It was at heart of the chaotic and vibrant Hanoi Old Quarter, a city with over 7.5 million inhabitants, where narrow streets blend in with hundreds of bike-occupied pavements. That city of such dynamic face, that brought me my new friend Cheryl, an enthusiastic young lady whom with I would share various adventures around Hanoi and a little beyond its borders.
Cheryl’s reasons to travel to Hanoi was to shoot one of her episodes for her YouTube channel, the topic, “females travelling solo”. We had a common interest in discovering some local towns beyond Hanoi, and one of them which we really wanted to do was Sapa. Since the first time I heard of Sapa, (earlier in March) when listening to my friend Abraham recommendations. Since then I knew I wanted to go there.
Sapa seems to be one of the best spots for scenic trekking in Vietnam. Cheryl and I tried desperately to visit the area. However, one of our local contact from CS told us that Sapa in June was bad news because it was the beginning of the wet season. The terrain becomes muddy and slippery and view of the rice fields are foggy. We were both crushed by the news, and we tried to get also advice from our local desk at the hostel and checking the weather reports constantly.
Next morning, after breakfast we tried out luck again, but still no good news. Not Sapa for us this time, we were crushed but then again, an excuse to come back to this lovely part of the world. Luckily, we then asked our super-efficient travel guru at the Hanoi Hostel about other scenic trips, and the answer was: Hoa Lu and Tam Coc.
We decided on this tour there and then, but obviously being a last-minute decision we were told that it had already departed. But, we managed to use our super charming skills and asked for a phone to the tour company to check if they could come back for us. They said yes! I guess it was yet another lucky day for us.
This shared tour which included lunch, entrance fee, transports and guide, cost only USD35 last minute, which I found excellent value for money.
We were collected at approximately 08:40 am, by our guide, by a comfortable minivan transport, luckily with air condition! Phew. There we went happily ready for a day of beautiful scenery.
After 45 minutes, we had our first stop to “stretch our legs” at one of those very expensive shops. I must say though, that the merchandise they have in those shops is truly unique and beautiful, gorgeous paintings and various embroidery items. Local artists are found on site fabricating them. However, these items are extremely expensive so I don’t see the point of this mandatory stop in the tour.
After 100 km driving south, and approximately at 10:00 am, we arrived at Dong Am Tien, Hoa Lu, in the Ninh Bình Province.
Hoa Lu was the capital city of Vietnam under the Dinh Dynasty between AD 968 and AD 980. Despite the shocking 36 °C heat, I managed to appreciate these views of natural beauty, with its gorgeous high limestone peaks.
We head off to visit two famous temples; King Dinh and King Le, Kings who ruled in the 10th century, they were very well-known for their bravery in Chinese Wars. Our guide told us that these temples were only built in the 17th century to commemorate the merit of these national idols.
We saw few lovely water buffalos munching on the grass on site.
1) King Dinh Temple (First King): The king who defeated over 12 rulers to consolidate his power.
This temple is in Truong Yen Ha Commune and comprises of three parts: One for the community, Thien Huong for the mandarins, and Chinh Cung where the king statue is located. There is also a stone dragon near the altar.
2) King Le Temple (Second King): This Temple is in Truong Yen Thuong Commune
I found this temple quite the same as Dinh Temple, it also comprises of same three areas, with the addition of a statue of the Queen and their fifth son.
I did not particularly find them overly interesting, but I undoubtedly enjoyed the intriguing story between these two kings and their queen, told by our guide. First, to know, they both married the same woman.
It seemed that the Queen planned to kill the first King. She, being a very young and attractive queen, had a lot of persuasion power inside the palace. She was apparently unhappy with the drunkenness of King Ding, which consequently took her to plot his assassination. The Queen is also thought to had fallen in love with Le Hoan who would then later became the next king. And hence the fall of the Dinh dynasty. I always enjoy love stories, even when they have a dark side.
After the visit to the temples, we continued 10 km further south to Tam Coc and had lunch at a local restaurant. I found lunch plentiful and delicious.
Tam Coc literally translates “three caves” and is known as “The Halong Bay in land”. It is part of the Trang-An Scenic Landscape Complex UNESCO World Heritage site
Curious fact: I discovered when I was already there, that was Tam Coc was one of the locations where the Kong Skull Island filming took place! Wow.
We had a ride down the Ngo Dong river on board a wooden boat, 3 kilometres up (and back) which allowed us to go through astonishing limestone mountains. The duration in total was nearly two hours. (which I wish I would have known as I did not have sun protection and was feeling roasting at times)
The entrance for this activity was included in our tour so we did not have to pay for it, but it normally cost USD10 this ride.
I found this a delightful experience, one of the highlights it that it was that the boat was rowed by a joyful woman who seemed to paddle effortlessly with her feet! This was quite a sight to witness. Most of the boat rowers are surprisingly old, (including ours) but they all seem well used to the task of rowing with their bare feet for hours on end. At some point, we felt brave and tried to paddle ourselves, just to find us to be a complete failure on the task!
The boat took us through a zigzagging waterway passing through the three caves: Hang Ca, Hang Hai and Hang Bai. Cheryl found it exciting since she could touch one of the caves tiled stoned-roof! You should have seen her face of joy.
It was truly an incredibly beautiful journey, the scenery of the surrounding the area of the impressive limestone mountains and cliffs were breathtaking. I was inspired to shoot some videos for my family, taking the expert advice of lovely Cheryl.
Along the way, another local woman, riding another boat, started to take pictures of us, and we found it fun too so we posed and smiled away for the camera.
After approximately one hour, going through this marvellous view, we arrived at the turning point of the ride, where it is possible to buy drinks and snacks. Omg, I was so relieved, I was so hot sitting in the boat that a cold drink was all I wanted!
We were asked by a local vendor, to buy drinks for our rowing lady, which we thought it was fine and agreed, however, she also got some biscuits and fruits without informing us. Cheryl and I had an eye look moment, before we agreed to it, after all, we thought she deserved it for her hard work.
We then turned back and enjoyed the same wonderful sights on return.
At the end of the ride, is this is when the ugly side of this boat ride comes. We felt a bit harassed by the rowing lady when she was not happy with our tip and started demanding at least 100 dong. We felt quite disappointed because we had already spent some money on buying her drinks, biscuits and fruit snacks before. She became then they not so so joyful woman at that point.
We came to realise that this boat ride has become too commercialised, that now locals only see tourist as if they all bring tonnes of money to give away. I was quite disappointed as felt a bit cheated by her earlier enthusiasm and her fake “loveliness” towards us.
Furthermore, remember the lady taking pictures of us? Well, she was waiting for us at the disembarkation point ready to sell her pictures. So, we decided to buy one, but since she had printed loads of photos (told you we were smiling away remember, especially Cheryl! lol). The lady was very determined for us to buy the whole lot!. We again refused but she kept going on and on until the point she became annoying. We took a big breath and decide to ignore her.
Well, despite these two small issues, we had an amazing time because the views were spectacular!
Last activity of the day! Cycling through the town to see the paddy fields!
This was ride was also great fun, especially because I needed to move my legs after two hours mesmerised in a static in a boat!. It was also refreshing to make my way on my bike feeling the wind on my face.
The scenery of the rice fields and the people working on it were stunning. Also, seeing Cheryl shooting a video while managing her bike was hilarious too.!
Thanks to my boat ride buddy Cheryl for sharing this experience with me.
“I’ve got a crush on the natural world” – “people don’t take trips, trips take people”