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15 Great Things to Do in Tam Coc Vietnam (Plus 3 That are Just Okay)

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Tam Coc is one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam and was maybe our favourite stop on our first visit to this surprisingly large (well, long, anyway) country. So we couldn’t wait to get back to the magnificent limestone karsts around of northern Vietnam. Touring among the karsts by boat, motorbike and pedal bike is definitely one of the best things to do in Tam Coc, and the main reason this area is so popular on the Southeast Asia tourist trail.

Limestone karsts and a small hotel reflected in calm water

With dramatically mountainous scenery interspersed with calm lakes, photogenic canals and relatively peaceful little roads perfect for biking or motorbiking, Tam Coc is a must-see destination in Vietnam. It is also amazingly affordable and offers a wide range of activities, making it easy for anyone to find some appealing things to do in Tam Coc.

Where is Tam Coc?

Tam Coc is a small town in Northern Vietnam roughly 2 hours south of Hanoi. The closest city is Ninh Binh, an easy 15-minute drive away.

If you don’t have your own transportation, there are daily tourist shuttles to and from Hanoi (2 hrs / $US 8) and Ha Long Bay (4 hrs / $US 16), although it is possible to arrange affordable transportation to essentially any destination in northern Vietnam. For example, a private shuttle from Hanoi can be had for just $US 80.

Long-distance buses (including sleeper options) make the long journey to Hoi An and destinations even farther south.

Couple in front of a Tam Coc sunset

The 18 Best Things to Do in Tam Coc

By far our favourite thing to do in Tam Coc is simply wander, either on a rented motorbike ($US 7/day), basic pedal-bike (free at some hotels or very cheap to rent) or even on foot among the fields around town. But even if you’re just wandering, it is good to know about all the highlights to give some structure to your route and make sure you don’t miss out on any of the best stuff.

1. Trang An Boat Trip

Limestone karst boat trip - one of the best things to do in Tam Coc

The classic, unmissable thing to do in Tam Coc is a serene boat trip through the best of the karsts. There are several different places you can do this, each of which have their own pros and cons, but Trang An has the longest trips, the most options and the best scenery.

These trips are also the most expensive (250k/person) but the whole operation is extremely organized and efficient. There are three different routes to choose from and you pay the same amount no matter which one you choose.

#1 is the original, the longest (3 hrs) and hits the most attractions, including 9 different caves and 4 temples.

Buddhist temple on an island surrounded by limestone karsts

#2 is a bit shorter (2-2.5hrs), goes through 4 caves and visits 3 temples but spends more time on the water just enjoying the views. This was the option we chose and it seemed like the perfect mix for us. The four caves and three temples were impressive but already one or two more than necessary, for us, and extra time soaking in the scenery was our main priority.

#3 is the shortest version (1.5 hrs), overlaps a bit with #2 and doesn’t seem to have any advantages over the other two routes except that it takes less time. Which means less time sitting on a hard bench in the sun. Apparently, it is also a popular choice for young families. How mysterious.

First, you buy your tickets, then cross the road via an underpass (see what I mean about organized and efficient?) and don’t choose your route until you are nearly at the launch point. All boats take 4-5 people so smaller groups will need to wait to be joined by someone else who has chosen the same route as them.

Limestone karsts reflected in calm water

Presumably, this is not an issue in the middle of the day but when we arrived at 8:30 am we ended up waiting almost 15 minutes before a #2 match showed up, a friendly Czech couple who seemed oddly worried about someone stealing their 1.5L disposable water bottle and occasionally dropped their voices to a suspicious whisper, even while speaking Czech to each other.

Yes, these trips are very touristy but ours was still one of the main highlights of our time in Vietnam. Don’t miss it, just go early.

2. Hang Mua Viewpoint

Limestone karst and rice field scenery

Officially, this is the Hang Mua Cave. However, the cave sucks and the main reason to go here is to get up to the viewpoints. There are two of them, similar but just different enough to make it worth hitting both. The lower one is rocky and awkward, while the higher one has a normal-sized Buddha statue and massive dragon statue, the latter of which you can climb along for a slightly different view and a photo back along the dragon.

Limestone karst and river scenery from Hang Mua viewpoint

However, it is a bit on the treacherous side, fine if you don’t mind heights or some scrambling, but it is very much one person at a time in spots, making it aggravating to traverse in combination with dozens of other tourists. I did it and got a photo to keep it from being a waste of time but, all things considered, would not recommend it. Just enjoy the normal viewpoint, take your photos and head back down at your leisure.

Despite my derogatory cave comments, however, Hang Mua Cave is literally RIGHT THERE at the bottom of the stairs, so you may as well wander through. It is also worth taking a wander through the Lotus Flower fields. We were there at the wrong time of year but I would imagine they are truly spectacular in spring and early summer.

