Tam Coc with kids: Wander the water, skip the boat in Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Fun backpacker street and stunning nature make Tam Cốc a relaxing family budget destination

Any time of year you come to Tam Coc with kids in Vietnam, you can combine gorgeous nature with small-city amenities. Flooded rice paddies reflect the green jaunty hills that surround the town. Flocks of white birds regularly take off simultaneously from the water, and the surface mirrors their flight.

Serene waters invite you to enjoy a boat ride or wander a loop path. The Tam Cốc area also has great family restaurants, a beautiful nature preserve, and, above all, a way to feel like you can relax and really take in the stunning scenery around you.

And no, you don’t have to try to figure out riding a motorbike with your kids to enjoy it all.

We came to Tam Cốc with kids ready for a few days of relaxing and recharging. Our own visit coincided with the Christmas season, which in our family also includes two birthdays. The area is full of nature, and you can easily explore wildlife preserves and water filled caves—or you can sit back, relax, and watch white birds fly past the green hills.

“We came to Tam Cốc for: nature, calm, a uniquely beautiful landscape, and a quiet town where we could simply wander as a family in safety, by the water, taking in the sight of the forested hills.”

You’ve probably heard about the whole “Halong Bay on land” thing

Nighttime at our homestay
Nighttime at our homestay

Depending on where all you’ve been poking around to learn about Tam Coc with kids, Nimh Bin, and why you’d want to come here as part of a family vacation in Vietnam, you’ve most likely encountered the phrase “Halong Bay on land” or “Halong Bay among the rice paddies.”

It’s a great, if somewhat odd, bit of phrasing, and there’s some truth to it. The rolling, irregular, angled, high, low, green and lovely hills here are very similar to the thousand-plus karst limestone formations that jut out all over Halong Bay. You can enjoy similar beauty on land or on water. The towns and countryside in this area feel tucked away, and the bustle of Hanoi might as well be in another hemisphere.

The short of it? Tam Cốc is absolutely beautiful, and you deserve at least a couple of days among the tranquility and natural beauty of the area.

Getting to Tam Coc with kids

Tam Cốc is a small town located a little outside of the city of Nimh Binh, in northern Vietnam’s Ninh Binh province. This area is a couple of hours’ train ride south of Hanoi. You can also arrange travel directly from Halong Bay. Trains and buses regularly come to the area, and tickets for the whole family are easy to arrange via 12Go Asia.

You can take the bus directly to Tam Cốc. We preferred the easy, meandering train ride from Hanoi though. Once you arrive at the station, if you need a bite to eat, head across the parking lot for a brightly lit Dong Minh Restaurant right across the street.

When we visited December 2022, Grab was technically available, but we never had any luck using it in the Ninh Binh or Tam Cốc area. Taxi drivers will be waiting at the train station, and your accommodation can also help you arrange transport.

Search 12Go Asia for transportation options

Where to stay in Tam Coc with kids in Vietnam

Whether hotels right in town or at one of the many homestays that dot the area, Tam Coc is full of family friendly accommodation. We especially enjoyed our homestay. The walled grounds gave the kids a long courtyard garden to play in—and even in December, we enjoyed a Christmas dip in the pool.

One note about accommodation: Sometimes it can be tricky to figure out locations in apps like Google Maps or Grab. If you have trouble, message your host and they can help you out.

Where we stayed

We booked a few nights at the Tam Coc Minh Hung Homestay, just a few minutes outside of Tam Coc itself. Our stay included breakfast—always a plus in our book! The homestay is right among the rice paddies and hills, so anywhere you look, there is sublime scenery. The walled courtyard became like an extension of our room, with plenty of places where we could relax or work.

Check out the Tam Coc Minh Hung Homestay

“While a few minutes car ride could take us right to Tam Cốc’s main traveler street, we could also sit by the pool at our homestay and watch flocks of white birds take off from the rice paddies.”

What about Ninh Binh and Trang An?

Let’s have a little real talk here. Ninh Binh is a mostly industrial city, more gritty and workaday than the stuff of a good Instagram backdrop. It’s a good place to travel in and out of, but from what we’ve seen in our experience and from that of other travelers, it’s not really a city that’ll appeal to your wanderlust.

