We had pre-booked a day trip to Ninh Binh from the Travel agent at the hotel, Indochina Tours, (we emailed them from Kenya) and so the first proper day in Vietnam was spent traveling down to Tam Coc, also known as “Halong Bay in the Rice Fields”.
One of the first things I noticed about Hanoi was the sheer number of motorbikes! They are everywhere, and the traffic caused by these motorbikes is worse than the traffic jams caused in Nairobi by the matatus! Once out of the city, the drive was absolutely beautiful – I have never been in a country so green and lush, surrounded by rice paddy fields and emerald green fields.
Our first stop was Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam. Two temples set amidst a limestone valley, dedicated to the Le and Dinh dynasty kings. Shrouded in the winter mist, the scene was like the setting for an adventure movie. I would go to Hoa Lu for the breath-taking scenery over anything else. The temples have some interesting Chinese-like architecture, and a dragon like creature with a naughty glint in its eye at the edge of the Temple catches my attention – it is almost like the gargoyles that guard Notre Dame!
Heading on and finally in Tam Coc, we stopped off for lunch which was included in the tour. Turned out to be a buffet of cold soup, cold chips and some cold curry and given that it was pretty cold outside, this was less than appealing. Whatever happened to the hot pho that Anthony Bourdain is always slurping down? I could have done with a bowl or two right then, but it was not meant to be.
We started off the tour by heading to the temple in Bich Dong village, and climbing up steep steps lined with pagodas to catch the most stunning view of the surrounding countryside: rocky hills with the karst towers of Tam Coc rising in the distance.
Once back down from Bich Dong Temple, we walked to the starting point of the boat ride to the three grottoes, or three caves which is what Tam Coc is best known for. There is a gated entrance lined with local shops, and rowers waiting at the edge of the rice paddy field to take tourists out onto the lowland fields.
The karst towers rise majestically out of these lowland rice fields, making it them seem like gigantic cliffs rising out of a lake. The clackety clack of the oars, the gentle lapping of the water against the boat and the stunning view is hypnotic – photography heaven.
Despite the myriad of tourists in their midst, life goes on in the rice paddy fields – fishermen with their nets, farmers harvesting rice, ducks paddle on, oblivious to the observers around them.
The ride to the grottoes is about 45 minutes. You get to the first cave, Hang Ca, which is the longest cave, then ride through to Hang Hai, Cave two and finally the smaller cave, Cave Three or Hang Ba before turning around and riding through the caves again. The stalactites are amazing, it feels like you could bump your head and the reflex action is to duck, but the rower sticks his paddle up and it doesn’t touch the roof, so the cave ceiling is higher than it looks.
Our peaceful reverie is interrupted by local vendors on boats outside Cave One, which we funnily did not notice on the way in! Our rowers casually bump our boat against theirs, which is a signal of sorts for them to come and peddle all sorts of stuff – embroidery, food, drinks – tourists have been equated to “ducks on a pond” by many guidebooks and I see what they mean. You cannot go anywhere, and save for a firm but polite no, you just have to shrug off their chatter and try and get lost in your reverie again.
Rowing is hard work, as I find out from the lady who nicely places her hat on my head and hands me the paddle for a few minutes. I realize that this is because she has suddenly turned into a vendor herself, removing embroidered shawls and linen from what was her seat two seconds ago, trying to get us to buy, telling us the pieces were made by her daughter or daughter’s daughter or something like that. Saying no to her doesn’t go down too well and I am glad the journey is almost coming to an end, which is a real pain – and not a nice way to end what is otherwise a stunning tour.
The other annoyance is the tip- we give the rowers $10 and they complain that it is not enough, and that they have rowed, and she let me wear her hat…..lesson in this – just say no from the word go, no matter how badly you want that picture with the funky Vietnamese hat!