Xin Chao! We’re officially on our tour of Vietnam 🙂 In my previous post, I talked about seeing Hanoi for the first time, a developing capital with it’s mix of skyscrapers and old world charm. On the second day, we got off to an early start with a two hour bus ride to Tam Coc Binh Dong, or the Three Caves, a popular tourist spot in Vietnam. I’m sure most people would think of Halong Bay when you come here, but this place did not disappoint.
On the way, we passed by vast swathes of countryside covered in luscious green paddy fields. The roads were a little bumpy so it was hard to nap, but who would want to nap when you have such great views? Farmers in non la (leaf hats) waded knee-deep in water in some places, while others had buffaloes ploughing the ground for seeding. Our guide, Quoc, explained that rice had become a major export commodity in the past few years, as well as coffee and pepper.
Dried paddy husks are laid out to dry in the sun.
Passing by random standalone buildings, which are the style in Vietnam.
We finally arrived in Tam Coc. The view was stunning. Situated along the Ngo Dong river, there was a small boat jetty lined with two/three-man boats run by local rowers. The ride would pass by the three caves, which the place is famous for, and would take around two hours.
I hopped onto one with fellow blogger, JQ. Our rower was a very tanned middle-aged lady with a friendly smile, although she didn’t speak English. The rowers were mostly women, and all were dressed in long-sleeved light fabrics and leaf hats to protect themselves from the scorching sun.
Andddddd off we go! The river is really shallow, so we weren’t given any life vests. The water at the port was so clear you could almost see to the bottom of it. It was full of healthy plants and river vegetation, the sign of a healthy river ecosystem. They were building resorts of some kind nearby.
Got a straw hat for VND100,000 (RM30). I know, I should have bargained for it but the bus was going to leave me behind D: The quality isn’t bad though, and it saved me throughout the entire trip.
The river is surrounded by vivid green limestone karst hills on both sides. Some parts of the water are murkier than others.
The river is rife with small wildlife, including birds and skinny ducks (like the people, Vietnamese ducks are skinny lol). As we passed by, their quacks sounded like they were laughing at these silly tourists in boats. A stretch of the river is inhabited. Small stone houses line the riverbank, where shirtless youths sleep in hammocks hung between trees, and old men chatted with each other on low stools, smoking cigarettes. It was really picturesque. Chickens ran, pecking grain from the ground, while small dogs chased them around.
Approaching the first ‘cave’! It’s basically a 125m long cave under the hill, and there are three of these – hence the name ‘Three Caves’. The ceiling is low, rising about 2ms above water. We went in and were plunged into semi-darkness. There was enough light to illuminate the graceful curves of time-weathered stalactites (I got that right, right? I always get mixed up with my tites and mites), formed over millions of years.
A few minutes in the cooling dark, and then it was out to be baked again.
I like this part of the trip. There was a little house by the riverbank, and shady trees with soft tendrils formed a curtain that the boat passed through. It was like entering a magical fairyland. All you hear is the sounds of nature and the soft dip of rowboat paddles. No noisy traffic or engine rumbles, and the air is fresh and clean.
After the third cave, we come to the end of the journey. Lots of ‘boat shops’ are tucked under the shade of the caves, where traders peddle their wares. These include snacks, drinks, lotus pods (? Wut? Why?) and other souvenirs. For people who don’t speak the same language as we did, they sure were persistent. We ended up buying drinks that we didn’t need lol. Gave them to the rower for her hard work.
Then it’s back the way we came. Rowers moved much faster now.
Our rower then bugged us to buy more stuff that she had stashed under the boat seats. It was kind of like being held hostage because we were 30 minutes away from land and she kept shoving the hand-embroidered bags in our faces (with a smile). We felt bad and didn’t want to offend her, but I really didn’t need the bags… @-@ JQ ended up buying a few. Note to travelers: Tipping is an unspoken rule here. Quoc told us to give at least 50,000 VND per rower, so we did.
The boat trip on Ngo Dong in Tam Coc is well-worth the long journey from the capital, thanks to its beautiful mountain scenery and crystal clear water. If you’re not up for fighting with other tourists at Halong Bay, why not make a detour to this charming place instead? Be warned though, if you’re a tourist in Vietnam, you may get the feeling that everyone is trying to sell you stuff .
Bus from Hanoi’s southern bus terminal, Giap Bat which leaves every 15 mins. Journey time: 3 hrs
Last boats start out about 5:30PM in the summer and 4:30PM in the winter, so get the timing right so you don’t miss out!
PS: Summer is super hot in Vietnam so if you’re keen on doing this during that season, bring a big straw hat, lots of sunscreen and shades.