3. Bich Dong Pagoda

Buddhist shrine in the entrance of a cave

This three-tiered pagoda, the first of which is 600 years old, was a pleasant surprise. While I was somewhat underwhelmed by some of the other historic sites around Tam Coc, Bich Dong Pagoda was actually better than I expected. And, obviously, with a name like that, expectations were high.

Surprisingly free (although you’ll probably have to pay 10k for parking), you cross a nice, photogenic bridge and pass through an equally photogenic (and very popular) stone arch into the main complex where you’ll be greeted by an evocative sign showing exactly what is appropriate to wear in the temple (a business suit, apparently) and what is very impolite (shorts, t-shirts and a weirdly jaunty attitude showing them off).

Illustration of how tourists should and should not dress at Bich Dong Pagoda

But the best parts are up the stairs where you’ll find three different temples built into the rockface, one of which is perfectly framed in a cave entrance.

4. Tour the Back Roads

Lush fields and green hills

Even though we’ve already mentioned that our favourite thing to do in Tam Coc is wander the area, I also want to emphasize that you’ll want to see ALL the roads, not just the main ones. Some of our favourite spots were ones we stumbled across on some tiny dirt side-trail or rough gravel farm road.

As long as you are respectful and careful not to trespass on any private property, nobody seems to mind tourists passing by sporting a friendly smile and goofy helmet. Even if those things happen to be the other way around.

5. Tam Coc Boat Tour

Group being paddled among the limestone karsts in Vietnam

The other main boat option, these ones launch from the middle of Tam Coc, making them more convenient for people without transportation since Trang An is about a 15-minute motorbike journey from town.

The Tam Coc boat tours are generally shorter (1.5-2 hrs) and cheaper (150k). They still boast impressive scenery but maybe not as dramatic as Trang An. On the other hand, many of the boat driver/guides here still practice “foot paddling”, so that is kind of fun.

6. Watch the Sunset at Nhat Linh

This strategically located bar/restaurant is on a small dirt road across a little lake just off the main road to Bich Dong Pagoda. Which means it is very visible and obviously perfectly situated for fantastic sunset views. Or any-time-of-the-day views, as far as it goes.

Woman in lounger with a drink watching the lake and karst scenery

It gets busy later in the day but they seemed to always be able to find another chair as needed, so don’t let that scare you off. Despite its popularity, the drinks are very reasonably priced and the food was pretty good, too.

7. Thung Nham Bird Park

Mixed reviews on this one. Terrific scenery and a cool experience if you’re there just before sunset when the birds all flock home to roost. However, fairly expensive compared to most things to do in Tam Coc (150k) and there are a lot of tacky shops and man-made photo spots.

However, it is a big park with plenty to explore and your entry fee does cover two separate boat trips (one for caves and scenery, one to an island and to watch the birds), so it’s not like that $US 6 is outrageous or anything.

8. Buffalo Cave

Small waterfall at the entrance to a cave

Further down the same road as Nhat Linh (sunset restaurant), this entrepreneurial little set up is focused on the intriguing cave you can explore. However, they have also added many other little touches to enhance the experience, including a natural cave-mouth shower, fishing poles with each drink and a place where you can feed fuzzy little ducklings by hand (truly the greatest days of their little lives, I’m sure).

9. Thai Vi Temple

One of the only temples within walking distance of Tam Coc town, Thai Vi Temple has all the grace and grandeur you’ve come to expect from off-the-beaten path Buddhist temples. I assume, anyway, since we didn’t actually make it there. I saw photos, though, and it seemed nice.

10. Hoa Lu Ancient Capital

The Vietnamese capital during the 10th and 11th centuries, this will be a fascinating stop for history buffs but maybe a bit underwhelming for those looking for grand buildings and impressive views. Like me, for example.

Ancient Vietnamese bridge with a green hill in behind

Nonetheless, there are a pair of interesting temple complexes and a spectacular entrance bridge. Hoa Lu gets very busy, as well, so be sure to get there early to beat the crowds. I arrived at around 8 am and had the place practically to myself. Which was almost a problem, since without large congregations of tourists it was harder to tell where the best parts were.

11. Am Tien Cave

This is a pretty cave near Hoa Lu. But not JUST a cave. A cave that starts on one side of the mountain/pointy hill and comes out the other side. It even works the same way in reverse.

12. Trang An Temple

Stone yin yang well cover and Buddhist statue

Another fairly famous Tam Coc attraction, at first I was quite surprised that the Trang An Temple was free to enter. Then I spent some time there and it began to make a lot of sense. I mean, it’s FINE, you know – pretty temple, atmospheric rock shrines, an interesting yin yang well – but nothing particularly memorable.

They also offer short boat tours for a negotiable price.

13. Bai Dinh Pagoda

This one is an adventure for those with a bit more time, as it is a solid 45-minute motorbike trip from downtown Tam Coc. Something we only discovered en route. Nonetheless, it is massive – the largest Buddhist temple complex in Vietnam – has some huge pagodas and dates back all the way to the 12th century. Yet is also free to enter.

