Day 7 Ninh Binh - Tam Coc 31st March 2004

When we arranged our Vietnam tour through Griwswald's offices in Sydney, they no longer ran the tours to Tam Coc due to the excessive hard sell and hassling that tourists received. We were still keen to go to Tam Coc regardless, as the pictures we had seen were so beautiful. So we arranged a tour through Sinh Café at the hotel. We were picked up at around 7:30 and taken to a meeting place where we met our fellow travelers (about 15 of us). There was a lot of mucking around with buses and waiting but eventually we were off.

We saw another fatal accident on the highway; a minibus had a head on collision with a large truck. The truck was on it's side, and the minibus and it's occupants, well it was something I didn't really want to see. The road was very busy with lots of trucks and buses and an English woman on the bus was getting very jittery in the traffic. Thankfully we finally arrived in the peaceful and scenic Hoa Lu, the tenth century capital of Vietnam. We visited the first temple at the base of Saddle Mountain.

After spending some time exploring through the temple Den Dinh Tien Hoang we prepared for a climb up Saddle Mountain. Liam was given the opportunity to sit on the back of a water buffalo while we waited for everybody!

The climb was steep, and Michelle decided to wait at the bottom. Near the top was an altar, and Liam and I made our offerings. Everybody had disappeared whilst we were at the altar, and the man there pointed down a small muddy trail, which I though indicated that was the way everybody had gone. But he was also pointing at my camera. We headed off down the narrow path and came out on the limestone cliff with fantastic views over the river below. By the time we got back down the mountain the rest of the group had gone off to the other temple and I'd missed out. But I think the views were worth it.

We returned back to the bus, along the road at the base of the mountain, picking up a cool drink along the way. Everybody was soon loaded back onto the bus and we made our way down the windy roads to Bich Dong.

Bich Dong, otherwise known as the Jade Grotto is a Buddhist Temple in the side of the mountain. Steps framed with banyan trees lead up to the temple, and the path and steps lead further up the mountain through a cave with green stones and a large bell. Eventually we came out near the top of the mountain at a third temple, with views out across the countryside.

Next stop was Tam Coc, or Three Caves. It was just as beautiful as the pictures we had seen. We had lunch in a small restaurant across from the river, which was quite average, but OK. Not the same standard of food as we had had on the tours organised by Griswalds. The spring rolls were stone cold, and luckily one of the girls on our tour was Vietnamese, and so could complain on our behalf. Liam found the pit toilets fascinating. We then boarded the row boats for the beautiful trip down the river, passing through rice paddies and past magnificent limestone karsts. Ladies were working the rice paddies by the river, and goats clambered on the mountainsides above us. We floated through the three caves which are the namesake of the region, and spent a good time at the furthest point on the trip looking off into the valley beyond at the mountain scenery. It truly is Ha Long Bay on land.

The hardsell started on the way back; at least the trip out was peaceful and enjoyable. But it wasn't too bad; we bought a little and politely said no a lot. They at least had a sense of humour with the various messages on the T-Shirt given us by the Kangaroo Cafe, but it didn't work. I was able to divert the conversation a little too, but not for too long. When we arrived at the dock we were immediately hassled to pay a tip for the boat rower as well.

We travelled back to Ha Noi the way we had come, again seeing another accident where some poor soul had been knocked off his bike by a bus in the rain. The roads in Vietnam from our experience were very dangerous. I was much happier travelling in buses with local drivers, as opposed to travelling ourselves on xe oms.

We were dropped back at the bus depot, instead of back at our hotels which was a bit of a surprise. The English lady, who had not enjoyed the bus trip back, being constantly worried about being in an accident, was certainly no less happier being dropped off at the edge of town.

I didn't immediately recognise where we were, but felt sure of the direction of the lake. It was great walking through the streets of the city, past little kitchens on the footpath and kids playing everywhere.

We asked another tourist we passed for directions to the lake, which confirmed we were heading in the right direction. We stopped into the Kangaroo Cafe for a drink, only to find out they also now arranged trips to Tam Coc. I'm sure it would have been better run, but we had a great and exciting day regardless. We jumped in a taxi back to the hotel where we had dinner and got ready for our train trip off to Hue at 10:00PM.

Cuong, who was going to be our guide for the rest of our holiday in Vietnam picked us up at the hotel and took us to the train station in a taxi. Taxis do run off meters in Vietnam! It was a tropical thunderstorm and was raining quite heavily, and somebody grabbed one of my bags out of the taxi and started carrying it to the train for me. I was struggling with the bag I had, and was desperately trying to hold my pants up as they were a bit too big, and sorely needed a belt. Of course when we arrived in our berth on the train the demand for payment was made, and quite a high price demanded as well. After some arguement we managed to pay US$1, and we settled into the train and were soon off, and asleep.