Claudia Davaar Lambie escapes to Tam Coc in Northern Vietnam for a few days for some much needed R&R, photo by Khoroshunova Olga.
The cursor pulses on the search engine box. I enter ‘peaceful places to visit in Vietnam’ and hit return. There are a dozen or so recommendations that pop up and one catches my attention instantly – Tam Coc, which translates as three caves or, as it is colloquially known, ‘Halong Bay on Land’. I later learn that the photos on various websites and blogs of the area do not do it justice. A few days later and I am on a train from Hanoi to Ninh Binh (VND 150,000 one-way). The views from the window give me a glimpse of what lies ahead: boundless rice paddy fields that glisten yellow in the sun and lush greenery as far as the eye can see.
After two and a half hours I arrived in Ninh Binh, a small industrial city with not too much to see. Xeom drivers wait in droves outside of the station and ten minutes later I have made it to Tam Cốc. My main reason for taking this solo expedition was for one purpose: to find some peace and quiet. Having lived in Saigon for two years, peace and quiet doesn’t come around often. My ears are constantly buzzing from the beeps, construction work and general noisiness of the bustling city. Thankfully, as we drove into the picturesque town of Tam Cốc, I could immediately sense the tranquility.
Pulling into my home for the next three days I was greeted by Loan in French. She showed me to my spacious bungalow which was accessed over a sturdy bamboo bridge. It was nestled in front of a mountainous backdrop. Chez Loan, as the hotel is called, is a family run business and although the amenities are basic, Loan has added a touch of elegance to the design of the rooms. Looking out from my balcony I could see the rice fields. The peace and quiet that I was looking for, except from the obligatory cockerels, was definitely on the cards. Loan offered me a bicycle for the duration of my stay and, as soon as I could, I ventured off to explore.
There is not much to do in Tam Coc, that is the beauty of it, but as I cycled around the trinket town the panoramic views of the countryside were truly breathtaking. Bicycling around the grounds of the Bich Dong Pagoda was as though as I had entered The Secret Garden. The overgrown shrubbery and paths leading to dead ends added to the enchantment of the area. It was quite easy to get lost among the greenery but the trails zig zagged around and eventually brought me back full circle.
The Ngo Dong River flows around Tam Coc and it is well worth sailing along it (VND 200,000) to take in the true beauty of Tam Coc. The karst rock formations jut in and out of the river and I began to see why the landscape was named after Ha Long Bay. This natural setting, however, is still relatively untouched by the tourism industry and there was not a drop of litter to be seen. In fact, on my way around the river I saw a sign, interestingly written in English, which read ‘it is everybody’s responsibility to look after the environment’.
The next day, already accustomed to the charming town, it was time to explore a bit further afield on my trusty bicycle. Loan recommended a place called Trang An, similar to the Ngo Dong River landscape but even more impressive in size. Trang An was situated around nine kilometres from Tam Coc and the journey took around one- and- a- half hours which included a lot of photo stops. As I cycled on the designated bumpy path, I could not quite believe the scenery that unfolded in front of me: vast yellow and green rice fields that stretched for miles encircled by different sized and shaped mountains. Rice pickers laboriously worked in the fields and to my right was a small lagoon where fisherman gathered. As I stared out into the expanse, I really felt that this was the true Vietnam.
I eventually arrived in Trang An and learned that as recently as 2014, Trang An Landscape Complex was recognised as a UNESCO Heritage Site. It is not hard to see why when you visit. The area also encompasses Tam Cốc and the ancient capital of Hoa Lu which governed Vietnam during to the 10th and 11th centuries. I bought my ticket for the boat ride (VND 150,000) and Linh helped me on board. Sailing around Trang An, the scenery was impressively vast. The karst formations looked like huge elephants bathing in the water and the river was tinged green as the sun reflected off of the surrounding landscape.
Amazingly, Linh used her feet to navigate the oars for the entire journey; snaking around the river and ducking into the limestone caves. There were nine caves to pass through and one of them alone was 900 metres in length. As we approached some of the low lying entrances Linh would shout “coi chừng!” and push my head down until we had safely passed the jagged rock edges. Although there were noticeably more tourists here, the serenity still prevailed and the rhythm of the paddles on the water could have lulled me to sleep. The languorous boat ride lasted around two hours; plenty of time to soak up the scenery.
The sun was setting as I cycled back towards Tam Coc and I had one more stop to make before the day was over. Hang Mua Pagoda is situated on the same rocky path that I had previously cycled on to Trang An. As I approached the grounds, I could see a faint outline of the dragon statue that is perched atop the mountain. There were 450 grueling steps to climb to reach the top and I would be lying if I said it was a breeze. I approached the peek and there was not a soul in sight. Below, the rice paddy fields looked like patchwork quilts stitched together, blending together in yellows and greens. The karst rock formations stood tall and proud. As I sat there taking in the views, I could hear nothing at all. I had finally found some of that peace and quiet.