Tam Coc, still a beauty but a tour best forgot
Having thoroughly enjoyed our Hanoi Easy Rider Scooter tour around Hanoi, when the owner talked to us about cancelling our already booked Ninh Binh tour and doing it with them instead we were tempted, but at three times the price it was not a snap decision. Having weighed the pros – everything our previous tour included and purportedly an additional several hours driving through countryside villages, we decided bikes would be a great way to see the scenery and cancelled our prebooked tour and signed on.
It was not an auspicious start. Reception called fifteen minutes before the pre agreed meeting time to tell us they were here. As you may know, JHubz is not a morning person and when we have a confirmed start time that is when he will be ready, not a moment before. On arriving in reception we were met with Khoi, one of our guides from our previous tour and two young Australian women, who as it turns out had been sold a somewhat different tour schedule to us. After a few uncomfortable minutes, we politely and calmly stated we wanted to do the tour we had been sold. And then awkwardly waited about ten minutes for our bus to arrive.
The bus door opened and we were met with the faces of two unsmiling Vietnamese women who didn’t even acknowledge us. It later turned out they were catching a ride on our bus to Ninh Binh.
Having not had a kamikaze driver so far this trip our driver more than made up for it. Weaving in and out of traffic at such an alarming speed, with absolutely no regard for any sort of safe stopping distance, that I decided to wear my newly purchased motorcycle helmet. Inside the bus. And was not remotely embarrassed.
Sat at the back of the bus, in the only spare seats, we bounced around like melons in a bra. Never have I been more grateful for not having eaten breakfast.
Two hair raising hours later (including a cigarette stop for driver masquerading as a toilet break – seriously who needs a loo break in a two hour journey!) and we miraculously arrived unscathed and switched to motorbikes.
My driver Sen was great. He spoke English, very quietly and was a good driver, so the total opposite of our bus driver.
Ninh Binh province is known as the internal Ha Long Bay, huge limestone karsts dot the landscape, many surrounded by gently flowing water. We didn’t enjoy Ha Long at all in 2016 finding it hugely over commercialised and not nearly as pretty as Tam Coc. There has been a LOT of change in Ninh Binh in the last three years, most of it not good, but the area still (at the time of writing but for how long who knows) has an incredible charm and breathtaking scenery.
We drove on roads, lanes, paths and wonderfully narrow and rutted causeways amongst the karsts and lush paddy fields through incredible scenery.
We didn’t visit any villages or a local family and I’m not sure we visited the Thuong Nham valley and we certainly didn’t drive around for the three hours, all as stated in the online itinerary.
Before lunch we stopped at Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam. It was only in 1009BC that the capital moved to Hanoi. Within the complex are the tombs and temples dedicated to two Kings. The first King’s tomb sits atop a mountain, which last time we visited was only accessible by some very precarious steps. Now not only are there brand new steps all the way to the top but a zipline back down again. Gah! Seriously if you want to see any wonders in the world do it now before we ruin them completely.
After a truly disappointing lunch, by far the worst food we have had in years, let alone in this gorgeous country of delicious food, we headed to Tam Coc for an hour and a half boat ride amidst the majestic karsts.
It was as beautiful as we remembered, despite the new developments, and being rowed along the quiet and stunning waterways was the highlight of the tour. The three of us chatting and enjoying the ride as a wonderful woman rowed us with her feet. Last time we had seen a herd of goats and were keeping our eyes open for more but it was our lovely oarswoman who spotted one high up in the cliffs. We also saw a majestic family of cranes atop a karst.
Khoi, our guide, seemed out of his depth outside of the city, there was not the detailed information we had enjoyed on previous guided trips and the majority of the motorbike drivers did not speak English, as they had all done on our motorbike tours in Ho Chi Minh.
While the area is most certainly stunning, having paid seventy pounds each, rather than seventy eight for all three of us, this trip was just not value for money. The bus driver was downright dangerous, not only for his truly awful driving, his charming yelling out the window at poor innocents who incurred his ire, but he also spent the majority of the time distracted by not one or two but three mobile phones! On the way back we went to sit further forward in the bus to have a less bumpy journey and were told we had to sit at the back and then diverted twice to pick up other people the driver had agreed to take back to Hanoi – they then drove past our hotel and dropped the new passengers first delaying us further.
While driving around on the bikes was lovely, in hindsight I wish we had stuck with our original tour at a third of the price Xx
(They are apparently rebranding as Hanoi Female Rider but none of our drivers were female and the website link we were sent was for motorbiketourshanoi.com)