Hanoi to Tam Coc
It was time to make our way to our next destination, travelling south from Hanoi to Tam Coc in the Ninh Binh district.
This is about a 3 hour direct drive (well as direct as you can get in Vietnam) south of Hanoi.
There are a couple of options to get there, however we wanted to stop off along the way. We had narrowed it down to two choices. It was either going to be Cuc Phuong National Park or The Perfume Pagoda.
For this reason, the public bus wasn’t going to be an option for us so we had our lovely host Kevin get some prices for a private car and driver. There are advantages to getting your accommodation to arrange onward travel. This is because it is their name that is at stake if anything goes wrong or if the driver isn’t very good. They only choose drivers that are not going to let them down. We got the price down from $150US/$215nz to $120US/$170nz.
The stopover we decided on was The Perfume Pagoda. It sounded really nice and included a boat ride, cable car to the top of the mountain and we could walk down back to the boat. There is a large complex of Buddist temples and shrines built into the limestone cliffs.
Always, Always do Your Homework
Our driver arrived exactly on time, spoke no English but we had hired a driver, not a guide. This is always important to remember when getting from A to B. There is a difference. If you want conversation and commentary, then you need to hire a guide as well as a driver.
We eventually arrived at our stopover for the Perfume Pagoda. Now this is where it starts to get a little interesting.
The lady we were taken to by our driver took us into a building and started explaining that the Perfume Pagoda was closed for the quiet season. Everything is getting ready for the festival (which is Tet – Vietnamese New Year and Chinese New Year) both of which are in February.
No where in our research did we find out that the site closes – only that sometimes the Cable Car doesn’t run so we had to take her word for it (MISTAKE NUMBER 1).
She then continued to say that this other trip is better and shorter. She wanted us to pay 800,000VND/$50nz – 600,000VND to her prior to departing and then pay our boat girl 200,000VND when we return. Clearly we didn’t do enough reading of forums and feedback from fellow travellers to know what the going rate for this time of the year would be (MISTAKE NUMBER 2). Without this knowledge, it is extremely hard to barter the price down as you don’t know how much you should be paying.
We finally agreed on a total price of 600,000VND/$38NZ. We paid her 400,000VND and with the boat girl standing there, agreed to pay her 200,000VND when we got back (MISTAKE NUMBER 3).
When we arrived back from our trip and went to pay our boat girl – her whole attitude changed. We gave her 200,00VND but she started saying that this wasn’t enough. She had picked her daughter up for the return leg (who was about 2 years old) and tried to play the ‘child card’. How was she supposed to support her child, the Boss Lady doesn’t pay her enough, she wanted more money. She even went away, then came back for another go at us while we were waiting for our driver. The Boss Lady had conveniently disappeared so quite a conversation ensued.
Now we don’t mind sometimes paying a tip but the way she went about left us with a bad taste. We were pretty sure that we had paid too much for the trip in the first place so we weren’t about to hand out even more money on top. I can see how her intimidating manner might get the better of some unsuspecting tourists but she had met her match with Scotty (I conveniently slunk away to use the toilet). His barriers went up and she wasn’t making any headway.
We felt that we had made a rookie mistake and hadn’t done enough reading/research before we arrived. We also now know that it is a good idea to pay for the entire trip before you leave – it would have been harder for her to ask for more money had we already paid her in the first place.
It is so easy to become complacent when you have been travelling a lot. Vietnam is certainly not the place to just ‘wing it’. They are expert on all the tricks to get more money out of paying tourists.
The Yen River and Chua Long Van
Anyhow, enough about the moans – we agreed on the other option which is travelling by boat down the Yen River and visiting Chua Long Van which has 3 caves and pagoda. We were told that we could go for a walk up the mountain to visit these caves.
It was a lovely boat ride up the river to Chua Long Van. There is a little village at the stopping point with stairs leading up the mountain. We assumed that this was the direction we should head and off we went.
After a bit of a climb, we came across the pagoda. We are always amazed at the building ability all those hundreds of years ago. The pagoda was set well back into the shear rock face and offered some amazing views back down towards the river. It would have been better if a few of the trees had been trimmed but I suppose the monks living in a 300 year old pagoda aren’t too bothered about the view.
As far as pagodas go though, it wasn’t overly elaborate and was there to clearly serve the purpose.
We located the next lot of stairs and continued our ascent further into the scrub and jungle. The path became a lot more rugged and the steps uneven and a varied in size. I had to keep stopping to take in the view as you couldn’t walk and look around at the same time.
The only other living beings we came across was a goat and a couple of locals – both elderly and both carrying bundles of sticks on their back (see video footage below). It made me feel rather insignificant with my huffing and puffing and red face.
We did find some small caves along the way but eventually found the pay load. A large cave with the obligatory temple inside.
Satisfied that we had walked far enough (about 1 hour up hill) we turned around and wandered back to the boat.
The views were stunning and we kept coming across shepherd’s huts, ruins and old artifacts. It was quite amazing to think that the path we were walking was the very mountain pass used by locals for hundreds of years. Every paving block would have had to been cut and laid by hand. They had certainly stood the test of time and many feet had worn some of the granite stones smooth. Difficult hiking made even more perilous. Thankfully it wasn’t wet as it would certainly not be the place to have any sort of traumatic injury that’s for sure.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Had we’d known what was in store for us in Tam Coc (more in my next blog) we would not have bothered with this trip. On our budget, every cent counts and we don’t think that it was worth paying to do this trip.
I still think that the Perfume Pagoda would be worth the effort but in the right season. On the flip side, you wouldn’t want to visit in February as the place is apparently packed out. We saw hundreds of boats stacked along the river side, ready for the festival season. Both Vietnamese and Chinese flock in their thousands to the area. You don’t want to get stuck in among the throngs of tourists.
Click on the link below for a short video of our trip up the Yen River.