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

At 2:30 in the morning I wake up to find Katka sitting on the bed with her legs up, hugging her knees. The light in the room is on. This is either a popular Czech night-time game yet unknown to me, or something is wrong…

Turns out it’s the latter, namely a giant cockroach that Katka saw in the bed. Katka’s ability to spot bed monsters is evolving. I organise a quick “search and eliminate” mission, but can’t find the infamous cockroach anywhere. After a while we manage to fall asleep, even with the knowledge that a cockroach may be lurking somewhere in our bed.

At 7:30 in the morning we go down for breakfast. Trying to keep things as simple as possible for the staff to avoid yesterday’s breakfast train wreck we order the same dish for both of us – two pineapple pancakes. There are almost no people in the restaurant, so our breakfast arrives fast and without errors this time.

Afterwards the tour guy calls up his driver and we set off on what promises to be a busy trip. We’ve got a whole four landmarks to cover today, which is twice as many as the two landmarks we saw yesterday, if my math is correct.

Mathematical equation

Incidentally, the above represents the exact calculations I’ve used to arrive at that number

The first stop is Tam Coc-Bich Dong (make your own dirty jokes here, you pervert). Here we’ll be going on a boat trip through a bunch of karst grottoes and caves set in rice paddies. If you don’t know how that looks, it’s basically the rice paddy version of Ha Long Bay. If you don’t know how Ha Long Bay looks, then I can’t do much more for you, I’m only one man.

We’ve read some horror stories (thanks, Lonely Planet) about tourists being ambushed after the last cave by merchants aggressively selling everything from food to T-shirts to jewellery. Apparently the rowers sometimes even refuse to take you back until you buy something. In order to avoid ending up in a force-sell situation we only take 50,000 dong with us to tip the rowers. The rest of the stuff stays in the car with our driver.

We get one boat and two rowers…which is twice as many as one rower. OK, I’ll stop. It’s quite cloudy, although luckily it’s not raining (so far). As the boat winds through the rice paddies we’re hit with a beautiful view of different karst formations, temples resting atop mountains and…ducks. Lots and lots of ducks.

No, seriously. Like, many freaking ducks.

We also notice mountain goats perched at the top of the karst. How they get to the top without teleportation is beyond me. Our rower switches to using his feet for rowing. Many other rowers we see are doing the same. We’ve read about this technique in the Lonely Planet, but it’s much more impressive to witness in person, especially since they make it look so easy.

It’s just like riding a bike. Except it’s a boat. And the oars don’t have a fixed range of motion. And you’re on water. OK, so it’s not at all like riding a bike.

We reach the first (and longest) cave and dip into the darkness. Our rowers are skilfully navigating the narrow passage through the cave. The ceiling hangs only a few centimetres above our heads and it’s quite a claustrophobic experience. Soon we reach the next strip of the river before entering another cave. Why hello there, flower selling ladies, fancy meeting you here.

Women selling flowers from their boat by a Tam Coc Cave, Vietnam

Nothing unusual here. Just some women selling flowers from their boat by a cave.

As we’re heading into the 3rd and last cave we brace ourselves for the imminent ambush of the mad merchants. The “ambush” takes the form of an elderly lady unenthusiastically making her way to us in her boat. She makes a feeble attempt to sell us some water, but gives up without an argument. So much for the horror stories.

We turn around and start making our way back through the same three caves. Close to the end of the journey the female rower suddenly takes out some pictures and shirts to try and sell us. You’re never truly safe from salesmen when you’re in Vietnam. But then again, are you anywhere? No, no you’re not, it was a rhetorical question. We politely decline the shirts and pictures and instead leave both our rowers with a generous tip at the end of the tour.

Next on the agenda – Mua Cave Pagoda. Our driver drops us off near the 500 stairs that lead up to the top of the mountain, where Mua Cave Pagoda rests. Just as we step out of the car we get caught in the heaviest rainfall we’ve experienced in Vietnam. Instead of doing the rational thing and returning back to the car, we stick to our usual stubborn approach and proceed to the mountain.

At the bottom of the mountain we find a group of tourists huddled inside the Mua Cave itself, hiding from the rain. Ha, sissies! Or, sane people, depending on who you ask. After the first few dozen stairs we’re suddenly face to face with a mountain goat. He’s taking refuge from the rain, while simultaneously doing a great job of blending in with his environment, ninja style.

“Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just doing my best chameleon impression!”

The goat stands looking impassively at us, while Katka takes his (her?) picture. Then he quickly make his way up the stairs, while going “baaa” repeatedly. We hear other goats respond and begin to wonder whether he’s called up his posse to deal with the amateur paparazzi invading his privacy. When the anticipated attack by an enraged mountain goat gang doesn’t happen we continue climbing up the stairs.

After a while we get to the top of the mountain. By the end of the climb we’re completely soaked and discover that so is the Lonely Planet in my backpack. At the top lies a small covered alter to the Goddess of Mercy (Quan Âm). I say a silent prayer and ask her to have mercy on the poor book and help it dry painlessly.

We stay at the top for a while, enjoying a 360 degree view of the surrounding area. On one side we can see a multitude of boats making their way through the Tam Coc caves, just like we did earlier today. All around are rice paddies, pagodas and temples.

Once we’re relatively dry we make the journey back to our car, meeting no more goats or hiding tourists on the way. Hoa Lu, here we come! (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)