sapa’s substitute? a look into tam coc

IMG_20150414_153159_panoramaWhile we were planning our trip, we debated long and hard about going to Sapa. We saw the beautiful images taken of the rice paddies and the extremely friendly hill tribes. We thought it would be amazing waking up early to watch the sunrise over the paddies, hike to the waterfalls and just enjoy the easy-living village life, far from the hustle and bustle. There were many reasons to go; however, the more we researched we noticed there were far too many negatives or reasons to avoid Sapa.

The Negatives

Those being:

  • Expensive!
  • Long train ride (~8 hours) or bus ride (~9 hours)
  • Overran with tourists
  • Many hotels have been accused of pulling scams
  • Money-hungry vendors
  • The number of poor reviews on TripAdvisor (not enough excellent reviews to justify the trip!)

We decided we’d skip it. But what would we do instead? We wanted to see rice paddies. Real, authentic and working rice paddies. We loved the demonstration in Luang Prabang at The Living Land, but we wanted to see a genuine rice paddy that didn’t exist for any other reason other than for growing crops. You know, the aerial shots featured in almost every Hollywood-made movie “set” in Asia. They did exist, right?

We searched for day trips from Hanoi and Devin stumbled upon a village named Tam Coc in Ninh Binhn. The pictures speak for themselves:

We thought this would be a great substitute for Sapa. It was closer, cheaper and looked beautiful! Reviews all said the views were stunning. Easy enough! So, we booked a tour with Tam Coc Tours.

The Tour

The next day, the van picked us up from our hotel. In the group were all westerners- two couples from Australia, couple from Italy, a girl from US, and a man from Australia. Everyone was pretty quiet. The van was comfortable enough for the 1.2 hour ride, but honestly after the 4 hour ride from Ha Long Bay, this was cake.

Our guide, Jane, was very friendly. She welcomed and thanked us and asked us some questions about our opinion of Vietnam. She did mention “egg coffee.” Devin didn’t seem too keen on trying it, but Ryann did after she claimed it was better than Cappuccino. Try everything once?

Jane talked quite a bit on the way- she gave us some information about the history of Vietnam and what our day looked like. We stopped halfway through our drive to one of those infamous Vietnamese “Disabled and Disadvantaged Handcrafts” places. They all looked alike: sculptures, jewelry, clothing, artwork and handicrafts. We didn’t want to be hassled, so we decided to stay outdoors and watch kittens wrestle while we shared a coffee. We must say, the taste of Vietnamese coffee is extremely unique! Devin thinks it resembles a French Roast flavor but Ryann thinks it almost tastes like it has alcohol in it. Either way, the caffeine does its job.

We climbed back in the van and continued until we made it to the temple. Our guide Jane recommended that we buy a hat or an umbrella because of the hot weather expected. We didn’t have either, but we figured we’d survive. We had on sunblock!

The Temple

Upon exiting the van, we were immediately harassed to purchase hats and umbrellas. We decided since they were only a dollar, why not? “It was much cheaper than melanoma treatment,” as Devin put it.

Along the walk to the temIMG_20150414_112629ple, a man took photos of us and we thought he was part of our tour group. We weren’t sure if it was part of our package deal or what? We smiled anyway.

We went to the temple and learned a little about the Chinese temple. A queen had two different kings, one was poisoned? She had a son. Honestly, we couldn’t hear much of anything because where we stopped, a lot of other tour guides were coming through and people were stopping and taking pictures. We were more than distracted. We wished she told us in the van or in a much quieter spot.

Walking around the grounds of the temple was much more impressive than the actual temples. We had seen some rather extraordinary temples in Hong Kong and felt that these weren’t all that remarkable. Since when did we become temple snobs? 

There were so many Vietnamese people wandering around trying to sell snacks, fruit, hats, umbrellas or photos. More vendors than people. But the various ponds and the mountainous background was what made the place worthwhile of a stop. But we did have to look at the ground where we walked, red ticks were everywhere!

