Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Best Day Trip from Hanoi: Driving to Trang An and Lang Co Village

Vietnam Awesome Travel Trang An - Mua Cave $80

Where are we going? How are we getting there? What will we do?

These are the three basic questions every traveller must answer. Depending on the kind of person you are, the location you're in, and your familiarity with the situation, these questions can either be the launch pad to a spectacular voyage of discovery, or a source of deep anxiety. 

Hanoi Day Tour (Ninh Binh, Vietnam)

Trang An Day Tour

There is a time and place for spontaneous adventure, the thrill of finding out you can cope during stressful situations in a foreign land, and soaring with the high of utterly unexpected discovery. This time however, I wanted to abdicate all the responsibility of having to figure things out from scratch in a foreign land, and leaving that in the highly capable hands of people who've done this before. I found Vietnam Awesome Travel on TripAdvisor, where it holds a very respectable #1 ranking in the list of Best Outdoor Activities in Hanoi, and one that we found is well-deserved indeed. 

Some adventurers bemoan over-researched and over-planned itineraries. If everything is easy, efficient, safe and predictable, then you've killed the mystery - or so that train of thought goes. But I've found that the pleasures of opting for a private guided tour run by consummate professionals are myriad and profound. Our day trip was not just glamorous in retrospect, but deeply enjoyable throughout. 

Amazing Trang An Hanoi Day Tour

Trang An Landscape Complex Rowboat Tour

Our journey North from Hanoi was remarkably smooth in contrast with the start-stop traffic we encountered on our way to Halong Bay. It wasn't a short drive by any stretch to the province of Ninh Binh, but the hours flew by thanks to Rocky, our guide for the day, who kept up a running commentary on all things Vietnamese that was at turns elucidating and amusing. 

A good guide will provide you with all the information you need to know about each sight, even an overarching background to the country you're visiting. Luckily for us, Rocky was a great guide, and at the heart of all the stories he told, was a deep love for his country and all its idiosyncrasies. A native of Hanoi, he lavished most of his praise on the North of the country - the food better, the weather more temperate, the people kinder. Perhaps by osmosis, we absorbed some of that national pride and wonder, which has translated into a lingering fondness for the places we visited. 

Best Day Tour Out of Hanoi

Day Tour North of Hanoi

An early morning rain followed us on our drive up to the Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex, but when we finally reached our destination, the downpour had eased up to little more than a heavy mist. Still, Rocky wanted to make sure we were prepared for all eventualities, so when we stepped onto our rowboat, J and I were both clad in ponchos and nón lá, the conical straw hats so often seen as a symbol of the country. Nón lá is most often worn by women, but J donned his with much aplomb. 

Ninh Binh Day Tour with Transfer and Lunch

Ninh Binh is sometimes seen as the most topographically blessed region of Vietnam. Within this province lies all the stunning feature the country has to offer. From pristine coasts to soaring mountains, with romantic little villages emblematic of North Vietnam, lush rich fields and a sizeable river cutting through the landscape, it's the essence of the country, in miniature. Tràng An, Northwest of Ninh Binh, is sometimes called the inland Halong Bay, thanks to some geological quirk that bestowed it with similar karst formations. Unlike Halong Bay however, the rocks here are clustered in close proximity, and it was hard to see where one ended and another began. The creeping fog rendered the world around us even more queerly mysterious, and our little rowboat tour seemed at times like a quest to find our way around a particularly expansive maze. 

Best Hanoi Day Tour with Local Guide

North Vietnam Unique Local Tour of Trang An

People have settled around Ninh Binh and explored the complex for over 30 000 years, but its biggest claim to fame around these parts is as the ancient capital of Vietnam in the 10th century. At the height of the Dinh, Le and Ly dynasties, Tràng An was the site of pleasure palaces, and shrines dedicated to venerated personalities. Today, between the towering formations, you can still catch a glimpse of buildings long abandoned, the shrines and temples quiet from a lack of steady pilgrims, but still looking splendrous from afar, especially those that seem to float above the dense foliage. The lingering damp made it dangerous to venture up to any of the historic structures, so the main highlights as we wended down the river were numerous caves and grottoes, each with its own story. 

