The Trang An Landscape Complex is the name for what most people just refer to as Ninh Binh. That’s the official UNESCO World Heritage name, while in Vietnam it’s the more superfluous Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex.
Ninh Binh is also the name of the capital city of the province of the same name, though the capital has never been accused of being scenic. For the Ninh Binh of your travel dreams, the town of Tam Coc is the gateway to Trang An and the hub of travel activity.
On my first backpacking trip to Vietnam in 2005 I went overland from Saigon to Hanoi. For reasons why I can’t remember I didn’t make a stop at Ninh Binh. Perhaps I read that Ninh Binh is “like Halong Bay in the rice fields”, and as I was going to Halong on that trip I passed. Or maybe I was running out of time. Either way, I’ve been wanting to go ever since. Now that I find myself inside the Vietnam travel bubble in the time of COVID-19, I finally got round to visiting.
Tam Coc is about 6km from the city of Ninh Binh, but another world away in terms of feel and tempo. Tam Coc is centred around a lake where tour boats take you along a river through the rice fields and mountains.
This small town has many western restaurants and bars, making it a true Banana Pancake trail town.
Unfortunately when I visited in July 2020 it was reeling from the international travel shutdown.
I was lulled into a false sense of security after visiting Hoi An the month before. Domestic tourism had picked up considerably and it was at least providing a lifeline for some tourism operators. I can’t say the same about Tam Coc, where most businesses are completely reliant on tourism. All over this village were closed shopfronts and home stays, and the few places that were still open were empty.
At the entrance to the town there is a big parking area that would usually be full of tour buses. When I visited there was one bus in the park. Also in the park were three party buses that looked like they had not been used for a while. I had no idea that Ninh Binh had become big enough to support a fleet of backpacker booze buses. During my stay here I doubt I saw enough tourists that would fill those buses.
While visiting Tam Coc I thought to myself that I would hate to be a travel guide publisher at this time in history. So many businesses have closed down, and for travel guides there is no point in updating listings until the pandemic is over, which might be one or two years away.
2020 has been a hard year for my travel publishing business, but at least my overheads are low. I felt terrible seeing all of these bricks and mortar businesses that have been wiped out during this time. I have friends who own hotels and run tour companies, and I am seeing the hardship that is happening in the tourism industry.
When I told friends I was going to Ninh Binh I was given some suggestions of places to visit to escape the crowds. I had planned to rent a scooter to visit some other areas, but with no crowds to escape I was content to walk and cycle around the Tan Coc area.
After wandering around Tam Coc town, I got a bicycle from my home stay to have a look around. Tam Coc is a small town so you are in the rice fields in a matter of minutes. I was glad that I stayed here rather than basing myself in the city.
I saw this farmer herding his ducks towards the rice fields so I quickly pulled over to watch. Within seconds the ducks disappeared into the rice as they got to work on the insects. Here and there you could see flashes of white in the green, and their quacking could be heard as they spread through the fields.
Last year I experienced rural life in Phong Nha, and this trip reminded me how good it was for this city soul to have a rural reset every so often.
Tam Coc Boat Tour
The big tourism drawcard here is the boat ride through the rice fields. This advertising poster at my home stay shows what Tam Coc at full capacity looks like. No wonder my friends recommended getting away.
If the closed down businesses weren’t enough of a sign of the hard times we are in, then the lake full of idle boats was another indication that things are not good.
There is a ticket office for the boat trip, and from there you are assigned a boat. The ticket was 270,000 VND ($11.70 USD).
The boats are mostly rowed by women, and they use their legs to row.
I watched the technique of my rower for a while, trying to work out how they make it look so easy. Of course if you practice anything long enough you will get it, but I’m pretty sure I would injure myself by trying this.
The area lives up to its name of being scenic, and if you have been to Halong Bay the description of it as a land-based Halong is not bad either.
Some of the limestone karsts are in the path of the river, and navigable tunnels have formed where boats can pass underneath.
The tunnels aren’t long so there is no need for lights.
At the end of the river before turning back we were
ambushed greeted by a flotilla of grandmas with their floating shops. Here they ask you to buy lunch for the rower, which I happily obliged, and I bought can of coffee for myself.
The total price was 100,000 dong, and she was not haggling. A younger, broker, backpacker version of myself would have been indignant at being so blatantly overcharged. This time though I just shrugged. 100,000 VND is $4.30 USD. I wasn’t in the mood to argue, and I figured that the economy here isn’t seeing a lot of dong.
It was all the more remarkable for me as it’s been years since I have experienced any kind of tourism overpricing scheme like this. I told some Vietnamese friends in Saigon about this and they were more outraged that this still happens in Ninh Binh.
The river cruise was a good indication of how many people were visiting. During the 2-hour boat trip we passed about 20 other boats. There were no western backpackers, and for foreigners I saw some Koreans and a boat with Indians. I presume they were all visiting from Hanoi as there was no international tourism at this point.
I was there during the week, so maybe it gets busier on the weekend with day trippers from Hanoi. Ninh Binh is 90km south of Hanoi, so it’s an ideal weekend getaway destination for Hanoiers.
Nearby Tam Coc town is Hang Mua (Mua Caves). The main reason to visit here is to climb the mountain for the scenic view. It looked close to Tam Coc on the map, though it ended up being 45 minute walk through farmland. Not that there was anything wrong with that.
At the entrance to the cave there is what would now be called an Instagram Park, with various props to take photos with.
The most popular site appeared to be the lotus field with a path down the middle. I even saw some @influencersinthewild.
As an Australian 80’s kid, the characters from Journey to the West never fail to delight me.
The climb to the top of the mountain is apparently 500 stairs, though I didn’t count to verify. I was there during a heatwave, so I was sweating profusely after about 10 steps. Meanwhile I was being overtaken by grandmas who had barely broken a sweat.
Halfway up I looked back and saw that the walk in the lotus field was shaped like a love heart. A true Instagrammer trap.
At the top of the mountain I was rewarded with this incredible view.
After staying in Tam Coc I moved camp to Ninh Binh city to get a taste of provincial city life.