Well, we finally did it. We broke down and booked a group tour. We aren’t huge fans of the group tour. Although it is a nice way to meet people, we find that the group tours tend to be rather disorganized with lots of sitting around and doing nothing time.
But, given that we didn’t want to rent scooters and fight the Hanoi traffic and given that an Easy Rider trip to Nihn Bihn for one person would have cost nearly as much as our entire daily budget for both of us, the group tour really was our only option for getting out into the countryside. So…we crossed our fingers and away we went. And, as group tours go, this one wasn’t bad. Very little down time and some nice people from all over the world (France, Spain, Germany, Thailand, Taiwan, and Russia).
Nihn Binh province is about 60 or so kilometers south of Hanoi. But road conditions are such that it takes about 2 hours to drive there. And, today just happened to be part of a holiday and a major travel day, so it took even longer. Largely because (1) just like in the U.S., major holidays seem to be the perfect time for road construction and (2) people just stand on the side of the road and waive down buses so there are buses stopped willy-nilly everywhere. I will never understand how they decide where a bus stop is located…
Prior to arrival in Nihn Bihn, we stopped at a temple in the ancient capital of Vietnam. There, we learned a very important fact: when a building is devoted to the worship of Buddha, it is called a pagoda. When a building is devoted to the worship of a “real person” like a King, it is called a temple. Who knew? We lucked out and a once-a-year ceremony was being held at the temple for King’s Day so we had the opportunity to watch people give offerings. Apparently, different villages come and give offerings at different times of the day. You can buy offerings made of paper and the possibilities for your offerings are endless. Most people stick to food, clothes and other useful items. But you can also offer up things like a paper iPhone. Robert wants to know if the profit margin on the paper iPhone is higher or lower than on a real iPhone…
Next stop was Tam Coc, which translates as Three Caves. Tam Coc is drop dead gorgeous. It is also known as the Halong Bay of the land, because in some ways it is quite similar to Halong Bay. Huge rock formations jutting out of the ground, caves (go figure), rice fields, and a lazy river running through everything. One visits the three caves in a small boat rowed by a local. However, for reasons unknown to us, most of them row with their feet, not their hands. It was a very pleasant hour and a half in the boat, floating along, until our rower started begging for a tip before we were even back to shore. Very off-putting (and 100% contrary to the culture here).
We also got to see mountain goats roaming around. Fun, but not so much fun to realize the goats grazing happily along the river were likely to end up on the lunch buffet some day… (Speaking of, we also saw a couple of restaurants that specialize in cat. We won’t be eating at those either.).
The next and last stop was not a stop at all — we rode ancient, broken down bikes around the countryside. Now, you may remember the bike ride outside of Phnom Penh that we took a month or so ago — I was not a happy camper after that ride. This ride, however, I could do each and every day. The scenery was beautiful, the pace was slow, and we were encouraged to stop whenever we wanted to take photos. My kind of bike ride.
All-in-all, it was a fantastic day.