Tam Coc / Ninh Binh (North Vietnam)


After some real fun in the hectic big city of Hanoi, we were looking for a quieter place more in tune with nature.  Our options were the famous UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay and Sapa, the mountain hill station/hilltribe retreat near the Chinese border. The other choice was Ninh Binh, famous for the nearby Karst scenery around the village of Tam Coc.  Ninh Binh was the choice as we wanted to avoid the two very popular ‘tourist traps’ of Halong Bay and Sapa for a variety of reasons outlined below.  There is absolutely nothing to do in the town of Ninh Binh itself aside from drinking beer with the locals.  The charm of going to Ninh Binh is getting out exploring the surrounding countryside of Tam Coc.  The area to stay in is in Tam Coc and the no-brainer, ‘go to’ place to stay is the Tam Coc Garden Resort.  We opted to splurge and stay at this higher end place simply because we wanted to be away from the town and isolated in the thick of the nature.  Tam Coc Garden delivered the serenity overlooking the ricefields and massive limestone mountain karsts.  The resort had an awesome pool, provided bikes to ride around the scenic ricefields and thru the countryside to various temples, pagodas and caves.

We biked from the resort through Tam Coc Village and to Hang Mua where we hiked up the steep mountain for some pretty incredible views.  The trek up is a ‘must do’ especially when the ricefields are really green and ready for harvest during May-June.  It’s a real special place and we could have spent hours up at the top simply watching the world go by.

When you get out of the major cities in Vietnam, the country is blessed with some some of the best scenery in all of Southeast Asia.  The other big activity is taking a wooden longboat up the winding Tam Coc river, past ricefields and thru the many caves.  There are two separate boat trips.  The shorter 1 hr. trip up the river outside the gates of Tam Coc Garden Resort and the longer 2 hr. trip to Mua Cave which departs from Tam Coc Village in the middle of town.

Many people refer to Ninh Binh/Tam Coc as, “Halong Bay on Land” as it has a very similar landscape.  Yes, Tam Coc proved to be more relaxing and a great alternative to the busier and touristy Halong Bay.  This is precisely what I love most about our extended around the world trip with no time constraints.  It allows us to make so many spontaneous decisions without being locked down by planning anything in advance.  It is usually these unplanned decisions that turn out to be the most fun.  It is sort of like constructing and putting in your final pick 4 ticket minutes before the 1st leg rather than early in the day.  Some new shit comes to light and this affords you the opportunity to factor in some last minute changes.

Everything is cool and Big Doug is good to go in Tam Coc.  All the fresh ingredients in the Vietnamese food have proven to be cleansing and has helped solidify all bowel movements.  I am now ready with all guns loaded as we head to the food capital of Vietnam…..Hoi An.

Some may question, how can we take a pass on such a world renowned site as Halong Bay and for that matter, any other major tourist sites in the world.  Halong Bay is popular with tourists for a reason.  It’s gorgeous and everyone wants to see it.  Well, we have been traveling so long and I have learned how to pick our spots and reading between the lines.  In this case, I envisioned a once beautiful place, now overrun with tourist boats and the inevitable pollution that goes along with this popularity.  Consequently, we took a pass.  Most travelers go to Halong Bay book a junk boat cruise for their visit.  Trips on junk boats enable you to sleep on the boat, and in the bay, vary in length from day tours to several nights in various budgets and levels of luxury.

The sight of a shitload of these tourist boats circling the bay overrun with tourists with everyone basically visiting the same exact sites was a big pass for me.  The other aspect which I knew would piss me off is the pollution in the bay from all the boats and people.  The beauty of the limestone outcrops in Halong Bay are impressive, but floating trash thrown overboard and being stuck on a planned itinerary without being able to escape the crowds made it unacceptable for Big Doug.  Hearing stories about the waters in the bay being polluted was really the final nail in the coffin in bagging the excursion.  I had heard through the traveler grapevine the beach in the area has hundreds of people packed into a small area.  That, coupled with boats docking all over the beach making if difficult to avoid breathing in the smell of gasoline discharged from the boats – Ugh.  I just wonder how long it can keep its Heritage badge in this supposedly protected area unless things are cleaned up.

A fellow traveler who went swimming in the bay was engulfed by a layer of an oil slick on top of the water probably coming from all the abundance of older, environmentally-unfriendly boats shuttling tourists around.  Nothing gets under my skin more than pollution caused by individuals not giving a crap.  In most parts of Asia, many of the locals do not believe in garbage bins.  Inexplicably, they feel it is their right to throw all their shit on the street and into the rivers.  It is a big problem and I believe it comes from their the lack of education regarding the environment.  Schools in Hawaii teach the children at a very early age to respect the Aina (love of the land) and the importance of protecting it and  keeping it clean.  All of the beaches are spotless.  No garbage whatsoever can be found on the sides of the streets.  And when you do see the very rare cigarette butt in the sand on a beach, it probably is there as a result of an ugly American on holiday from the mainland USA.

Another beautiful spot that has been spoiled by tourism is Maya Beach on Ko Phi Phi, Thailand.  The Phi Phi islands, once an absolute gem of a place is now an absolute clusterfuck.  Mother Nature sent a message to Thailand when the tsunami struck in 2004.  Ko Phi Phi was basically wiped out and more than 2,000 people were killed.  So, the locals had a chance to rebuild Ton Sai Village on the main island of Phi Phi Don, and what did they do?  The greedy local developers overbuilt the island to the point now it’s bursting at the seams with tourists.  It’s obvious nothing was learned from the tragedy.

Ko Phi Phi is good for one thing: Partying.  If you are here to party with college aged backpackers, this is your haven as the alcohol and music flow continuously.   However, for the rest of us not in that age category, I am sorry to say that the Phi Phi islands have been ruined.  A boat trip to the nearby Maya Beach back in the day was sheer paradise on earth.  Then the movie, The Beach came along starring Leonardo De Crappio and that is all it took to ruin this once magical beach area.  It’s really unfortunate that the most beautiful places don’t stay ‘hidden gems’ for too long,  I can go on about other highly touted sites around the world (I am looking at you Great Wall of China) that have been ruined by tourism but ain’t nobody got time for that.

One comment

  1. I could not believe that a person could steer a boat with their feet! Must have been a unique experience for you to be riding along with that gentleman. (I would be consumed with the thought of him losing control, me hitting the water, and some river monster ending my life.) The countryside was as lovely as a Monet painting. The ability to hike and see the spectacular vistas must have been an ethereal experience. So sad but so typical about the commercialism that has befallen both Ko Phi Phi and Maya Beach. Still, you experienced them both during their magical times, and you can relish in that memory. It’s unfortunate that the rampant littering of their streets and beaches is part of the locals’ culture. Education can possibly help, but cannot always be dispersed efficiently nor is it always accepted into the existing culture. Tourism, unfortunately, is probably the lifeline of the country. Perhaps that accounts for the deterioration of a beautiful country. Safe travels until we meet again! Love, Tina


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