The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 31st – Tam Coc, Mua Cave, Hoa Lu, Trang An

We arrive to the site of Hoa Lu ruins and stop for lunch in a small cafe. The food is served quickly and with a smile. Our waitress tells us that Katka is beautiful and I’m handsome. We agree with both statements.

After lunch we proceed on foot through the Hoa Lu gates, while our driver stays behind at the cafe. Inside Hoa Lu we’re expecting to find a temple atop some stairs, from where we’re promised (again, by Lonely Planet) a great view of the surrounding area. We’re not exactly sure of its location and the signs we find aren’t too helpful. We also visit the ruins of another small temple at ground level, because why not?

As we circle around the area in an attempt to find the temple we’re treated to yet another burst of heavy rain, which lasts for almost one hour. Eventually we walk deeper into the Hoa Lu territory and come upon a small village. One of the houses has loud music blasting inside. Outside of it a bunch of kids are using improvised fishing rods to fish/pretend to fish inside the rice paddies. Can one actually catch anything in a rice paddy? Some rice-eating fish monsters? Back to Biology 101 for me…

That’s a naturally occurring fish, right?

The kids yell “Hello” at us and we say “Hello” back, at which point we pretty much exhaust available conversation topics. Once we can see that the village continues into a mountain range we turn back. We return to the centre of Hoa Lu and follow a group of tourists that goes into a small area with a temple, which appears to be a carbon copy of the temple we’ve already visited. Temple clones. Sounds like a good movie title…for a very uneventful movie.

After more aimless circling around (one of my favourite hobbies) and checking out some minor sights we return to the car.  The cafe owners and our driver are in “siesta” mode, taking naps in hammock-like contraptions, beds assembled out of chairs and the car seat. We rap gently on the car window, waking our driver.

Our final stop of the day are the Trang An grottoes, which are sort of like the new and improved version of Tam Coc. If you consider taking inspiration from a culturally and historically significant landmark and turning it into a tourist trap to be “new and improved”. And let’s face it, you probably do!

Tourist Trap!

After we buy our tickets and settle into the boat we immediately start off by having a complete breakdown in communication with our rower. She continuously repeats a cryptic question: “One hour, two hour?”. What does that mean?! One hour since I’ve last had a sane conversation? Two hours until I have a mental breakdown? Are these just random words?

I assume she’s asking about the desired length of the tour. I ask what the 80,000 dong per person we’ve paid buys us, to which I get a very concise and clear answer: “One hour, two hour?”. In the end I give up and just say “1 hour” and hold up one finger (not the one you’re thinking). I hope this resolves the issue, but no…the woman says “1 hour” and then throws a curve-ball in the form of “30 minutes?”. Why…why are you torturing me this way, time-lady?!

I finally give up, smile and say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand”. This, of course, does absolutely nothing to stop her from repeating the question over and over, to the point where I begin to wonder whether I’m caught in some sort of a nightmare.

The woman falls silent for a short while and we enjoy a scenic boat ride through bright green rice paddies and huge karsts. Suddenly, we’re surrounded by three boat-paparazzi. They’re rowing with their feet, while holding cameras in their hands and taking multiple snapshots of us. Undoubtedly, they’ll want to sell these to us later. We point at our own camera, smile and shake our heads.

Sometimes, rowing without hands comes in handy…

Soon we reach a small temple on the river. Our rower drops us off, points to the temple and says: “Temple, 2 hour?”. Maybe she just has a strange form of OCD and must finish each sentence with a random time interval? “Hi, I’d like some rice. Two hour. No no, just one bowl of rice please, thanks. Four month. Why are you looking at me like I’m weird? Six minute!”

We do a quick “hit and run” visit to the temple and return to the boat. As we’re boarding the boat the three paparazzi start to wave at us and yell “Hello, hello, HELLLOOOO!”, completely oblivious to the fact that we’re actively ignoring them. Once we’re inside the boat the “1 hour, 2 hour?” cycle begins again, with renewed energy.

I spot an Asian family on a nearby boat and turn to them for help, asking whether they’re able to translate for us. Luckily, they can. With their help we find out that she does want to know our desired length of trip afterall. I answer that we don’t want to go for longer than 2 hours and the matter seems to be settled.

The Asian family asks us to pose with them for a picture, which the paparazzi enthusiastically support. One of the photo-rowers snaps the picture. Immediately afterwards he reaches into his boat and opens a metal chest in the middle of it. Inside is a printer and a bunch of other electronic devices. If you’re gonna mix water and electronics, you may as well do it in style! He quickly prints out the pictures and hands them out. A young girl from the family boat hands us a copy and tells us it’s a gift from their mother. We thank them and proceed further.

Hello? Two hour?!

Soon our boat enters a cave that is very narrow and seems longer than all three Tam Coc caves put together. The ceiling is also extremely low at some points – both Katka and myself have to duck  here, and that’s saying a lot. The journey continues through a number of similar caves and our rower does a great job of navigating through a maze of stalactites hanging from the ceiling.

Once we turn back Katka and I grab two extra oars in the boat and lend the rower our help. Back at the shore we leave her with a tip and find our driver to take us home. The tour agent meets us outside the hotel and tells us that he’s investigated our options for getting to Cat Ba tomorrow. He suggests an 11:30 bus to Hai Phong, from where we can take a hydrofoil to the island. He’ll come with us to pick up the tickets at 10:30. Excellent!

Yet another communication malfunction is awaiting me inside. I need to print out a voucher for the bungalow we’ve booked in Viet Hai village. I ask the hotel staff whether I can print it. For some reason, this unleashes a flurry of confusion bordering on panic. The staff starts talking about paying the bills tomorrow, checking the voucher and cross-referencing it with their computer system. I try to explain to them that this voucher has nothing to do with Queen Hotel and that I merely want to print it out. I even make printing noises and visuals (I’m not sure my printer-impression is convincing, but what the hell). My message doesn’t make it across…

I. Hope. That. Someone. Gets. My…message in a bottle

…ten minutes later I’m surrounded by 4 hotel employees looking at my screen, shaking their heads and running back and forth between my computer and theirs. Completely exasperated, I call out for one of them to get translation help from the tour agent, who is the only guy who seems to speak English. With his help we get the hotel manager to take us to his office (the only place with a printer) and print the voucher.

We have dinner at the hotel’s restaurant and return to our room to pack and drink Yomost (uuuuhm, Yomost). Happy with a long, yet eventful day we head to bed, anticipating a more relaxed pace for the rest of our Vietnam trip.

Side note: During the day I develop a rash around the insect-bite on my hand from yesterday’s Cuc Phuong escapade. A small number of red spots are covering my thumb and the hand around it. It itches more and more as the day progresses. By night time the swelling has spread to the base of my thumb and I have difficulty bending it. Thanks to my over-active and crazy brain I fall asleep picturing various horror scenarios, ranging from waking up with a giant swollen hand to having tiny insect larvae burst out of every little red spot of the rash. Yeah, I’m insane.

The journey continues soon. Remember that Katka’s got some awesome pictures from the Vietnam trip on her Flickr page.

August 1st is here.

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