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Day 8 –  Day 13 – December 8th – 13th: Tam Coc

So, for the best part of the next week, we stayed in and around Tam Coc, exploring the town and outlying areas.

Sunset on the lake at Tam Coc.

Sunset on the lake at Tam Coc.

Boat dock Tam Coc

Boats are everywhere in Tam Coc, but not a tourist in sight!

Mama Lan made sure we were looked after. Breakfast was a huge affair. Omelets, banh mi’s, drip coffee, green tea, and even pomelo from her garden. Eating on the main street was a little problematic, though. Many of the restaurants weren’t open, especially from Monday to Friday.
BBQ Chicken Tam COC

Not all the restaurants were closed. We did manage to find some bbq chicken!

Local tourists still came on the weekends by the busload, so it was easier to find food then. There also seemed to be a practice of taking turns to open up. One day one would be open; the next, it would be closed, and its neighbor would be open. They seemed to be sharing what business there was.
Mountain Lake breakfasts - Tam Coc

Mama Lan’s breakfasts were something else!

Sharyn took the time to do some work on her computer during the day, and I made sure her gimble was fitted to her bike using a few washers from a local hardware store.

Early on in our stay at Tam Coc, we hired a motorbike from the family and rode up to the World Heritage Listed Trang An Ecotourism Complex. As usual, Sharyn drove as I don’t have much experience with motorbikes, and she has a Vietnamese license. This has been the case for many years now, and I have become used to being “the bitch on the back!”

Trang An Ladies Day Out

On our way up to Trang An, these ladies looked gorgeous in their Ao Dai.

Trang An is the area of karsts that features in all the tourist campaigns. It involves hiring a small boat with a lady using her feet to paddle you up and around the waterways between the karsts and even through several caves that have been etched out by the water over many years. We were fortunate to be here on this day as there were hardly any other tourists at all, the sky had opened up, and the sun was shining brightly.

Boats lined up Trang An Ninh Binh

Slow day for tourists at Trang An.

lAke at Trang An North Vietnam  Ninh Binh

Colourful flags show the way out into the karst complex.

Our trip included three caves and three temples. The cave roofs are very low in some places, and we found ourselves ducking our heads right down. The temples are fairly lavish, but you’d need a guide to explain the significance of each one. The most interesting and beautiful of all of them was a small one in the middle of a hidden lake completely enclosed by karsts. It was a beautiful setting and very photogenic.
Caves Trang An boat trip Ninh Binh

Our boat cruised effortlessly through the low-hung caves.

Trang An Boat ride Ninh Binh

Arriving at one of the temples.

Catch Our Travel Bug at the Trang An temple

Stopping to take a look at a temple.

Tran An Pagoda

We emerged from a long cave to this dramatically-set small pagoda.

It was a memorable experience, just sitting back, meandering along, overshadowed by the huge limestone towers reaching up to the endless, blue sky. The water was surprisingly clear, not something you associate with waterways in Vietnam. We could see fish swimming about amongst the fluorescent green plants lining the riverbed and many kinds of birds perched in the tall reeds that lined the banks. There were no other boats in front of us, something else we weren’t expecting.
Reflections Trang An

The water was super-clear, revealing lots of fish and water plants.

Trang An

Looking backward, a single boat shared our views.

Emerging from a cave Trang An

Emerging from another cave to the last of the temples.

Trang An void of tourists during COVID19

The sound of the paddles in the water is the only thing to break the silence.

It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves, like we were the first people to stumble into here, a virgin wilderness untouched by human hands. Mass tourism wasn’t here today along with the nasty hard sell that always accompanies it. We were lucky, because as we returned we could see a barrage of other boats just floating there idly, all tied together. We asked how many boats they have, and they told us one thousand! I have to say we were a bit shocked, but it didn’t take long to work out just how lucky we had been.

As we finished, hordes of tourists flooded out of big buses in the front of the complex, completely changing the character of the place – lucky indeed!

That evening, Mama Lan took us to her daughter Lan’s place to meet her family, and then we went over and into the karsts to the family’s chicken run. They had dozens of chickens, mainly roosters from what I could see. Mama Lan set about feeding them all while Sharyn and I watched on. It was a rowdy affair!

