With another couple of days until our flight to Thailand and some time on the beach we decided to strike out on our own, without joining a tour (yes kids we’re just that crazy) and head to see Tam Coc, the so-called “Ha Long Bay of the rice paddies”. Despite being told by the staff at our hostel that you can’t get to Ninh Binh, the closest town to Tam Coc unless you’re part of a tour, we bravely set forth to the bus station.
Upon arrival at the bus station, I’d barely even got my pack out of the cab when a guy came up to me, beckoning me to follow while repeating “Ninh Binh” over and over. “How the hell does he know where we want to go?” I thought, but then of course you get suspicious, especially when another two or three people approached us all beckoning us to follow them and saying the same thing. That’s one thing I’ve got quite tired of while traveling – you have to be on your guard all the time and assume that the first price that you hear isn’t reasonable because more often than not someone is trying to take you for a ride. I don’t like to have to think the worst of people all the time, but that friendly cab driver who asks if you’ve got a reservation at the hotel you’ve asked him to take you to isn’t concerned for you, but more likely to be trying to take you to a hotel of a friend of is where you’ll pay through the nose for a sub standard room. That random “friend” of the cabbie that just got in and says he’s a student and is just getting a lift home, is actually working for another hotel scam. That bottle of water doesn’t really cost $2, that tuk tuk ride to your hotel won’t really take 10 minutes so that price is too high. And on and on. It’s not something that I think I can ever get used to, but I digress.
Our very persistent friend took us through to the ticket counter which is the same counter for all the buses so we couldn’t really see the scam, especially when the tickets turned out to be the price that we were expecting. We can only think that a number of small companies ply the same route so they have touts at the station to try to get you on their bus rather than someone else’s because he was on and off the bus constantly, both in the bus station and also once we got on the road, each time beckoning to other people (all local) who would join the bus. Sitting at the back of the bus on slightly raised seats with zero leg room, (even my knees touched the seat in front) I really noticed our blondness and our fellow passengers kept turning round to get a good look – it was a little like being monkeys in the zoo.
Arriving in Ninh Binh after probably the least comfortable journey on our travels courtesy of our seats at the back and the fact that our chosen vehicle had zero suspension, we were greeted by a fairly characterless town with practically no tourists. We found the hotel we were going to stay in, confirmed we could hire a motorbike the next day and then set off to see what Ninh Binh was about. While there weren’t the restaurants and cafes etc that we’ve been used to, it was a pleasant change to be in a city that isn’t set up for tourists. We walked around the streets for a bit and then through the local market that basically sold everything from food to kitchen appliances to clothes, everything we would usually find in a supermarket at home. All around us life went on, catering to the locals and unaware of tourist dollars.
The next day we were up bright and early, in possession of our little scooter for the day and a hand drawn map courtesy of our hotel and off we went. I should have known from looking at the map where a road marked 4km was the same length as a road marked 8km, that it wasn’t going to be the most accurate of guides. It probably took us an hour longer than it should have done to find Tam Coc as we were, on the advice of our hotel, trying to stick to back roads instead of braving the insanity of highway one but the turnings we were looking for just never seemed to materialise. In the end we admitted defeat and went the main road way, thankfully living to tell the tale.
The way to see Tam Coc is via boat which is rowed by a local person using their feet! We were marveling at their dexterity and decided that we should really give it a go ourselves. As is to be expected I think, neither of us are naturally gifted in the foot-rowing department and the pictures of me having a go are not in the least ladylike so I certainly won’t be sharing them here.
The scenery of Tam Coc is breathtaking. We had a couple of people doubt whether it was worth going to see it after we’d already seen Ha Long Bay but to me that’s like saying it’s not worth going to the Alps if you’ve been to the Rockies. We had got there early in the morning so that we missed the crowds of day trippers from Hanoi so we rowed peacefully along the river while on either side people were preparing the rice paddies for the next crop. You even get to go under some of the immense limestone kasks through caves, dodging stalactites while your comedy (and devilishly handsome) boat buddy calls a sinister “Mwa ha ha ha ha” which reverberates around you. One guess people.
After the boat trip we headed for a nearby pagoda, though upon arrival it was clear that I wasn’t dressed for the occasion in my shorts so I had to let Clive go on ahead. Apart from some scrambling to get to the top for a viewpoint it doesn’t sound like I missed much, but fortunately there was another monument nearby that you could climb up to and gave a panoramic view of the route that we’d followed in the boat. Definitely worth the puffing and blowing it took to get to the top. Side note: apparently eating and drinking for four months and no exercise is detrimental to your stamina. Now we know.
After checking out the view we headed back to our digs and on back to Hanoi, for one more night’s sleep before hitting Thailand for some well deserved (I’m sure you’ll all agree) R and R on the beach :D