About a 2 hour drive away from Hanoi is the Ninh Binh province where Hoa Lu, the former ancient capital of Vietnam lies. The famous old temple of Hoa Lu, in itself, is not particularly noteworthy from an aesthetic perspective, although the stories and myths about the former Vietnamese royal dynasties are fascinating – you would really need a guide to get the most out of this excursion. It is a world away from the noise, crowds, scooters and boutiques of Hanoi and for us, it was a perfect antidote after a day of touring Hanoi. The surrounding landscape and countryside are so picturesque and after a leisurely lunch, we embarked upon a 2 hour sampan ride. Tam Coc translates to 3 caves, which these small, punt-like boats sail through on the trip, rowed by men and women of tremendous resilience – it can be no easy feat ferrying 2-3 adults for 2 hours in 30degree heat with just your paddles. It does get uncomfortable towards the end of the trip and your legs and back will need a good stretch but seeing the effort of the boatmen/women quickly puts into perspective any moaning you were planning to do.
As we sailed along the waters, tranquil, shallow and still, the horizon illustrated by soaring rocks, it became clear why some people opt to do this trip as an alternative to Halong Bay. You feel completely at peace out on the water, which is ironic because there are boats ahead for miles and it is very touristy. Conjuring up shades of gondolas on the Grand Canal (a place very much on my wish list), I wondered if I could Christen this the Venice of Vietnam?
The caves lie low and you do need to duck down when passing through them and excepting these, we were essentially in direct sunlight for the entire duration – I ignored everyone’s advice to bring or purchase a hat. It became apparent there was a reason people gave this advice…I learned the hot way. In contrast when the skies decided to empty their bladders in flood-like, boisterous fashion, I remained intact, having brought my raincoat and brolly – once you are on the boat, you are at the mercy of nature so come prepared for all whether permutations.
There are quite a few hawkers in this area, which I was a bit apprehensive about, having read numerous reviews about how incessant they can be with some actually commenting that it ruined their trip. Perhaps we got lucky on the day or perhaps it was more infuriating to tourists who have never experienced this before but we only had to say “no thank you” (sometimes a couple of times) before being left alone and I would advise against missing out on this beautiful trip purely on the basis of this. Do beware of the tourist trap half way through the sampan ride when you stop and are given an opportunity to purchase (heavily marked up) drinks and snacks from other sampan rowers, who then try to coax or rather guilt-trip you into buying water for your own boat rower –each group of tourists is asked and it seems the rowers stackpile the bottles of water and then the accumulated cash pot is shared out later. I’m speculating – of course – on the basis of reviews but I felt better equipped having done my homework in advance.