Riding Vietnam Day 180: Ninh Binh and Tam Coc

James left early in the morning to get to Hanoi and sort out his passport and whatever else may be left of his bag. Now once again on my own, I necked an unsatisfying bowl of pho before riding on to Tam Coc to view its supposedly underrated forested green limestone karst rocks since Halong Bay lurks not too far to the northeast. I arrived at Tam Coc to take the touristy row boat out on the river to get an up close impression of the scenery. I hated that it came with such a steep ticket price but I couldn’t turn around and deny myself a visit. The rowboat can sit two passengers but since I was by myself and not willing to wait for another I opted to board solo with my local piloting and providing the steam. The man rowed the boat with great dexterity all provided by his feet. That’s right; he churned those oars back and forth by the power and grip of his bare feet. He sat back almost relaxed while holding his umbrella while his unbeknownst legs provided the effort. The ride was slow and relaxed besides the heat that doused me with a late morning sweat. The entire atmosphere of the rocks was stunning having just ridden from a city 9 km away and not seeing much of anything besides concrete and busy trips to unveil such a hidden disconnected world. I am and always will be a man of nature; the natural will always surprise and knock me back in dismay more than the resorts, bars/parties, and cliche holidays. Give me a lake and a mountain and I will die a happy man. Through several grotto passages/caves we continued on letting the scenery wash over me. Even though it was no mountain range, I felt small sitting in this tiny wooden boat as the craggily and forested rock stood towering over me. How did this come to be? Why here? And why am I so lucky to be tucked within its presence? The boat trip lasted two hours which was a bit long for me to sit still. I loved the views and the slow pace we went but I must say Phong Nha simply has it better. It has the same rocks all in its abundance of forestry but with mountainous summits and the mystery of wondering where Son Doong Cave, the largest known cave system, may lurk. I worry that the last major item on my Vietnamese to do list, Halong Bay (usually the highlight of many Vietnam package tours), will fall flat on my eyes after all I will have seen up until that point especially after a completely a God-willing successful bike circuit of the north. After getting deposited upon shore and paying a small tip to the man even though he wanted more (sorry I am not a money tree/ATM as you have made me out to be), I rode with my motorbike to explore the area at my own pace and curiosity. Over sometimes rocky, muddy roads I was able explore some of the same areas that I took by boat but this time free of charge. As the scenic views amounted, I found that the boat trip grew less worthwhile. It does seem that the best things in life are usually free. I kept riding pausing in spurts to fully appreciate the place. Here I was riding my own motorbike through places most people only dream of experiencing. As much as some experiences challenge me to the breaking point, people don’t realize that a great deal of my moments and experiences can actually be easily done. They are waiting for you beckoning to be seen and admired but you have to stand up and take that step forward. The best moments in life don’t come running up to you waving their hand in your face to get your attention like a tout or tuk-tuk driver always present and nauseating. To get the most out of life and what it has to offer, you have to make the effort and take the risks. When you do in the penultimate moment, then you can bask in the glory knowing who hard you fought to get here (which really makes it more special than anything else; if I had millionaire money and could sleep in boutique hotels then I don’t think I would be appreciating everything as much even though a Wall Street broker and I might be looking at the very same thing). Further off the map, I did pay for one other natural attraction which ended up being the highlight of the day. At Hang Mua Caves, the main sight is supposedly but either I couldn’t find the worthwhile ones or the ones I saw were simply ehhhh. No matter the disappoint on that front, I had a viewpoint to summit. The long winding stone staircase was a chore mostly to do the fact that I have gotten quite lazy with the use of my bike and the sheer pain of the scorched sun hitting me with no shade to speak of. All of it was worthwhile in the end with a view of the countryside and the Tam Coc river down below that I was once boating through not too long ago. I took my time at this small temple capped summit to take it all in: the unnatural city of Ninh Binh in the distance, the growing crowd of rocks creeping out from the ground as the view pulled in closer to me, and Tam Coc itself with the river huddled around by those sheer steep grey rock faces that grew more craggily and green with the trees that burrowed into them as my eyes drew upwards. Noticing a spiny statue of a dragon off to my side, I took the moment to be adventurous and scale it across tiptoeing side to side over the rolling bends of its waving spine to get further along and see as much of Tam Coc’s span. It was one of those moments I won’t forget to soon. I got the view of the day at a fraction of the cost that boat trip came to and achieved the view by the power of my own two legs (and for someone who likes trekking and reaching views best attained freely, it means a lot). For the remainder of the afternoon, I rode around on the motorbike off track trying to find a chicken/floating village that never did seem to appear until I chose to return to Ninh Binh city for lunch. I heard Ninh Binh had a local food specialty of mountain goat called de nui that I had no choice but to try. De Nui came served as a stir fried mixture of possibly lemongrass, chilies, and thin slices of goat (fat and protein as one; they don’t skimp out on anything here) along with plates of thinly sliced pineapple and raw banana, herbs, and a peanut gravy sauce. With rice paper I rolled up bits of the meat, fruit, and herbs before dipping it into the sauce. It was a deliciously messy bit of fun. I am not too keen on the Vietnamese way of using so much fat and skin from the animal but the experience of trying something so local as this was worthwhile in the end, plus washing it down with an iced (literally) bia hoi Hanoi beer didn’t hurt matters. With the time I had left in the day which was still plenty, I tried catching up on my blog while battling the A/C-less room with a couple of chilled beers. After awhile the room felt like a sauna even though I had all the fans in the room blasting in my direction. You can check off another sleepless night for Tony.


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