In my whole life, it is really rare for me to travel without purpose. I mean, I went to Jogja to see Borobudur, headed to Nusa Lembongan to swim with Manta, flew to Belitung to slack on the beach. There is always something to do in mind, there is always a plan. So when we, J and I, decided to continue our south-east Asia trip after Phuket and Bangkok to Vietnam, what we had in mind was Ha Long Bay. We had 5 days to spend in Vietnam and cruising in Ha Long bay wouldn’t need to be that long, so we chose Hanoi as our main city to stay.
Without any initial idea about what to see in Hanoi, we departed from Bangkok in one humid afternoon. Arriving in our Hotel at Ma May Street right at the dinner time, I was in love with Hanoi but that’s another story. We strolled along the area nearby and saw plenty of travel agents offering some tour package, then the thought came to my mind, tomorrow we would go cruising in Ha Long bay for a night and return the day after, we would still have 2 full days to spend in Hanoi. Since we didn’t have any idea of what to visit in Hanoi, I thought we could just take one day tour to somewhere cool.
After getting full of the delicious street Vietnamese barbeque for dinner, we went to one of the travel agent. They offered one day tour package to Tam Coc and Hoa Lu. The pictures of Tam Coc were really tempting, seemed so peaceful and green. After an easy negotiation, the price dropped down from 60 USD to 23 USD. I was quite proud of that.
The day when the tour began, a lady came to our hotel lobby to pick us up. I told her that I would need a short time in toilet before leaving. She didn’t understand English. Luckily the hotel officer helped me to translate in Vietnamese. It was still 7:00 am when we were picked up; in fact, we were the first guests being picked up. According to the tour itinerary, we supposed to depart to the first destination, Hoa Lu, from Hanoi at 7:30 am but somehow the picking up time was longer than expected. In the end we departed at 9 am, it was 2 hours boring ride for us to pick up another guests. We still couldn’t understand why it took so long to pick up people in the same area. During the road trip, there was no one from the tour organizer greeting us in English or at least providing a short briefing of what we were going to do that day.
Somehow without any notification, we arrived in Tam Coc at 11 am. I was confused; the first destination written on the itinerary was Hoa Lu. The driver just dropped us in Tam Coc, no words, no explanation, nothing. Then one guy approached our group and advised us to stay in the restaurant just accross the dropping zone. Another 30 minutes were wasted, no clear instruction, no one minding our group. Then another guy came to tell us that it was time for cycling. What the F! Its 11:30 am with the very strong sun outside and you told us that it was time for cycling. Cycling was scheduled at 4 pm based on the itinerary by the way. We asked about the visit in Hoa Lu, he said that Hoa Lu schedule was moved to afternoon. Another person in our group was complaining to him that we didn’t even have lunch yet and you told us to cycling. The guy was replying rudely, he didn’t care, he said that anyone who wanted to stay here could stay, anyone who would go to cycling with him, let’s go. What the F (again)? J was pissed-off for the way this guy managing our tour, well I was pissed-off too. J said to him, “We don’t even know your name, who are you, are you our guide or what and what are we going to do today, what is the rundown, what has been changed, what is still on the plan and why this tour is unorganized”. His English is poor; he couldn’t even understand that we were all pissed-off and complaining about this tour. So rather than wasting our remaining energy to complain to someone who doesn’t understand English properly, we used our energy to be patient and cycling with him.
The area is wonderfully green. I would say very, very, very peaceful. Despite the very strong heat of the sun, we were amazed by the nature that Tam Coc has offered. The limestone and rice fields sit gracefully next to each other. The birds were singing happily to accompany us cycling. The village with some small houses was quietly established. Happy chickens were running around under the shadows with their kids. I imagined it must be a blessing for living in this heavenly peace place.
Flash, flash, flash, someone… no, two-ones… damn three-ones were taking our photos. They are sort of street photographers who, in the end, would sell our own photos to us as a souvenir. Well, nothing wrong with that if they were not aggressively taking the photo of every movement we made even after we said no.
