Tam Coc

After a tiring bus ride from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, we arrived in Tam Coc in the afternoon and settled down in our hotel – Ninh Binh Hidden Charm.

With what little daylight we had left, we decided to explore the Tam Coc area on foot.

Tam Coc, which means “three caves”, is part of the Trang An Landscape Complex UNESCO World Heritage site, and more commonly known as “Halong Bay on Land”.

Indeed, just a few minutes out from our hotel, we were immediately surrounded by a beautiful landscape of dumpling-shaped karst mountains set amid flooded rice fields and wetlands.

A boat ride on a traditional sampan along the Ngo Dong River is probably the most popular way to enjoy the impressive scenery in Tam Coc.

While some of the boatmen row with their hands, many prefer to lie back and paddle with their feet, which eases the pressure on their backs and arms, and also leaves their hands free to facebook or whatsapp.

Cycling is another great way to explore the area, and makes for a leisurely ride along flat country roads.

As we walked, we saw these peculiar deep notches in the limestone karsts that reached out to the side of the road.

An informative signboard and a geocache helped explain this strange geological feature. These are marine notches that were formed by erosion of the limestone cliffs through abrasive forces of sand and gravel particles. The notches show the position of the former sea level. The entire limestone plateau was elevated over time, the water receded and the notch gets pushed further away from the sea shore. Carbon dating revealed that marine oysters living in the notch were as old as 4500 years.

From the road, we could get a glimpse of Hang Mua Peak and its impressive dragon’s back – a spot to check out on another day.

We could also spy on the hordes of tourists invading the peak – probably not a good time to visit.

The road meandered along the river and led us to a hidden spot, where we could sit, relax, and watch the boats as they drifted along.

Set against the mountainous backdrop, Thai Vi Temple is a short walk from the river. Dating from the 13th century, the temple was built by King Tran Thai Tong from the Tran Dynasty. The temple has many ancient works of cultural and historical significance, such as the temple arch, stone horse, bell-tower and especially a row of monolithic stone pillars in the temple.

The shallow pools of water surrounding the karst mountains form a perfect backdrop for the birds to frolic in, and also a perfect spot for us to stalk those birds.

A huge flock of birds were constantly circling overhead, and it took us quite a while to eventually identify them as the Asian Openbills (Anastomus oscitans).

These storks are typically very rare in Singapore, but occur in large numbers in the Indian subcontinent and the northern region of Southeast Asia. They usually forage for prey such as water snails in the rice fields of countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, especially along the Mekong and Chao Phraya River basins.

However, for some strange reason, huge flocks of these birds have recently been seen all over Singapore. It has been speculated that unseasonally dry conditions in the Mekong basin could have driven the storks so far south beyond their usual range.

Having missed the opportunity to catch them in Singapore, we were quite happy to be able to stalk them here in their natural habitat in Vietnam.

Having developed a very sophisticated palate, these Asian Openbills have a rather peculiar liking for snails. They are so named because of the gap between their bills, which allow them to better handle their snail prey.

After we got bored stalking birds, we went on to stalk some goats.

Mountain goats are in abundance in the area, and groups of them can be seen clinging precariously onto the karst slopes or wandering aimlessly around the paddy fields.

Goat meat is also a very popular delicacy in Tam Coc. If we randomly walk into any local restaurant, we are bound to find goat meat advertised on their menu.

After that invigorating walk…

…and after the sun had set…

…it was time to kick back and enjoy father’s cooking.

Needless to say, we ordered ourselves a huge portion of stir-fried goat meat.