The Real Deal


Our Mekong region Lonely Planet, unlike our great Footprint South America Handbook, has not been of much use – in fact, more often than not, it has got things completely wrong, causing us to adopt a policy of using its accommodation listings as a guide of what to avoid. But it does suggest going to Ninh Binh, a small town south of Halong, as a way of seeing “the real Vietnam” and a gateway to Tam Coc, or “Halong on the rice paddies”. We heeded its advice and, for once, we were not disappointed. 

Limestone and rice paddies -- Vietnamese beauty as expected.


After a horrific bus ride from Hanoi on the ubiquitous “open bus tour” ticket, we arrived in Ninh Binh, battered but in one piece. We had booked ourselves into a family-run hotel we’d found on Trip Advisor (which we’ve found to be far more useful and reliable than the LP) whose reviews boasted of the friendliness and warmth of the owners. To our delight, we were given tea and a warm welcome by the whole family and were then led to our air-conditioned, clean and comfortable room to retire for the night. 

Our guide Toan.


The next morning saw us rise early in time for our private guided cycling tour of Tam Coc and the surrounding area. Our guide, Toan, was friendly, knowledgeable and as patient as they come. I say this because that day may very well have been the hottest day I have ever experienced in my life, plus with our fragile bellies from something funky we ate in Halong Bay, we had to keep stopping for rests and bathroom breaks throughout our day. But Toan indulged our every whim and with his very good self-taught but surprisingly idiomatic English, he guided us gently through the beauty that is his back yard. 

Bicycles and ducks.


Tam Coc lies inland but is home to giant limestone mountains similar to those in Halong Bay. Meaning “three caves”, these can be visited by taking a boat ride on the Ngo Dong river, rowed by a little old lady with surprising energy and strength. 

Emerging from the cave.


Through the cave. We didn't see any bats.


From within.


We were very impressed with our little old lady’s rowing skills, and even more so when she started rowing with her feet. The tourists often help with the rowing, as we saw on boats we passed, but feeling lazy and over-heated we let the pro do her job, and we willingly obliged when she asked for a tip at the end of our two-hour ride. 

The professional demonstrating her "cycle-rowing" technique.


Toan also led us to the temples and pagodas in the area, more often than not perched on top of the limestone mountains, requiring the climbing of hundreds of steps. Toan, rather cleverly as we soon found out, told us he would wait for us at the bottom to “hold the fort”. Little did we know that my brain would nearly melt on my way up. 

Cool as a cucumber


I have never experienced such pain resulting from heat in my life. Bikram yoga was a walk in the park compared to this. It was around 40 degrees Celsius, plus what felt like 100% humidity. By some miracle I didn’t get heat exhaustion. Marc, whom I firmly suspect to be a lizard or some other reptile due to his predilection for sun and intense heat, thought I was exaggerating, but I really wasn’t. 

Malfunction! Malfunction!


The view from above.


As much as we enjoyed these visits despite the heat, what we most liked was cycling through the villages and sleepy rice paddies dotted with far-off figures in conical hats while water buffalo languished in the mud in this quiet, charming corner of Vietnam. We were cycling through a picture-perfect postcard, and there was nothing fake about it. Everywhere we went, villagers were spreading rice to dry in the sun, or collecting hay to make giant bails, or kids were waving at us and shouting hello. And not another western tourist in sight. 

Sundown in Vietnam.


It was one of those rare occasions where, as travellers, we felt we had found what we are in perpetual search for – something authentic, without hassle, and with it all to yourself. 



3 Responses to “The Real Deal”

  1. cynthia cutler Says:

    AAAMAAAZING. I felt the heat for you. Mind you we are having a heatwave here in Manchster mch love

  2. Gabrielle Says:

    Malfunction indeed – I know exactly how you felt. DYING!

  3. merv Says:

    ahhh cycling sounds grand.

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