Hanoi Day Trips: Exploring the Countryside at Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh Province is approximately 90 kilometres south of Hanoi. Nicknamed Serenity, the province indeed sheds light on the more rural areas of Vietnam and the citizens’ peaceful livelihood primarily on agriculture, evident from the miles and miles of rice paddy fields. 

Harvested rice is left to dry (on the roads) before being collected.


I signed up with Klook, which linked me up with Wati Travel that organised this day trip striking south of the capital. I would definitely recommend that you join one organised by a tour agency because Ninh Binh is located in a rural region which is rather difficult to manoeuvre (they only have dirt roads here) – rather than worrying about getting lost, why not sign up with a tour which will take care of everything for you and conserve your energy to explore the attractions? If you're interested, please feel free to check this tour out by clicking here.

Klook.com

Hoa Lu – Temples of Dinh and Le Dynasties
Entrance Fee: VND 20,000

Hoa Lu was the ancient capital of Dai Co Viet in the late 10th century. The palaces erected here sat on a strategic location with great natural defence, as they were surrounded by mountainous terrain which made it extremely difficult for invaders to get past. As such, Hoa Lu remained as the capital for 2 dynasties – the Dinh dynasty and the Early Le dynasty, after which the capital was moved to Thang Long (modern-day Hanoi). 

The gate to the ancient capital of Hoa Lu against the stunning mountainous terrains

Here, you will be able to admire the beautiful backdrop of limestone mountains in the vicinity and thereafter visit the well-preserved temples which are devoted to commemorate the royalty and generals of the Dinh and Early Le Dynasties – most notably the Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh Temples. In the temple grounds, you will be able to spot the four sacred creatures respected in Vietnamese mythology – the dragon, the unicorn, the tortoise and the phoenix which represent power, peace, longevity and nobility respectively. 

Dinh Tien Hoang Temple, the most impressive temple in Hoa Lu

An interesting note is that although the temples are all built in similar architectural style, those of the Le Dynasty are lower and less impressive than the temples of the Dinh Dynasty. After the Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang was assassinated, his son was too young to rule the nation, resulting in the queen giving the crown to the then Commander-in-Chief who founded the Le Dynasty. Since the Commander used to serve and was deemed subservient to the Emperor of the Dinh Dynasty, the temples devoted to the Le Dynasty had to be inferior in height and stature.


Tam Coc
Entrance Fee: VND 150,000 per boat and VND 120,000 per adult

Where the entire boat ride down Tam Coc begins...

Also known as Halong Bay on Land, Tam Coc will offer you an opportunity to enjoy a boat ride down the river to admire the picturesque scenery of limestone mountains lined along the waters. I thoroughly enjoyed the boat ride (which lasted approximately 90 minutes) taking magnificent photographs of the panoramic views. We also managed to see monkeys scaling the mountains to reach the peak, which our boatwoman pointed out excitedly.

Admire the picturesque scenery surrounding you - it's Heaven on Earth!

Just sit back and relax as you cruise through the caves on your little boat. During the rainy season, you will be able to admire the yellow rice paddies floating in the river, which will probably be what you see on posters and advertisements of Tam Coc day trips. Nonetheless, the scenery during the dry season is nothing less than spectacular as well. What is really interesting about Tam Coc is that all the boatpeople here do not row the oars with their hands, but rather paddle them with their powerful legs. The boatpeople seem to all know one another, which adds to the homely feel of this rural area, as they always share a laugh or joke with one another whenever they pass by another boat. 

Our 'masked rider' auntie skilfully manoeuvring the oars with her legs

I have read many reviews online criticising how commercialised Tam Coc has become, where tourists are being forced to purchase food items or give generous tips to the boatpeople. If you are wondering whether that is true, I did encounter it on my trip there. At the midpoint before the boat turns back to the pier for the return leg, there are crowds of boatpeople selling food items and persuading you in English and Chinese to buy some for your boatman. However, after explaining that I would tip the boatwoman, they did not push any further. Please do not give up this opportunity to admire the scenery just because of this – it’s worth the trip down to Tam Coc!

