Tam Coc Boat Tour

A view of the Tam Coc landscape from the lookout at Hang Múa

A view of the Tam Coc landscape from the lookout at Hang Múa

It’s Friday afternoon and we’re on a train from Hanoi to the Ninh Binh province of Vietnam. Fresh off a flight from Hue just a few hours earlier, Rachael and I are exhausted from our early morning rush to the airport and the long taxi ride from the Hanoi airport to the train station, but we’ve made it on our train successfully and can now relax. I look over and Rachael’s already passed out and although I’m pretty warn out from the travels too, some delicious Vietnamese food and a cheeky lager have given me the energy to try to plan out our adventures in our next destination, Tam Coc and the Ninh Binh province.

A small temple at Hang Múa overlooking the Ninh Binh rice fields.

A small temple at Hang Múa overlooking the Ninh Binh rice fields.

Before coming to Vietnam, we had chosen Tam Coc as a destination for its incredible karst rock formations jutting out of the landscape with rivers winding through rice fields between the rock cliffs. It had been called “Ha Long Bay on land” and we could definitely see why from the photos. We knew that boat tours through the rivers and caves were the main attractions of the region and we had planned to take one the next day. But as I began researching our options in my less-than-comfortable train seat, I realized that each boat tour had a variety of opinions and reviews and there was a large debate on which was the best in town.

The main boat tour was the Tam Coc Boat Tour – right in the center of the village. We had seen stunning pictures of the scenery and were planning on taking this one hour boat ride, but upon researching the reviews it seemed to have a reputation for being quite touristy. In addition to being a popular attraction with bus loads of day tourists arriving from Hanoi every day, the reviews also mentioned that there were multiple tourist traps along the boat ride.

The reviews mentioned that along the tour there is a floating market of boats selling crafts and refreshments at quite expensive prices (expensive for Vietnam) and that the ladies on these boats would pressure sell you the goods while you’re trapped on your boat. Some reviews mentioned that if you didn’t want any refreshments then the ladies would guilt trip you into buying a drink for your boat rower, who wouldn’t even drink the beverage and would later return it to the ladies because they were in on the con. 

The other tourist trap the reviews mentioned was photographers along the way which would offer to take your picture and then force you to pay large amounts for the photos at the end of the ride, even if you had agreed to a better price previously. 

Overall most of the reviews claimed that the ride is absolutely beautiful and that it is very enjoyable if you just do your best to ignore the tourist traps, but others claimed that the rude and pushy entrepreneurs had ruined their trip.

A bit tired after 500 stairs straight up, but absolutely worth it.

A bit tired after 500 stairs straight up, but absolutely worth it.

In doing some more research, I found that the other recommended boat tour in the area was called Trang An and was much more popular amongst Vietnamese tourist than international tourists, but this ride also had some mixed reviews. The tour is three hours long, much longer than the one hour Tam Coc ride, but this was called out as a negative by most because of how uncomfortable the boat seats are. Also, this tour loads four people to a boat so Rachael and I would need to share, and there had been accounts of people needing to share with tourists holding umbrellas, blocking the amazing scenery in photographs. The tour operation has built temples along the river, but they were claimed to be quite tacky and it was pretty unanimous among the reviews that Tam Coc had slightly more beautiful scenery.

 After reviewing all of these, Rachael and I decided to try our luck with the Tam Coc tour since it was right next to our AirBnb and we would be able to get an early tour to avoid tourist and explore much more of the area for the rest of the day. So when our train arrived, we were shuttled to our AirBnb, checked in, had some more delicious Vietnamese food at a local restaurant called Hoa Luan and then got ready for an early start the next day.

Tam Coc and the Ninh Binh province are covered in karst limestone cliffs and rice fields.

Tam Coc and the Ninh Binh province are covered in karst limestone cliffs and rice fields.

The next morning was a bit dreary and rainy, but we woke up early and headed out to the Tam Coc boat tour, only about a three minute walk from our front door. There were no tourists in sight and we went to the office to buy tickets. The ride cost 240,000 Dong (about $10 USD) for both of us, and so we paid and a boat pulled up with a man rowing using his feet! We got on the boat and tried to introduce ourselves to the rower but he didn’t really have too much to say.

As we started the tour, we began to see the incredible scenery everyone raved about. The scenery was absolutely stunning, even on a rainy morning. Not long after the tour started though, we saw photographers in boats who began offering to take our photograph. We politely declined and they let us continue with no hassle.

A photo of our enthusiastic boat tour rower

A photo of our enthusiastic boat tour rower

After weaving through rice fields and under three caves (Tam Coc/Tam Cốc translates to “three caves” in Vietnamese), we eventually come up to the floating markets. The ladies began to offer us refreshments and crafts, but we politely declined. They did asked a few times and acted a bit sour when we declined, but we just kept politely saying no and they let us continue. I think it helped that we were saying “no” in Vietnamese (không). We didn’t buy anything because we weren’t really thirsty or hungry, but if you did happen to want to buy a drink, it’s really only about the same price you would pay for the refreshments in most western countries.

The boat brought us back the same way we came, and Rachael and I soaked up every moment as we floated through the beautiful scenery of rice fields and huge limestone cliffs. We arrived back at the start of the tour, tipped our rower 100k Dong (~$4 USD), and we were off to explore the rest of the beautiful province of Ninh Binh. 

The Tam Coc boat tour takes you by an old cemetery, under three caves, and through many rice fields.

The Tam Coc boat tour takes you by an old cemetery, under three caves, and through many rice fields.

Overall we really enjoyed our boat tour in Tam Coc. The scenery is incredible and if you don’t fall for the traps, the whole thing can be a very pleasant experience. We did not try the Trang An boat tour, but I believe we made the right choice with Tam Coc.

Tips for the Tam Coc boat tour:

  • Go early! Busses of tourist from Hanoi arrive around 10am and the river gets quite crowded.

  • Don’t get your photo taken by the photographers. If you absolutely must, be sure to confirm the price beforehand.

  • Don’t buy refreshments at the floating market if you don’t want to. If you decline enough times, they will let you go. Saying “no” in Vietnamese (không) is helpful.

The harder the climb, the better the view.

The harder the climb, the better the view.

After the boat tour, Rachael and rented a motorbike and went to a Buddhist temple complex nearby called the Bai Dinh Pagoda which had thousands of Buddha statues of all sizes, shapes and colors. After exploring the temple for a few hours, we headed to popular lookout spot called Hang Mua and after about 500 steps straight up, we soaked up an incredible view overlooking the karst cliffs and boats paddling on the river below before heading back to our Airbnb to pack up and head off to the next Vietnamese adventure.

The rice fields in Tam Coc had just been harvested when we visited, but other times of year the rice glows a bright shade of yellow.

The rice fields in Tam Coc had just been harvested when we visited, but other times of year the rice glows a bright shade of yellow.

Although growing in popularity, Tam Cốc is not nearly as touristy as Ha Long Bay and offers some of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery with a small Vietnamese village feel to it. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Ninh Binh province and highly recommend it to anyone visiting northern Vietnam.

The Bai Dinh temple complex had many different shapes and sizes of Buddha statues.

The Bai Dinh temple complex had many different shapes and sizes of Buddha statues.

The hallways of the Bai Dinh temple complex had hundreds of small buddha statues behind glass. Many of the locals had left money by the statues as an offering.

The hallways of the Bai Dinh temple complex had hundreds of small buddha statues behind glass. Many of the locals had left money by the statues as an offering.