Ninh Binh – Tam Coc

With Sunday being an official day off work from our PVI project, Christine and I organised to hire a bus and travel South to Ninh Binh, a trip of about an hour.We were only able to get a bus for the morning, Sunday being a very big day for weddings and the driver having already booked up an afternoon’s work. Ninh Ninh is a provincial city of around 50,000 and, like Phu Ly, is on Highway 1A and the main North-South rail link. We ended up with a group of 21, including Moon, one of our interpreters.

The most popular attraction around Ninh Binh is Tam Coc which translates as “Three Caves”. Tourist promotions often refer to Tam Coc as Halong Bay on Rice Paddies as the area abounds with wonderful towering limestone kasts jutting magnificently out from a sea of green rice paddies. The scenery is spectacular, and the best way to view it is by small rowboat. A steady stream of boats ply the narrow waterway that weaves its way through several kilometers of rice fields and through three caves, the longest of which is 127m long. Unfortunately, it was very misty when we went, even to the point of light drizzle. In places, the mist pouring through the breathtaking ravines was beautiful but in other places the reduced visibility spoiled the scenery somewhat.

With Moon’s help, we bought tickets for all the group and were then herded two at a time onto the tiny rowing boats, each with a rower at the rear and another paddler nearer the front. They will allow up to 4 Vietnamese passengers in the boats but only two Europeans; a combination of our bulk and our ability to pay. The rowers, propel the craft with their feet, using a unique action with legs and feet to move the oars in a constant rowing action. The front paddlers assist and also perform the function of “seller of embroidery”, a local handicraft. Along the way, various hawker boats approach and harrass, the camera people with their Nikons taking happy snaps that will be aggressively sold at the end of the trip. At the turn around point, refreshment boats get very insistent about buying their wares, either for the passengers or the rowers. It is hawker heaven. We had a couple of school students as rowers, a young girl aged 17 and her brother aged 12. He did not contribute his fair share of the work and we ended up paddling for a large part of the trip. The boy did his part by selling Christine an embroidered table cloth. At the end, we gave them both a tip, not through choice, but rather sheer pressure. It is more a case of tip or be “tipped”.

After sampling a few delights from some food stalls in the market, we headed back along Highway 1A to Phu Ly. By this time, the traffic was terrible, with much of the road being under reconstruction and large tour buses weaving dangerously in and out of the trucks and motorbikes. Fortunately, our driver is steady and careful and gave us little cause to panic. All in all a very touristy day out but loads of fun.