Tam Coc - Exploring Vietnam's Red River Delta - The Maritime Explorer


Tam Coc – Exploring Vietnam’s Red River Delta

This is my third post from the 2023 visit to Vietnam with Adventures Abroad. In the second post we spent several days exploring Hanoi, a city of over five million, and learned how to maneuver through its bustling streets without getting hit by one of the ubiquitous motorcycles that keep a tourist on their toes at all times. Everywhere you go in Hanoi you are surrounded by a sea of humanity. This post will be the complete opposite as we head out into the countryside and see a different side of Vietnam in Tam Coc, known as Ha Long Bay on land. Here we will visit the ancient capital of Hoa Lu, learn how to plant rice and make spring rolls, take a boat trip in beautiful Van Long Wetland Reserve and end the day at an exclusive resort. It promises to be one of the best days ever on an Adventures Abroad trip and that’s saying a lot. So let’s join our AA guide Claude Morency on the bus and get going.

While I complained about the state of the roads in Laos in several of my posts, the same cannot be said about Vietnam. The roads here were excellent and it took far less time than I thought it would to get out of metropolitan Hanoi and into the Vietnamese countryside. It’s about an hour and a half to our first stop at Hoa Lu and during the ride Claude and our local guide give us a lesson in the Vietnamese language. Who knew that two simple letters could mean so many different things? Get the pronunciation wrong and instead of getting the rice you thought you ordered you get horse meat instead.

A Lesson in Vietnamese

Tam Coc is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex which is noted for its karst topography of steep hills rising from rice fields which is a contrast to the karst hills that rise from the sea in Ha Long Bay. It is located due south of Hanoi in the lower half of the Red River delta and is near the site of the first independent Vietnamese capital, Hoa Lu which will be our first stop.

Hoa Lu

As I noted in my first post from Vietnam, the north of the country was dominated by the Chinese for over 1,000 years and it wasn’t until the year 968 that the first truly independent Vietnamese ruled entity emerged. The man who achieved this status was Dinh Bo Linh who was born in the village of Hoa Lu and built a capital complex here that lasted until 1009 when the capital was relocated to Thang Long, the early name for Hanoi. Since that move Hoa Lu has been referred to as ‘the ancient capital’ and is a revered site for the Vietnamese.

As capital sites go, Hoa Lu is not large and consists of an outer and inner citadel. This is the view from the opposite side of the Hoang Long River which acts as a natural moat.

View from Across the Hoang Long River

Crossing the Hoang Long River on the ancient bridge you get a good view of the forest covered karst hills that are typical of the Tam Coc area.

View from the Bridge, Tam Coc
View from the Bridge

This is the entrance to Hoa Lu which has remained largely as first constructed over a thousand years ago. Although nominally Vietnamese, the architecture is still very much Chinese.

Hoa Lu City Gate near Tam Coc
Hoa Lu Capital Gate

Inside this map shows the inner and outer courtyard areas.

Map of Hoa Lu

This is the view from the outer courtyard looking back at the entrance gate. Usually one thinks of a citadel as a defensive fortification atop a hill, such as in my home city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. In the case of Hoa Lu, Dinh Bo Linh took the opposite approach, effectively hiding his capital between the karst hills of Tam Coc. That strategy apparently worked because Hoa Lu was never taken by a foreign invader. Its downfall was as a result of inner Vietnamese civil war. You can also see from this photo that there are only a few tourists around and that in contrast to Laos, the skies are clear and not a smoky haze from slash and burn agriculture.

View from Inside the Outer Courtyard, Tam Coc Area
View from Inside the Outer Courtyard

There are a number of what are referred to as National Treasures to be found at Hoa Lu including several ‘dragon beds’ of which this is one. Despite looking at over a dozen Hoa Lu and Tam Coc websites I can find no explanation of why this is called a dragon bed or why it’s a National Treasure.

Dragon Bed

Likewise this stone pony which I’m pretty sure was not the inspiration for either the Linda Ronstadt band or the legendary music venue in Asbury Park, New Jersey where Bruce Springsteen got his start.

Tam Coc Stone Pony
Stone Pony

Inside the small temple at the back of the complex are two large statues which I believe our local guide said were Buddha and Confucius, but my research says that the figure on the right is actually Dinh Bo Linh.

Buddha & Dinh Bo Linh

I didn’t focus on the statues, but rather the offerings in front that include food, beer and money; apparently prayers alone won’t do the trick.

OK, we’ve had our history lesson for the day, now it’s time for some cultural immersion.

Planting Rice in Tam Coc

Rice has been grown in Vietnam for at least 8,000 years and today it is the fifth largest producer of rice in the world. What is amazing about rice production compared to other domestic grains is that the method of growing it has changed very little over time. It still involves intense manual labour as our group is about to find out.

From Hoa Lu we travel to a relatively open flat area of Tam Coc with rice fields everywhere. We pull off onto a small county lane and find ourselves at a small rice farm that offers a quite difference experience. You pay them to let you plant their rice for them. Sounds very much like Tom Sawyer and that fence he needed to whitewash.

