Just a mere 150km south of Halong Bay, Vietnam lies Ninh Binh, an area full of natural beauty that is still somewhat off the tourist map. This proximity to Halong Bay and the ease of getting here from Hanoi make it the perfect location to add to your Northern Vietnam adventure. With limited time, it’s always challenging to figure out the best way to experience the natural beauty of the area. Although cycling through the countryside is a fabulous way to enjoy it all, and there are most certainly plenty of wonderful lookout points from the giant mountains (we’re talkin’ about you Mua Cave!), nothing beats experiencing it from the water.
So, depending on how much time you have to spend in Ninh Binh, you may have to face the biggest dilemma of all: picking a boat ride. There two main options in the area: Tam Coc and Trang An. But which one is better? In short, it depends on you and what type of experience you are looking for!
Tam Coc & Trang An:
Both offer beautiful experiences complete with massive limestone karst formations that line the water and a sea of greenery surrounding you. Additionally, both afford you the experience to float through caves.
Tip: Regardless of which boat tour you choose, we recommend either timing your visit during the early morning hours (before 1000) or the evening hours (after 1600). For starters, you’ll avoid the most intense heat and sun of the day. We cannot emphasize enough the importance of a sun hat, bringing a bottle of water, and wearing sunscreen as it can get awfully hot and shade is almost non-existent on either tour. Additionally, you’ll avoid the hordes of other tourists (many who day trip from Hanoi), and might catch golden hour for some fantastic photos.
This boat ride is approximately 1.5 hours and is an out + back course. It is comprised of three caves (Hang Ca, Hang Hai, and Hang Ba) which are all fairly wide (+ short). Admission is comparable to Trang An, as it is only a smidge cheaper (we’re talking less than 50 cents difference for our family). Expect to pay 195,000 VND/Adult, 100,000 VND/Child and if you have wee ones you luck out as children under 3 years old are free!
Overall take aways:
- The river was much less populated (I think we saw three other boats during the 1.5hour ride) and a bit more relaxing. The small number of other visitors could also have something to do with when we went as we visited Tam Coc after 1600 cashing in on an epic “golden hour.”
- The operation felt a lot less commercialized compared to Trang An with all the rowers wearing nothing official.
The boat ride is a bit longer being approximately 2 hours and doesn’t repeat much (if any), as all routes make up a big loop. There are also a few more options, as you’ll have the opportunity to choose from three different routes which vary in the number of caves and temples you explore.
- Route 1: 9 caves, 3 temples
- Route 2: 4 caves, 3 temples, film set from King Kong Skull Island
- Route 3: 3 caves, 3 temples
The caves as a whole are much narrower and longer with some being 250m in length and in some places requiring you to duck down to avoid being taken out by a rock! Admission is 200,000 VND/Adult, 100,000 VND/Child, with children under 3 years of age being free (yay!). The boat tour also offers the opportunity to get out and explore temples (although to be honest, there was something about the temple complexes that didn’t seem super authentic).
Overall Take Aways:
- The crowds were heavier. So. Many. People. Again part of this might have been due to the time of day we went as we departed on the boat ride at 1000 which is a bit on the late side and we would recommend arriving earlier (easier said than done with kids).
- The operation here felt a lot more commercialized compared to Tam Coc with all the rowers wearing official shirts.
- Our rower was a little bit more pushy with getting us to help out with the rowing despite trying to wrangle the kids, so although we wanted to help a good bit, we could have done without the extra pressure.
So what do we recommend?
Family with Young Kids: Tam Coc. It’s approximately thirty minutes to an hour less in length and we felt it was overall better for shorter attention spans. After all, it’s not really relaxing trying to make sure that your toddler doesn’t leap out of the boat into the water.
Singles, Couples, or Families with Older Kids: Trang An. For approximately the same amount of money you get a substantially longer boat ride with a few more caves (which are much neater inside) and the option of visiting some temples along the way if you like (although we wouldn’t choose Trang An just for the temples as they seemed less authentic than others we experienced in Ninh Binh). Additionally, you don’t repeat much of the journey as opposed to Tam Coc.
Photographers: Tam Coc. The crowds are smaller and there are fewer boats allowing you to get better shots. Go during “golden hour” and we think you’ll love it!
Overall View: Trang An. The landscape is overall more impressive and the caves are much more intricate to navigate making the journey a bit more interesting.
Movie Buffs: Trang An. Route 2 allows you the opportunity to get off the boat and walk through the set of Kong Skull Island.
Overall Experience: Tam Coc. Smaller number of boats lead to a much more tranquil experience. So if you’re looking to get away from it all, this is the better option.
No matter which boat tour you choose we are confident that you will walk away completely understanding why so many refer to the area as the “Halong Bay on Land.” We think you’ll fall in love with this area of Vietnam…heck, we sure did!