Movie crews like to take shortcuts. And the scenic splendor in which Catherine Deneuve languished in exotic isolation in the French colonial drama Indochine turns out to be an easy two hours' drive from crowded Hanoi. No wonder tour buses are heading in increasing numbers toward Tam Coc and its peaceful flotillas of rowboats. A paddle through the area's bluish limestone outcroppings is fast becoming one of Vietnam's must-dos.
Despite the buffet restaurants and bargain-embroidery shops lining the way to the area's now concrete-lined point of embarkation, the views are breathtaking, as are the low-clearance passes through the three caves for which the region is named. Just 9 km south of dusty Ninh Binh city, kingfishers swoop and packs of mountain goats scale the sheer rock faces.
The unhurried boat trips work out to around $6 per passenger. Floating drink and trinket peddlers are kept to a minimum while the smiling, hired oar hoisters have not yet turned jaded. They don't object if passengers join in the paddling to get a workout. In what may be Tam Coc's most remarkable sight of all, the boatmen (actually, mostly women) row and steer both blades entirely through deft rotations of their bare feet.
Temples found on the site of an ancient Vietnamese capital at Hoa Lu are a de rigueur postcruise stop, surrounded with karst formations and rice fields ominously bulldozed for hotels and parking lots to come. For more rugged views, less hurried travelers can head 17 km from Tam Coc to the Van Long Nature Reserve, where bicycles can be rented for self-touring bankside trails. Set off in early morning to best commune with the spirits of Indochine and take along your own picnic basket, or better yet a brace of spring rolls.