The day was set to visit the ancient capital of Hoa Lu and the poetically penned “Halong Bay" on rice paddies, Tay Coc. Some travelers prefer to soak on the haunting atmosphere of the area, thus basing themselves in the sleepy town of Ninh Binh straddled by the Van River, located 93 km south of Hanoi. My tour bus (a coaster, really) travelled for 2 hours before passing by the city of Hannam. I was chirpy, conversing with a group of vacationing Thai girls. Beside me was a charming girl named Imm who comes from Udon Thani (northeast Thailand). She and her friends work at a fiber optic company. Udon Thani, a border town, is a 7 hour bus ride from Bangkok (no train trips).
On board with us were a mid-aged Ausie guy from Sydney, and a couple from California. The Thai girls were friendly. They would share their little oranges with the group, then offer their tissue as well, prompting Ms. California to say, “Oh dear, you are full service.” Though there is an air of haughtiness in Ms. California, it was palpable she was trying to be friendly.
These Thai girls were fun. During our boat rides, whenever I’d catch up with them, I’d yell, “You again” which they mimicked the whole trip through. They also took several pics of me while I was on my boat, so I returned the favor. I realized later that it wasn’t the temples that drew me in. It was the enchanting view of the whole town. There were hauntingly beautiful limestone cliffs surrounding us. No wonder they call it the Halong Bay on rice paddies.
We first went to Hoa Lu (12 km from Ninh Binh) which has a historical significance among Vietnamese. This was the ancient capital of the country way back 968-1009 A.D. during the Dinh and the early Le Dynasty. Its proximity to China made it a strategic site. Moreover, its bizarre landscape - Yen Ngua mountains and limestone hills - provided protection against conquerors coming from China and the west.
Hoa Lu has 2 important temples: the Dinh Tien Hoang temple (with its bronze bells inside and the stone pedestal of the royal throne outside) and the Le Dai Hanh temple. Interestingly, both rulers shared something in common, besides the location: a beautiful wife who married the successor after the first one passed away.
As an interesting side bar, our guide taught us the main difference between a temple and a pagoda. The pagodas, she said, are meant to worship the Gods, while the temples are to commemorate heroes and leaders. Pagodas, gods! Temples, heroes! Get it?
The temple visit was nothing spectacular, although I am sure the locals would find it more significant. From there, we were taken to a restaurant for lunch - at the Duc Tuan Hotel Restaurant, just facing the River that would traverse the Hoa Lu caves and grottos. We were already in Tam Coc, just 30 minutes from Hoa Lu. These are similar to those who have been to Guilin and Yangshou in China.
Tam Coc, which literally means “Three Caves”, is navigated by rowing down with iron canoes or wooden rowboats. The enty fee is 55,000 dong on the Ngo Dong River. My boat had 2 rowers, including a lovely old lady who, as expected, would try to sell me her wares and embroidered stuff. I was singing Que Sera Sera during most of the 2 hour ride. I'd joke around calling the old lady lola. She was delighted. She would laugh out loud and tap my back. Binatukan pa ako several times. Haha. I was being silly. I enumerated popular Vietnamese cities: Danang, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Hanoi, Sapa… Granny would respond with a delightful chuckle and a tap on my back! It was heartwarmingly carefree and fun! Anyway, I bought a shirt from her just to let her know I appreciated the company ('though her embroidered artistry leaves much to be desired).
Rowing down Ngo Dong was hot and humid, and I’d find comfort humming tunes. The first cave is Hang Ca, which is about 127 m long. It is a serenely wonderful experience rowing down the river under a cave. The second cave is Hang Giua, 70m long, and the third is the smallest, Hang Cuoi which is only 40 m. As we leave the third cave, more and more peddlers would offer their goods selling their stuff with artistic persistence. Someone would suggest, “buy drink for boatmen?” only to find out later that these rowerss would sell their Cokes to the same vendor at half the price. T won't even hide it from you. It’s plain business to them. On the way back, we noticed that some of them were removing the overgrown kelps. It was a maintenance crew trying to clear the passage way of too much river foliage for a safer boat ride for tourists. There were photographers on a boat who would come up beside our us offering their business. I kept covering my face to avoid being photographed. Paparazzis!
Patience is required on a visit in Tam Coc.
By the time, we got back to the pier, I wanted to visit Van Lan village, famous for their embroidery, just at the back of the restaurants in Tam Coc. Unfortunately, our ride was already waiting for us. It was a nice day. I had fun.
Vendors just outside the Hoa Lu temples parking area.
Dinh Tien Hoang (from a postcard)
Hang Ca Cave and Ngo Dong River
Hoa Lu c/o Simon & Vicki