Ninh Binh, AKA: Tam Coc, was a favourite destination of mine whilst in Vietnam. When tourists say they are staying in “Ninh Binh”, they’re actually residing in Tam Coc, which is a small town situated within the city of Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh itself is run down and doesn’t have much to offer so when booking accommodation, be careful you don’t choose a place within the city and miles away from Tam Coc. There are plentiful places to stay within Tam Coc, again we simpley arrived and shopped around for best price when bartering with hotel owners. There was one particular owner whose hotel we liked but was fully booked up. Not wanting to lose customers he asked us if we minded staying in his second hotel which so brand new, he hasn’t finished it yet and didn’t have regular staff either. We said yes for a bargain price which included breakfast and it turned out to be a beautiful hotel too. Motorbike rental was also offered.
I highly suggest opting for moped rental instead of cycling, Tam Coc is actually pretty vast. The town itself is small but the beautiful areas to visit are easier and faster to get to from a moped and its quite safe as roads are quiet, unless you venture out onto the motorway like we did!
Visiting Tam Coc was a lovely experience I’ll never forget. The people were kind and honest in contrast to city folk, every day you wake up surrounded by natural beauty and its a gorgeous place to calm the nerves- perfect yoga retreat destination!
We managed to time it so that we stayed here on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with 4 days in total to see what Tam Coc has to offer. The first day, as usual, is usually a day of settling in to our surroundings and see what things are nearby. We took a walk around the main town, checked out local restaurants and tour companies before hiring a moped to drive to a nearby temples. The first is called the Thai Vi temple.
Thai Vi Temple retains unique architectural style unlike other temples in Ninh Binh. The temple was built under the strong influence of the pagoda and temple architecture. The steeple was built in ironwood. The entire main architecture of the temple is built of stone. Even the altars, worshiping items and incensory are made from monolithic greenstone. It is unique features which make the temple magnificent and solid posture becoming one of impressive tourist attractions in the area. We were fortunate to experience a dance ceremony held by the high priestess and her 4 priestesses worshipping the mother goddess. The family and the high priestess invited us to watch the whole ceremony and we joined them for lunch soon after.
The next temple was situated a little bit further away and hidden within the karst hills. To get to it you have to walk across a concrete bridge over a tranquil lake where a water diety resides and climb stone steps to marvel at its beauty. This particular temple is a little more well known and it is named the Bich Dong Pagoda. Nestled in the mountainside this ancient tiered pagoda is near 3 natural caves & reachable by boat or by walking or moped. This is a perfect place for a picnic and its free to enter but please be respectful, the Vietnamese have a beautiful belief in nature spirits and deities, many shrines are created and looked after in honour of ancestors and spirits. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Day two invovled visiting a huge buddhist complex calledBái Đính Temple about 45 minutes away from the town. It was a glorious hot day, and if you visit this complex, please do keep water with you. The complex is so huge, your feet will be aching by the end of the day since each temple or pagoda are spread far apart. This place is very similar to Lumbini in Nepal, in that the area is vast, you need at least a day of site seeing here, its clean and very quiet and its fully of beautiful temples to adore. All of them are open to explore (with respect), there are hotels in this complex too if you prefer to stay, and sometimes you can glimpse buddhist monks and nuns leisurely strolling around or praying at an altar.
My favourite temple was the one dedicated to Quan Yin (the oriental version of mother Mary), she is the goddess of compassion, forgiveness and unconditional love. It was the only temple dedicated to a female deity in the entire complex, which is probably why it was my favourite.
The complex encompasses an area of 700 hectares, located on Ba Rau hills, near the Hoang Long River. This is a large complex which includes many structures built over several phases starting in 2003 and finally completed in 2010.
On the third day we ventured to the famous stone dragon situated on top of the mountain called Hang Mua Peak. From all the places I have seen around Ninh Binh Province, Hang Mua Peak, also called Mua Cave, is by far my favorite. I must admit that at first I was hesitant about whether or not to climb all those 500 stairs. They looked quite steep and I wasn’t sure if the climb was going to be worth it. However, I took a leap of faith and decided to give Hang Mua Peak a chance and it was the best decision. We chose to come here on Christmas day, we felt this was a special place to celebrate Christmas. There actually two peaks, if your legs are not too tired from climbing the steps of the first; the second has a small pagoda to visit and both have breath taking views. Jon ventured up the second peak, I didn’t, purely because I felt I had seen plentiful pagodas and views that are similar. Jon suffers with FOMO (fear of missing out), whereas I don’t, at times it can be hard traveling with him because he tries to cram too much in a day or in an entire holiday and leaves no space for rest and just enjoying the moment.
I’m a rather balanced traveller, I do love having fast paced days of cramming in many sites but then I also need down time to wake up late, sun bathe or read a good book by a lake for an entire day, knowing my life is short and I won’t see everything in this world (not in this life anyway) and I am ok with that.
The best time to see the stone dragon on Hang Mua peak is during sunrise or sunset (but then everyone says that about most tourist hot spots!) and needless to say, everyone knows this and therefore everyone will be at the destinations at those times so sunrise and sunset are jam packed with other travellers which can be annoying, especially if you are an artist or photographer trying to capture a beautiful image- you’re not going to want a tourist in beige shorts or a group of fun loving Japanese kids in your shot!
On the 4th and final day we went on a boat ride on the Tam Coc lake in Trang An. This was such a great experience! We left the best til last and it was unforgettable. Driven by a strong armed Vietnamese woman (nearly all boats are rowed by women), who rows you for about 2 hours around the lake and through very low ceiling caves. I marvelled at our driver’s stregnth as she never appeared out of breath or struggling with thirst, always had a smile on her face. At times you have the opportunity to help her as extra rowers are supplied and your fitness will be tested! Overall though the boat trip was peaceful yet exciting, peaceful because it was very slow pased but exciting because there was so much to see and being driven through such low lying caves felt quite eerie too. Twice the boat takes a pitstop to small temple complexes where you can quietly give a small offering, join in with prayer and stretch your legs.
Exploring Tam Coc by foot, moped or boat really makes you stop and see that heaven really is a place on earth. Another place I would love to live and in fact there is a school here I could apply to work for as a TEFL teacher. This place really is largely untouched by humans and its natural beauty is preserved exceptionally well with the utmost respect for nature and its natural habitats which is incredible to see. If I was to liken it to anywhere, Its like Vietnam’s version of the Lake District in the UK. Its quaint, its tranquil and its safe.
With limestone outcrops amid serene rice paddies, Tam Coc is best appreciated on a languorous rowing-boat ride, with the soundtrack of the river lapping against the oars.
This has been my favourite destination of our Vietnam trip, with Cat Ba coming a close second (because Cat Ba can become a party town at the weekends). Tam Coc has much to offer couples, families and new age type travellers who would enjoy some relaxation and culture but also be enveloped in the magic within the area, its not every day you visit temples in caves, lake deities, sacred grooves, stone mountain dragons and giant pagodas and buddha statues is it?
Check out my write up about Ho Chi Minh City
As well as Cai Be & Meekong
And Cat Ba Island
If you wish to see more of my travels visit the links below: