Ninh Binh, Tam Coc and Hua Lu, Northern Vietnam
Have you ever felt so happy that you became totally removed from yourself? Like you drifted up out of your body so that you could get a better view of just how wonderful it was to be you at that moment? I had one of those experiences today when I watched myself being rowed through caves and flooded paddy fields past women doing their washing, fishermen submerged up their armpits and several generations of ducks moving in formation across the still water. Gary was clicking away at the front of the 6ft green steel boat, alternatively worrying about falling in and raving about how this was “every photographer’s wet dream”.
All to soon though I came crashing back to earth as the rythmic whoosh and slap of oars passing through water was broken by a shrill ringing at the back of the boat. Answering his mobile phone, our rower passed his oars from his hands to his feet and started to paddle us downstream in an easy cycling motion, reclining on his elbow and laughing hysterically at the person on the other end of the line. Maybe there wasn’t so much of a risk of us falling in after all.
The location was Tam Coc, known locally as ‘Ha Long Bay on land’ – a bold claim no doubt but one it definately lives up to. To put it simply, we found everything in Tam Coc that we had been hoping for but had missed on our cruise down the Li river in China. Rather than shivering and peering through the mist, we were marvelling over the ingenuity of fishermen who were wading through the water with giant nets to catch tiny fish, listening to the sound of the oars reverberating off of cave walls, waving at local women who were punting downstream and oohing and ahhing to our hearts’ content.
And Tam Coc was only the beginning. Once we made it back to land, we hopped back on our motorbike and headed for Bich Dong, a cave-pagoda set in a mountain. After passing through the pagoda and touching the head-shaped rock for longevity we continued up the stone steps, through the thick winding roots of bayan trees and over the sharp porous karst rocks to the tip of the mountain. From there we had a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside as it stretched out for miles – a vast puzzle of misty hills, watery brown rice fields, flaking red roofs, sunny yellow walls and glimmering mopeds.
By far the best part of the day was the motorbike we rented and insisted on driving at 60km/hr through bumpy country roads, past schools breaking for lunch and over hunchback bridges. As we zipped past, a blur of pale skin and blonde hair, people came out of their houses and shops to wave and shout hello and whenever I was driving, to laugh uncontrolably at the wussy man who, could you believe it, was letting his woman drive the bike! A novel idea indeed.
During our adventures three field mice fell prey to my front wheel and at least six small children came closer to death than their mothers will ever know. It was terrifying but absolutely fantastic and, since we returned unscathed (although slightly shaking from the adrenaline), biking through Vietnam à la Jeremy Clarkson promises to be a weekly event from now on.
Just gagging for an excuse to use up our full tank of gas, we decided to go out to Hoa Lu – once the 10th century capital of an early, independent Vietnamese kingdom called Dai Co Viet. While the original castles are now in ruins, 17th century copies of the buildings are still standing in all of their paint-peeling, lacquered glory. While they may not be worth a trip in their own right, they are definately worth a glance if you are bouncing about Tam Coc and have a few hours, a litre of fuel and some years off your lifespan to spare.
Now approximately 10km away from Ninh Binh (the terrible rat-hole town we had chosen as a base for our day trip), it was Gary’s turn to drive and, feeling like a real man with a motor between his legs and his girlfriend wrapped around his stomach, he decided to take the 35km route home to the eternal regret of vulnerable wildlife and expectant mothers across Northern Vietnam.
More pictures from Tam Coc are available in the gallery