The 70-year-old grandma rowed the sampan boat with her feet, propelling two visitors through the steaming rice paddies and stunning rock formations. It was my pleasure to buy her a cold beer.
The peaceful ride through the Tam Coc caves was the highlight of a day trip to Vietnam’s Ninh Binh province. Walk in the footsteps of the kings who freed Vietnam from Chinese domination in the 900s, and let time stand still as you soak in the pleasures of a stunning countryside that is destined to be preserved as a “tourism zone.” Watch the video and then read on for more details.
Day Trip from Hanoi
This was my fourth trip to Vietnam, and since I’d already done the major sights of Hanoi and a Bai Tu Long Bay cruise, this was the obvious choice for a day trip. I signed up at my hotel in Hanoi.and was the last in our group of 13 to be picked up. It was an international bunch representing the US, Denmark, Germany, Singapore, and Australia. The full van had free wi-fi and an engaging, English-speaking guide named Trung who has escorted VIPs, including diplomats and former American POWs, around Hanoi.
As the van snaked through Hanoi traffic, Trung distributed water bottles and shared fun facts, like the government’s plan to unsnarl the endless gridlock by banning motorbikes. And how the park across from a university has become a red light district where needy students engage in prostitution.
As usual on the tours I’ve taken in Vietnam, there is a mandatory toilet stop at an overpriced souvenir place. The road wound through Ninh Binh’s gritty industrial district where entire mountains are being turned into building material by some of the largest cement factories in Asia. The garish mega-mansions of the factory owners towered over dusty villages.
Hoa Lu Temples
After about two hours we arrived at Hoa Lu, the capital city of Vietnam in the 10th century. Trung pointed out the foundations of an early “Forbidden City.” His commentary added to our understanding of the Dinh dynasty, who once ruled here from a “dragon bed” throne. Visitors wearing shorts are asked to cover up before entering the two surviving temples from the 17th Century, modeled after the originals.
The van drove on to our lunch at The Long Restaurant buffet in Tam Coc, with plenty of vegetarian choices as well as chicken pho and goat meat. Bring cash to pay for your beverage, not included.
Biking through the Rice Fields
Trung made sure everyone had a hat and sunscreen before we set off on bicycles through Bich Dong village and into the rice paddies, with scenic limestone formations as the backdrop. I would have liked a little more time for photography. A disaster nearly occurred when my camera flew out of the bike basket and landed — battered but safe — on the only square meter of concrete in the rice field.
Curious villagers and even the goats seemed amused as I scurried to catch up with the rest of the biking group. Those not wishing to cycle in the steamy 100-degree heat had the option of waiting at the restaurant.
Tam Coc Caves
After a brief water break, we donned life vests and boarded the sampan rowboats lined up at the village dock. With two people to a boat, the stunning scenery floated by. The jagged limestone outcroppings have been compared to Halong Bay’s formations, only on rice paddies instead of the water. You will definitely need a hat and sunscreen or an umbrella for shade.
My 70 year-old boat lady didn’t seem bothered by the temperature and humidity but gratefully accepted my offer to buy her a beer. Trung had warned us to bring cash to buy something from one of the merchants who approach the tour boats in their floating stores. They politely backed off after we did so, apparently mindful of a government crackdown on over-aggressive sales tactics. Also plan to tip your hardworking boat rower: 100,000 dong (less than $5 USD) being the standard amount for more than two hours of rowing. It didn’t seem like enough.
The ride back to Hanoi is an opportunity to contemplate the centrally planned future of Tam Coc, where the history and landscape will be preserved in a tourism zone catering to large groups. For now, this trip is a day well spent among people who work hard to share the beauty and traditions of their country. I was glad I came.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Getting there: I traveled on a day trip with Go Asia Tours. I booked through my hotel, the Hanoi Pearl. It’s located on a charming and walkable street in Hanoi’s old quarter, just steps away from Hoan Kiem lake and a few short blocks from St. Joseph’s Cathedral. It makes an excellent home base for my tips on seeing Hanoi like a local.
Hoa Lo Prison and other war sites can be accessed on a city tour or by taxi. The hotel also books trips to Halong Bay, but my recommendation is to skip the crowds and choose a more peaceful experience in the UNESCO world heritage Bai Tu Long Bay.
Be prepared: In the scorching summer months, you’ll need to be equipped with heavy-duty sunscreen and a sturdy hat. My handy Panasonic Lumix camera with Leica lens allowed me to grab great shots on the go.
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