And so it began…

On the way out of the temple, a photographer came up to us with printed copies of our photos. While we were in the temple, he had the time to run to his printer and laminate with a caption of where we were! Wow. You had to hand it to him. That was pretty fast and smart business. Devin caved in after haggling and we bought both pictures for a whopping $1.00. If the man went through all the trouble, you just couldn’t say no.

En Route

We got in the van and made our way to Tam Coc. We drove around the limestone cliffs and through the towns. We saw a lot of men laying in hammocks and children running around. Horns from vehicles beeped justIMG_20150414_131213 as much out here as they did in the city. These sleepy villages looked very peaceful!

After a while we finally parked outside of a restaurant. We saw a sign for pizza and Italian food and we were so excited. But we were told to go into the Vietnamese buffet instead. After eating so much Asian cuisine, we were looking forward to something without noodles or rice, but that’d have to wait. However, the tour did include a buffet rather than just pho, so that was a nice surprise! We piled our plates with pineapple and fried rice. Devin tried the locally famous goat kebabs. We sat and ate and then made our way to the boats across the street.

Tam Coc’s Boat Ride

We were told that the boat rides would be about 1.5 long and to meet back at the restaurant when it was over. We didn’t wait long for a boat, the smiling missing-toothed whipper-snapper of an older woman rowed right up to us. She was pretty old! We felt a little bad about having her row for us. Oh well, we settled in and we were off!

Our nameless woman didn’t stop impressing us with just her age. Once she got the row boat started, she maneuvered her feet on the oars and rowed with her FEET. FEET?! We looked around and saw that all other other boats were being rowed by other people’s feet. Wow. We did not expect this or read this in any reviews.

As far as her English, she didn’t know much, if any other than a select few words. But every now and then she’d get Ryann’s attention.

“Madame, madame, Buddha,” and she’d point to where a temple was and bow. So Ryann would repeat it to Devin, who sat in the front, and tell him to do the same. She later told us how to say “goat,” and “dog.” She also meowed when seeing a cat, which we don’t think is the word for cat in Vietnamese… but maybe.

Caves and BoaIMG_20150414_131425ts

We rowed on, away from the village and saw an opening to a cave. That was cool! Our boat was going to go through it and it was a nice break from the hot sun beating down on us. After, we saw some people working in the rice crop right in the river with us. We thought it was great that despite all the traffic and tourism on the river, it still stays clean enough to use to crop and farm rice.

Before we knew it, there was an opening to another cave. We saw a boy in the boat next to us rowing with a paddle. We wondered why he was paddling and not enjoying the ride? Either way, everyone seemed to be having a great time.

Once we ended up on the other side of the cave, we saw an opening for another cave. It was pretty awesome that they went right through the limestone karsts. Also, the workers were excellent at steering with their feet away from the stalactites- we would’ve had much more difficulty, even with using our hands!

Persistent Vendors

On the other side of this cave was the turn-around point, but that is not all. There were all sort of hawkers in boats trying to sell snacks and drinks. We weren’t really needing anything, we were prepared with two water bottles but the woman brought two boats up to us, a boat on both sides. This forced us to look closer. Devin grabbed us a dollars worth of mango (quite a bit!). So then at those prices, Devin also grabbed a can of coconut IMG_20150414_134204_editwater and a bag of sugared rice crisps.

We know what you’re thinking, with everything only being a dollar each, that’s cheap! But in Vietnam it’s not. It’s less than $3.00 for a full omelet breakfast! So, they did overcharge, but like all tourist destinations, that’s typical. We were prepared to pay it. However, what we weren’t expecting was when the worker threw in three items for the woman rowing our boat. We were absolutely planning on tipping her at the end, but we were very taken aback at how matter-of-fact it all was. No asking, no thank you. How rude!