When you see this bridge, your boat ride is probably coming to an end real soon! :(

Day trips will also bring you on a 90-minute cycling tour around the vicinity to explore the rice fields. However, I chose to explore the river banks and have a glimpse into the livelihood of the locals instead – washing their clothes in the river and drying the harvested rice grains on the roads before collecting them in rice sacks. There is also a resort along the river bank of Tam Coc where we saw tourists chilling out and sunbathing, so you may consider staying a night here to relax.

Interesting Fact

At Hoa Lu and Tam Coc, photographers will snap pictures of you at various points of the attractions with or without your knowledge. Subsequently, they will swarm towards you when they recognise that they have printed your photograph and persuade you to purchase your picture from them. It is rather intriguing how they managed to do all that in such a short period of time. Anyway, just at the price of VND 10,000, it is a simple way to support the locals, so why not?

How else can you get your photo taken against these limestone karsts?
Unless you have a friend on another boat!

Review – Klook / Wati Travel (3.5 stars)

The travel agency catered a minibus to ferry us from our accommodation in the Old Quarter to and fro the attractions we visited in Ninh Binh Province. The bus journey was a comfortable 2-hour drive and time seemed to pass rather quickly, as our tour guide (Xiec / Circus) constantly entertained us by sharing interesting bite-size information on Vietnam such as the alphabet and quizzing us throughout the trip. Circus was also extremely informative and managed to explain the significance of each attraction in great detail and proficient English, which definitely enhanced our understanding of both Hoa Lu and Tam Coc.

Lunch was arranged at a local restaurant near Hoa Lu, which doubled up as a canteen for a guesthouse. Even though there was a wide array of food items offered (like goat meat which Ninh Binh Province is famous for), we found the buffet rather mediocre in quality and taste. The lacklustre meal notwithstanding, the cycling trip was not very well organised, as the tourists who did not indicate interest in cycling were left waiting at a smoky guesthouse with no idea when the cycling group will be back and with constant fear that the bus back to Hanoi had departed without us.

Expect to Pay: S$50 (with Klook)

Thanks for reading :) Here's a picture of the sunset at Tam Coc for you!

Next up, I will be introducing you to some scrumptious, mouth-watering local fare and some weird delicacies that are uniquely Vietnamese which you will be able to find around the Hanoi Old Quarter. Let's head down and satiate our appetites right here!

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Comments

  1. Generally speaking I prefer to explore places on my day but I agree with you 100% when it comes to rural areas like this - book a tour with the professionals. No need to worry needlessly about logistics when you could just relax and take in what looked like an amazing experience. Such a beautiful region!

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    1. Hi Aisha, absolutely! I love exploring places free-and-easy where I can move around at my own pace without worrying about holding everyone else back. Going to the countryside was a challenge, given Vietnam's limited transport infrastructure, so the trip was better off with a guide. Yeah, it was nothing less than splendid :)

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  2. I had similar experience with those kind of photographers in Thailand. They made a plate with my photo on in. :D It was so weird.

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    1. Hey Unta! Did you get it in the end? It's so impressive how they get them done up so quickly - and they sure can do their elevator pitches! :)

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  3. I'm sure manoeuvring the boat with one's legs takes a huge amount of practice and skill. I would like to give that a shot sometime :) Hanoi countryside is really picturesque and I already feel so much calm seeping into me just looking at the pictures.

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  4. I'm sure manoeuvring the boat with one's legs takes a huge amount of practice and skill. I would like to give that a shot sometime :) Hanoi countryside is really picturesque and I already feel so much calm seeping into me just looking at the pictures.

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    1. Hi Punita, yes - the countryside at Ninh Binh is really beautiful and will definitely not fail to amaze you!

      Do let me know how your attempts at leg-paddling turn out! They must have terribly strong feet to pull off such a feat :)

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  5. Love this post! What an amazing rural getaway with such gorgeous scenery. Thanks for the tips about how to avoid the harassment by over-zealous local sellers. I've heard such mixed things about visiting vietnam because of such issues, but it sounds like you've got the right tactics to keep it a positive experience. So interesting that they use their legs to row! I imagine it takes years to get the coordination down for that. I know mine would be slipping all over the place.