Mama Lan's chicken run.

Mama Lan’s chicken run.

The next day, Sharyn spent the time catching up on her work while I took my bike and went exploring. First I headed north from town to the Thai Vi Temple area. It was a warm and clear day, perfect for taking the bike out. I followed the raised-up, concrete paths out through the rice paddies and around behind the temple to a point where the path finished. There was a sitting area where you could admire the stunning view down through the karsts. I was wishing I had brought some lunch so I could just hang around there soak it all in.
Road to Thai Vi temple just outside Tam Coc.

Heading out to the Thai Vi temple just outside Tam Coc.

Great cycling near Tam Coc

Just riding around, seeing where my bike would take me.

At the temple, they were preparing for a festival. They had built a whole bunch of shiny, colourful horses and assorted decorations. A monk took me inside and showed me around while another recited prayers while drums beat in the background. It’s customary to leave some small change at the foot of the statues and the monk was quick to let me know. Unfortunately, and to my complete surprise, I had neglected to bring any money with me. So feeling pretty awkward, I got my shoes back on and beat a hasty retreat.
Preparing for a festival at Thai Vi temple.

Preparing for a festival at Thai Vi temple.

A woman scouring the empty paddy for shellfish.

A woman scouring the empty paddy for shellfish.

After passing through town, I headed west and into the rice paddies along a small dirt track at the foot of a row of karsts. It was pretty bumpy for my unloaded bike with no suspension, but I took my time and skirted around a large, water-filled paddy. There were a few people in there living in simple, rustic houses surrounded by ponds. In their small yards, ducks and geese roamed around freely, with plenty of water to keep them happy.

I’d ridden about 20 km, decided that was enough for today and headed back to our homestay. That evening we walked around to the Banana Tree Hostel and discovered they had craft beer! So we enjoyed a chat with Nhat at the bar beside the pool to finish the day.

Craft Beer Tam Coc

After a day in the saddle, a well-earned craft beer!

The next day, we took the motorbike again over to Hang Mua’s viewpoint. It’s a popular place with the locals, and a bit of an effort to get up there, but you’re rewarded with some pretty awesome views. It was hazy today, the wind was probably blowing the wrong way and bringing the concrete dust with it. It didn’t deter the locals though, the girls hiring traditional dresses and posing for selfies in the most precarious places. There were at least two wedding parties, the girls dressed in high heels attempting the 571 steps to the top to see the dragon that stretches out along a knife-edge ridge there.

Hang Mua Pagoda

the locals can’t resist a pic or two

Hang Mua Pagoda

Outstanding Views from Huang Mua

Hang Mua Pagoda

It’s no easy climb to the top!

Hang Mua Pagoda

A couple of girls from Saigon on holiday. They spoke perfect English

Hang Mua Pagoda

Our turn for the pic!

Hang Mua Pagoda

The local ladies like to dress up for the occasion.

Hang Mua Pagoda

Sharyn making her way carefully up the 571 stairs

Hang Mua Pagoda

The locals will go anywhere for a selfie!

The local boat ride to the karsts is only 200m from our homestay. We’d put it off for a couple of days because of rain and cloudy skies. It was drawing close to the end of our stay in Tam Coc, so the first sunny day we got, we headed over to the boats.

A young girl rowed our boat for the two-hour trip. Once again, like the other women, she used her feet to push the oars, a very efficient technique we’d seen in other Asian countries as well. There were lots of other weekend daytrippers out by now, taking advantage of the good weather.

Boat trip Tam Coc

Our young boat girl showing off her winning style

Tourist boats Tam Coc

We weren’t the only ones out today!

Caves Tam Coc

We paddled through some more low-hanging caves

Boat Trip Tam Coc

What a day to be out on the water!

The boats follow a shallow river through the karsts. The water along the banks is thick with lotus plants, but it was the wrong season, so only a few flowers were out. It must look sensational when they are all in full bloom. It would be like rowing through a sea of pink.

Read on for the next episode: Tam Biet Tam Coc: We’re Away Again!