Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Biking it to Tam Cốc

Ancient Cemeteries alongside the river 
We dragged ourselves up at 6.30am so we could eat quickly and beat the crowds to Tam Cốc National Park. What we didn’t count on was breakfast taking soooo long. It was included with the room rate, and we could have our choice off the menu, the only problem was that once ordered it took over half an hour to arrive. This meant that despite our good intentions it was past 8am by the time we collected our bikes and headed out. 

It was already warming up so we were very happy to be on our way, but we weren’t far into the ride when Dave discovered that his brakes weren’t working too well - actually not really at all. We stopped in at a small, dusty repair shop and managed to ask the elderly man, through a fair bit of gesturing, if he had a screwdriver so we could tighten the brake line. The man misinterpreted us a little bit and instead thought that we were asking him to fix the bike. He quickly took over trying to repair the brakes, and other parts of the old bike, but unfortunately 15 minutes later we understood that it was unfixable. We signalled that it was ok and that he shouldn’t waste any more time on it, as we were keen to make it to Tam Cốc  and he smiled and waved us goodbye. We offered him 10k as a thank you for his time, but he refused. After we insisted he took it and then gave us 5k back, indicating that 10k was too much (just to put it in perspective, 5k is around 25c…) After so long of feeling like ripped off tourists this made us feel very humbled.

Harvesting rice!
We were finally on the way again, and thankfully it wasn’t too far to Tam Cốc and we managed to arrive by 8.45am. We paid to park our bikes, now used to the protocol, bought our entrance tickets, and then continued on foot a further couple of hundred metres to the lake. We were quickly ushered onto a boat with a female ‘paddler’. Thankfully nobody else jumped in as we read often a ‘seller’ will jump in at the last minute and then proceed to try to sell you things the entire time.

We set off through the rice paddies, amazed at the rowing technique with the feet, which even though we’d read about was completely different when seen in action. It was a picturesque day gliding through the surprisingly shallow waters, watching the farmers harvest their rice paddies – we had had to ride around large patches of rice spread over the road to dry it out on our way to Tam Cốc that morning, it’s a good use of how hot the black tar gets in the sun! 

How to paddle a canoe.
We passed through some caves, which were nice and cool with interesting formations of stalactites coming from the roof. We also cruised past beautiful old cemeteries, right in the middle of the fields and half in the water, with ancient headstones standing tall. The surrounding craggy mountains added to the beauty of the place and made for an enjoyable ride.

It wasn’t until the turn around point that we were actually hit up to buy something by a floating seller, but we successfully ignored her even after she hit us with a coke bottle trying to get our attention! She soon floated off in search of other costumers of who there were many. We helped row on the way back with the paddles we were given and made it back in good time; all up the trip had been 1.5 hours. 

Once safely back on solid ground, we went to a nearby café for a much needed cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee with milk – potent!) and also to get out of the sun before collecting our bikes and continuing around the lake in search of a pagoda. It was a very scenic ride through more fields and old houses and we managed to find the pagoda but the gates were locked up so a little disappointed we turned around. (We later discovered that in fact that wasn’t ‘the’ pagoda and we should’ve continued on a bit further…)

When we arrived back at the docks we were quite hungry so we went back to nice place where we’d had a cà phê sữa đá and enjoyed an ok, but slightly bland, lunch. We rode the 7km route back to town and went to our favourite chè place we’d found the day before – where the ‘drinks’ are the best thing we’ve found in Ninh Binh yet!

Our favourite ché drink -
might not look like much but
they are t-a-s-t-y!
We made the most of having our bikes and after a short respite in our air conditioned room we rode into town for dinner, exploring the riverfront in search of somewhere to eat. The waterfront is an interesting mix of food stands, outdoor barbers who just stand a mirror in a tree, drink stalls and motorbike detailers. After a light dinner we went back for another ché (told you they were good!) On the way back to our hotel we passed a place selling Cơm Cháy, a Ninh Binh speciality of which we weren’t really sure of the ingredients, but decided that we should try it anyway. Luckily we just ordered one to share as it turned out to be deep fried rice-bubble sheets made from day old rice which you spoon a broth over the top of before eating. We couldn’t quite figure out what was in the broth but it seemed to be rehydrated mushrooms, we found out later it was in fact cow and pig’s heart and/or kidney made into a sausage, boiled and then sliced – yummo!

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