Mid-day had approached; we ended the cycling and went for lunch. We had a buffet package with local Vietnamese delicacies. Vietnamese foods are incredible. We enjoyed it so much.
After lunch, we moved on to the harbor to take a boat along Ngo Dong River. What is interesting here is that the rowing women/men (mostly women) used their feet to row the boat. Good to know in advance that Tam Coc literally means three caves in Vietnamese language, so the boat trip should pass through these three caves. Along the way, we could see the breathtaking scenery. River, limestone hill and rice fields make a terrific combination. Slow rowed boat lets us to enjoy piece by piece of the terrain. The lady who rowed the boat tried to make some conversation with us. She didn’t speak English but she could speak basic French. She told us that she has 3 kids, she told J that he has a beautiful wife (obviously!), she was nice and friendly.
Then the first cave appeared in front of us, the lady said “la tete, la tete, faites attention”, meant to tell us to head down. We passed the cave with a minimum light from the head-torch of the lady. It was fear and excitement at the same time.
The first cave was passed; we were back to the light, back to the remarkable landscape. She kept on rowing with her feet, sometimes we helped her by rowing with our hands.
Second cave ahead, unlike the first one, this time we had to queue. One by one boat was popping out from the entrance. One of the passengers was looking at us and sort of giving us a warning by saying, “You will have many many….” We couldn’t understand what he was saying and what it was about. So finally that was our time to enter the cave, this time we were ready to head down without her telling us to. The cave was even narrower and longer than the first one. At the end of the cave, it was a dead end. So I understood that the entrance is also the exit of the cave. There were some other boats there, I didn’t know what they were doing, I was too stunned with the scene in the strong heat of that day. The lady gave two hand fans to J, J gave one for me. Somehow I sensed something strange; it was too nice of her to give us the hand fan. In contrary, J was naïve, he didn’t think that it was really something, he wagged the hand fan to create some fresh air and told her thanks.
Just a couple of second after, the lady started to open her plastic bag that was eventually sitting for the whole time on the boat. She took out the fridge magnets, small pockets, boat miniatures and some other souvenir stuffs. That was the time I confirmed my sense, it’s a damn scam. We were at the dead end, with no other way out, with the lady tried to sell the souvenirs at the higher prices than in any souvenir stores. I wouldn’t want to know what could happen if we didn’t buy anything from her. So I, unwillingly, let J to give some money to buy the magnets to save our life and to consider that the pricey souvenir was her tips. Maybe I’m being overly dramatic but that was uncomfortable situation for me.
Right after the transaction and after saying no for taking more souvenirs, she brought us to exit the dead end through the same cave. My feeling was not the same, I was disappointed. I couldn’t enjoy the boat ride anymore, I felt deceived, felt like I was in hell in this beautiful heaven.
With that disappointment, I was still expecting the third cave ahead to complete the boat trip. Surprisingly there was no third cave. The dead end cave was really the end. She rowed us back to the harbor. There were just a silence and the upsetting mood. J knows me too well; he didn’t try to talk either.
The last kilometer of the boat trip, the lady was breaking the silence. Shocking me, she dared asking for tips. My emotion was at the top, I told J not to give her any cent. She insisted, tips, tips, fatiguée, j’ai trois bébés. She insisted too much that J was really bothered. She won in the end, J gave her some tips and we got off from the boat angrily.
We joined back to our tour group; one Spanish guy was followed by his boat lady asking for tips like a psycho. He was pissed off, he yelled in English that he would not give her any cent, that he paid for this tour and he bought her souvenir, no more tips. Useless, the boat lady didn’t understand English, all what she understood is the word tips, tips, and tips. With such bad feeling, we could not enjoy the last destination of the tour, Hoa Lu.
Tam Coc is the unplanned heaven and hell at the same time.