On Monday morning we left Hanoi with a bus going for an organized tour that will drop us on its way, in Ninh Binh. Before departure, we bought in a street stall, 2 Banh Mi (local version of the sandwich based on a baguette with pate, on which we added some cheese for one, some BBQ pork for the other… yummy!) and a bottle of water and we were set for the ride! Just before leaving, our Hostel gave us 2 small bottles of water (better more than none)… and we got 2 more in the bus! Now, that’s a lot of water … For us who are always forgetting to bring water along, it was perfect!
Of course, we got dropped further away that what was initially “agreed” but still managed to negotiate a good price for 2 scooters to drive us about 10km away in the small village of Tam Coc sittuated in the Ninh Bình Province.
Tam Coc means “Three Caves” because one of the main attractions here are the actual three caves. There is a boat tour that leads you through rice fields, limestones rocks and… 3 caves! The region is called “the Halong Bay on land” and is completely worthy of this name! It is beautiful and spectacular and although some areas are accessible only by boat through the rivers, you can discover a lot by foot, bicycle or motorcycle. The limestones rocks are the result of millions of years of tectonic movements and erosion. It is crazy to think that water created most of this landscape… and continue to shape it!
We arrived at our hotel around noon and luckily our room was available…. for our well-deserved nap! Don’t blame us, we are still recovering! In the afternoon we decided to go by foot to a nearby temple and explore a bit the surroundings. It is very hard to describe this landscape in a manner that would fairly demonstrate its majestic. It is a mix of bright green rice fields and muddy soil, basaltic rocks and jungle-style flora, brown rivers and clear spring-water. Flatlands and high cliffs. Water and rock. Cultivated lands and swamps. Majestic rocks and eroded cliffs… and us in the middle of it all…
After this little walk we decided to simply enjoy the beautiful terrace of our hotel facing mountains over rice paddies. It was so nice there! While I was finishing my book, Silviu worked… because you know someone has to work from time to time (obviously not me!). In the evening we went to the village which I believed evolved a lot in those past years. The main streets is now a succession of restaurants and shops clearly dedicated for tourists. We eventually picked up one by chance where a very nice and smiling grandpa served us while his daughter was cooking and his grandson was absorbed by a cartoon on a smartphone (pff). We had some nems, fried rice with egg and fried beef with pineapple. All in all it was correct, and I was not necessarily expecting more from such a touristic environment.
Tuesday morning we decided to wake up early (spoiler: we managed to wake up early and it was not so easy) as to go for a boat tour before the flow of tourists. Of course we were not the first, neither were we alone. But still it was much less people than during the day when buses of tourists come. One thing we actually noticed was that half of the boats were busy with Vietnamese tourists, which we thought was pretty cool for a Tuesday morning. It shows their interest in tourism in their own country but also that they have the time and money for it. Not that many countries in the world offers such a ratio in my humble opinion. How are we so sure they were Vietnamese you would ask? Pretty easy: foreigners are explicitly limited to 2 per boat maximum so any boat with more passengers is local! Easy! (I wonder why the 2 person per boat limit, humm, tz, tz)
So what did we think about this boat tour… Honestly it was beautiful, you go in places that are not accessible by foot including the 3 caves, you can observe the life along the river especially farmers in a the rice fields and goats on the mountains and the “captain” rowing with his/ her feet is quite impressive… Now of course the pleasure has to be spoiled by the mandatory stop to a “boat-shop” that will try to sell some food or drinks quite aggressively and expensively, with the complicity and encouragement of your “captain”. Once you survive that first obstacle you will also need to face the insistant request from your “captain” for a tip. And even if you give one, you can be sure he/ she will ask for more (in our case Silviu gave her the tip we had prepared knowing the request would come but she still asked for the “Missy” aka me to also give… I ignored her royally). I can see that the method can be efficient but it is also particularly exasperating and always leave us with a bitter taste and mixed feelings about the whole experience.
Anyway after so many emotions we went back to our hotel for breakfast and… went for a nap! Ok ok more exactly I completely fell asleep and Silviu took this opportunity to work some more. After this
quick power nap of only 2 hours, we decided to rent a scooter and go explore some more temples. To put some context here: I have never driven a scooter before even though many of my friends did (special thoughts for Marie here!) while Silviu drove a scooter once on holidays a few years ago … in the USA (he told me this only afterwards). So we agree that he is clearly more experienced than me and can have the privilege to drive me around. We can also agree that I was right to be completely scared about being on the same vehicle as him. Well… since I am writing those lines, you can guess that we are still alive. Better: we had no incident at all!! Except of course searching for 5 minutes how to honk (!important), put the light on, open the trunk… details… We are alive!!
