When I started to plan for this short trip to Hanoi, I was certain that Halong Bay is a must-visit destination. I started to look around what other places we can visit for our third day in Hanoi. There were several day trips we could take, it is either we visit Perfume Pagoda, Trang An or Tam Coc & Hoa Lu. The main attraction for Perfume Pagoda is the Buddhist temple complex and there is no pagoda, so we strike that off the list. The main attraction at Trang An is Bai Dinh Pagoda which is completed only recently in 2015. Tam Coc & Hoa Lu gave us a little of nature and a little of history. We chose the day trip to Tam Coc & Hoa Lu.
Onward to Ninh Binh Province
Our trip to Tam Coc and Hoa Lu resides in Ninh Binh Province, about 2½ hours drive south of Hanoi. Our guide, Long, and the driver came by our hotel to pick us up at 7.15am and proceeded to pick up the other four pax in the tour group around Hanoi. Along the way, we drove past numerous paddy fields and saw some graves in the middle of the fields. Long explained that it is customary in Vietnam to have the landowner to be buried in the field in a way to bless the field. As we were driven into a small town in Ninh Binh province, Long drew our attention to a European palace-like building. This is Thanh Thang Palace home to a wealthy Vietnamese businessman who wanted to live in a palace and he spent $17 million to build this palace. The building has a domed gilded roof and elaborately-decorated arch and is inspired by several European styles. Long described this as the Taj Mahal of Vietnam.
After the 2½ hours drive, we reached the first stop of the day. One of the itineraries is to have lunch at the home of a Vietnamese family. This two-storey building has a large front yard and belongs to a wealthy family. Long explained the original owner of this house is a Vietnam war veteran who was handsomely rewarded by the Vietnamese government for his contributions during the war. We rested at this house momentarily before heading out in a bicycle for our ride through the countryside in Tam Coc.
Cycling Through the Countryside of Tam Coc
Long arranged with the owners of the house to loan us bicycles and a traditional Vietnamese straw hat for our ride to the countryside of Tam Coc. The mountain bikes that Long arranged were perfect for the ride through the rough gravel countryside paths that Long led us through. Along the way, we were treated with gorgeous views of the countryside. The field of bright green pastures filled with paddy and what seem like lotus plants as well as some with wild plants in the foreground and limestone mountains draped in their green garments of the summer season in the background seemingly watching over these pastures like their guardian angles are what we see along the way. These limestone mountains looked like those we seen in Halong Bay yesterday, no wonder the locals dubbed Tam Coc as Halong Bay on land. The ride was scenic and relaxing coupled with the unpolluted fresh air of the countryside, and at times we spotted some wild goats taking their forenoon stroll through this area, I totally enjoyed the ride. We rode past the Ngo Dong River and stopped momentarily at a bridge for some photo opportunities.
Thai Vi Temple
We made two stops on our 1½ hour ride through the countryside. We arrived at Thai Vi Temple, which was built by King Tran Thai Tong in 1258 after he led a victorious fight against the Mongol Empire. The king gave up his throne to his son and retired to this place after the war and became a monk. The only temple made of entirely of monolithic greenstone, Thai Vi Temple is a small and tranquil temple surrounded by limestone mountains. This temple is a little off the beaten path and there are not many people at the temple at the time our visit. Passing through the small main gateway to the temple, the temple grounds open up to a huge foreyard. A small tower is erected on both sides of the foreyard facing the temple. A drum and a bell are installed in the left and right tower respectively. The grey stone colour temple houses the statue of King Tran Thai Tong. Entering the main temple building, we spotted an old man playing a traditional one-string Vietnamese guitar – Dan Bau and stopped to listen. It is amazing the variety of notes Dan Bau can produce with just a single chord. Long told us this man is the guardian of the temple. He is a musical wiz and can play all sorts of traditional Vietnamese musical instruments and the best thing is he self-taught to play these instruments. The guardian of the temple played another two different types of flutes made of bamboo, the male flute or Sao Truc and the female flute or Sao. We were given some time to walk around the temple grounds. I spotted a tomb-like structure behind the temple building and asked Long about it. Long explained the tomb I saw was the tomb of a general.
