I visit Tam Coc, Vietnam’s gorgeous “Ha Long Bay on Land”
The number one place I was looking forward to in Vietnam, and arguably in all of Southeast Asia, was Ha Long Bay.
Massive, jungle-covered carst rock formations rising high above crystal blue waters? Floating villages? Picturesque junk boats? In rain or shine, Ha Long bay is one of Earth’s masterpieces. Kayaking, swimming, cave spelunking, wine tasting, and basking in nature’s glory are all well worth the 4 hour journey from Hanoi to the bay. I eagerly awaited my turn to see this natural wonder of the world.
On the morning of our pre-booked trip from Hanoi to Ha Long, the front-desk workers delivered heart-breaking news: the bad weather meant that the government would not allow boats out on the bay due to dangerous conditions.
Holding back tears.
Start to panic.
Are there any other tours we can take today?
As this was our last morning in Hanoi, we scrambled to check out of our rooms in time. We didn’t even have time to change out of the bathing suits that we had donned for the bay. Three of my travel companions were hoisting luggage down the stairs as our tour bus impatiently waited in the small street outside of our hostel.
By the time we (as the only Americans, might I add) got on the bus, we were already feeling a lot of animosity from the other travelers. It didn’t help that one of my travel companions got sick on top of stressing herself out, and she puked for the duration of the bus ride. After a very chaotic night the night before, we were all feeling emotionally drained, and a bit loopy. This meant that, despite ourselves, every time our friend puked, we couldn’t help but giggle with each other.
Instead of a four hour drive (both ways!) to Ha Long Bay, our ride to Tam Coc was only two hours both ways, which cut out four full hours of travel time.
But I can honestly say, I could have enjoyed that bus ride for ten more hours;
The scenery was gorgeous. Beyond gorgeous.
As we left the bustling city of Hanoi, the unique and colorful buildings became more sporadic.
The greenest fields I have ever seen were brightly highlighted against the dramatic grey sky. Old graveyards and religious relics peeked up in between buildings. Communist propaganda billboards added splashes of bright red and gold.
Farmers wearing the quintessential conical hats dotted the countryside. Fishermen threw Water buffalo grazed stoically, and pure-white ducks twitched and fluttered in flurries. Creeks with waterlilies larger than my torso grew in ponds along the highway. Lush jungles full of banana trees swayed in the drizzling rain.
Soon, we began to see massive, jungle-covered mountains jutting up out of the flat farmland and toward the dark sky.
I can’t speak for a sunny Vietnam, but I can confidently say that the gloomy weather did nothing to diminish the spectacular scenery. If anything, the mood cast on the countryside only enhanced my bewilderment of the country’s beauty.
The conversations I had during this bus ride were also extremely enjoyable, and although I pity one of my friends for her unfortunate sick day, I had a blast on the bus ride. My friend and I took turns sharing the window seat, as we switched off during the pit stops.
Other than the pitstops, our first stop was at a Buddhist temple.
Women in conical hats aggressively tried to sell us plastic ponchos, and we had to insist on saying no just as aggresively.
The walkway to the temple was stunning, surrounded by jungles and mountains.
The temple itself was unimpressive. Actually, strike that, it probably was lovely. We had been overexposed by this point and were suffering from the ever-so-common tourist ailment of temple fatigue.
After a while longer enjoying the scenery from within our dry bus, our next stop was in the heart of Tam Coc.
A glittering lake awaited us, surrounded by more lush mountains.
Our tour came with a rowboat trip (although, priced at only a couple of dollars, I don’t think we would have minded paying extra). At first glance, we thought that our rowboat ride consisted of a quick loops aroud the lake. We were perfectly happy with this thought, as the area was absolutely beautiful.
However, the ride that ensued was probably ~40 minutes long, taking us along a winding stream.
The women steering the boats used bare feet and kind smiles. I happily sat, sans poncho, in the light drizzle of rain, despite the fact that our boat driver kept offering me her hat.
Massive waterlilies lined the edges of the water, and some boat drivers would pull their vessels aside to make silly hats out of the giant waterproof leaves.
The boat ride kept going and going, and we were surprised that there were more gorgeous views around every river bend.
We even went underneath a couple of cave-tunnels! It was a bit eerie to suddenly be plunged into silence, without the constant pitter-pattering of rain that we had grown so accustomed to. The cave was cool and echo-y.
At the turn-around point, there was a congregation of boats posted up, with women offering snacks, sodas, and water lily blossoms. Every rowboat pulled right up to the floating vendors, and most people purchased little items from the aggresive women. We purchased some mini bananas (have I mentioned how delicious Southeast Asian bananas are??) as well as a soda for our boat driver, which was more or less voluntary.
We went back down the same route and were dropped off at our initial point of take off. Our boat driver demanded tips, and we gave her a couple US dollars before hopping off and getting lunch.
We enjoyed an all-you-can-eat buffet, and I got to try goat soup, which was scrumptious!
After we had our fill, we were fitted with bicycles. As was the norm in Southeast Asia, the bikes we got were wobbly. Some of them were missing breaks or seats, but after switching some stuff around, we had a very muddy ride down some dirt paths.
I spotted some goats being herded alongside a mountain.
We stopped at a vista point to watch the boats drift by.
By the end of our wobbly ride, we were absolutely drenched. It didn’t help that our bikes kicked up mud from the trail onto us.
No Ha Long Bay. But because of our messy morning and our scramble to find an alternative excursion, I ended up having one of the best days of our entire trip. I learned my lesson: have no expectations.
And hey, now I have an excuse to return to Vietnam one day!
After our two hour bus ride back to Hanoi, we hopped aboard an overnight train (we almost missed! Our two taxis dropped us off at opposite ends of the train station, despite the fact that all of our train tickets were with one person).
The showers that ensed the following day were well-deserved and much needed. Some of us were “the source of the funk” on that train.