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Three Different Boat Trips Close to Hanoi Vietnam

Updated on January 23, 2011

Have you ever seen boats rowed using feet? The answer is probably "no" unless you have been lucky enough to travel Vietnam and visit the Tam Coc caves!

The Tam Coc caves are near the country town of Ninh Binh which is about a four hour bus ride from Hanoi.

There are three interesting boat trips around this town and all worth some time during travel Vietnam.

Here is information on: – the extraordinary Tam Coc Caves (where the helms people row with their feet) is a sight to behold, the alluringly beautiful and peaceful Van Long Reserve and Kengha Boat Village where you can get up close and personal with the locals.

Even getting to each boat ride is an experience where you will see the amazing countryside. Although tourists are openly welcomed in Ninh Binh (pronounced Ning Bing), the people of this rural town were the most welcoming of all the places I visited in Vietnam. The surrounding countryside makes this an ideal spot to stop awhile. It is a photographers dream too.

The map below shows the location of Ninh Binh compared to Hanoi.

Boatman on Van Long Reserve
Boatman on Van Long Reserve
My helms woman rowing with her feet on the Tam Coc Cave Trip
My helms woman rowing with her feet on the Tam Coc Cave Trip
"Ducks Crossing" Ninh Binh
"Ducks Crossing" Ninh Binh
The start of the Van Long Reserve Trip
The start of the Van Long Reserve Trip

Most visitors come to Ninh Binh on a day trip from Hanoi, but there is enough to do to stay longer in the area.

The three boat trips in the vicinity were recommended in my Vietnam Lonely Planet Guide and this was reaffirmed by other travelers who had visited the area. The guides descriptions of the Van Long Reserve did not do the trip justice, as this truly is a gem of a trip, but that’s sometimes the way with travel guides:

1. Tam Coc Caves

The sign at the entrance to these caves said “Europeans only two to a boat” and as I had hoped to join my two Dutch companions for the day I looked around for another traveler to share a second boat.

The helmswoman rowed us through three Tam Coc Caves, one of which is long and very pretty. My companion and I were entranced by the luminous green rice paddies beside us.

Our rower expertly wound her feet and toes around the handles of the oars, which entertained us enormously. It’s an extraordinary sight to see someone rowing with their feet – such dexterity and in feet! She rowed over half of the six kilometer journey this way, all the time laughing at our amazement at her skills.

But the skills don’t end with rowing with feet! They are also experts at wheedling dollars from tourists. My Lonely Planet Guidebook warned me about the scam which happens at the halfway point on the water-way where it forms a dead-end.

Once there vendors rowed up to our boat to sell us biscuits, banana, sugar cane and drinks. When I asked for a drink, the vendor asked if I would also like to buy one for the exhausted “madam helmswoman”. Of course, it would be churlish not to offer her one in this energy sapping heat. I turned her to ask, “would you like one?” to which she nodded yes. I bought a drink and although I didn’t see it, the drink was slipped back to the selling vendor. My Dutch friends saw it all. I knew about the Tam Coc Caves “con” but was happy to participate as it (presumably) supplements her income.

I thought we were done with the sales pitch, but no. We were happily enjoying the peaceful trip back to base when suddenly our rower stopped and letting the boat drift aimlessly in the current opened a case which was full of all sorts of hand embroidered garments and tableware for us to buy.

Another boat helmswoman expertly hitched her boat to ours and towed us all so that our rower could concentrate on selling us (successfully I might add) some of the gorgeous hand embroidered treats.

It’s a very slick operation and providing one keeps a sense of humor while engaging in the charade, it’s a lot of fun.

I thought it would be difficult to go on a more beautiful boat trip than along the river through the Tam Coc Caves but I was to be proven wrong the next day.

More about the very special trip to the breathtakingly beautiful Van Long Reserve after the adverts……

2. Van Long Reserve

My destination on this fine day was the Van Long Reserve which is a huge wetland area. Before we reached the reserve, I asked my scooter driver to stop numerous times so that I could take photographs of magical scenes.

Pristine white ducks cruise languidly in the roadside canals, farmers drive teams of water buffalo and women in their conical hats work the fields. The long straight concrete roads, elevated above the fields, gave this pillion passenger a wonderful view of all of this activity unfolding below.

All the while the backdrop of the limestone pinnacles dramatic and jagged punctuates the skyline. There are supposed to be monkeys in this park, but I didn’t see any on this trip. However, birdlife abounds within the reserve.

I boarded a flimsy looking bamboo boat and was rowed (not with feet this time) the oars dipping rhythmically in and out of the still waters.

Once we left the roadside and began to explore the reeds, the peace is perfect save for the gentle swish of the oars and they dip into the water. The pinnacles provide a majestic backdrop. I saw not one other person on the water.

When we reached a cave, my rower stopped to let us drift awhile so we could enjoy the sounds of silence. I enjoyed this trip through the reeds at Van Long Reserve and highly recommend it. It’s not far from the township of Ninh Binh.

3. Kengha Boat Village

Guide books highly recommend the trip to Kengha Boat Village. Locals live on the edge of the river and their properties often have steps down into the water which they use for bathing. As the boats were extremely noisy, I felt we were intruding on their lives too much so I did not enjoy this trips to the Kengha Boat Village as much as the trips to Tam Coc Caves and the Van Long Reserve.

Ninh Binh the town and rural area with its high cliff faces offers visitors a difference experience of this fascinating country. These boat trips, particularly to Tam Coc Caves and Van Long Reserve are “musts” on my list of sights to see in Vietnam and are sure to delight any visitor.

This article and photographs are copyright Travelespresso. Please ask before using them.

View from inside the cave on Van Long Reserve
View from inside the cave on Van Long Reserve

Hanoi to Ninh Binh - A great trip out of Hanoi

hanoi old quarter:
Hanoi, Vietnam

get directions

ninh binh:
Ninh Binh, Vietnam

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