Some folks prefer Trang An to Tam Cốc, and we totally get that. Trang An is a little more remote, has fewer amenities and travelers than Tam Cốc, and that remoteness among nature can be especially appealing. However, the additional difficulty of getting around really didn’t appeal to us. The main way to get around Trang An is typically by renting a motorbike. That can work for a lot of folks, including some who travel to Tam Coc with kids.

For us though, Jodie’s prosthetic leg makes it pretty tricky for us to consider motorbike travel. For our family of four, we typically focus on car transport instead, and decided we’d find it easier to get around if we were based in Tam Cốc.

Getting around Tam Cốc… without a motorbike or bicycle

If motorbikes don’t outnumber people in Vietnam, it’s got to be close. Whether bicycle, scooter, motorbike, or motorcycle, getting around on two wheels is simply the primary way people go. Now, we love motorcycles (and Anthony still has his motorcycle endorsement from his Ural Patrol sidecar motorcycle days). We’ve seen folks in Vietnam drive a motorbike while carrying a ladder. A family of four or five on a scooter? All in a day’s work.

Motorbikes are so prevalent, odds are you can borrow or rent a bicycle or scooter from your accommodation. The idea of a motorbike is intriguing, but it’s not something we’ve been interested in trying to figure out. With two kids and two adults, trying to navigate scooters and motorbikes hasn’t been an area we want to bother with. At least, not at this point in our family travels.

No Grab, but there are taxis… and your accommodation might be one of them

For starters, if you’re accustomed to using Grab in Asia, there’s not much presence for it in Tam Cốc.

Where you stay in Tam Cốc can affect your transportation options, but you can get around without a bicycle or motorcycle. If you’re staying more in the main part of the city, you can arrange taxis. Some guesthouses and homestays, like the one we stayed at, just a little outside of the main city, will also take you around for an agreed fee. We worked out with our homestay for them to transport us, we both kept track, and we settled up in cash at the end of our stay. Typically, they charged us about 70,000 dong each ride, or about a couple of US dollars per ride.

Taking this approach made it much easier to explore Tam Cốc and some of the surroundings—no motorbike required.

Here are a few places we loved visiting in Tam Coc with kids—and a couple we decided not to bother with.

Take the water path

Tam Cốc is built around a large, curving pond and river. The city has also constructed a wide, flat path that runs parallel to the water. Wandering this path took us through different parts of Tam Cốc, from the outdoor seating areas and beer gardens of local hostels, to some of the neighborhoods. You pass close to some of the karst hills, and all the while you can watch people on boat tours head out or return.

Being on this path was one of our favorite ways to pass time in town. The walk is relaxing. Plus, you’re still in town, so whenever you fancy a drink or a snack, there are cafes and street stalls nearby. Keep an eye out for the fried bananas!

A boat tour leaves from Tam Cốc, but a better one leaves from nearby Trang An

Water abounds in the Ninh Binh area, such as the rivers and lakes in Tam Coc.
Water abounds in the Ninh Binh area, such as the rivers and lakes in Tam Coc.

On the one hand, there is a boat tour that goes from Tam Cốc along the Ngo Dong River, and you can spend a couple of hours on the water, taking in the scenery, the water, the hills. On the other hand, we’ve seen many travelers recount the experience being pretty mixed. The ride is okay. The scenery is okay. Rowers have a tendency to do some sales pitches. We also felt like the ticket cost was more than we wanted to spend.

We ultimately decided to skip the Tam Cốc boat ride. Trang An is known for having a better, smoother, prettier ride, but we wound up not going on either. We’d be doing a different boat ride, through a large cave in nearby Phong Nha, so we knew we had something to look forward to. If we hadn’t known we’d be doing that boat ride and cave wander, we would have gone for the Trang An tour though.

Should your family take the Tam Cốc boat tour? If it’s your only chance, and you don’t want to head up to nearby Trang An, it’s worth considering. Sales pitches can be gently but firmly rejected, and the ride is supposed to be pretty. After all, a boat ride is better than no boat ride, but if you have other options, you can prioritize those instead.

