Close your eyes. Imagine Vietnnam. No, not the images of bombs exploding over rural villages. Open your eyes and close them again. Picture vibrant green rice paddies, farmers in conical straw hats, bent over tending their rice with wooden tools. Picture water buffaloes refreshing themselves in a muddy winding river, with karst limestone mounts rising straight up from the flat fields, and towering over the pastoral scene.
This is the Vietnam of coffee table books. This is the Vietnam of the Ninh Binh province, and truly one of the most stunningly beatiful natural landscapes I’ve ever stood within.
We stayed in Tam Coc, a warren of stone walls and narrow winding streets that reminded me of the tiny villages you pass through in the Cotswolds in England. Hundreds of years old, the village sits within a sea of rice paddies, punctuated by spectacularly out of place limestone karst mounts that rise up perpendicular to the flat ground below. It is like traveling back in time to some sort of alien land.
Once a part of a vast coral reef, these formations stretch for hundreds of miles, and are dotted with caves – some of them enormous – and many of them straddling peaceful winding rivers that provide much of the water for the acres and acres of rice fields that blanket the land. Each little bunch of rice stalks is planted by hand by farmers standing knee deep in water, bending over to secure it in the mud below.
It must be back breaking work – and solitary. It’s not unusual to see a single person – man or woman – working an entire field alone. Bicycle or motorbike parked on a nearby berm, ubiquitous straw hat secured on their head by a brightly coloured ribbon, they work bare footed to better navigate the soft silt of the flooded paddies. Water buffalo are put to work doing much of the heavy lifting, but mostly I saw them wallowing in the mud, cooling themselves in the fresh water.
The tranquil beauty of this region is popular with Vietnamese tourists, and the secret seems to have gotten out to foreign tourists as well. We met people who had returned after visiting two years ago, and were surprised to find the number of guest houses had multiplied by a factor of 10. And while some of the area’s attractions were busy, we never felt overwhelmed by other visitors.
There is so much space to spread out and explore, and much of it is done by bicycle or motorbike along the tiny paths between rice paddies. The scenery is spectacular whether you travel the tourist trail or take backroads. We did both.
A different perspective
Traversing the waterways in a tiny boat rowed by the feet of a barefoot woman is one way to get a much different perspective. The rural landscape is peaceful as you glide between fields, and thrilling as you duck to go through pitch black caves, emerging on the other side to a green wall of mountains in all directions. At times it looks as though you’ve reached a dead end, only for a tiny tributary to open itself between the rocks. It reminded me very much of traversing the fjords of Norway, but in the steamy tropics instead of freezing cold!
Eventually, we did reach a cul de sac after coming through a cave. It was here that we parked for a break, and watched in anticipation as our rower pulled out a big bag from beneath her seat. We were expecting a drink or maybe a little snack to go along with the fairly expensive price tag of the ride. Nope. It was full of souvenirs, and the high pressure sales pitch started once again.
We over-paid for another set of Vietnamese doll magnets and a pretty painted fan. Once we had bought a sufficient amount to to buy our trip back, we looked up and noticed that the cove had filled with other boats getting the same treatment from their boat Madammes. A flat refusal to buy souvenirs escalated into back massages that couldn’t be refused, creating a truly bizarre situation. The woman who had just spent an hour rowing heavy tourists upriver was now providing the same heavy tourist with a vigorous back massage.
We laughed at ourselves for finding us in this peculiar situation yet again, and were left bemused at the never ending ingenuity of the Vietnamese in extracting just a few more dong out of every interaction. Skilful, they are.
But the souvenir ransom wasn’t the only extortion of that ride. We had agreed a price of 300,000 dong (£10) with the rower for two adults and one child. We gave the lady taking money two 200k dong notes, and when we asked for change, she said the extra 100k was a tip for the Madame (rower), and ran away. That didn’t stop the Madame from showing us her sore red hands at the end of the trip and asking for a tip anyway, shouting at us when we refused.
Later, she even spotted us at a nearby cafe and shouted at us and the proprietor in Vietnamese, which we interpreted perfectly to “those tight fat bastards stiffed me on my tip, I suggest you now spit in their food.” To their credit, the family who owned the cafe remained absolutely lovely after that exchange, and we trust they only spat a little bit into our food, and not a lot.
