Day 6 – Hanoi Day Tour to Ninh Binh
Our sleep was great in Eclipse Legend Hotel in Hanoi. The bed was so comfortable but we needed to rise up early to get ready for our day trip south of Hanoi to have some fun at the inland Halong Bay. So we went to the basement level for our breakfast. We ordered our breakfast from a menu consisting of local Vietnamese food or western breakfast set. Free flow of coffee and tea as well as fruit juice were available. Fruits were also offered and the breakfast was great. We liked the pho and also the toast set with scrambled eggs, ham and sausage. We could order as much as we wanted from the menu. After breakfast, we went back to our rooms to use the toilets, changed and got ready for the tour agent to come and pick us up for our day tour. The cost of this Hoa Lu and Tam Coc day tour was 28 USD per person which came with transportation to Ninh Binh and back to Hanoi to visit the ancient royal capital of Vietnam as well as a boat ride on a very scenic river passing some caves that resembled Halong Bay. Near to 8 am, our agent arrived and we boarded the minibus where some tourists were already on board and we headed south departing Hanoi. The ride was a bit bumpy at times and for some of us sitting at the back with lesser leg rooms, it was a little uncomfortable. About an hour into the journey, we went to a rest stop to use the toilet. This place also served as a café as well as a souvenir shop where many other buses also stopped to allow guests to use their toilets and spend some money at the shop and café. We went on our way again after 15 minutes and continued to head south where the scenery became more appealing and interesting.
Finally, we arrived at the ancient royal capital of Vietnam, Hoa Lu, after a total of nearly 2 hours 30 minutes of travelling. We all alighted and followed our guide to the complex and listened to him giving us a history lesson of the place.
He explained how the Vietnamese resisted the Chinese invaders some thousand years ago under King Ding and King Le and their respective temples stood as a testimony of veneration by the locals during those times. Of course with palace intrigues between the two kings thrown in by our guide made this history lesson a little more lively like some Chinese and Korean drama being rehearsed. Nevertheless, even resisting Chinese invasion from the north, Chinese influence was evident in the architectural design of their temples and buildings including elements of geomancy involved in their buildings and layouts.
It was a hot day and as this was a touristy area, we did encounter some touts trying to take unsolicited pictures for us at a cost of 1 USD per picture. A woman kept following me and pestering me to have our pictures taken and to purchase her postcards. I didn’t need all these so I just gave her a small VND note in order to get her off my back. Another boy in school uniform who was a little unkempt approached me trying to sell postcards and also asked me for money to help out for his schooling needs. I gave him some small VND notes and sent him on his way as well.
An old man was there with his buffalo and its calf dressed up for picture taking. No one seemed to patronize him when we were there. The whole area wasn’t very big and it took about an hour to visit this place. After the interesting history lesson from our guide and having pictures taken on the surrounding area, we made our way back to the minibus. So this concluded the first part of our day tour.
As we drove along we passed by the Trang An Grottoes which was a place I initially planned to visit because Trang An would be more beautiful and less touristy compared with Tam Coc. For the day tour from Hanoi, this place would not be covered unless it was a private tour which would cost quite a lot more. In fact, I was contemplating to come to Ninh Binh directly after the Halong Bay cruise to stay a night which would give us the opportunity to do some free and easy tour of the surrounding area.
However the cost for transfer for the six of us was 120 USD not including the cost for hotel stay in Ninh Binh and transport back to Hanoi was not even factored in as well. In addition, we still had to work out our logistic with Halong Sapa Tours to collect our bags as well as transfer to our hotel in Hanoi so it was too troublesome and cost inhibiting. Moreover, our nice hotel in Hanoi was only 35 SGD per night so taking a day tour out from Hanoi at 28 USD per person made better economic and logistic sense. We might come back to Ninh Binh to stay on another occasion to explore this area more in depth in the future.
Eventually after about 30 minutes, we reached Tam Coc. On our right that was the lake where we would launch out for the boat ride and on our left was the restaurant where we would have our buffet lunch. We were directed to go up to the second floor with plenty of seats and tables and a huge buffet spread of both local and western dishes were available. Drinks were not included which could be purchased at the restaurant. The food was quite good and definitely would fill us up.
When lunch was over, we crossed the road to the lake and waited for our guide to purchase the tickets and get us onto the boats. Each boat would sit two guests with one or two rowers to row us to the end and back which would take about 90 minutes. The boat rowers were all there ready to receive us and one by one we boarded our boat and began our interesting boat ride.
It was a very scenic spot where we got onto our boats and as the rowers rowed us out ahead with many other boats like we were in a competition, it was really quite exciting. So we snapped pictures for one another along the way. We were however ambushed soon after launching out where quite a few photographers were also on the river with their cameras pointing at us telling us to buy our unsolicited pictures taken when we got back on land. It was a little annoying when they persisted in taking pictures of us on the river. Of course we declined their service and told them we were not interested and ignored them. Anyway, we didn’t let these touts spoil our day and as we ventured further down the river and after turning deeper into the hilly terrain, we lost sight of these unwanted photographers.
Hence we began enjoying ourselves on the river with our rower sometimes rowing the boat with her feet. The river scenery was quite nice with hills on both sides and the waters were crystal clear. It was so peaceful out here under the cooling wind on a sunny afternoon as we feasted our eyes on the beauty of this inland Halong Bay. Soon we went through the first cave and emerged on the other side still with the same scenery of hills on both sides while we sailed on down the river.
Our rower was an elderly lady in her seventies who could not speak English but was smiling all along. Soon while rowing she brought out souvenirs and stuff and started to peddle them which we didn’t need. We told her we would tip her after the boat ride and so she kept her stuff and continued rowing us forward.
