Hello to a new week! I spent the last 3 days in a scenic countryside town called Ninh Binh in Northern Vietnam. Nihn Binh and its less bustling neighbor Tam Cốc (where I technically stayed) are popular tourist destinations known for their tall rock formations, rice paddies, mountain pagodas, and peaceful countryside vibes. It’s labeled “Halong Bay on land” because it has the same limestone cliffs as Halong Bay, but it’s on land instead of water. As with any nice spot in Vietnam, Tam Cốc felt pretty commercialized and made for tourists, but we’ll get more into that. 😉 Tam Cốc wasn’t originally on my itinerary, but after some backpacker friends recommended it, I decided I would add one more stop in northern Vietnam.
Day 11: Settling into Tam Cốc
I took a 4-hour bus in the morning from Halong to Tam Cốc. I settled into my hostel, Green Mountain Homestay, which was ~15 minutes outside of town. Immediately, I felt at home. The hostel was right next to the riverfront with views of the tall limestone cliffs. There was also plenty of outdoor common space…good vibes, check. 🙂
After settling in, I took a walk around the hostel. The scenery was breathtaking and I quickly fell in awe. The tall limestone cliffs and their reflection on the riverfront were quite epic. It was nice to stay outside of town in the peaceful countryside with only a handful of homestays around us. I ooo’ed and ahh’ed while snapping plenty of photos.
There were a lot of lilypads everywhere, so cute.
I came to Tam Cốc at both a good and bad time. It had rained nonstop for 5 days before, so luckily I missed the rain. Unfortunately, the town was super flooded and I walked on roads with water calf-deep. That’s rainy season for ya.
The rest of the evening was spent eating bahn mi and chilling at my hostel. There were a few sweet girls staying at this hostel and I enjoyed their company. 🙂
Day 12: scootering around town + sunset hike
The next morning, I decided to see more of Tam Cốc by scooter. Bicycles are also popular here, but with the flooded roads, I felt better on a motorbike. I rented a scooter through my hostel and took off. The roads in Tam Cốc were pretty chill and perfect for driving.
From my drive, my impression of this town was that it was “countryside Disneyland” – a scenic town manicured for tourists. 😛 My first stop was Bich Dong Pagoda, an ancient Buddhist temple complex nestled in the mountainside. The temple was pretty nice – there were even caves surrounding the temples.
My only complaint was dealing with the Vietnamese parking mafia. I quickly learned that every nice place in Vietnam will have a lot of scammers trying to squeeze money from you (more than any other country I’ve visited this year). Joe makes fun of me for how annoyed I get every time I pay $1 for parking, but it’s the principle of it all!
Call me jaded, but after seeing SO many temples this year and not feeling the touristic vibes here, I wasn’t in the mood to check out the other attractions. So, I decided to scratch my itinerary for the day and simply drive through the countryside. While it’s nice to have destinations to guide a drive, I realized my favorite part was the drive itself.
I took my scooter through the backcountry roads, passing through smaller villages.
The scenery was the same as yesterday (limestone cliffs, rice paddies, riverside), but it never got old. 🙂
After my morning drive, I headed to the town of Tam Cốc. The town itself was pretty busy and touristy; I was glad my hostel was outside the city center. I first got some lunch – another bahn mi. 🙂
Then I walked around Tam Cốc lake – a popular spot for boat tours.
Then I walked around town and caught up on errands, like hunting for sunscreen. Good sunscreen is hard to find in Southeast Asia, and sometimes I’ll search for days before finding a bottle!
I also checked out a large lilypad field in Tam Cốc. Gorgeous sight – I’ve never seen this many in my life.
It was the hottest part of the day, so I headed back to my hostel for some pool time. Have I mentioned how much I loved this place?
At golden hour, I headed back out on my bike for one more site – Hang Mua Viewpoint. I have to say, this hike was pretty hard! It was about 500 steps, and the heat was killer. I might be a bit shiny in these photos. 😛
Finally, I made it to the top, and the views made it all worth it. I watched the sunset with views of Tam Cốc and the valley below. Stunning.
Day 13: riverside boat ride
The next morning, I had something exciting planned – a boat ride! Funny enough, even though Tam Cốc is known as “Halong Bay on Land,” the most popular activity here is a boat ride. Coming from Halong Bay, I was close to not doing the boat ride, but I’m glad I did because the experience was totally different. I met two nice German girls at my hostel, and the 3 of us headed to the Trang An boat pier. The other option was at Tam Cốc lake, but we heard this one had fewer tourists and was a nicer ride.
We got a wooden row boat steered by a guide so we could simply relax on the water. The ride took us along the river with the towering limestone cliffs next to us. This boat ride was different from Halong Bay – here was more peaceful and lush, whereas Halong had more of an epic feel like you were in a movie…different and beautiful in their own ways.
It was super hot! We weren’t prepared for how hot Tam Cốc got. Good thing we had these umbrellas. 🙂
Our guide took us to two temples (so much for avoiding temples, ha). They were right along the river and only accessible by water which was cool. It was nice to stretch our legs and get a break from sitting on the boat.
More pretty views along the way. The water level was very high due to the flooding, and we saw entire pagodas deep in the water.
The tour was supposed to take us through some caves, but the flooding made it too dangerous, so we skipped this part.
Second temple. We liked this one better as it was a larger complex.
In total, we were on the boat for 3 hours. What a wonderful activity – I’m glad I did this as it rounded out my time in Tam Cốc.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about this place – after experiencing the authentic countryside in Ha Giang/Cambodia/India/etc, Tam Cốc felt overdeveloped and made for tourists. However, I can’t deny that the scenery was absolutely beautiful and I have a lot of mental images I’ll take away. 🙂 After 3 days, I felt like I saw everything I wanted to see. I spent the rest of the day relaxing at the hostel and was on a night bus to my next stop.
And that’s it for Northern Vietnam! Between Ha Giang, Halong Bay, and Tam Cốc, I feel very happy with my time in the North. Next up, I’m continuing my journey south and officially headed to Central Vietnam. 🙂