Tam Coc is a popular location among locals in Vietnam, but visited by few foreigners. Also known as ‘Halong Bay on rice paddies’, limestone karsts dot the landscape, and tower over the villages and rice paddies in the area.
Situated only two hours south of Hanoi, Tam Coc is located along the Ngo Dong River, which runs through three caves, which is the main attraction, with the largest one being 125 metres in length.
There’s an authentic feel to the area, with few signs in English, minimal infrastructure for tourism, and plenty of goats that roam the dirt tracks that split the numerous rice paddies along the landscape. If you ever want to escape the chaos of Hanoi for a couple of days to find some peace and tranquility, then this is a option to consider.
Things to do in Tam Coc
Cruise down Ngo Dong River
Most visitors come to Tam Coc to see the three caves. The easiest and most scenic method is to take a guided boat ride that are skippered by local Vietnamese women. The rowing method employed by these women uses their feet to paddle and steer the wooden boat around the river. I curiously asked my guide why this method is used and she replied that it allows them to face in a forward position, as well as alleviating the pressure off their backs and arms.
Along the way, other vendors in their own boats will pull up to the side of the boat to sell various drinks and snacks. I’ve heard stories of how they will try to rip visitors off, but the prices seemed to be in line with normal tourist prices. I do speak Vietnamese though, so perhaps they didn’t bother trying to pull the wool over my eyes.
The cruise takes about three hours in total and the speed is at a casual pace. The best time to go is early, prior to 9am when there is next to nobody else there. I arrived just prior to 9am and it felt as though that I had the place to myself. On the inbound part of journey though, there was a steady stream of boats heading out.
Mua cave is located off the Ngo Dong river and requires a scenic detour along the rice paddies in order to reach it. The actual cave within the karst is quite boring, but the pagoda, 500 steps high up is well worth the hike.
It’s difficult to gauge how far up you’ve hiked due to the zig zagging nature of the stairs, but persistence will ensure that you’re reward with one of the best views in Vietnam. At the top, you’ll see the Ngo Dong River wind its way through Tam Coc and the endless mountains, blanketing the landscape far off into the distance.
The heat and humidity can be quite debilitating, so make sure you’re well hydrated and have plenty of water with you at the time.
Explore the surrounding villages on scooters
One of the best things about hiring a scooter is the freedom that it offers to travel to wherever you want to go, and at a time that is convenient to you. Fuel is also cheap and a couple of dollars will buy enough miles to last a full day of exploration.
Surrounding the rice paddies are endless miles of tracks to explore; ranging from old cemeteries, to smaller villages where kids ride their over sized bikes from school every afternoon with the hugest smiles and not afraid to wave hello – there’s so many unexpected turns and surprises to stumble upon. When I was at the top of Mua Cave, I met a young man and ended up being invited back to his grandparents home for dinner that night.
Early mornings are the best times
It goes without saying that light is the most important element to making a great image. However, the morning air in the area is clearer in Tam Coc, with less haze in the atmosphere. The lack of tourists in the mornings also mean that you won’t have too many tourists in your images, you’ll have less chance of being hassled by vendors and most importantly, it will be a more peaceful and enjoyable experience.
Save the hike to Mua Cave for the late afternoon for sunset. It will be hot, but there’s a pagoda up the top that offers protection from the sun and is a great location to enjoy the views of the setting sun over the mountain range.
Bring a zoom lens
Tam Coc is known for the beautiful landscapes, but there is also a plethora of wildlife, from birds, to water buffalo and herds of goats. In the early mornings, farmers work along the shallow areas of the river; fishing for snails and small river fish. These offer great photo opportunities to capture the daily life on the river, and getting out there early when there are few others out there, makes it easier to deal with locals who want to go about their own business.
Include a human element into your images to convey the scale of the karsts. From the top of Mua Cave, you will see the boatloads of tourists being guided down stream, so wait for the right moment where they will fill the space in the image.