Not long after, we went through the second cave. We had to be careful not to hurt our head as the rough surfaces of the cave could cause serious abrasion to our flesh and sometimes there were other boats in the cave as well and we had to navigate carefully in order to avoid any accidental collision and get our head and hands cut by the low ceilings of the cave.
Soon we were approaching the third cave where we would be turning back. After emerging from the third cave, there were several other boats waiting for us there. They were the floating souvenir shops and minimarts. The rowers would stop and allow these floating retailers to approach tourists and harass us for a while giving the excuse that they needed to rest. This was the perfect place to get captive audience to listen to their sales talk. If you have your own drinks and snacks you might have some excuse not to make any purchase with the slightly overpriced merchandise. These retailers would persuade you to buy a drink for your rower or even the rower might request for one.
Of course we needed not get upset with them. We simply bantered along and smiled with them and tried communicating with them in sign language as not many of them could speak much English. Our boys were more or less forced to buy a can of coke for one of the rowers. They had two rowers but they didn’t have much money with them so only one of them had a drink. I had actually given our children some money to tip the rowers at the end of the boat ride. By the way, we brought along our own drinking water and even offered them to our rower.
While it was sunny, the temperature was rather favourable and a bit cooling during this winter day. If it had been on a hot summer day, it would be a different story. The rowers would badly need a drink after rowing for more than half an hour under the searing heat above 35 degrees Celsius. Even we ourselves would be quenching our thirst along the way. So after about 15 minutes, we were released and were on our way back through the caves heading back to our launch site.
We saw a solitary cat near one spot and also some ducks on the river. We even took picture of a lone fisherman trying to catch his dinner. It was indeed a very nice ride on the river through caves with hills on each side resembling Halong Bay we visited recently. The accommodating weather on a winter day made this boat ride really enjoyable.
There were also times we had fun with those extra paddles on the boat and helped paddle the boat along the river. This river received quite a lot tourists day in and day out. On our way back, there were more tourists heading in and we exchanged some greetings. After going through all the caves and not too far from where we boarded the boat, our rower stood up and caught hold of the hand of another oncoming rower and our two boats were held together for short while. Our elderly rower was actually bringing all her stuff and switching over to the other boat to bring those tourists further down the river hoping to sell them her wares. Since she was leaving, we gave her our tips and bade her good bye. So we exchanged rower and this young lady who came over happened to be the daughter of the elderly woman.
Finally we came back to shore and the young lady rower asked for her tips. We explained we had given a good tip to her mom and so there was no issue at all. Generally, the rowers would expect a dollar from each guest on board. But we tried to give a little more as it was also hard work for the 90 minutes of bringing us joy and to share the beauty of this scenic place with us. For the Trang An Grottoes, it would be a less touristy site where tourists may not encounter with so many touts and may not be forced to buy stuff that they don’t need. Once on shore, touts sprang into action trying to approach those whom they had photographed without permission earlier to sell their album. One tout caught up with our girls. Our elder girl eventually just bought one picture to send him on his way.
Eventually, everyone from our group came back on shore. Some had paid for bicycle rides around the villages and so they went on with their riding activity. For us who were free, we roamed the town which was rather quiet during that time in the afternoon. There were cafes in town and we went into Lotteria for afternoon tea and ice cream and of course some snacks as well. One objective of parking ourselves here was to use the free wifi to keep ourselves up to date with happenings outside of Vietnam.
Having had enough of rest and refreshments, we went back to the restaurant where we had lunch to wait for the cyclists to return. When we saw them returned panting with sunburnt faces and hands and completely drenched, we were glad we didn’t participate in this cycling activity. Though it was winter time, the UV was still quite strong. Cycling on unpaved roads was not as fun as well. In fact having seen those quaint villages in Sapa, we didn’t think it was worth the trouble to visit the villages around here at that point in time. With everyone back, we boarded the same minibus and made our way back to Hanoi.
After driving for an hour, we stopped at the same rest area to use the toilet. We didn’t buy anything here and we just waited for everyone to be ready. Surprisingly, our elder daughter was greeted by two other ladies who turned out to be her former schoolmates who were also holidaying in Vietnam. Small world indeed and after exchanging some greetings, they had to part company as we returned to our minibus and head for Hanoi.
The roads were getting congested when we were near Hanoi city during this peak hour traffic where workers were returning home. By the time we reached the Old Quarter it was already dark. We were the last to be picked up in the morning so we were the first to alight this time. When we reached our hotel, it was already after 7 pm. For those who wish to take this day trip to Ninh Binh and hoping to catch a night flight or train out of Hanoi, it would be critical to inform the guide beforehand otherwise it would become a rather stressful situation to deal with on the way back to Hanoi.
Since we had a full day out of Hanoi and were quite tired, we simply went back to the pho shop near the hotel to get our dinner fixed. We always enjoyed authentic pho in Vietnam and so even just a dinner of pho would be very satisfying for us. After dinner, it was time to chill out in our nice hotel rooms. A warm shower felt so good and followed by doing nothing and watching TV was just as enjoyable as the exhilarating activities for the past few days. Wifi connection was good so we caught up with friends and surfed the internet for the latest updates in town. For the next two days in Hanoi, it would be a slow and casual pastime to enjoy what this old city had to offer. By the way, the following day would be Christmas Eve, and it would quite exciting to see what Hanoi had to offer during this festivity. Shopping in the city would be coming up next and the women would be delighted. Our children were relaxing happily in their own rooms having had another new exciting and enjoyable experience during the day. While they were busy with their own gadgets, we left them alone and returned to our own room. After some repacking of our bags, we signed off to wind down and prepared to enter our next phase of activity, a good night rest.
Continue to Day 7 ...