Wander the caves and paths of the Thung Nham Bird Garden

The boat ride thing is a mixed bag, no doubt about that. But the Thung Nham Bird Garden is very much an amazing, beautiful, and lovely wander. From the paved paths curving alongside the hills to the bamboo boardwalks along the water, this serene space is ringed by hills, dotted with caves, and can be a wonderful way to get a dose of nature and see flocks of birds.

Mermaid Cave was a highlight for Anthony and the kids, but Jodie decided to give the staircases and narrow boardwalk a pass. After coming down a metal staircase, you get onto a boardwalk that goes right over the water. Sometimes you’ll need to duck  under long, drooping stalactites, and one passage in particular can have you pretty doubled over. Still. With up-close views of the cave’s formations, the path is fun to wander along, and the whimsically lit mermaid can give you enough giggles to be worth the exploration.

The 350 hectares of grounds contain winding paths and a variety of spots to explore. You can choose to get around under your own locomotion, but there is also a ticket add-on you can get that allows you to ride the park’s hop-on hop-off transit.

Don’t miss out on the cave boat ride. It’s included in your ticket. The gentle, calm ride takes you through a broad cave, and in some areas the ceiling gets low enough for you to really take in the detail of the rock above your head.

Other Tam Cốc attractions

Tam Coc has wonderful restaurants and outdoor seating.
Tam Coc has wonderful restaurants and outdoor seating.

We preferred to stay closer to Tam Cốc itself, but in addition to the boat ride, there are many ways to explore more of the area’s nature, scenery, and attractions, such as:

Cúc Phương National Park

Trails, caves, and conservation programs dedicated to protecting carnivores, pangolins, and turtles. Cúc Phương National Park is considered Vietnam’s first, and largest, nature preserve.

Van Long Wetland Reserve

Boat tours can take you through this wetlands area. During the 90-minute ride through Van Long Wetland Reserve, keep an eye out for various birds—and even langurs, though apparently it’s tricky to spot them. However, from what we learned, many visitors consider this area quieter than Tam Cốc or Trang An, but with plenty of scenery and wildlife to observe.

Thai Vi Temple

This 13th-century temple is a couple of kilometers away from the main Tam Cốc tourist area. Many visitors enjoy coming to Thai Vi Temple for the distinct architecture, not to mention the picturesque setting amidst the hills and rice paddies. 

Mua Cave (Hang Múa)

Just a few kilometers outside of Tam Cốc, visiting Mua Cave can be part of some of the boat tours. The big feature is going up 500 stone steps to the hill’s summit, where a big view of the Tam Cốc area awaits.

Our favorite family activities in Tam Cốc

Evening view from our Tam Coc homestay.
Evening view from our Tam Coc homestay.

Your big focus in the Tam Cốc area is the opportunity for nature, wildlife, and scenery. The hills and rice paddies are beautiful, and how they look will change throughout the year, depending on the season and the status of the rice crop. The various preserves around the Tam Cốc area give you nearby chances to see incredible birds, wander caves, and spend time on the water.

Tam Cốc itself has plenty of amenities, which we found made it easy for us to find a restaurant or small shop. There are lots of restaurants, from pizzerias to places that serve up the area’s signature goat dishes. Most places have a menu on a podium out front, so it’s also easy to flip through what they offer and see if it’s a good fit for your family.

At the same time, we especially appreciated how easy it was to do, well, virtually nothing at all.

We chose a homestay just a little outside of town. While a few minutes car ride could take us right to Tam Cốc’s main traveler street, we could also sit by the pool at our homestay and watch flocks of white birds take off from the rice paddies. Small streets and paths cut along the tops of the paddies as well, perfect for family walks and wanders. In town, we could dine on affordable family meals, or pick up simple amenities such as fruit and cup noodles for a dinner in our room later.

Have a relaxing Vietnam family vacation in Tam Coc with kids

We enjoyed this region’s natural laidback beauty. Some of it, we’re sure, was the cooler, cloudier December time of year when we visited. We came to Tam Coc with kids for: nature, calm, a uniquely beautiful landscape, and a quiet town where we could simply wander as a family in safety, by the water, taking in the sight of the forested hills. And Tam Cốc delivered.

On another visit to Vietnam, we might aim to come at a different time of year, and take in more of the nature preserves, parks, and trails.

Heck, we might even try out one of those motorbikes.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

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