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Day 7 – December 7th: Phu Ly to Tam Coc: 52kms.

The buffet breakfast provided a sparse choice of nutrition for today’s ride. I managed to toast some bread and get some instant coffee – not ideal. There were more people around this morning than last night when we were the only ones in the restaurant.

Our bikes were where we left them. An audible sigh of relief escaped my mouth! I don’t trust anybody else with our bikes; they’re our babies!

We headed south once more, crossing the river. Here was our first sighting of the distinctive limestone Karsts the area is famous for. The locals refer to it as Ha Long Bay on land. The only difference was these particular Karsts were being mined. Gone were all the trees and vegetation that once covered them; now, they displayed the bare, white stone that lay beneath. Dust filled the air like a thick fog settling over the land. It lay thick on the local houses and cars and was not what we were expecting.

Vietnam Cycle Tour Ninh Binh

An apocalyptic landscape. Our first good look at the limestone karsts of Ninh Binh.

Concrete plants stood like alien space stations in the haze, and dozens of dust-covered trucks ferried their overflowing loads of crushed limestone, adding to the already grim air quality.

Back across the river, we rode, steering away from the concrete plants and onto the adjacent levee bank. Once again, the road was rough in sections, and our going slow. Small farming hamlets lined the levee bank. Surprisingly, some quite expensive-looking houses were jutting above the more common, poorer ones. There were even schools out here on the embankment, but the most surprising of all was the amount of Gothic-style cathedrals towering over everything else. These structures wouldn’t be out of place anywhere in Europe. To see the detail and scale of these churches just blew us away! To add to that, who knew Catholicism was rampant in the far north of communist/Buddhist Vietnam? Not us!!!

Levee bank Ninh binh - Vietnam Cycle Tour

Up on the levee bank, sucking in the dust.

We crossed back over the river between Nham Kenh and Da Bai and passed beside a huge concrete plant resembling some dystopian alien fortress. With all this dust in the air, we were a bit worried about the sky over Tam Coc. Would it be clearer there?

Flooded fields - Ninh Binh

Flooded fields. The limestone mining was falling behind us.

Further south, we passed between two of the mined karsts looking like they were raped and left for dead on the side of the road. On the other side of Route 477, we found ourselves in the middle of vast fields of rice. Here, between villages, hundreds of graves lined the road. All of them were finished with marble and decorated elaborately. They were well looked after and in good repair. Ancestor worship is a big thing here in this country; this large graveyard was a testament to that.

Graveyard in the fields - Ninh Binh

Elaborately decorated graves alongside the road.

RidewithGPS took us through the tiny village of Xa Gia Tien, out here in the rice. Down a narrow lane, it sent us, a couple of stray locals looked bemused by us but quickly got back to what they were doing. On the other side of the village was the very long span of the Truong Yen bridge. We were now truly now in Karst Country. Down this way, the large limestone formations must be protected because these ones looked just like the ones in the tourist brochures. As we crossed over the bridge, all eyes on the looming tree-covered karsts, we could see that the sky was clear and free of concrete dust – it was a relief!

Farmer tending rice paddy - North Vietnam

A farmer is tending his rice paddy. The view from the Truong Yen Bridge.

We spied a restaurant (Nha Hang Thanh Long) in the tiny village just after the bridge and had to double back on the wrong side of the road to get to it. It was popular; two tourist buses parked out front, and the staff had their hands full. We figured the food would be fresh, so we propped the bikes up against the front wall and sat outside under the shade.

RidewithGPS was determined to keep us off any road that could take a car. From the restaurant, it led us down a billy goat track through another small village. As rough as the road was, the scenery was stunning. Small rice paddies were squeezed between karsts while the quite basic tin and bamboo houses hugged the road as it wove in and out of the maze of limestone towers. It was really something to see.

Panorama - Ninh Binh Vietnam

Our route after lunch led us through small villages between the karsts.

 We often stopped for pictures. Every twist and turn in the road presented another stunning vista, another waterway reflecting the giant, tree-covered karsts. The worse the track got, the better the scenery was; we were enjoying ourselves!

Karsts Landscape Ninh Binh Vietnam

A world of water lies between the karsts.

Maze of karsts Ninh Binh on our Vietnam Cycle Tour

Making our way through the maze of karsts.

Scenery Vietnam Cycle Tour Ninh Binh

The dirt track led us through some amazing scenery.

Scenery Ninh binh Cycling Tour

We took our time through here, stopping to admire these special places.


We stopped to admire one homestay tucked in amongst the karsts with views out over the water-laden paddies. The upmarket place sported a pool and viewing deck but no guests. Someone came out to us and offered us lunch and a room if we needed it. He couldn’t help but sound a bit desperate. We understood his situation and told him we might return for lunch soon as we stayed in the area for a week. He smiled, unsure whether to believe us or not.

Small resort boat deck Ninh Binh

The viewing deck at a small resort – not bad!

 After cutting through an adjacent village, we finally arrived at the Mountain Lake Homestay in Tam Coc and were vigorously greeted by Mama Lan and her daughter, Lan, with huge hugs! You need to be sure when hugging Vietnamese women, regardless of how long you have known them. Things could get quite awkward if they weren’t expecting it – just sayin’. So we were caught off-guard a little bit by this positive display of emotions! They were obviously used to dealing with foreigners.

Mountain Lake Homestay in Tam Coc.

Sharyn relaxing in front of our bungalow at The Mountain Lake Homestay in Tam Coc.

Mountain Lake Homestay Tam Coc

The family compound at Mountain Lake Homestay.

The homestay, with its huge garden, was well situated, being directly across the road from the small lake in the middle of the town. We had made contact with them after our mate Steve, who I went through school with, had recommended them after a stay last year. He repeatedly mentioned their amazing hospitality.

Mountain Lake Homestay Tam Coc

The sumptuous garden in front of our bungalow.

We were immediately shown to a comfortable, spotless bungalow at the end of the garden. For only 350,000 VND, it was pretty good value. It was also obvious that we were the only ones staying there.

Mountain Lake Homestay - Tam Coc

Inside our room at Mountain Lake Homestay – very comfortable!

Exhausted and leg-weary, we cleaned up and laid down on the kingsize bed for an hour. It had been pretty slow going today; we’d taken the same amount of time as yesterday and cycled 23 km less!

We had mentioned previously that we had chosen them after a recommendation from our mate Steve. He told us that he’d gone there for a few days and stayed for about ten. The family had taken them around, cooked them dinner, and brought them fruit and drinks. So, it wasn’t a surprise when Mama Lan, in broken English, invited us to dinner with the family on our first night.

Dinner with the family Mountain Lake Homestay Tam Coc

Dinner in the garden with Mama Lan (left) and family.

Paddle Boats Tam Coc

Paddleboats for the tourists on Tam Coc Lake. Hard to imagine the place pre-Covid.

Resort Tam Coc

The resort opposite our homestay was being renovated while there were no international tourists.

Sunset Tam Coc

No tourists – no problems! Tam Coc’s sunsets all to ourselves!

A table was set up in the garden, and some of the family with their kids came around to meet us. We were being killed with kindness, and we loved it!

Check out the next episode, where we explore the surrounding area: Karst Adrift in Wonderland: Tam Coc.