Trang An Caves and Grottoes

Trang An Natural Landscape


Trang An Inland Halong Bay

Visiting in December, we experienced it in all its moody off-season glory, free from the hoards of domestic tourists that descend on the place in the bright summer months, many of them couples wanting a dramatic backdrop for their pre-wedding pictures. It was remarkably peaceful for us. Between Rocky's bits of commentary, sometimes all we could hear was the swish of the oars as we bobbed along the water, or the splash-flap of the river birds taking wing. But our steady rower, who plies the waters when there's less to be done on her farm, was less than pleased by the lack of visitors. Without the numbers, she only gets to take her boat out every fortnight if she's lucky, as there are oarsmen aplenty in these parts. 

Vietnam Awesome Travel - Day Tours (Hanoi) TripAdvisor

Traditional Vietnamese Hat and Rowboat

Best Hanoi Travel Blog

Over the course of our two-hour jaunt along the water, talk invariably turned to food. Rocky was quick to extoll the virtues of every Vietnamese dish we had yet to try, which made us terribly hungry indeed. The sight of a pair of grazing goats inspired a further impassioned monologue on the wondrous specialties of Ninh Binh that we were to sample during lunch - less farm to table, more free-range. J and I had enjoyed a wonderfully hearty breakfast back in Hanoi, but with lunch sounded more and more tempting by the minute, we were moved to pick up our oars and pick up the pace with furious if unskilled paddling. 

Best Tours and Activities Hanoi

Trang An Sightseeing Tour

There's off-the-beaten track, and then there's the restaurant where we had lunch, a local gem hidden deep in the side roads of Ninh Binh. The feast laid before us (And it was truly a feast), showcased the highlights of the local cuisine, with a heavy emphasis on goat. 

Things that found its way to our table
- Goat hearts cooked into a thick soup and served with crispy rice.
- Goat breast seared on a sizzling hot plate. 
- Stir-fried goat, to be wrapped in rice paper and garnished with a medley of freshly harvested herbs
- Pickled baby eggplant
- Vegetable soup
- Stir-fried chicken
- Deep-fried shrimp
- Stir-fried vegetables
- Steamed local rice
- Bananas, for dessert

Ninh Binh Goat Cuisine - Goat Heart Soup and Rice Crackers

It was a spread that could have easily fed a far bigger contingent, but we tried our best. Still, Rocky was scandalized by how little rice we ate. That, I'm afraid, is the Singaporean way. Why waste stomach space on rice when there's all that delicious meat to be had? 

Ninh Binh Best Local Food

Off the beaten track gourmet travel Ninh Binh

There are two options to the Trang An tour with Vietnam Awesome Travel. One takes you to Mua Cave: 5 km from Tam Coc, it's a smallish cave that's not particularly noteworthy on its own, but boasts a stunning panorama from the peak that sits above. This involves a rather steep and arduous hour-long climb. With the weather clouding the view of the Ngo Dong River and most of the karst peaks, the trek would have been pointless. So, we headed on to option two, Lang Co Ancient Village. 

Lang Co Ancient Village

Hanoi Day Tours Off the Beaten Track

As towns go, Lang Co isn't terribly old, but it is a monument to a fair bit of Vietnam's tumultuous modern history. Built in the late 19th century by a group of tailors who worked mainly for the French colonial forces in pre-independence days, the houses in the village infused European-style architecture with Asian sensibilities. The result is some utterly unique homes. All of them are a few owners from new, as the descendants of the original owners fled during the Communist takeover for fear of being seen as French stooges. The beneficiaries of the redistribution efforts still live in the village today. The structures may be old, but the insides have been somewhat modernized, and particularly contemporary slogans exhorting children to say no to drugs adorn some of the village walls. 

Historic Villages Outside Hanoi

We had the rare opportunity to visit one of the homes in the village, and have tea with one of the occupants. I sipped a cup of strong, hot tea in that old lady's home, feet clad in her best slippers and watched her small, sweet smile as she talked about the souvenir a nephew had bought for her from Singapore. In that moment, I acutely missed my own grandmother, with whom I communicated mainly in smiles and hugs, because she never learned English, and I only picked up a smattering of Hokkien too late to speak it with her. It is curious how home rears its head even when you're miles and miles away. 

Unique Vietnamese Colonial Architecture

The road less travelled Hanoi

Lulled to slumber by an endless parade of fields and squat buildings, I awoke with a start when we were back in the chaos of Hanoi. Senses refreshed by our day away, the contrast was a welcome one. At the end of the tour, Rocky made our day even better by giving us a surprise pre-dinner treat. Armed with a map where he pointed out places in the city we had to visit, I found myself raring once again to get back in the fray that had once seemed so overwhelming. It was, quite aptly, nothing short of awesome. 

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