Saturday, January 11, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 5 – Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh, and Tam Cóc

I was all set to go to the northwest, toward the mountains, when I was lured by the prospect of visiting Hoa Lu. This site is of significance because it is here that emperor Dinh established his capital ca. 950 AD, after having shaken the yoke of Chinese subjugation. He is also credited for giving the name of Vietnam to the new nation (until then an unruly province of the Chinese empire). The castle is at best modest, and time has not treated it kindly, but it is located amidst another massif of limestone, in a valley of remarkable beauty.

The whole area is a local tourism Mecca, and there are plenty of opportunities to spend your dongs in pleasant boat trips and visits to temples in grottos or caves. I did both, for the sake of duty, but from now on will be very selective on the type of tourist traps I visit. The boat trip was fun because with me were six young Vietnamese (4 girls and 2 guys) who were fun and uninhibited. They all wanted to take their picture with me, and unofficially adopted me as their grandfather. The guide sang a song, and then one of the guys sang a song (clearly a devotee of karaoke), and then I sang a song, so we had plenty of laughs as we were being rowed around. One of the girls even patted me on the belly, the way you would pat the belly of Buda, which caused yet another round of merriment.

From there I headed to the tourist area of Tam Cóc, but for a moment a panicked as I entered the industrial city of Ninh Binh. No fun riding when there are all sorts of trucks around you. But I was told to keep going (I ask for directions all the time, but my map is not very good, and my pronunciation of the place names is atrocious, so it is a bit of a miracle that I remain on course), and eventually came to the right intersection and entered the region of Tam Cóc. It is indeed beautiful, with its vast extensions of rice paddies magnificently framed by steep limestone buttes. I found that going slow in the motorbike gives me plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, at the same time that in an hour I can cover more ground than the bicycle bound tourists. I can get used to this type of tourism.
For V$ 250,000 (US$ 12) I secured a very nice room in downtown Tam Cóc, and treated myself to an afternoon stroll through the charming village. I had scouted the restaurants, and had set my eyes on a V$ 100,000 menu that included goat grilled with lemon grass, but by the time I came back from my walk I had eaten so much street food I didn’t feel hungry at all. My browsing included a kebab of grilled pork, a deep-fried plantain tostada, a king of spring roll, and a juicy pear. Let it not be said I do not keep to a balanced diet!

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