Ngo Dong River: A Boat Ride to Enchantment

While you do not see any along the way, Ngo Dong is the Vietnamese name for the beautiful wutong tree, or Sterculia platanifolia, its scientific name. The enchanting scenery along the way is where Ngo Dong River got its name.

Ngo Dong River is a very popular tourist destination in Vietnam. From Van Lam Village (100 kilometers south of Hanoi) in Ninh Binh Province, it’s a two-hour boat trip along the river that will take you to three limestone caverns called Tam Coc. Tam Coc in Ninh Hai Commune, Hoa Lu District is one of the most beautiful sights you will see in the country. Ngo Dong River passes through three grottoes and winds its way between beautiful limestone karsts. The river is so famous that about 1,300 manned rowing boats are provided to take tourists to Tam Coc and back.

Visitors take the boat ride from Vung Tram Pier wherein the vessel is just a simple, traditional boat that you can find in Vietnam. It has two oars secured to the gunwales with a rope at their pivot points instead of rowlocks. Extra paddles are available for the passengers who want to join in the adventure of paddling – or simply speed up the trip. Motor boats are not used because they are noisy and will pollute the river. A simple, traditional paddle-boat trip will let the tourists truly appreciate the serenity and beauty of nature along the way.

The boat ride consists of visiting three caves, with the boat going inside the caves themselves and barely fitting inside. Hang Ca is the first and longest cave to visit with a length of 127 meters. Stalactites hang from the limestone ceiling, a very magical sight. Hang Hai is the second cave, literally meaning Cave Two in English. Hang Ba, also literally meaning Third Cave in English, is the third cave in the tour
wherein there are a number of boats outside selling fruits, sodas, and other refreshments, and even some souvenirs the tourists can buy and keep as a memory of their trip.

In order for the whole Ninh Hai Commune to earn from the strong tourism sector, the government of Tam Coc allowed any household with a registered boat to service tourists along the river and into the caves. Each boat is numbered and must wait for its turn, sometimes taking the boat owner four, even thirteen days, before it can make a first trip. As such, they do other jobs connected to servicing the visitors like carrying their luggage or selling food so they can earn an income while waiting for their shift at the boat trip.

It is said that almost everyone in Ninh Hai can row a boat, even with their legs. The travel time along the river and back is a long one and so they had to learn to make use of both arms and legs to row to prevent exhaustion. For whatever reason, it has been like an unwritten rule to transfer rowing from arms to legs when the boats pass Thai Vy Temple. But as tribute to the temple which was built in the thirteenth century during King Tran Thai Tong’s reign, it is a breathtaking sight against the equally majestic Cam Son Mountains at the back.

Also at Hang Ba, you will be greeted by a herd of white-furred milk goats which the tourists can buy if they wanted one. The boat ride along Ngo Dong River is an adventure in itself as the oarsmen and women do not simply row the boats as a job but also tell stories of life along the river, making one’s trip a truly enchanting memory to keep sacred forever.