Vietnam – Tam Coc

Dear Vikki,

We are now safely in Tam Coc, a town of Ninh Bình province. Actually we are in a little village called Ninh Hai. Our accommodation is in a family home that appears to date back a long way. It has been extended and built onto, but it’s a great place. The original home appears to have an original ancestors altar and everything is built out from there. It is a family home, 3 generations live here. The young woman who runs the place (she grew up here) has 2 little boys and her parents live here too. They all have various jobs. Grandad is the self appointed bike security guard at the Bích Dong Pagoda. Mum rows a boat to take tourists on a scenic trip on a local waterway. Thom runs this accommodation and can row if needed. Her husband is a tour guide. They have a rice farm too and they all work on it. Apparently they are more fortunate than others who are unable to find work and leave Vietnam to work in Thailand in factories. Thom has a uni degree in tourism which is what has enabled her to be successful in the homestay.

We arrived here by scary tourist limo. The traffic is stupid but the driver behaviour is just plain nuts. For instance, our driver stopped in the middle of the dual carriageway, under an overhead road. He jumped out of the vehicle, over the concrete barricade and ran across three lanes of traffic to grab something from another a vehicle. Meantime 9 of us are sitting in a vehicle parked up in the middle of a freeway! We did make it safely to Tam Coc where we were unceremoniously dumped from the limo onto the street with our baggage, 800m from our accommodation. After having something to eat and a beer we grabbed a Grab and made it to the Palm House. After check in Thom gave us the information on the things to see and do in the area and lent us a bike each to head off to Bích Dong Pagoda. Because her dad works there (maybe) we didn’t have to pay the bike minding fee. In fact he was really delighted to see us and parked the bikes for us!

The Pagoda itself was interesting and we wandered around it until dark when we rode home in time for dinner, cooked by our host. There was an excess of dishes but they were delicious and eating in the garden was a lovely end to the day. I think we are going to like it here.

Dear Vikki,

The head cold has set it in, but I am not going to let it beat me. There’s a few things to do here so we are off to explore on the bicycles … here’s hoping the roads are less hectic than Hanoi.

Our first stop turned out to be the garden for breakfast provided by Thom. She made us fresh Vietnamese coffee, omelette and fresh fruit along with fresh bread. A delicious and unexpected start to the day. She then got us sorted out with bikes, no helmets, and off we went for the day, with our little map and some sketchy directions.

As it turns out the streets are much quieter than Hanoi and we pedalled out to what is known as Halong Bay on land. Based on Thom’s advice we took route 2 that encompassed 4 caves and 4 temples. The way this works is that when there are 4 people ready to do the same route, the boat is towed away by a local person. We were in boat 554 with one other person and our rower. The entire trip is up to 3 hours with about half of it spent in the boat. The waterway meanders around limestone mountains as well as going through them. Yes, through them. That’s the caves part. The boat is rowed into the caves, through the mountain and out the other side. At times we had to lie down to avoid hitting our heads on the ceiling and at other times we had to manoeuvre around the stalactites hanging from the ceiling.

Back on the waterways our stops were to wander through and around temples that have been here for some time, set up by clever leaders who knew that the enemy would never find them thanks to the blind corners and hard to find cave entrances. Now you’ll recall that I said Thom’s Mum does this type of thing. Apparently the family have to buy the boat. They get rostered on to have their boat in the water, about once a week. In the case of the place we went, the cost is 800 000 for the boat (four people) and the rower gets 120 000 dong. They rely on the tips. The other thing is that the government deemed it impolite to row with their feet, which is less taxing on their bodies, so they have to row 4 westerners around the harder way. There are little paddles in each boat for the passengers to chip in, so we had a go, especially when she was rowing into the wind. Back breaking work.

After our paddle we had a quick lunch before jumping back on the bikes and peddling off to the Ancient Town. We could have saved ourselves the time but the ride was nice. Time to turn around and pedal back to Mua Caves, not for the caves but for the 500 steps to the lookout, in time for sunset. And what a climb. I think I would have struggled without a cold, but carrying the cold up to the top of that mountain nearly killed me. It was worth it though, with or reward being a lovely view over the rice fields and beyond, as well as over the river towards the mountains. Before dark we descended the crazy steps and pedalled home to rest our weary bodies before heading out for a quick dinner. Unfortunately the head cold wins today. I tried to eat my pho gà but I just couldn’t do it. Vodka on the other hand …

Hi Vikki,

Thanks to this damn head cold we hired a car with a driver today and took it a bit easier (700000 dong). Our other option was to take a motor bike from Thom for 120 000 dong (about $7.20) and drive ourselves 70 odd km. Give that neither of us have ever done that, I don’t think this place is the place to learn.

