Our destination for the day was Ninh Binh province (2 hour distance from Hanoi), more specifically Tam Coc and Hoa Lu. We had planned daily tours in Vietnam and made Hotel Reservation with Vietnamstay. This day we were supposed to leave our Hotel at 7:30, but our tour guide for the day arrived at around 8:30. We quickly realized that Vietnamese are always late and we had to get used to it. He was a young little guy who spoke pretty good English. He told us to call him Saturday since his Vietnamese name was hard to pronunciate. We asked him why his name wasn’t Monday or Sunday and he said he liked the name Saturday because that’s the only day of the week he got to see his girlfriend.
During the ride we talked a lot about Vietnamese culture, culinary, geography and history.
We learned interesting things from him. He told us that Sapa was a nice region to visit and that it’s the best region to eat the strangest food in Vietnam. Specifically he talked about 2 dishes that are a Sapa delicacy and are usually only served at festive events. In one case the Sapa people hang a live chicken from the ceiling, let it die and then after 2 to 3 months open it up and eat the larva!!! We felt like throwing up!! Another dish is prepared by tying a monkey to a peace of wood or tree trunk, cutting the top of his head off while he’s still alive and pouring boiling water on his brain and eating it with a spoon… delicious!
Me on the Ngo Dong River
When we arrived at Tam Coc the first thing we did was go on a 2 hour boat ride down the Ngo Dong River to see the spectacular mountains.
This region is called the “Halong Bay” on land and is compared to Guilin (China) because of the colossal mountains that pop out of the rice fields. The French epic movie called “Indochina” was filmed in this location. The rowers were usually women, but we helped out. It was very funny to see them row using their hands and many times their feet. While going down the river the rower’s daughters would talk to us about the landscape and her family. We understood that we would have to give a good tip! During the trip we passed through 3 caves: Hang Ca (127m long), Hang Giua (70m long) and Hang Cuoi (40m long). On the way back the rowers tried to sell some merchandise and some of us bought some things. In the end, just as we expected they asked us for a tip.
Now on land, we went with the tour guide to the restaurant for Lunch.
It was a restaurant next to the river and we ate horribly. It was probably the worst lunch we had in all of Asia. After lunch, while we were waiting for the bicycles the tour guide started to ask us if we ever smoked marijuana or ash. We started to find his conversation very strange and just changed it once we realized that he would sell it if we were interested. We weren’t particularly interested in spending our lives in a dark, humid Vietnamese prison jail!
Tam Coc rice paddies
We each grabbed a bicycle and started riding along a narrow road to Binh Dong Pagoda which occupies a limestone grotto. This was definitely one of our best moments in Vietnam. We felt transported to the 19th century as we strolled along the vivid green rice fields seeing rice farmers and their beautiful conical hats marking the landscape. When we arrived at the Pagoda we had to climb two sets of slippery stairs to reach the Buddha shrine.
Leonor and Elsa on the Tam Coc road
After visiting the temple we went back to Tam Coc. Along the way I took one of my best photos in Vietnam. As we were riding I saw an old Vietnamese farmer in a rice field that started to wave at Miguel asking him to take a picture of him. Miguel strolled on, but I decided to stay and take a picture of the man because he looked so characteristically Vietnamese. When I saw him I almost cracked up laughing, but the old man had such an innocent face that I couldn’t. I took 2 pictures of him and as I was finishing taking the last he asked me not to move. He approached me and asked for some money (as I had foreseen). I gave him 1 USD and continued my ride with a big smile on my face because I was anxious to show the picture to the rest of the group. Once I arrived I couldn’t stop laughing. I showed it to everyone and we ended up looking like we were crazy in the middle of the street laughing our butts off!!! Susana named the old man: The Rice Monster! Beautiful! He became our official trip mascot and I now have his picture on my MSN Messenger!
As we left Tam Coc I asked the tour guide if we were now heading for Hoa Lu as Vietnamstay had guaranteed.
The tour guide told us that we wouldn’t be going there because it wasn’t very interesting and it was late. We were pretty mad about this and requested that he take us there. We were on our way to Hoa Lu to visit Dinh King and Le King Temples.
The Rice Monster!
We arrived at the Hotel around 18:00 and went out for dinner. We walked to a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant called Little Hanoi at 14 Ta Hien St. It was the best restaurant we ate at. The food was delicious and very cheep. We spent the night ordering different dishes and they were all fabulous. After dinner we headed for Hoan Kiem Lake to see the Hanoi people practicing Tai Chi and ate desert at another recommended restaurant called Fanny’s Ice Cream Parlour (considered to be the best place to eat ice cream in Vietnam) at 48 Pho Le Thai To St.
The lake section of Hanoi was bustling with motorbikes, bicycles and people. We were fascinated by the energy of the Vietnamese and understood how it was possible that their economy was growing 8% annually. We walked around carefully because we were scared to be hit by a motorbike. We quickly realized that the secret to crossing the streets was simply not being afraid and not looking to the sides… just crossing. Since the bicycles and motorbikes don’t ride around very quickly they had perfectly good time to pass around us. We headed back to the Hotel, passing threw the Old Quarter to see the oldest streets in Hanoi.
A group photo at the Binh Dong Pagoda