Mar 25, 2018

Hanoi Travelogue: A Day in Hoa Lu - Tam Coc (1 Feb 2016)

After a slow paced day in the city of Hanoi, it was time for us to venture a little further to other parts of Vietnam. 90km south of Hanoi is where Ninh Binh province lies, where we would visit Hoa Lu, an ancient capital featuring the royal palace grounds of the Le and Dinh dynasties, and ride a boat down the Ngo Dong River to explore the limestone caves of Tam Coc.

Banh Mi Time @ Banh Mi Heo Quay
But first thing first, it was time for a quick breakfast at this mobile Banh Mi cart not far away from our usual porridge stall and Thuc Don @ 52 Ly Quoc Su.

Banh Mi with Egg and Meat @ Banh Mi Heo Quay (VND 20k)
Since we are not a fan of pate, we went for the usual suspect, i.e. Banh Mi with egg and meat. Despite the lacklustre look of it, the bread was delightfully soft yet firm enough to cradle the warm scrambled eggs, flavourful marinated pork, juicy tomatoes and cucumber. I fell in love with this simple street fare called Banh Mi.

Total damage for 2 pax = VND 40k

Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
After our simple breakfast, we were picked up by a travel van arranged by our hotel tour guide and embarked on a 2.5-hour road trip south of Hanoi.

Entrance to Hoa Lu Ancient Capital
Đinh Tiên Hoàng Temple, Lê Đại Hành Temple, Đinh Tiên Hoàng Tomb, Lê Đại Hành Tomb, Nhật Trụ Pagoda, Noi Lam Temple, Bái Đính Temple, Thiên Tôn Cave, Trang An Grottoes, Ban Long Pagoda are some of the monuments housed in this ancient capital of Hoa Lu.

Entrance to Đinh Tiên Hoàng Temple
Located at the former main palace of the royal citadel, Đinh Tiên Hoàng Temple is built by local residents in their effort to honor Dinh Bo Linh, the first emperor of Vietnam.

Offering @ Đinh Tiên Hoàng Temple
Born a natural in government and military affairs, Bo Linh was a successful warlord who defeated 12 rival warlords, reunified the country and founded the first imperial dynasty of Vietnam. However, due to lack of succession, the dynasty fell into a turmoil.

The Emperor's Carriage @ Đinh Tiên Hoàng Temple
Lê Hoàn, Bộ Lĩnh's top general, was the one who defeated his rivals and established the Lê Dynasty, Vietnam's second imperial dynasty. While Lê Đại Hành Temple shared great similarities in architecture as Đinh Tiên Hoàng Temple, Lê Đại Hành Temple was dull and grey, devoid of grandeur, colors.

Buffet Lunch @ Duc Tuan Hotel and Restaurant
After spending an hour or so in Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, we were ferried 10km south to Tam Coc, where we had our buffet lunch in the nearby restaurant called Duc Tuan Hotel and Restaurant. Compared to our disappointing lunch onboard in Ha Long Bay, I must say Duc Tuan did restore my confidence in Vietnamese cuisine.

Boats on Ngo Dong River @ Tam Coc 
Despite the wrong season, sampan boats were swarming around the dock, eager to ferry bus loads of tourists.

Who needs hands to pedal? @ Tam Coc
It took us 15 minutes or so before we were led onto one of these sampan boats, manned mainly by women who pedalled with their feets as arms were too mainstream.

Smile and let me make some quick buck! @ Tam Coc
Limestone along Ngo Dong River @ Tam Coc
The ultimate beauty of Tam Coc would be the stark contrast of golden paddy fields among the tall limestone formations along the river.

Limestone along Ngo Dong River @ Tam Coc
Winter was definitely the wrong season to do so. Without the golden paddy fields, what was left was the greens against the greys.

Mountain Goat @ Tam Coc
If you are lucky enough, you might spot a mountain goat or two scaling the treacherous slope.

The Pagodas and The Dragon @ Tam Coc
You might also spot a pagoda or two standing tall and high above these limestone formations. Then it strike you, "Someone lives up there?"

Into the Abyss @ Tam Coc
The sampan boat passed by village after village and stretch after stretch of what was left of the golden paddy fields. The deeper we went, the quieter it became. What was left was the soft murmur of lapping water against the base of our sampan boats.