Our map, who we have named Ernie (ask The Newby to explain), has a couple of spots left to look at. The first place we headed was the Bai Dinh Pagoda. This is actually a complex of pagodas that is the largest in Vietnam. It is so big, an electric cart takes you to the far end and you walk back through. The drive up to the entrance suggests they are expecting the arrival of many thousands. In fact the place was virtually deserted when we arrived. So much so the electric cart driver was asleep across the front seat (I kid you not). Once awake he zoomed us to the Three Gates and dumped us there. Big gates. You can see The Newby in the picture for perspective. There is no signage and no brochure and no one to ask, so we just headed in the direction we thought was correct and 3 hours later we were in another electric cart headed out the main entrance.

Actually it is a nice place to spend a while. The pagodas get successively larger as you walk through. The signage indicated that we weren’t to take photos inside so we respected that. We were the only ones who did. There is also a very high Pagoda and a great statue of a fat fellow headed on his way with his baggy on his back. There are simply thousands of gold statues about a foot high, all exactly the same, that are built into little recesses everywhere. They have a strip of paper that includes a number, what looks like a name, and some other information. There are also many hundreds, if not thousands of stone statues, 8 to 10 feet high that line the sides of the covered walkways. They go literally as far as the eye can see. Some look happy, some look mad, some look like they are victorious and others look scholarly. As for the pagodas, they are massive, with shimmering gold Buddha and other statues, 20 meters or more high. People are there worshipping but then quickly bust out their phones and take a million pictures, including the selfies, before traipsing off to the next spot.

The weather was very hot and we had limited water and no food with us so eventually we simply had to leave. Our driver took us for lunch to the same place we went yesterday. It’s a busy spot in the middle of nowhere, opposite a lake. The actual “restaurant” is only a facade. The inside has the limestone mountainside protruding into it and is exposed. No one sits in there anyway. Everyone is outside, along the veranda, watching the world go by.

After our late lunch and beers we headed off in the car to the Bird Valley. We arrived as everyone else was leaving and after some mild panic on my part we got into a boat and were rowed a short distance to watch the birds come home to roost from their day spent elsewhere. It was crazy. Not the bird thing, but arriving at another deserted place, built for a million people and staffed the same way, only to be the sole beneficiaries of all the largesse. I think our driver thought we were the strangest people he has ever dealt with. We probably are.

Good morning Vikki,

Today we are leaving Tam Coc and heading on to Hoi An. It’s really a travel day which I can probably use, to try to recover from this cold. We have had a slow morning with a late start, a leisurely breakfast and then some minor chaos thanks to me giving the two little ones some stickers. The littlest one stuck them on the furniture, a pet hate of mine, while the older one stuck them on paper and numbered them all. Very cute.

We have chosen all our accomodation for this trip through AirBnB. It’s a first for us but so far it has been fabulous. In Hanoi we had a very central studio apartment, 5 floors above the action. Downstairs we stepped straight into spice street in the old quarter. We liked it so much we booked another, smaller studio for our single night back in Hanoi after our Halong Bay cruise. Halong Bay obviously wasn’t Air BnB. We went with a company called Bahya Cruises and had a cute cabin, our own tiny but complete bathroom and a small but private outdoor balcony. We were on the second floor, so not at water level but not too high either. It was very comfortable. Here in Tam Coc we have been in the home stay. As you can see from the picture we are in a little thatch roofed, detached cabin. It too is perfect and has its own bathroom. It has the best lock I’ve ever seem. Apparently it’s quite traditional in Vietnam. It is a rod that goes through two fixed handles, one on each door. The rod has holes in it for a large padlock. The beauty of it is that you take the rod inside with you, slip it through the internal handles and you are locked in. Everyone knows you’re home too. Very secure and very simple.

Anyway, we are now in Hoi An. The limo transfer from Tam Coc to Hanoi and on to the airport was uneventful, as was our flight. Except for me getting some severe ear pain as we descended. Hoi An is about a 40 minute transfer from Da Nang which was also uneventful . We’ve checked into our latest home stay, met our host Heiu, got a new map (also called Ernie) and have had some more delicious food. Have you checked out the food page. Tonight I had the passion fruit chicken. Unusual but yummy. We are looking forward to finding out what the local specialties are in this city. I’ll let you know if you follow us here.

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