The Ninh Binh province has dozens of areas of interest, and the tourist infrastructure is well established. We visited Trang An, a highly developed tourist centre on a Saturday with warnings of how busy it can get on the weekends ringing in our ears. A Trang An visit is essentially another boat ride consisting of caves, pagodas, and Kong Island where they filmed the second (well, third) King Kong movie. It was quite busy with tourists from across Asia, including many Vietnamese.
We were shown to our boat, the next in line of a very long floating taxi rank of boats lined up along the curved stone steps at the water’s edge. Five hundred boats might be a conservative estimate of the number of boats and rowers lined up waiting to take thousands of tourists on a three hour tour.
The three of us weren’t enough to fill a boat, so we were joined by a man whose family is originally from Korea, but who has lived abroad most of his life, and is presently a Texan, living in Dallas. His friends were all piled into another boat, and our little party set out on our route that would take in 9 caves, three pagodas and no Kong Island.
It was all really pleasant, and while there were other boats around, it never felt crowded. Some of the caves appeared to have been widened to accommodate the tours, so they lacked the wild feel of our first boat ride. It was gorgeous none the less, we weren’t hassled to buy anything, and our driver never asked for the tip, which we freely gave.
Throngs of tourists, including a bus load of young monks and nuns, were arriving when we left, so taking the trip in the morning would certainly be recommended, and we think the storms from the day before, and resultant cloudy cold weather might have kept the hordes away. We saw an aerial photograph of a busy day, which had hundreds of rowboats stacked up waiting to take their turn through a cave. That would have been a miserable experience, and for that I was grateful for the rain and chilly weather if it made for a better experience.
By far the coolest site of the whole area was Hang Mua. Steep stone steps zig zag up two jagged karst formations that are topped with little temples. A bouncing dragon adorns the higher peak, and brave souls traverse the last few unprotected steps to commune with a dragon (and take selfies). From this lookout, you can see for miles in every direction, displaying the unusual landscape in all of it’s perfect glory. The river winds through the bright green paddies, which are guarded by the limestone mounts. These cliffs rise as if out of nowhere, and without a pattern, making it all the more unique.
Austin counted the steps up each side (510 and 116 respectively) then calculated how many total steps we went up and down. He was dead set on remembering the numbers so he could get it right, and asked me to remember 116, while he focused on 510 all the way home. As soon as we got back to our room, he drew a schematic of the two stairways, and calculated the total. Worldschooling in action, and we didn’t even have to ask him to do it!
We stayed three nights in Tam Coc, in a gorgeous little garden hotel run by the delightful Tem and her family. The Tam Coc Palm House is in the old part of the village, and has four bungalows situated around a pretty garden that is lit with fairy lights at night. Meals were a communal affair, and the busy hotel was a hub of social and cultural exchange.
We usually like to head out into town for dinner, and on our first night, we found a pop up restaurant in a parking lot, serving fresh regional food, prepared on site by a team of friends who were absolutely hustling to ensure the mix of local and tourist patrons were kept well fed and watered with their local brew. The food was good, the atmosphere was lively, and we loved the festive impromptu vibe. It was one of our favourite meals of the trip, simply because of the love and joy that was poured into that little makeshift restaurant in a car park. Until the next night, that is.
Tem invited us to a gorgeous dinner at our hotel, where we feasted on a smorgasbord of spring rolls, morning glory, soup, pork, fish, chicken, and the most beautiful simple salad of cucumber, pineapple, green mango and carrot. Our dinner companions were two couples from Quebec, and an Australian / Korean couple celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary. They shared their bottle of Malbec (sweet nectar of the gods after months of Asian beer), and we toasted them with shots of potent home brewed rice wine steeped with strawberries. The company was good, the food was amazing, the hosts were outstanding, and it felt like a brilliant dinner party with old friends.
We feasted again the next night on an enormous 7kg fish caught in a nearby pond, fresh spring rolls, fried chicken and pumpkin, broccoli and wonderful fresh mango. Our dinner companions that night were another couple from Canada who live off grid in the wilds of Saskatchewan.
Austin played endlessly with the two little boys who lived at the hotel, proving yet again that language creates no barriers in child’s play. It was far and away the most social stay we’ve had throughout our travels, and just how we had imagined spending our nights when we set off to travel. It took us six months to find it, and I hope we experience it again and again.
Our final morning, after a breakfast in the garden, we were loaded onto motorbikes with our backpacks on our backs and whisked out to the main road for our luxury mini bus to Cat Ba Island. It’s in the far north of Vietnam, and near the famous Ha Long Bay. It will be our penultimate stop in this magical country on our first, but definitely not our last visit here.