Cavern by the River
After spending another 10 mins, we left Thai Vi Temple and continued our cycling trip around the area. Long led us to a cavern by the bank of Ngo Dong River. The view here is breathtaking. The river snakes around the limestone hills on both sides as though giving in to the might of the hills. Immediately in front of the cavern, another taller limestone mountain with a dragon statue and a pavilion can be seen. For a 500 step climb up this mountain, the view is worth the climb as it allows visitors to truly appreciate the beauty of this Halong Bay on land. We rested for 5 mins and headed back to the Vietnamese house for a traditional Vietnamese lunch.
Rowing Down to the Three Caves
After lunch, we headed to the bank of Ngo Dong River for our 2-hour boat ride down the river to the three caves. As we were walking to board our boat, Long cautioned us that the vendors will try to sell us drinks and snacks for the boat paddler. He recommended us not to buy these overpriced items and instead tip the paddler if we wanted to. There are numerous small metal boats docked at the boarding area, each boat has a maximum capacity of two visitors (but we did see some boats with three or four adults on it along the way down Ngo Dong River). We boarded one of the boats and soon found ourselves being rowed on Ngo Dong River. We were treated to limestone mountain ranges lining themselves along the river, as though they are welcoming us. It is interesting to see the paddlers in this area uses their legs to row the boat. The boat trip is very peaceful, I would imagine the boat ride will be more pleasant in other seasons when it is not as hot. As we were being rowed on Ngo Dong River, we were able to see numerous limestone mountains, some at a distance while others up close. Regardless of the distance between the mountains and the river, the view was unspoiled and unobstructed. It seems like taking the boat ride along Ngo Dong River is the only way to get close to these mountains as there did not seem to have any road connections.
The boat paddler rowed the boat along the bends of the river and the changes in the landscape did not cease to amaze us. Every mountain looks different in shape and size as though each has its own character. We found ourselves coming to the first cave, which provided us with shelter from the hot summer Vietnamese sun. The cave is similar to Luon Cave we visited in Halong Bay yesterday. We were rowed along the river that runs under the limestone mountain. Looking up, we could see the limestone formations underneath the mountain. There is little clearance between the boat at the cave, we were able to touch the ceiling of the cave. The scenery instantly changed from the darkness of the cave to one that has limestone mountain ranges covered with lush green vegetation lined on both sides of the river as soon as we exited the cave. These mountain ranges look as if it stretches forever on both sides of Ngo Dong River.
Very soon we found ourselves on the part of the river than flows through the second cave, which is relatively shorter than the first cave. It did not take too long for the boat to exit the second cave and continued our journey down the river. We were still taking in the scenery that this Halong Bay on land offers.
As we were near the third cave, I spotted a few boats on the river with only one person on the boat. These boats gathered at the entrance of the third cave and are the so-called floating market that Long had told us earlier on. Rather than being a real floating market that sells goods where locals can come and buy from like those in Thailand, this floating market is nothing more than a few boats trying to sell their wares to tourists to come down the river on these sightseeing boats. This market looks like they are there for the tourists. Our boat went into the third cave but did not go through the cave unlike the first two we came across. It does seem that there is no way through the third cave from where we were. The third cave looks the same as the first two we saw on our way here. This is where we took a u-turn and headed back from where we came from. Exiting the third cave, our paddle took her momentarily rest for one of these floating market boats pulled up to our boat. True to what Long had told us earlier on, this vendor begin to persuade us to buy a snack and drink for the paddler. I rejected her offer and the paddler noticed no sale from us and started to paddle the boat back to where we embarked from the boat. The scenery looks repetitive on the way back, probably the scenery is still fresh on our mind, and I felt bored after awhile hoping that we would get back sooner.
