Some times when you are traveling, you really have no idea where you are going. You know the time has come to move on, but you really have not chosen a location to go to, you just know it’s time. Our only goal was to continue North up through Vietnam, but Lonely Planet was not really making anything sound too glamorous. Trip Advisor was also failing pretty hard. In all honesty, after six months on the road, all things were starting to blur a bit anyway. It appeared that most everyone just busted ass all the way up to Hanoi, or Halong Bay. Our hotel lady suggested a city named Ninh Binh, and even set up the bus for us. Shorter than Hanoi, we decided why not. We got whisked away via a small minivan to a sleeper bus. It had just arrived and there were a lot of European backpackers on it just waking up, after arriving from Saigon. They were doing the See Everything You Can in One Week tour, Saigon to Hanoi, all in a week. We were taking a few months to do the same thing. Who do you think enjoyed it more?
The sleeper bus is the strangest and most surreal thing out there. There are bunk beds for people, with three in a row. They are made for really small people, but do the trick. You can’t help but wonder how really dirty they are, seeing how the bus is always on the move. You put your shoes in a plastic bag before getting on, and find your location. We were lucky to be near the back with two seats next to each other. So we could get all the cuddling we needed with a metal handrail between us. You never know where you will end up with these tickets. Behind us was a row of five seats all joined together, a great way to get to know your neighbor. There were a group of college kids sitting back there having a grand old time. After an hour or so people tend to settle down. This was going to be along trip, with us not arriving to our destination until five in the morning. The rest of the bus was continuing on to Hanoi, which was about four hours further. A flask of whiskey is a great companion on these journeys because you won’t want to have to go to the bathroom, which is great because the bus will not stop for you. But it’s a very uncomfortable place to sleep. Sadly, I did not plan ahead. At one stop I tried Vietnamese liquor, but after a bit of a sniff and even smaller taste, I was more afraid that it was poison. I left it for the next brave tourist. There was a Vietnamese samurai movie playing, which always entertains me. So this was our home for the next fifteen hours or so.
After an incredibly peaceful night of sleep, NOT, we were unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road, literally dumped. You could just see the hints of the sun lightening the eastern sky, over the glow of Neon from a few tacky hotels. Of course the touts were ready for us, trying to get us in their cab, but we were having none of it. We could clearly see Neon Hotel signs along the path, so why at this hour should we pay someone to take us. We had no clue what was good, so why not settle for something close. Well, they were very persistent, and I was very tired, so needless to say I might have said something not so pleasant, and kept walking. We crossed the road to one place, and pounded on the door, making the poor guy wake up. He had rooms available, but no way were we going to take it without checking it out first. So up four flights of stairs to the room for my inspection. Mattress, air, bathroom, corners, all passed my test. So back downstairs to give my go ahead. Of course, not before I got a few dollars off. Poor guy was sound asleep and now I am making him negotiate. Well those are the breaks on this. We climbed into bed and passed out for hours.
I woke up with a stiff neck, and a need to get out. I was still wiped out, but thought it might be a good time to check things out. We were in Ninh Binh; a very unattractive city, divided by a very unattractive river, that stank of sewage and looked worse. I wandered across the bridge and past a row of barber chairs, out in the open, with the barbers working on the men there. Not sure what they do in the rain, but it was a rough operation for sure. Lucky for me I was recently shaved, not needing another one for two weeks or so. The guys gave me probably the most un-friendly stare I had gotten in the whole trip. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and my spider sense started tingling. This was not a place for me, so I stepped up my pace a bit, not too much to show fear, and hustled past them. Mr. Chau’s voice kept popping in my head, “The people in the North are just different, not friendly. Don’t trust them.” Well, I don’t make generalizations like that, but I definitely was not welcomed here. I passed a lady with a weave basket overflowing with puppies, literally like 15 puppies all jammed in there. I crossed back over in the downtown area, searching for a Hotel that specializes in tourist information, the only one in town. Well, this town is just dirty, dusty, gray, and very unfriendly. Even finding restaurants is difficult here, and there are no other tourists here. Well I found the place that acts as a tourist agency and let me tell you, besides two flyers on the wall, it really was not all that. It even lacked what it needed most, tourist.