With this new power between our legs (hum, hum) we are ready for new explorations! First stop… gas station… ok next stop! Hang Mua!
Hang Mua is a very small temple located at the top of a much less small rocky hill that you can reach by climbing up 500
giant steps… The view from up there is simply astonishing. On one side we see the Tam Coc river surrounded by rice fields and limestones rocks, where we were this morning, on the other side some more rice fields with fewer limestones rocks and on the horizon the city of Ninh Binh, including some factories. It’s kind of sad to see this insanely beautiful landscape being industrialized. Hopefully the fact that Tam Coc is a World Heritage certified by UNESCO (since 2014) will help limiting the exploitation of this landscape for industrial outcomes.
Funny anecdote that happened to us in Hang Mua: we were so focused on renting this scooter (i.e. excited like a kid with a new toy for Silviu, anxious like someone who will pay the consequence of this new toy for me) that we completely forgot to take some basics like… money and water! Luckily we had exactly enough to pay for this excursion (gas, entry fees and parking) but no more: we had only 10,000 VND left (the equivalent of 30 cents). Ouf! It also means we climbed all the stairs without a single drop of water! It was “fun”.
The entrance of the temple is actually an ecolodge that somehow tried to set up a nice space in this environment with a little pond, a nice garden, some statues, some bamboo swings, etc… And on the side of this garden we found another cave, and inside the cave a passage that led to spring-water! Too cold for a swim but lighted with lightbulbs which allowed me to notice that there was a path slightly under water. A path is an invitation to follow it right? So we took off our shoes and were lead to another “room” this time completely in the dark… hum… We hesitate a bit but curiosity pushes us to continue. Luckily we have the flashlight of Silviu’s phone (mine was out of battery already). So Silviu ahead, me following him, we slowly continued, leaning as the ceiling was quite low in some parts. It is a really weird feeling to be in the dark, following a path that is surrounded by 3 meters deep of water, not knowing what is ahead of us… eventually the path led to a dead end a few meters away. False hope!
After that beautiful visit, out of money, water, battery and map we decided it would be safest to come back to the hotel. After a half and hour break we continued our exploration on the other side of the village up to the Bich Dong Pagoda. Again we were called to park and pay… we asked some fellow travelers who were leaving the parking how much they paid they told us that the lady asked for 50 000, they paid 15 000 VND. The lady did asked us for 50K, saying it is 10 for the parking and 20 per person for the entrance fees. Well anyway we happened to have a 10K note prepared so we just gave her that and left. She didn’t insist for more. I know we are talking about minimal amount in Western terms but we are also talking about tourist scams here. Paying for a relatively protected parking why not, but the entrance fees she asked are completely a scam as this temple is free. But she is trying and I am sure many tourists end up paying that amount…
The temple itself was nice, the main part is at the bottom of the rock, as well as the monks quarters. A few steps lead to a second part located at the entrance of a cave. Inside the cave you find some more altars as well as a heavy bronze bell. More stairs (!) in the cave and outside the cave lead to a last small temple.
In this temple we could notice again how much occidental tourists are respectful of the rules and culture. We saw signboards explicitly saying please dress appropriately and do not wear shorts and just next to it a girl dressed up as if she was at the beach, a bit further away a guy with his T-shirts off (would it visit a European church dressed up like this?!). Up at the last temple big signboards were saying Do not climb up and guess what? 7 tourists were sitting or walking up the hill. I don’t want to be judgmental but this lack of respect makes me sad and somehow justify the way that some locals get aggressive, indifferent or scammy to tourists. What do you think?
But for us the best part was this little trail on the side we found. Not many tourists go there because the entrance was actually on the opposite side of the parking. And this was our luck! We ended up in a field with a pond surrounded by limestones rocks. Everything seemed abandoned. Nobody else around. It was so peaceful. We stayed there for a while, silently daydreaming of what life in such a beautiful and peaceful space would be. This was a great ending to that wonderful day. We wish you a great day!