And so it Continues…

Devin coughed up the $6 (We know, but it’s the principle!) and we were on our return to town. We went back through the caves and making our way, munching on the mango and rice crisps when the woman said, “Madame!” She pointed at our mango. She wanted one! Um, ok. We already got you three items of your own and now you want one of our mangoes!? Ugh. Ryann give her a slice and turned around. Ryann tried to remember to not be bratty and remember our different circumstances. If we could provide a little snack and mango, then that was nice. Then, the woman pulled the boat to the side and called “Madame,” to me once more to turn around. Now what. Well, she had a bag full of souvenirs- Vietnam embroidered bags, wallets, and other handcrafts. We sighed, not this too! “No thank you,” Ryann clapped her hands and bowed. She kept calling “Madame,” for Ryann to turn around. She did, feeling rude and obviously stuck, and said no, no thank you. Finally the woman gathered it all back in the bag and continued rowing.

We Didn’t Pay for This

Once we started rowing again, we talked quietly about how sad that this experience was. Why didn’t our tour guide warn us!? We were unprepared. We know, $3 is a small price to pay and of course she would want to haggle us for more, but we paid for a pleasant boat ride, not to be harassed.

I thought things might’ve been a little better until she said, “Madame,” and started fanning herself. She pointed to the extra oar in the boat. Are you joking? We knew she was old, but we paid for a boat ride! What was this? Ryann told Devin and he picked up the oar. The poor man. Whenever we passed other boats, people probably thought “Why is he rowing?” WIMG_20150414_133811ell fellow-boaters, you just wait and see. Devin had helped paddle the rest of the way back. What a good sport. But he didn’t do it with a smile on his face.

The Finale

Finally, we could see where the end was. WOHOO. The boat ride from hell was soon to be over. We pulled up to the steps out of the river and Devin started walking ahead of Ryann. He was stopped by a man who was trying to sell our picture that he took on the river- of course. Ryann was just about walking up the steps behind him when her wrist was grabbed by the woman who rowed our boat. She was holding onto Ryann’s wrist tightly and pulling her down yelling, “Tip! Tip!” Ryann was mortified and knew Devin was too busy himself. She yelled, “We bought you food and rowed the boat ourselves! No, sorry, no.” The woman just chuckled and kept saying, “Tip!” Ryann finally managed to get her arm back and catch up to Devin who had already paid for the picture of us. It was only a dollar- but it wasn’t even a good picture! This place was getting really old, really fast.

Bike Ride

We walked back to the meeting point to find our group. They were waiting for us, which was funny because we were first to go! Anyway, next was the bike ride. We were thinking about skipping it, just purely over this excursion. But in the end, we decided to just go- might as well get some exercise!

We really did enjoy the bike ride. We biked through the villages, watching the everyday life of gIMG_20150414_152149oat herding, water buffalos munching on grass and kids playing. It was nice. This is what we wanted to experience, not the harassing nonsense we endured all day.

We pulled off onto a dirt gravel road alongside a stream. It was very narrow and hard to ride the bikes on, and even harder when motorbikes or other bikes were coming at you! It wasn’t a surprise that someone fell off their bike.

We rode a little further, getting a great view of the rice fields with the limestone cliffs as a backdrop. Very pretty! The gravel and dirt turned into hardened mud and clay, which was VERY bumpy. This really made us appreciate our paved sidewalks.

We enjoyed our bike ride a little more, enjoying the backdrop of the landscape. This is what we pictured Vietnam looking like. Peaceful. Rural. Sadly, tourism changes everything.

We made our way back to the meeting point and waited for the van to pick us up. Piling back in, everyone was quiet after such a long day. I wondered then if everyone else felt as disappointed. What a beautiful place this probably was back in the day, and how disenchanting it became.

Tourism: For Better or Worse?

Although the day trip didn’t meet our expectations or hopes, Dev & I took away something from the experience… We were lucky to have traveled to these exotic and “hidden away” places of interest, but often times, should stay hidden. The question we ponder is, would those communities be better off with or without tourism? It provides a relatively steady income, but is it worth it? We can imagine that people often feel exploited and driven away from their homes at the cause of traffic, pollution or unwelcome guests. But at the same time, the income might be provide their families with other prospects such as language acquisition, networking or education opportunities. It’s something to think about, but from a traveler’s perspective, those are the places we want to visit.


For an interesting article that shares this same question in Sapa, read it here.

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