The Sanctum @ Tam Coc
Varying Formations @ Tam Coc
Light after the Dark @ Tam Coc
Soon the 3 caves emerged: Hang Ca Cave (first cave), Hang Hai Cave (second cave) and Hang Ba Cave (third cave). For each cave we went through, the wider the river became, along with a broader expanse of water and varying stone formations.

Home We Go! @ Tam Coc
Before we knew, it was time to make a u turn and head back to the dock. The journey back could be a little boring. After all, we had came the same way in.

Just a note though, once you were back to the dock, these boat women would start asking for tips. While they did try to get some from us, we just ignored them and walked away, leaving an angry woman behind.

On the Way to Bich Dong Pagoda
On the Way to Bich Dong Pagoda
For those who would like to explore the countryside, you could get on a bicycle and pedal 5km to Bich Dong Pagoda.

Hey Pigs!
The best part on our cycle to Bich Dong Pagoda was none other than our encounter with these cute little pigs, scrapping for some organic vegetables along the waterlines.

Bich Dong Pagoda @ Tam Coc
Before long, Bich Dong Pagoda came into sight.

Bich Dong Pagoda @ Tam Coc
I must say this pagoda was under better care than some of the temples in Hoa Lu Ancient Capital.

Bich Dong Pagoda @ Tam Coc
As a matter of fact, its architectures took on a more elaborated style with its heavily adorned pillars and beams.

Hello and Goodbye @ Tam Coc
It was almost 5pm by the time we regrouped with our tour guide. We were so exhausted that we slept throughout our 2.5-hour ride back to Hanoi.

Bun Bo Nam Bo @ 67 Hang Dieu
By the time we woke up hungry, we were already back in town. So we headed to Bun Bo Nam Bo at Hang Dieu for some Bum Bo Nam Bo, a Southern-Vietnamese rice noodle dish, topped with grilled beef, bean sprouts, lettuce, papaya slivers, fresh herbs, crunchy peanuts and fried onions.

Bun Bo Nam Bo @ 67 Hang Dieu (VND 60k)
I loved the springy soft rice noodles doused in sweet sour sauce. On top of that, I loved the crunchy topping and and fragrant herbs. Every single components played their contrasting parts so well that I simply wouldn't be complaining having to eat it every day.

Total damage for 2 pax = VND 120k

Caffeine for the Night @ Gecko Cafe (VND 30k)
What would be better to end the long day than a cup of Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk?

Total damage for 2 pax = VND 60k

A goose maybe?


My personal dining ranking (5 being the full score) based on following criteria are:
  • Ambiance
    • Banh Mi Heo Quay - 3/5
    • Duc Tuan Hotel and Restaurant - 3/5
    • Bun Bo Nam Bo - 4/5
  • Price
    • Banh Mi Heo Quay - 5/5
    • Duc Tuan Hotel and Restaurant - Part of the tour (USD 35/pax)
    • Bun Bo Nam Bo - 4/5
  • Food
    • Banh Mi Heo Quay - 5/5
    • Duc Tuan Hotel and Restaurant - 4/5
    • Bun Bo Nam Bo - 5/5

  • Verdict
    • Banh Mi Heo Quay - Must try cheap eats
    • Duc Tuan Hotel and Restaurant - Surprisingly good despite being part of the tour 
    • Bun Bo Nam Bo - Give me another one please!
My personal hotel/attractions verdicts for:
  • Especen Hotel: Walking distance to Hoan Kiem Lake and local food. Spacious and comfortable room. It could use a fan for ventilation during winters. Do ask for lower floor rooms if you are not a fan of climbing narrow staircases
  • Hoa Lu Ancient Capital: Can get boring after so many temples and pagodas. Get a good tour guide who can speak good English, it does help to keep your interest and attention piqued
  • Tam Coc: Plan your visit around harvesting time. Bring your own camera for photos and do not tip the boat men


Banh Mi Heo Quay
Somewhere near 52 Ly Quoc Su
Hoan Kiem district,
Hanoi 110214, Vietnam
Operation Hours: N/A (We were there around 7-8am)
Tel: N/A
Credit Card: No (Cash only)

Duc Tuan Hotel and Restaurant
Van Lam Village,
Ninh Hai, Hoa Lư,
Ninh Bình, Vietnam
Operation Hours: N/A (We were there for lunch)
Tel: +84 98 484 62 68
Credit Card: N/A

Bun Bo Nam Bo
67 Hàng Điếu, Cửa Đông,
Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Operation Hours: 7.30am - 10.30pm
Tel: +84 24 3923 0701
Credit Card: N/A (We paid cash)

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