Posts tagged ‘Paddy fields’

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


January 12, 2010 at 4:01 am Leave a comment

Beaten, broken and violated in Er Hai, Dali.

Tired to the bone, Gary and I pulled up our bikes on the side of the road, around 40km into our first day of cycling around Er Hai, the lake beside Dali in Yunnan, China. Panting and groaning we grabbed desperately for our water bottles and started to plonk down on the dusty bank when we both stopped dead, opening and closing our mouths silently and pointing like kids who had just found Santa dozing underneath their Christmas tree.

We had heard that the cycle route was beautiful and it was this, combined with an urgent need to escape Dali before we became alcoholic hippies, that had convinced us to undertake a 150km trip on banjaxed bikes in the first place. Beautiful we had expected, mind blowingly serene we hadn’t. Before us spread a vibrant patchwork of terraced rice fields, snaking down the hill to the lake which was sparkling in the dusky pink glow of the evening.

Over the day we had been forcefully violated by our saddles, harassed by a fish-wielding old woman, blared off the road by hundreds of buses and trucks and, as we would later discover, burned by the sun and wind so badly that we would blister and peel three times over the following two weeks. Tomorrow our feet, legs, bums, faces and arms would be so sore that we would have to double back on the 50km we had already completed rather than labour through the rest of the scenic route.

As we stood and watched the last of the day’s workers pack up their harvested rice and conical hats however, none of that mattered. We were in a postcard – in one of those painfully beautiful moments that you think only Lonely Planet writers and professional photographers ever get to experience. It was hardly a snapshot from a rural town only a few hours outside of Dali with all of its neon signs and western bars.

The rest of the day had its moments too – weaving through Bai villages past traditionally dressed women with their babies tied to their backs; kids screaming “Hello! I love you!” at us and chasing our bikes laughing hysterically; slowing down to watch fishermen on bamboo boats casting their excessively long wooden rods with a dramatic flourish; working our way through Shaping market between rows of knock-off Nike runners and dentists practicing ad hoc surgery on unwitting patients who sat on wooden chairs placed firmly in the mud. Even our fish-head stew, which we had ordered by urgently pointing at our bellies and at a nearby table scattered with leftovers, had been an experience.

Sadly we only made it as far as the Double Corridor Village before we fell into bed in an old hotel and bathed our wounds. The last 10km had spanned the most horrendous road we had ever seen – the kind of road that lists ‘pothole’ as one of its more positive attributes. We had been overtaken by old women pedalling tonnes of hay up a steep hill, tuk tuk drivers talking on their phones and man driving a horse and cart. Tired, dehydrated and full to bursting point with self-pity, we called it a day and dreamed of the floating pavillion, mud streaked villages and glorious paddy fields that the next day would bring. Unfortunately all we got was kilometers of dual carraigeways, an almighty headwind and third degree burns. No regrets though, Er Hai is a slice of China that is absolutely worth a visit – whatever the cost.

More pictures from our cycle in Dali are available in the gallery

December 21, 2009 at 4:36 pm Leave a comment

Trekking Magome to Tsumago

November 20th

Although six hours of travel, a three hour wait in Nagoya station and an early morning may seem like a big ask in return for a two and a half hour hike, our amble from Magome to Tsumago (in the Kiso Valley region) was exactly what our trip had been missing thus far.

After hearing about all these “small towns” we were supposed to be seeing, yet never seeing anything that didn’t involve several sky-scrapers, a dense mass of concrete blocks and endless video, audio and billboard advertising, we were ecstatic to find that Magome is actually a small rural town, according to the Irish standards of what that should be.

Suspended in time, Magome is forbidden to erect telephone wires, build pinball arcades or install advertising that screams at you as you walk past. Instead, it is a gathering of several small wooden building set on the top of a mountain complete with water-wheels, natural springs, mountain vistas and more carp than they could humanely fit in so few ponds.

The hike from there to Tsumago was pretty hilly and quite steep at times but, it being a glorious day, we were pretty happy to slog it out. We passed terraced rice fields, farms, waterfalls, forests, rivers and one beautiful little restaurant plonked in the middle of nowhere served by a man in traditional dress and a conical hat.

In a word, it was perfect but I’ll just let Gary’s beautiful pictures say the rest.

More photos of Magome and Tsumago are available in the gallery.

November 22, 2009 at 2:22 am 1 comment


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