After seeing the amazing sights and island formations of Lan Ha & Hạ Long Bays during our stay on Cát Bà Island, we decided to venture to the ‘Hạ Long Bay on land’ – Tam Cốc.
Tam Cốc is 100kms south of Hà Nội with Ninh Bình being the closest transport hub for train and bus travel. We decided to visit on a Monday as we knew that the weekends, particularly Sundays, could be busy with lots of locals visiting the area. With the train station a mere 550m from our Airbnb apartment we easily chose to take the train and departed at 9am for our 2 hour, 20 min journey. Our tickets to Ninh Bình cost us a total of 372,00 VND/$23.25 NZD however, as Braxton is still under 6 years old he could have been free but that would have meant that he wouldn’t have been assigned his own seat. This wouldn’t have been a problem on this occasion as our carriage was nowhere near fill but for an extra $5 NZD we weren’t too concerned. We departed right on time and had a pleasant trip with comfortable seats and both USB and electrical plugs available.
We arrived at the Ninh Bình station to many people trying to get us into taxis or private cars to visit the main attractions. We walked outside to see what was around and then headed across the road with one man to his hotel/restaurant/tour agency to see what they had on offer. We ordered an early lunch while getting a run down from him about local attractions and travel options. Again we decided to risk any police stops and hired two scooters from him for a total of 180,000 VND/$11.25 NZD. Thankfully we had no issues again.
We already knew the few places we wanted to visit, so after lunch we headed off to our first stop, Hang Múa (Múa Cave), around 7kms away. We were surprised that the entry fee was 100,000 VND/$6.25 NZD per person, that seemed a bit high compared to other similar places we had visited throughout Vietnam and they still wanted the full price for Lincoln. We explained that he was only 9 years old but she said it was because he was “quite tall”?? ….. We paid (begrudgingly) and headed through the grounds of the Hang Múa Ecolodge to the bottom of the 500 steps up to the top of the Lying Dragon mountain.It was an incredibly hot day, (a lot hotter than we had been experiencing of late) with weather apps showing 34 degrees (“feels like 40 degrees”), so it was a slower climb than we were planning. About mid-way up there was a little stall selling a few items including very cold (and welcoming) water as we had already finished the bottle we started with. After our break we continued upwards and Lincoln and I saw a “Where is Hillary” comment etched into the concrete; this made me smile, think of home and invoked a conversation with Lincoln about the great New Zealander, Sir Edmund Hillary, and his conquering of Everest. The steps are well constructed, we managed fine in just our jandals, with some steps having had a smaller step added as some have quite big risers. Once at the top we took some time to catch our breaths, take in more stunning scenery, watch the boats travel down the river and feel very accomplished that we had “knocked off” another mountain climb.The journey back down was relatively quick and we were well and truly ready for a refreshing drink at the bottom. We then wandered over to the cave and had a quick look through, we found nice cool water lapping over the path which was just above our ankles but there wasn’t too much else. By this time it was nearly 2.30pm so it was back on the scooters, enjoying the breeze to cool us off, and we headed for the ancient capital, Hoa Lư. This was about 9km further on via the Tràng An grotto area with some stops along the way to take in some beautiful scenery.Nearly at the entrance of the ancient capital we started to have parking vendors coming out onto the road to try to stop us and get us into their lots, we continued on and entered through the main gates. We managed to avoid the attention of the many police and parked up and were told parking would be 10,000 VND/$0.63 NZD per scooter.We found the area a hive of activity with huge stages and seating grandstands being erected and numerous stalls being set up. We found out that the following day was to be the 1,050 year celebration since the capital was first founded in 968. Hoa Lư was the capital of Dai Co Viet (an old name for Vietnam) until 1010 with the surrounding mountains providing excellent natural protection of the capital. While there isn’t too much remaining of the city, we purchased tickets to look around; 20,000 VDN/$1.25 NZD per adult and just 10,000 VDN/$0.63 NZD for children aged 6-12 years. We wandered around the beautiful archways and temples but skipped another mountain climb.After nearly an hour we were ready to return our scooters and enjoyed cruising the 13kms back through the small local communities, stopping to take more photos of the lush green rice fields with some of the karst landscapes as stark backdrops.We returned the scooters just before 5pm and crossed the road to the railway station ready for our 5.30pm return train. Our return ticket cost was a total of 344,000 VND/$21.50 NZD and while the departure time was noted as 5.27pm on our tickets we ended up leaving the Ninh Bình station around 5.50pm. Not too bad as while we were waiting we recalled the time in Thailand that we had to wait an extra hour for one train from Udon Thani to Khon Kaen. There were a few basic food options available on the train for dinner, instant noodle cups, popcorn, chips, drinks etc and thankfully not too expensive, so that was enough to tide us over during the evening return trip.It was pretty easy to do this self-guided day trip from Hà Nội to Ninh Bình /Tam Cốc and if you wanted to spend more time it is possible as the day we travelled there was an earlier train that left Hà Nội at 6am. There are also plenty of accommodation options dotted around the area, mostly small homestays, if you wish to do more than a day trip.
Back at our apartment just on 12 hours after we left that morning, we all agreed it was a very fun day and for a total cost of 1,829,000 VND/$114.31 NZD covering all food, drinks, tickets and parking. We really enjoy the travel options throughout Southeast Asia and where you can get to and what you can see in just one day and on such a reasonable budget.