Located near the village of Van Lam, 7km (4 1/4 miles) southwest of Ninh Binh, the Tam Coc area is a highlight of any visit to Vietnam. Called "The Halong Bay of the Rice Fields" after the UNESCO World Heritage Site north of Hanoi, the stunning limestone karst towers hearken to the famed landscape of the bay, as well as Guilin in southern China -- a landscape that has inspired poets for centuries.
The karst towers of Tam Coc are set in wide lowland fields of wet rice, and visitors can experience a 1-hour boat ride along a meandering river. Take in the stunning scenery as you listen to the hypnotic clacking of the oars against the side of the boat and enjoy the meditative progress of the boat along the winding river.
Tam Coc means "Three Grottoes," after the three caves you pass through on the backtracking route. The caves transport you through a seeming portal in time, ever farther from the familiar into the misty mountain valley along this meandering stream; there is Hang Ca, Cave One, which is over 100m (328 ft.) long; then Hang Hai, Cave Two, at 70m (230 ft.); and lastly the smaller Hang Ba, Cave Three.
At the large gated entrance, you can buy your ticket (cost is 40,000 VND), which entitles you to visit the caves, enjoy a boat ride (you must present your coupon to the rower), and see a few adjoining temple sites. The wooden rowboats leave from a village whose main street is lined with very local linen and embroidery shops -- a good selection at very low prices. The rowers are a friendly lot and are happy to chat; some speak English, others smile, and everybody sings as they row, often in unison. Your new friend turns into salesman by the end of the ride, though -- kind of a drag. The item up for bid is embroidery, which they'll tell you was executed by the shaking hand of an ailing grandmother, anything to get you to fork over a few dong. Your rower has a tacit agreement with other sellers along the route to bump your boat against anyone with even a few bananas for sale. In these cases, if you whip out your wallet, you might as well shout "Free for all! Come and get 'em!" Best to just quietly decline. In lieu of a purchase, a small tip to your rower at the end of the ride is a better bargain, but know (and accept) that there's no way to fend off the sellers at Tam Coc. Tourists are like ducks on a pond. The most important thing is not to let it get you down, keep it light -- but say "no" -- and keep your eyes on the passing scenery.
The time to go to Tam Coc is after 10am (the morning fog obscures the shape of the precipitous peaks). If you arrive too early and the place is still foggy, take a ride by road out to Bich Dong Temple, and then come back for the boat trip when things have burned off. By midday, though, the sun is blistering and the open boats offer no shade. Local hucksters are quick to make the most of your misery and sell (or rent) umbrellas to ward off the sun, but it's best to just bring a good hat and cover up with sunscreen. Along the route you'll see shy kingfishers flitting about, as well as cranes padding around the paddies and floating weeds. Local fishermen, quite used to the steady stream of tourists, are busy setting nets and paddling about in boats the size of snow saucers. Some fishermen row with their feet, while others use the unique standing technique of leaning forward and pushing the oars in a heaving forward lunge; the stroke is beautiful to watch, but try doing it and see how difficult it is.