Living Local in Tam Coc, Vietnam
The Adventures of The Roving Route #22
Unfortunately, our time in Tam Coc ended this week but there were a few more adventures to be had before we said goodbye. Almost our entire time in Tam Coc had poor weather but the view made up for it day after day.
Though there are hundreds of peaks around us, it is very challenging to maneuver your way around them and even more difficult to get up to the top. Luckily they have built a steep staircase up to one of them though it also draws in the crazy crowds! Taking you to a gorgeous lookout, you are lucky enough to be greeted by full 360 views of a river snaking its way between many of the mountain karsts. Surprisingly, it is also a popular spot to have your wedding pictures done. During our time climbing and at its peak, we saw 3 couples dressed in wedding dresses and tuxedos climbing the 400+ stairs! It seemed like an excessive amount of effort, but we guess the pictures are worth it!
As Tam Coc is a major tourist hub, it is no surprise that it has almost as many restaurants as mountain peaks! That being said, we very quickly found two that stood out, not only for their price but for the service staff. The simply named Family Restaurant supported us for almost half of the nights we were there for just a few bucks each night. Best of all, their specialty was duck! At only $6CAD, we were able to have a feast of a half duck, rice paper, noodles, rice, mint, and the most amazing dipping sauce! Capping the meal off was always half a pineapple! Most people only stay in Tam Coc for a few nights, so we stuck out very quickly after showing up for our almost nightly duck feast. Within a few days, we started to make friends with the family of staff to the point that at some time during the night each staff member would come up and chat for a minute or two. The other restaurant-goers around always stared at us or asked the staff when we were leaving if we have been around for a while. On our last night they even wanted to take photos with us!
Our homestay for the past two weeks was this cute little garden with individual bungalows and a pond. Apart from the views and the friendly dog, the best part was the numerous fruit trees that surrounded us. There were a half dozen banana trees, papaya trees, jackfruit trees and even the strangest looking calabash tree which produces a squash that is about the size of a cannonball and is extremely hard! Just outside our window was also a starfruit tree which is super exciting as Derek grew up eating these on special occasions and has never seen them growing! Every morning we were given bananas from their trees and with starfruit in season the trees were so packed with the fruit that the branches started to break, which in turn, meant that we had a few to eat.
This area is massive and is much larger than what could be covered by bicycle so we knew one of the days we would rent a motorcycle and cruise around. With the poor weather, we kept pushing off our rental until the last full day came and though it was cloudy, it was now or never! We have only ever rented one bike before (in Sicily) so we were quite nervous about how it would be with the crazy Vietnamese streets! We are happy to report that it went off without a hitch and we had an amazing time! Getting up early we made our way to the UNESCO area of Trang An which is famous for its rowboats. Hoping into a little boat with another couple - also from Canada!- we made our way through the caves and rivers that people have relied upon for centuries. With the constant light mist in the air, it really felt as if King Kong was going to start walking towards us!
Getting back on the bike we continued to wind between the mountains to Hua Lo, a 10-century capital that is often sighted as the first capital of Vietnam. Unlike the former capitals we saw in Thailand, it fell into disuse after the capital was moved to Hanoi and then was built over in the 17th century. Much of what stands today, is only a few hundred years old and while it is gorgeous, it would have been interesting to see more preserved ruins. The city was founded in its location and grew to power as it was incredibly hard to access by foot which limited transportation to the water and increased security. This fact was also its preservation downfall as the waterlogged ground slowly gave way over the centuries of neglect. The rest of the day was spent cruising around passing mountain goats, buffalo, and the occasional other tourists. We ended up in a little town deep in the rice fields and stumbled upon a group of older women enjoying their afternoon Thai Chi! For anyone who visits Vietnam, jumping onto a bike for at least a day is an absolute must as it offers a view into local life!
After the 2 hour train back north to Hanoi, we met up with our special guest who is touring with us for the week. Margot, Derek's mum, has come all the way from Winnipeg while on her way to South Africa (yes somehow that is a reasonable detour). It was fun to introduce her to the crazy Hanoi streets. It would have been amazing to have her mic'd up as she could not walk across the street without a few yelps or a little pep talk! It reminded us of our first time in the city as the streets are insane!
We did not stay long in the city as early the next morning we jumped into a car headed towards the coast of Vietnam to hop onto a cruise through Halong Bay. The bay is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Vietnam attracting over 6 million tourists per year. That means on average there are about 17,000 people on the water per day! Unfortunately for the tourism companies, but fortunately for us, the Coronavirus has severely impacted Vietnamese tourism as it relies on China for almost a third of its visitors. The bay is famous as thousands of karsts spring up from the water offering unprecedented abilities to cruise past them. Our boat was quite nice with balconies, hot showers, and queen-sized beds in our rooms along with several massive feasts of seafood, veggies, and typical Vietnamese delicacies. Top it all off with some sightseeing at a few islands, a floating pearl farm, kayaking, and even karaoke, it couldn't have been better. Our cruise was set up by the great staff at Ocean Tours in Hanoi and provided by Apricot Premium Cruises. They both did an amazing job and we couldn't have asked for better service from either company.
After the cruise, our plan was pretty simple; jump on an hour-long ferry to Cat Ba Island where a bus would take us to the city centre. Unfortunately, not all goes to plan. Cat Ba Island is heavily reliant on tourism but to ensure an outbreak of the coronavirus did not occur, they inputted strict controls. Unfortunately, that meant that they suspended the ferry between mainland Vietnam and the island. We should start out by saying that Vietnam is a very haggling-base culture and almost everything will be heavily marked up for tourists. We have gotten quite a bit better at this practice even with just 1 month in the country. When we showed up at the ferry terminal with no way back to Hanoi, the staff at the terminal thought they would use it as an opportunity. As there was no scheduled ferry, they offered an extremely overpriced "private" speed boat across the channel. After some back and forth and somehow the duration dropping from 30 minutes to just 10, we walked away from them to get more information from nearby tourist offices. After our return with knowledge of the true price, they were quick to accept our money and explained the higher price as having a private boat not public. A minute or two later, we were called over to jump into our "public" speedboat.... which coincidentally had no one else! The 10-minute journey took us through part of the gorgeous Halong Bay where we had spent the night prior but the adventure was not quite over. With no ferry running, it meant that the bus to take us from the docks to the main city was also suspended! Once again we were seemingly at the mercy of the solo "taxi driver" waiting there. Oddly enough, he quoted his costs per person not per trip, which makes no sense as the vehicle moves the same amount no matter how many passengers. After a long back and forth and several times walking away we got down to the root of his pricing scheme. He believes that adding an extra person will add extra weight to his vehicle and thus use more gas. Therefore, he was charging the equivalent of 10 litres of gas per person for the 40-minute journey! After reasoning with him for a while- which is not easy to do when using google translator- he gave up and admitted defeat! He still earned double his daily wage on the short journey so it's all part of the game in this part of the world but we are happy Margot was around to get the whole Vietnamese experience!
We have a few more days with Margot before she jets off to South Africa to meet up with a tour group. Last year we were lucky enough to have joined her on one and had an absolutely amazing time. If you are ever interested in booking an African Safari, we highly recommend Great Canadian Travel Group! If you want to see some of our photos we took make sure to head to our Instagram page! These next few weeks are going to be dedicated to our photos from Southern Africa. Cheers from Cat Ba Island, The Roving Route