14. Van Long Wetland Reserve

Another place we didn’t make it to but which appears on most Tam Coc things to do lists, by all accounts it offers very similar boat trips to Tam Coc and Trang An. The differences being, it is farther away, features more wildlife and fewer tourists. Could be worth a look.

15. Have a Meal or Drink on the River

Woman in lounger next to lake

The main river/lake in the middle of Tam Coc gets very busy with boat tours in the middle of the day but calms right down as the trips finish up. There are a number of charming restaurants and bars along the shoreline, perfect for a twilight drink or meal.

You can’t actually see the sunset from most of them, though. For that, we’d recommend the Aadi Tam Coc Rooftop Bar.

Sunset over Tam Coc Vietnam

16. Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh is a real live city, not just a town that occasionally resembles one between 4:30 and 5:00 pm each day the way Tam Coc does. But Ninh Binh also has some big temples, a picturesque lake (with an island temple) and several important historic spots. It is just 15 minutes away by scooter and, incidentally, has much better ATM options than Tam Coc.

Lush fields and green limestone karsts

17. Ninh Binh Bear Sanctuary

This is one of those places where you’ll learn horrendous things but be a little bit comforted by the fact some good people are actually doing something about it. The bear sanctuary is dedicated to saving Asiatic Black Bears and Sun Bears from bear bile farms, rehabilitating them and providing them with a (much!) better life.

I won’t get into the awful details of bear bile farming (I kind of wish I was still blissfully ignorant about it) but the gist of it is that their stomach bile is harvested and – for some insane reason – used to make Chinese wines and “bile tea” (that sounds delicious) and is believed to cure everything from hangovers, haemorrhoids and acne to  colds, flus and cancer (wow, why didn’t the scientists think of that one?).

And I assume that some version of bear bile gives guys erections because, in the end, isn’t that the story behind every endangered species on the planet? Small prices to pay for good stiffies, indeed.

18. Cuc Phuong National Park

On a more upbeat note, there are great hiking trails in Cuc Phuong, the oldest national park in Vietnam. And, as far as we know, none of the animals there are being killed to produce good hard-ons. Not even the rare langur which, in the scheme of erotic animals, has to rank right up there.

Keep in mind, though, the park is over an hour from Tam Coc, is very spread out and the official park stance is “no sex with the animals”. Foreplay or not.

Tam Coc Things to Do Map

Click the star to save this map to your Google Maps – then find it under Saved/Maps (mobile) or Your Places/Maps (desktop)

Where to Stay in Tam Coc

For a place with such amazing scenery, there are surprisingly few hotels with views from their rooms. There are some that have decent views from elsewhere on the grounds, and many more that are in spectacular locations but, for some reason, tucked away where you can’t really see anything.

Nonetheless, there is a huge selection of places to stay in and around Tam Coc, although most fall either into the “cheap” or “expensive” category, with very little in between. Based on our subjective opinions on what constitutes cheap ($US 20-30) and expensive ($US 100+) in Vietnam, of course.

Small platform with table and chairs on a little pond
Nan House pond seating

Which is why we were thrilled to find Nan House, one of the few mid-range options with slightly more comfortable rooms in a quiet setting just out of town, with lovely fields all around. The staff and included breakfast were excellent, pedal bikes were free, we rented a scooter from them for the entire week for 120k/day ($US 5) and they arranged good value shuttles for us from Hanoi and on to Cat Ba Island.

Check prices and availability at Nan House

If you want to be in the thick of the action, though, you’ll want a place right in Tam Coc. Tam Coc Holiday Hotel & Villa is a great choice, with nice modern rooms, a beautiful pool and all the amenities at a mid-range price.

Check prices and availability at Tam Coc Holiday Hotel & Villa

On the other hand, if you are planning to have wheels and want to stay somewhere a little quieter but closer to the big attractions, we would suggest the Hang Mua area. Chi’s Homestay is another good mid-range choice with a lovely pool and garden, plus air-conditioning and balconies.

Check prices and availability at Chi’s Homestay Ninh Binh

Tam Coc Tip

There are only two ATMs in Tam Coc, one of which was out of service the entire week we were there. The one that was working charges a 3% fee on top of the regular ATM fee. Or you can get the same deal from most of the tour agencies in town.

However, if you go to Ninh Binh, there are about a dozen ATMs to choose from, all of which are much less extortionate. Agribank, for example, had a 3M max withdrawal ($US 125) and charged just a 22k fee ($1 US).

Summary

Limestone karsts reflected in a calm pond

For all its touristy vibe and overdevelopment, Tam Coc is still a beautiful, compelling place to visit. The karst scenery is simply phenomenal, the prices still absurdly low and the ability to wander independently is a bit of a rare thing in Vietnam these days.

So, whether you are just stopping in for a short visit or have more time to fully explore the area, there are plenty of terrific things to do in Tam Coc for any visitor.

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