito spray! As you’re around a lake, the mosquitos are rife! After a brief 8-10 minute walk to my homestay from dinner one night, I found many dead mosquitos stuck to my leg from basically walking into them. So gross!! Dengue fever is present in Vietnam; peaking between April and October in the North, and June through to December in the south. There isn’t a widely available vaccination for this, and the one that does exist, is typically only given to people who previously had dengue. So I was very aware of that and went through bottles of heavy duty DEET to protect myself.
If possible, bring a mosquito net. Every hostel, homestay and hotel I stayed at throughout my time in Vietnam provided mosquito nets. However some were quite worn and I didn’t feel protected. If you have one that’s easy to pack, there’s no harm having extra protection.
Make sure to bring plenty of cash. There are ATMs, but they’re outside the main part of Tam Coc. This might not be an issue if you have a scooter to get round easily. But they’re not always easy to access and I wouldn’t want to rely on the one ATM in the area. Hanoi has plenty of ATMs, banks and cash converter stalls so make sure to stock up before you go.
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After my incredible few days in Tam Coc, I made the long journey to from Ninh Binh to Hue on overnight train. I was quite nervous about this journey but it was brilliant AND I saved a full day of travel and money on a hostel.
Happy travels xx