By time I headed back Yvonne was up and ready to go. At least our room was cozy. I talked the owner into letting me rent his bike for a few hours so we could go check out a river that was supposed to be very beautiful ten miles or so away. I could see he was not too comfortable lending his personal scooter, but in the end went with it though he looked very pale. It was a tricky little bike, stalling out a few times, and very jerky. We went three kilometers and turned down a small road and headed into the country. Once we were away from Ninh Binh, things got very beautiful. Karsts started jutting out of the very flat countryside, creating a jagged visual treat for the eyes. First there were a few, then they were just everywhere. In my mind I see that these rock formations were harder stone than the surrounding countryside, so as the land eroded away, it left these huge rock formations, similar to Ayers Rock in Australia, but I am no expert on this.
The definition for karst is; “A landscape that is characterized by numerous caves, sinkholes, fissures, and underground streams. Karst topography usually forms in regions of plentiful rainfall where bedrock consists of carbonate-rich rock, such as limestone, gypsum, or dolomite, that is easily dissolved. Surface streams are usually absent from karst topography.*
Two girls waved us down trying to get us to park in a school parking lot for money, still a few blocks from our destination, so I swerved around them and smiled and kept driving. We had arrived to the Ngo Dong River, and the Tam Coc caves, though tunnels would be more appropriate. We found a small cafe to eat at before heading downstream. The food was tasty, and they agreed to watch over our bike for us while we hired a boatman. You could see a lot of money starting to go into this area, and a semblance of public planning. They were expecting a herd of tourist to hit this area soon. After paying an exorbitant amount, we got into a row boat with two ladies on it. One was the rower, and apparently, the other was the guide/translator, even though both ladies spoke pretty good English.
Once we pulled out of the berth, she switched from using her hands to using her feet, which she was really amazing at. She could turn, reverse, and power up all with out the use of her hands. As we passed more boats, all the guides were doing this. It’s how they have traditionally rowed this river for hundreds of years. They were giggly, and chatted with all the other boats going back and forth. There were a few tourists here, because it was late afternoon and most were back on their buses back to Hanoi. I had read that the guides here were extremely pushy, trying to get tips, and mainly just trying to guilt trip you into giving more money. The first experience with this was when the Walmart boat pulled up, with a lady selling everything from beer to sandwiches. I opted for a beer, which was warm, and then she was like you have to buy for your driver, who is working soo hard. They really put you on the spot, and I said no a few times till I finally conceded, going with it. Then she was like what about me, I am like no way in hell, buy your own drink.
More on the pushy ladies later. Lets get to the real reason we are here, which is the amazing scenery. The river is surrounded by Karsts, and even goes through them. More than a few times we would only have a foot of space above us as we rowed through the heart of the karst. These tunnels is where the name derives from, Tam Coc, which means three caves. There’s no power boats, so everyone is paddling up and down the river. There are fishermen using nets to catch fish, and also the electric backpacks to shock them. I still think it’s a stupid way to fish, but far be it for me to judge. The pictures do this place more justice than my words, but if this was in the states there would be thousands of people visiting everyday, it’s that gorgeous. It’s actually to the point of being surreal, and you would not be surprised to see a melting clock dripping down. It’s a round trip so we got to a stopping point with a small pagoda, then turned around and headed back. It’s a shame that you can’t kayak down the river, because it would be a great paddle.
When we arrived back at the birth, the ladies pushed up their game, demanding a large tip for their work. I had read about this, and was fully prepared for it. I told them nicely thank you very much, but the large sum we paid for the boat ride was their salary, and there was no way I was going to pay more on top of it. They had been hitting us for tips the whole way, and it was annoying. This could be the most amazing experience if they would stop their attitude about tipping, and allow it to be more about nature. I don’t remember the exact cost of the ride, but it was more than a night’s accommodation for an hour boat ride.
The sun was beginning to set so we decided to ride the bike through the karst, enjoying gorgeous colors, turning the karst a pastel blue to dark purple. The farmers were bringing their cows in from the fields, children were playing, and flocks of white water birds were soaring above the fields. It was truly a breathtaking place.
*The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.