Ninety kilometers south of Hanoi, the small town of Tam Coc sits amid some of the most famous scenery in Vietnam: a series of tree-covered limestone hills rising from a plain of rivers and rice paddies. Small row boats—which local people often paddle with their feet—carry visitors on tours through this watery world. A popular river route starts in Tam Coc, just down the street from our hotel. For two hours, you can glide quietly down the river, the only sounds the slashing of oars and the calls of birds. The route leads through small caves, past shrines and rice fields dotted with water birds, into ever-wilder and more remote jungle landscapes. The misty rain that hung over the area while we were there made for a perfect atmosphere.
Most visitors come to Tam Coc for a few hours on a bus tour, just long enough to take the famous river ride. Being slow travelers, we stayed in Tam Coc for several days. That gave us time to go out on the river twice and to walk among the beautiful rice fields and limestone hills that surround the little town.
We also hired a car to go to another well-known river ride in the area (called Trang An). But not knowing it was a Vietnamese holiday, we were surprised to find the boat landing crowded with hordes of local visitors (and security personnel trying hard to maintain order). Seeking a quieter option, we instead visited the nearby tombs of two emperors who ruled northern Vietnam in the 10th century, when this hilly, defensible region was briefly the capital of Vietnam.