If you are going to plant rice you need to look the part and our group is accordingly decked out in the traditional men’s and women’s rice farmer’s outfits.

The Canadian Rice Farmers at Tam Coc
The Canadian Rice Farmers

So, Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho it’s off to the rice fields of Tam Coc we go!

Off to the Rice Fields of Tam Coc
Off to the Rice Fields

The first thing we learn is how to water rice that’s already been planted. It takes two people and Alison gets the hang of it quite quickly. Luckily this lasts for only a few minutes and not the hours at a time that the Vietnamese are used to.

Watering the Rice

Then the men are put to work with our hoes to dig out a space for the women to plant the rice. As you can see it’s a wet muddy business.

Preparing the Rice Field

Then the women are put to work planting the rice.

Planting the Rice at Tam Coc
Planting the Rice

Alison is pretty good at this too and actually looks like she’s enjoying this.

Alison the Rice Farmer

While the women are planting the men go searching for snails and other edible creatures that inhabit the rice fields.

Dredging for Snails


Successful Snail Hunt

The rest of us empty a number of small fish traps and come up with quite a haul.

The Morning Catch

All told we are out in the rice fields for about an hour and honestly it was a blast, something totally unexpected and according to Claude the first time it has been offered on the Vietnam itinerary. I will long have memories of my stint as a rice farmer and certainly gained a deep respect for those who dedicate their lives to growing this most vital of resources.

Ok, now it’s time for lunch, but there’s a catch – we have to make it ourselves.

So we head back to the farm building where there is a covered outdoor section where the ingredients are laid out for that most Asian of dishes, spring rolls.

Spring Roll Ingredients

We are divided into four groups each with our own cooking station. I opt to act as team photographer.

The Cooking Class

There is no way I wouldn’t make a mess of trying to wrap these things but Alison has no problem.

Wrapping the Spring Rolls

Alison and her mentor hit it off very well, one great cook to another. And the finished product looks great and tastes even better.

Alison & Her Mentor

This visit to the rice farm with the subsequent cooking class was definitely one of the highlights of the entire Vietnam trip. We got to experience, if only for a little while, how an ordinary rural Vietnamese family makes a living.

However, the day was long from over as we now headed towards the Van Long Wetlands Preserve in another part of Tam Coc.

Van Long Wetlands Preserve

Van Long Wetlands, Tam Coc
Van Long Wetlands

The Van Long Wetlands Preserve protects the largest inland wetland on the Red River delta and is an area of great bio-diversity. Although we didn’t spot them we did hear the calls of the very rare Delacour’s langur, a species of monkey which is found only in northern Vietnam.

The best way to explore this area is by boat and there were a number of waiting boatwomen eager to take us on board.

Group Headed for the Boats, Tam Coc
Group Headed for the Boats

Each couple got their own boat. This was ours. Why all the boat owners were women I have no idea, but they sure as hell could row.

Our Van Long Boat

Here is our group heading out toward the grotto that is the main destination of this boat trip.

Starting Out

I commented in the last post when we were visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum how friendly and welcoming the Vietnamese were to North Americans, some of whom might well have fought against them fifty years before. Well the same smiling attitude prevailed at the rice farm and here with the women who propelled our boats.

Our Rower

Although we couldn’t communicate in words our rower/guide pointed out a number of interesting bird species, none of which I managed to capture a photo of, but I did get this photo. There were literally hundreds of these reddish egg clusters which I later learned were laid by apple snails.

Apple Snail Eggs

This is inside the grotto which was our turning point.

Inside the Grotto, Van Long, Tam Coc
Inside the Grotto

And this is the karst mountain where we could hear the langurs and even spot moving branches, but not the creatures themselves.

Langur Mountain, Tam Coc
Langur Mountain

We had a number of boat trips on this tour and in terms of quietude and observing nature I think this one ranked at the top.

Returning to the quay, these three kids were doing what kids do best, just playing – all it takes is sticks and water and imagination.

Vietnamese Kids

I also noticed this shepherd who was following his flock as it made its way up the concrete embankment. The little lamb on the right seems not to have made the left turn necessary to get up to the top. Oddly enough, these were the only sheep I saw in Vietnam during our entire time in the country.

Sheep Herder

It had been quite a day exploring Tam Coc and it was time to head to our lodgings for the night. What a surprise to arrive at the Emeralda Resort which was not far from the Van Long wetlands. It was a huge place and we each had our own luxurious little cottage which was far enough away from the main lodge that we were transported there by golf cart. This was probably the nicest place we stayed on the tour and would make a great base for a more comprehensive tour of the Tam Coc area.

Emeralda Resort, Tam Coc
Emeralda Resort

In the next post we’ll say goodbye to north Vietnam as we fly to Da Nang and begin exploring the central part of the country. Hope to see you there.