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    1. Hey Grace! Yeah, I can totally understand how hearing such negative reviews and unpleasant experiences can be a huge turn-off. No worries, now that we have found a way out of the pushy vendors, hope more tourists will consider visiting Tam Coc! The scenery is really breathtaking :)

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  6. We spent 3.5 weeks travelling through Vietnam. Looking back at your post makes me miss it and appreciate that we had the opp to do so. We didn't get the chance to any of the side trips that you outlined. After spending time in Hanoi we used it as a base to visit Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay. I know what we can get up to next we get to Vietnam. Happy Travels.

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    1. Hi Dominic, great to hear that you enjoyed your trip to Vietnam as much as I did! Hope you'll be able to explore the other regions of the country like Ho Chi Minh City and the more rural provinces including Ninh Binh.

      How's Sapa? I haven't had the opportunity to visit it yet, but I've heard lots of good things about Sapa! :)

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  7. When i look at these photos and read your blog i do have feeling like this is in some other time and planet. So beautiful.

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    1. Hi Samir, thank you for your compliments! Oftentimes, when we head out from the cities and into the countryside, we are able to admire picturesque scenery like the ones at Ninh Binh Province :) It's a lovely place to visit, and I highly recommend you to visit it!

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  8. Ninh Binh looks beautiful, and a real way of understanding the rural aspects of Vietnam. I enjoyed reading about how you can stay on the right side of sellers, and although that tends to bother me, it all adds to the charm of a place!

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    1. Hi Sam, Ninh Binh definitely gives you a better understanding of Vietnam's local agricultural lifestyle.

      I totally understand where you come from regarding the vendors, as I had similar concerns prior to the trip. Hope my experience will make you feel less pressurised to visit this attraction in the countryside.

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  9. Did you by any chance get to try to paddle with your feet, or ask? Because I hear of some people doing it and they say its SUPER hard. These guys are talented!!

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    1. Hey Kimmie, interesting! I didn't manage to try out paddling the oars with my feet, as I was too occupied admiring the scenery all around me.

      You are absolutely spot on - the boatpeople here are really experienced and talented to be able to paddle a boat with a few people using only their leg power. Take note, gym buffs!

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  10. I would love to go for a boat ride at Tam Coc. It seems so very beautiful. I loved the wonderful cone shape caps everyone is wearing. I would love to visit here at my ease without travel packages. In spite of the food vendors and nasty photographers, visiting this place will be worth it, I'm sure.

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    1. Hey there! Yes, the conical hat is certainly symbolic of Vietnam's countryside. I bought one as a souvenir (it only costs about $1 each at Ninh Binh).

      There is a railway track from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, but you will still have to make your way from the station to the respective attractions. It may be tough manoeuvring in Ninh Binh though, since it is relatively undeveloped.

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  11. The attituted of the food vendors and boatwoman is bad. What if I'm on budget or something and can't afford to tip? Anyways, like you said, missing such beautiful views of Tam Coc is such a bad idea. I like Vietnam and whole of Asia, rich culture they have. I look forward to riding a boat at Tam Coc and capturing the sunset picture.

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    1. Hi Lydia, tips are not compulsory, so you need not feel pressured to give the boatwoman any tips at the end of the ride.

      Most definitely, culture notwithstanding, Ninh Binh offers some of Vietnam's most scenic landscapes. You can choose to ride a bicycle or hike along the river banks, if you do not feel like taking the bamboo boat. I captured the picture of the sunset when I was walking along the river banks, actually. Nevertheless, the boat ride is certainly the easiest and most convenient way to explore the entire length of the river.

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  12. Never heard of Ninh Binh. I love visiting places with ancient history such as Hoa Lu. I can spend all day in the temples here. I am not a fan of boat rides but this looks unique and interesting for sure.

