Day 7 – (Hanoi to Hoa Lu/Tam-Coc)
The location of the asia travels is located hardly 500 meters from pillow backpackers hostel; unfortunately we had to miss the free breakfast at the hostel, again. Well, you win some,lose some. We were greeted by Huang, our guide at asia travels along with many other tourists at about 8 a.m in the morning (We walked to the meeting point). A mini van picked us up near the office and subsequently picked 11 people along the way. We had a nice mixed group; an Australian elderly couple, a couple from Ecuador who were on their honeymoon for 5 months travelling across the world, 2 German teachers and few more. Hoa Lu/Tam Coc is located at a fair distance from Hanoi and me & karthik caught up on some much needed sleep in the van. The road to Tam coc changes quite a bit towards the end; one realizes why it is called halong bay on land. Large limestone formations are visible on the horizon and this area ,a part of the famous Trang An Landscape Complex deserves its UNESCO world heritage site tag.
Unfortunately as soon we reached Hua lu, it started raining like no tomorrow and we ended up purchasing rain jackets from a local vendor unnecessarily for 30000 VND each. Rain is generally not expected in April but weather is a bit unpredictable in the Vietnamese spring. So anyways the rain jackets were quite flimsy, just polythene layer structured into a jacket but we had no choice.Our guide though wasn’t going to allow the heavy rain to stop the show; and to be frank, me and karthik quite enjoyed getting drenched. The cloudy weather added a moodish layer to our shots which we liked. Having said that, it was extremely difficult to take shots in the rain. But we did nonetheless, more on that later.
So anyways, Hao Lu was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th/11th century and the location itself comprises of multiple temples dedicated to the kings of the time. Our trip included visits to the Temple of Đinh Tiên Hoàng and Temple of Đinh Tiên Hoàng. While architecturally, these are not that impressive but the mountain background adds to the charm.Our guide was busy explaining the history of the temples but the incessant rain made the over experience a bit difficult. Overall though the place is still worth a visit and one can spend at least an hour here easily.
Next up was the visit to Tam coc and a boating trip through the limestone formations amidst the rice fields. Before that though, it was the vietnamese lunch buffet at a local restaurant located at the tam coc wharf. The buffet was a good one with lot of variety including beef pizza, pork noodles, fish fingers and a lot more; only there was very little for vegetarians.Me & karthik hunted around for vegetarian food, asking the waiters in English who had no idea what were were talking about. Somehow with difficulty, we were able to ‘screen’ the food and select some items which at least looked vegetarian to our less trained eyes. The ice breaker conversation at the lunch table mostly revolved around the travels of the couple from Ecuador who spoke of their travels around the world; from Iceland to Europe; from Nepal to India and then pretty much the whole of South East Asia. It sure gave me some awesome travel goals. The Germans seated in front of us were teachers and were on 10 day Vietnam tour; they intended to travel to India but were apprehensive due to safety concerns. We allayed their fears with some safety travel tips. Meanwhile, the rain showed no signs of abating but our guide urged us to take the boat ride nonetheless.
The wharf was fairly crowded and the sampan boats while a bit rickety can carry two people plus a rower.
Life Vests on and off we were. The rowers use their legs to row the boat and its almost 5 kms up and down ; there were quite a few boats along the river stretch as well. The scenery starts off plain enough, there a couple of nice hotels overlooking the river stretch. Its only after you pass the first over bridge that the stunning view comes into sight and what a sight it is.
A meandering stretch of water through the paddy fields with gigantic limestone rocks on both sides, it is truly a magnificent sight !!. The rain made it very difficult to take any shots whatsoever. So me and karthik made a pact. I would risk my DSLR taking shots in the rain and he wouldn’t so that we would have at least one camera functional for halong bay, in case mine conks; it was totally worth it. The mystical mountains, the rain, the wind and the boat slowly making its way through the giant rocks, it was magical. We passed through at least two caves on the stretch; the water itself though is not too deep at hardly 1.5 meters.
The paddy fields which would have glistened a bright green on a sunny day were now misty green. The water was actually warm compared to the cold weather. There is another boat which will offer to take snap of your once in a lifetime sampan boat ride but beware ! ; they charge a hefty amount to process the snap. At the end of the 2 km stretch there are other boats selling souvenirs at a hefty price. The boat makes a U turn here and follows the same route all the way back to the wharf.
The only negative of the entire trip happened here; the boatman decided to offload himself somewhere midway and shift boats and demanded a hefty tip of 50000 VND from us which we had no problem giving us such. His replacement too demanded a fee of 50000 VND at the end point which is sort of ridiculous and in fact did not row the boat to the shore until we paid up. Tipping is perfectly acceptable but this was daylight robbery. (we ensured to write a note on this to the operator). The tour was supposed to end with a bike ride through the country side but it was cancelled due to the incessant rain. Drenched and cold but with warm memories, the van made its way back to our hostel.
A quick change of clothes and karthik informed me that his friend from Delphi, Nikhil along with his wife was at the hanoi old quarter hardly 500 meters away from pillow backpackers hostel. Nikhil had travelled to Hanoi from Shanghai for the weekend. He caught with him and made our way to Hanoi Night market. Hanoi Night market is shopping haven setup impromptu in the evenings at long stretch of blocked street in the evening by traders and vendors. Brightened by array of lights and myriad shops offering everything from shoes, jewelry, clothes and what not, it is a must visit in Hanoi; even the name sounds something straight out of a fairy tale book.
We covered a major part of the stretch without really purchasing anything but we did try out a few of the local delicacies. Hanoi’s version of milk ice cream or kulfi which which comes in a variety of flavors (5000 VND only), a gooey sticky strawberry gum on a stick (5000 VND) and instantly prepared ice cream roll (20000 VND).
Night market can easily consume hours of one’s time but we were there just for the experience;also most of the items sold looked fake to us. After the exciting tour of the night market, the hunt for a vegan restaurant was on the cards. Google helped us out here and Min Chay located hardly 500 meters away from the night market seemed like a good choice. The food was good ; we ordered the vegan noodle soup along with Vegan Banh Mi. The decor is interesting and the overall it is a bit expensive. (But note that vegan food is a bit hard to find in a hardcore meat eating country)
After a hearty dinner, we separated ways from nikhil ; the night was still young and we weren’t sleepy. Egg coffee is a pretty famous specialty drink unique to Vietnam; a number of stores around us were in fact selling it. Depending on the class of the cafe, the price can very from 20000 VND to 80000 VND. It was a one time experience; so I decided to visit the best one in the vicinity and splurged 87000 VND on a barely half cup of coffee. To be honest, totally not worth it! Egg yolk mixed with regular coffee; that’s it. What a disappointment (or maybe I don’t have a connoisseur’s tongue). Whatever the case, on the way, a street side vendor selling T shirts convinced us into buying a “Vietnam Experience” T shirt for 50000 VND. Not a bad deal for the end of the night. Satisfied, we hit the bed by 10.30 pm ready for halong bay the next day.