On day two of our Vietnam tour we loaded up in a big air-conditioned coach and headed southeast to the Ninh Binh region. An hour’s drive brought us to Hoa Lu, sight of one of the ancient capitals of Vietnam. In this case, the seat of government for the Dinh and Le dynasties. Only scattered ruins remain of any imperial buildings, but two major temples remain. The first, Dinh Tien Hoang was built by the Dinh dynasty in 970 AD. It contains impressive bronze bells and a statue of Emperor Tien Hoang. Vietnamese temples are not nearly as grandiose or impressive as other Southeast Asian cultures, but they are interesting nonetheless. The second temple was built by the Le ruler, Dai Hanh in 100 AD. It too houses a kingly statue, this time surrounded by ceremonial weapon, drums, gongs, and lesser family effigies.
One of the things I most appreciate about my tour partners in Southeast Asia is the quality of the guides they provide for Imprint tours. For Vietnam our guide Bon was excellent in every way. His command of English, including idioms and humor, was excellent. He regaled us with stories about both his own life and Vietnamese culture in general. His inside stories and keen insight provided just what we value at Imprint – gaining genuine understanding about the cultures we visit.
He was tireless in seeking out extra experiences and value for us, arranging many meals and optional activities. He was a fun and fun-loving travel companion and seemed not to tire of spending time with us. On free nights he often organized dinner for those interested in visiting a local favorite with Bon. In a place like Hoa Lu, sights that were not jaw-dropping in their physical aspect were brought to life by his knowledge of history and ability to weave a story.
The real star of Hoa Lu is the stunning natural backdrop. To get the most out of the scenery, we had arranged an easy going bike ride. After the temple visit we all geared up and pedaled for about 75 past mountains, rivers, rice patties, and farms to Tam Coc. Often called the “Halong of the Land.” the jungle-draped karst towers that are the signature features of Halong also dot the countryside of Tam Coc.
After a lunch break we engaged in one of the most unique boat trips in my traveling experience. We were rowed, two per boat, up and back along a 2 kilometer stretch of the Ngo Dong River, surrounded by karst scenery, rice patties, and limestone cliffs and outcrops. The passing view was breathtaking and we passed through the three caves that give Tam Coc (Three Caves) its name. But it wasn’t the scenery or even the excitement of silently paddling through the inverted stalactite forests of the caves that made this river journey unique. It was the paddling itself. The locals have perfected a unique method of rowing – they use their feet. With almost prehensile use of their feet, they row the boats with great skill. Talk about a fun photo op. Amazing!
After our unique and scenic afternoon paddle, we piled back onto the coach for the journey back to Hanoi. For those interested, intrepid and energetic Bon took a group into the Old Quarter for the best Pho in Vietnam (according to Bon).