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    1. Hi Abhinav! I actually never heard of Ninh Binh until I planned for this trip to Hanoi - it's not very well known or publicised. I'm sure you'll enjoy the boat ride at Tam Coc - it's not called the Halong Bay on Land for no reason :)

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  13. Countryside of Ninh Binh is so beautiful with full of local culture and also not much touristic and over crowded. Boating along Halon Bay must be a beautiful thing to do here. Dinh Tien Hoang Temple really looks impressive and I must say this place is full of nature and beautiful temples.

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    1. Hi Yukti, Ninh Binh does offer a more authentic experience and flavour of local culture. Tam Coc is known as Halong Bay on Land, but it's a totally different place from Halong Bay which is further north near to Haiphong.

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  14. Looks so beautiful! I would love to visit Hanoi and Vietnam someday. I have only been to Asia for few times but I really want to explore more of it. Thanks for sharing this!

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    1. Hi Paula, Asia does have lots to offer, be it cultural/historical relics or natural landscapes. It was great seeing how Vietnam has preserved much of these for us to admire as tourists. Safe travels!

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  15. Definitely feels like a heaven on earth. Hoa Lu temple has a beautiful setup and the surroundings are so naturally beautiful. The boat trip seems so beautiful. Wonderful day trip experience!

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    1. Yes Neha! Hoa Lu and Tam Coc are equally beautiful in their own aspects. It's definitely worth a visit! :)

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  16. Those temples look unbelievable and that gate to the old capital with the mountain backdrop is such a scene. We're headed to Vietnam in a couple months and we just added this to the itinerary. 'Halong Bay' on land is exactly the description running through my mind before I even read that bit in your post. Looks like a really fun day. Appreciate the advice on tips and buying food from vendors.

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    1. Hi Chris, great to hear that you've decided to add Ninh Binh into your Vietnam itinerary! Halong Bay on Land will give you a different take and perspective on the limestone karsts - if you head over during the rainy season, you may even get to see the yellow rice fields floating on the water!

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  17. The countryside of Ninh Binh look really picturesque. This region is surely a relatively unknown gem as I have hardly seen anything about it. I found the gate to the ancient capital of Hoa Lu absolutely fascinating. It looks straight out of a fairytale. A cycling tour around the rice fields of the region would be a fantastic experience too.

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    1. Hi Sandy, I've never heard of Ninh Binh prior to this trip. Glad to say that I've visited the countryside now which offered me a vastly different experience. Hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did! :)

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  18. Very nice post Nathan. I love how you are able to tell about things that help us visually travel to the place with anecdotes on leg paddling, and everyone knowing everyone. I agree with you that however commercial something is, as long as its a connect to nature (like getting on a boat in a river/sea), it naturally has a calming effect making us stare in awe.

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    1. Hi there, thank you for the lovely comment! I started blogging because I wanted to share my personal travelling experiences and tips with all you guys - so I hope that I have achieved that objective :) Yes, it's amazing how the scenic natural landscapes can work magic!

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  19. Your pictures are exactly how I imagine Vietnam. The cruise would be such a cool experience. I'll be adding this to my must visit list!

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    1. Hi David! Yes, very uniquely Vietnam with their conical hats and an agriculturally-driven countryside.

      It's not so much of a cruise in Tam Coc as it is in Halong Bay - it's a simple boat ride here, but with spectacular views!

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  20. Oh wow what an amazing looking place to get to go and explore, it amazes me how different the world is from one place to another. I'm not sure I could steer that boat!

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    1. Hi Sarah, the mountainous scenery and natural landscape is so breathtaking you have to come admire it! :)

      We are all wondering the same thing - how they manage to paddle the boat with their legs?! Haha :)

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  21. Love your pictures! Each is telling a story. Vietnam has been on my bucket list since forever. Thanks for the honest review of the tour agency. Interesting to know about these photographers! Shop keepers in Myanmar did something similar. They used to identify prospects entering the pagodas by putting badges on their shirts! LOL . Would love to visit this country for their countryside!

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    1. Hi Divsi, thank you for your comment! I absolutely love the Vietnamese countryside with their beautiful natural landscapes.

