Thursday 1st December 2016:
I woke up to the lovely sound of cockerels and crickets. The very soundtrack of nature gently warmed me up to what was going to be a wonderful muted sunrise in the quiet town of Tam Coc near Ninh Binh.
I slept well on my lovely bamboo bed and the beautiful silence of the country side put me at peace.
I got ready taking my time and made my way to the cafe area to have my breakfast. I had omelette and toast. I met Marc at 8.30am as agreed last night.
After breakfast, one of the members of staff came to see me and said that my guide would arrive in 15 minutes. Shocked by the promptness, I rushed to my room and packed all the stuff needed for the day.
The guide arrived and I introduced myself to him, his name was Loa. I couldn’t speak Vietnamese much and he couldn’t speak English much neither but communication wasn’t difficult somehow. Before taking off, I quickly asked Da (the member of staff) about the washing I needed to do as it was so much of it (I had to pay 92 000 VDG).
I jumped on the motorbike and made my dua. I was incredibly excited about the day to come. One thing that completely made the whole experience extraordinary was the beautiful wintery sun (warm there!) that blessed our skin.
We embarked on a road towards Trang An. On the motorway I asked Loa if he could stop as the speed of the motorbike, the passing motorbikes and the morning dew was making the weather quite cold. He kindly accepted and we parked on the adjacent bridge. I quickly searched my bag for my jumper, found it and put it on. I took opportunity of the small break to put a roll of film in my Olympus XA. Loa was shocked to see that there were still people using film. He was happy to see young people still doing it. We got back on the motorbike and set on our quest again, this time I had my XA carefully wrapped from my wrist.
The first destination was not far from the Hoa Lu complex which was a place where the Vietnamese dynasty stopped. It was quite interesting and part of that excursion was to climb a crazy 80 meters mountain which wasn’t expected and was rather difficult as the weather was really hot.
After climbing, a few old ladies came to me and asked for money. The more I climbed the hotter it got. The view was so worth it and I could enjoyed a beautiful view over Ninh Binh from that mountain.
I finished my trek and went down to the base of the mountain to find Loa waiting for me patiently. We passed Trang An and Loa said it would be on our return.
It was so amazing being at the back of the motorbike for so long, I was able to absorb the whole experience from a passive point of view and take pictures whilst travelling.
We went really far and reached Bai Dinh after 25 minutes of ride. Bai Dinh is a massive Buddhist complex. We didn’t spend much time there as the place was way too big for only our 40 minutes walk/visit.
We walked far into the complex and saw many beautiful buildings with interesting architecture.
I asked Loa if it was ok if we could leave as there would not be enough time for the rest. He agreed and we left under the scorching sun.
On our way out, Loa stopped to drink some tea and I replenished my films. A random guy joined us and wanted to eat with Loa. They took us to a street restaurant but all they had was meat. I asked Loa if it was ok to go back to Trang Ang as on our way here I had spotted some nice restaurants. He agreed and we left, the random guy departed from us somehow confused. Haha.
We got on the bike and drove to Trang An and hunger was at its peak just like the sun (at its zenith). I found a very touristy restaurant and decided to try their food. I ordered a Sweet and Sour Fish and Rice dish. I asked Loa if he wanted something but refused. He then left and said he wanted to go to the toilet. The food came and it was nice (the food reminded me of rougaille poisson). Loa came back 30 minutes and I figured out he had eaten.
I was well full up. I needed to relax so we departed to go on the boat ride. I purchased my ticket and passed the ticket into the machine. Loa surprised me by buying himself a ticket too. We passed the gates (electronic gates??? – in the most rural part of Vietnam!). We were joined by an Argentinian guy and a guy from Frankfurt. We introduced ourselves and we really hit it off nicely.
We started the journey into the past. It seriously looked like Jurassic Park.
The more the boat was going through the caves and along the savage landscape, the more it took my breath away. It was as if King Kong lived there and the sun rays were piercing through the mountains.
We went through a total of 8 caves. I shot 5 rolls just on this day and I was worried that I perhaps had to go buy some more films in Hanoi before I go to Ho Chi Minh City.
So far everything about Vietnam was beautiful and the rural aspect of it blew me away. Some places were so remote that they had a dozen houses and 3 shops and nothing for like 3 kilometres. I got to row a bit which was a good experience. The sun was very strong and I drank a lot.
The tour was indeed 2 hours and I got quite fond of the lotus flowers along the way.
We got off to the pier after a lengthy time on the boat and proceeded to the last leg of our trip; the famous Mua Caves. We rode the bike towards this gorgeous place and let me tell you! This isn’t for the faint hearted, it was one hell of a climb. The entrance fees were 100 000 VD. I paid and entered the giant complex. I walked quite far and enjoyed the initial walk and in the background I saw Loa running after me. I think he changed his mind and paid the entrance fee too. He started the climb and he put me to shame! Loa was 47 and he climbed better than I did. We laughed it off , me obviously being very embarrassed.
The whole place looked like a scene from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
We arrived at the top and strangely I saw the photographer I had seen in Hanoi! What a small world.
I took pictures of the ever picturesque Tam Coc.
We stopped there for quite a bit just to recover from the climb and absorb this magnificent view. Loa was so silent and so humble.
It was time to leave, as I walked towards the stairs, I misjudged the steps height and fell on my behind. A Chinese guy, shouted: “Are you ok?”. I laughed nervously and replied: “yes, thank you?”. The climb down was as challenging as the climb up.
We went to the Mua Cave and Loa was very silent, almost as if he was spiritually connected to the place. I think he was very happy to have joined me on this trip. We decided it was time to wrap up and go. Loa agreed and he dropped me back to the homestay. The ride back was just breathtaking, riding through the golden sunset of this magnificent landscape made me sad on how much we are missing on the most important gifts in life; nature. I almost cried because of how precious this moment was. I felt like time stopped. I never could prepare enough for this day. I felt so blessed.
I arrived at the homestay safe and sound, I thanked Loa and wished him well for the future. Bigh appeared behind me and said: “how was the day?”. I replied with so much contentment and excitement that she hugged me. I was shocked. She then reached into her bag and got a corn on a cob, fresh out of the kitchen and offered it to me. She just had prepared it for her family but insisted on me having one. I was so touched.
I met a few people from Brazil and Germany. Then a well deserved rest was needed. I retired to my room and got ready for bed after a beautiful day!