Hoa Lu – The First Capital of Vietnam
After some 45 mins rowing on the boat, we reached where we started. The rest of our group mates had already reached the shores and were waiting for us. Long gathered everyone on the vehicle and started to make our way to Hoa Lu ancient citadel, our last destination of the day. The drive from Tam Coc to Hoa Lu ancient citadel took around 25 mins. Along the way, Long narrated the importance of Hoa Lu. Hoa Lu served as the capital of Vietnam in 986 AD when the first emperor of the country, Dinh Tien Hoang united Vietnam. In 1010, when the Ly Dynasty was formed, the emperor shifted the capital to Hanoi, which remains the capital of Vietnam to this day. From the moment we alighted the vehicle, I can see why this area was chosen as the first capital of Vietnam. The limestone mountain ranges serve as a great defence for the palace. A lone Chinese styled stone gate lies at the end of a short bridge over a moat with two stone lion sculptures welcomed us the moment we arrived at Hoa Lu ancient citadel. There are no palace walls or any reminiscence of palace walls here. As we got closer to the gate, I was a tad disappointed. It appears this gate is relatively new and shows signs of it being rebuilt. Passing through the gate, we were greeted with a sight of a huge piece of empty land, which seems like where the palace of Emperor Dinh originally sat on. These days the only remains of the Dinh Dynasty are the two temples in the grounds of Hoa Lu ancient citadel. I feel this place can be easily replaced with a trip to the top of the mountains with a view of Tam Coc. What we saw was an empty plot of land that replaced the original palace and two rather old temples in Hoa Lu ancient citadel. Without our guide, we would have no context to the importance of these temples and the stories behind them.
Temple of King Dinh
Long brought us to the Temple of King Dinh, located in one corner inside Hoa Lu ancient citadel. The Temple of King Dinh is a temple that the locals built in the former palace grounds to commemorate King Dinh Tien Hoang. Passing through the main stone entrance to the temple, we came across a small garden before stopping at the second entrance to the temple. At the short wooden temple entrance lies a big stone with dragon carving. Long explained this is a replica of the Dragon Bed that King Dinh used back in 948 AD. A short walk after the wooden entrance, we arrived at the main temple building. With the limestone mountains as the backdrop, the Temple of Kind Dinh is quite a modest building for someone as important as King Dinh in Vietnamese history. The small temple building, mainly made of wood, has very heavy Chinese influence with statues of dragon installed on the roof. A statue of King Dinh is installed in the temple for locals to pay their respects to the late King. The temple and the temple grounds are not large and it did not take us long to look around.
Temple of King Le
Leaving the Temple of King Dinh, Long brought us to the Temple of King Le, which is located within mere steps away from the Temple of King Dinh. Temple of King Le is another temple that the locals built to commemorate King Le Dai Harm, the commander in chief who succeeded King Dinh. The entrance to Temple of King Le is slightly taller with a two-storey roof structure but with designs that are not as elaborate as that of King Dinh. At the entrance of the temple, Long pointed to another Dragon Bed that was used by King Le. Unlike the one outside the Temple of King Dinh, this Dragon Bed is just a plain stone and does not come with any carving. Similar to Temple of King Dinh, Temple of King Le is made of wood and has simpler decorations on the temple roof. However, the beams at the temple are intricately carved with mythical Vietnamese creatures such as dragons. Temple of King Le is smaller than that of King Dinh, perhaps out of respect to the first emperor of Vietnam. There are three statues installed in the Temple of King Le: statue of King Le Dai Harm, the statue of Empress Duong Van Nga and statue of his successor, King Le Hoan. We did not spend much time in the Temple of King Le due to its size. Long gave us some time to explore around in Hoa Lu citadel, but there is nothing much to explore in this area. The place where the palace was supposed to be at is now an empty plot of land.
Back to Hanoi
We arrived back to Hanoi a little after 7 pm due to a traffic jam along the way back. My friend and I were the last to be dropped off. After reaching the hotel, we headed back to our room and freshen ourselves before heading out for dinner. We walked along the French quarters in search of dinner and dined at a relatively small restaurant where a group of locals were dining. After dinner, we walked around a little before heading back to the hotel to rest for the night.