      Haha, thanks for sharing about your similar experiences in Myanmar as well! I guess these tactics work well for them :)

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  22. Your photos are amazing! Great post

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    1. Thank you! Hope it got you interested to consider Hanoi as a potential travel destination :)

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  23. Oh boy! I'm so into Vietnam! After seeing some of your posts I'm now positive that I need to visit ASAP!

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    1. That's great to hear! Vietnam is a lovely place with lots of culture to take in and great natural landscapes to admire. Hope that you'll be able to visit real soon and that you'll enjoy yourself as much as I did! :)

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  24. This is cool. I would love to see rice paddies as I have never seen that before. The photography situation is interesting. Thank you for that warning.

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    1. Hi there! If you're interested to check out the rice paddies in the river, you will need to visit Ninh Binh during the rainy season (middle of the year).

      I was on the boat with a Slovenian lady, and we were both surprised during the boat ride, as we had been expecting to see the yellow fields dotting the river. The boatwoman then informed us that the yellow paddies could only be seen when it was the rainy, monsoon season in Vietnam.

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  25. What a great post thanks for sharing

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  26. We wanted to go to Tam Coc but were advised that due to the time of year, it was so pretty. the tour company suggested we go to Trang an instead. We hired motorbike drives to drive through Ninh Binh..... really is Halong Bay on land. It was one of the hightlights of our trip to Vietnam!

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    1. Hi Amy, I heard that Trang An is equally beautiful as Tam Coc but much less crowded. However, it seems that tours to Ninh Binh either do Tam Coc and Hoa Lu or Trang An and Bai Dinh Pagoda.

      I heard some unpleasant reviews regarding Bai Dinh Pagoda and was personally more interested to check out Vietnam's ancient capital of Hoa Lu as compared to the Buddhist complex of Bai Dinh. Nevertheless, I'm sure it was a great experience for you to explore the rural areas of Ninh Binh and enjoy the picturesque natural landscapes all around! :)

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  27. I personally prefer spending time in villages to cities, and Ninh Binh does seem like a great place to do that. I really enjoyed your description of Tam Coc. The place does look like Halong Bay!

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    1. Hi Denny, Ninh Binh really gives you the getaway to escape from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi (especially the Old Quarter) into the embrace of Mother Nature. The natural landscapes are picturesque and can rival that of Halong Bay - you'll be in for a visual treat as the mountains start towering over you and you're on a boat slowly treading down the river!

      I'm sure you'll enjoy Tam Coc and Ninh Binh as a whole very much, since you're into villages rather than an urbanite. You may want to stay a night or two in this province to take in the sights and sounds or possibly interact with the locals. They do have a resort right in front of Tam Coc - you may wish to check that out! :)

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  28. Great to learn about potential day trips or overnight trips from Hanoi as well as the city itself. Ninh Binh looks like an interesting rural region to explore. The temples have a different style to them than any I’ve seen before. The Tam Coc boating looks utterly beautiful. Thanks for the reco for your tour company used too!

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  29. The countryside looks so gorgeous! I can't wait to visit someday. <3

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  30. I would've never thought of visiting here until I read your post. I love how the locals paddle with their feet!

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  31. So beautiful and a attractive. I don't know that Ninh Binh has so many great destinations like these. Thanks for sharing.

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  32. Oh, my! Wow! This place looks stunningly beautiful! :)
    Thank you for this detailed travelogue with your lovely pictures. Very useful.

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  33. Halong Bay is incredible, I think I would take at least 50 photos of this awesome area. I also love the temples, and actually felt serene just reading this post. Really a great place to visit, and I'd like to return one day.

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  34. Been there, done that, and it was just amazing. We took a day trip from Hanoi, and apart from kayaking at Tam Con, we went cycling as well, which was just too awesome. Loved going back in a flashback, after seeing your pics.

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  35. Ah! I loved those breathtaking views from your boat ride. It is always a better idea to explore countryside. Vietnam seems so beautiful. Must visit it someday and your posts will help me to explore it to the best.

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