Tam Coc literally translates to ‘three caves’ and is also known as the Halong Bay on land. It’s perhaps for this reason that visitors often overlook it. While Halong Bay may well have been listed as one of the ‘seven wonders of nature’, Tam Coc is arguably more photogenic and less packed with tourists.
For just US$35, Day Tours Hanoi offers a day trip to Tam Coc, as well as Hoa Lu, which was the capital city of Vietnam between 968 and 1009. The tour sets off from your accommodation around 8 am and you return between 5 and 7 pm, depending on rush hour traffic.
Hoa Lu is situated in a beautiful valley full of rice fields and surrounded by limestone peaks. A few of the tombs and temples from the Dinh Dynasty still stand and what they lack in size they more than make up for in detail. It’s very interesting to see the Chinese influence, from the deep red hues to the characters etched into pillars and door frames. The gateway to King Đinh Tiên Hoàng Temple is particularly picturesque from across the river. As you make your way towards the temple, you may have the opportunity to climb on the back of a water buffalo and have your photo taken – for a small fee of course.
TAM COC BOAT TOUR
A buffet-style lunch is provided in a restaurant in Tam Coc before your group heads across the road to the riverside. This includes both western and Vietnamese food – and most likely goat meat, which is a regional dish. If you haven’t brought a hat with you, you might want to consider purchasing a traditional one made from bamboo, as there isn’t much shade for the next two hours. You can probably get a much better price here than in Hanoi as well.
Aside from some astounding scenery, one of the most interesting aspects of the boat trip is the method of propulsion. Some of the boatmen are surprisingly old, but they’re still adept at rowing with their bare feet for hours on end. They even turn the oar with their soles as they prepare for each stroke.
As you pass through caves, under bridges and out into wide canyons flanked by limestone, you might wonder why locals with impressively flashy cameras are taking photos of you. It’s best to look away or cover your face if you want to avoid a selling pitch at the end of the tour. You may also be guilted into buying snacks and drinks at the half-way point. Be aware that if you say you’re not hungry they’ll probably suggest you get something for your boatman instead. We preferred to tip ours rather than purchase a pack of biscuits he may not even like. If you give a firm ‘no’ and a head shake and show no interest, the hawkers eventually leave you alone.
For the most part, though, the boat tour is serene and relaxing, and it definitely makes the four-hour round trip from Hanoi worthwhile.
Before the minibus returns to Hanoi, there’s an optional 4 km bike ride. If you haven’t already arranged for this to be included it costs next to nothing (US$3) and is worth it for the 30 minutes of exercise and a chance to see more dramatic scenery.
If there’s no cloud cover it can get very hot, so make sure you’re dressed appropriately and be liberal with the sunscreen. The bamboo hats may also seem like a good idea at this stage, but they tend to catch the wind and blow off easily. If you purchased one earlier, leave it at the restaurant or you’ll constantly be readjusting it.
The guides on this tour are extremely knowledgable and very eager to share information on both the local history and modern Vietnamese customs. Make the most of it and ask a lot of questions.
If you think you’ll be interested in exploring the region in more depth, you can ask to be dropped off with your luggage in Tam Coc rather than returning to Hanoi. This is also a good way to cut out time and expenses if you’re heading south next.
Day Tours Hanoi also operate trips to Halong Bay, Cuc Phuong National Park and Mai Chau, as well as Hanoi city tours and a whole host of other experiences, and you can choose if you’d prefer to join a mixed group or arrange a private tour.