When I arrive in Ninh Binh my plans of lying on my hotel bed under the air conditioning with a book are scuppered by the fact that it’s the city’s half day of power. Virtually every town in Vietnam has its electricity cut for half a day every other day; here it won’t be restored till 8pm tonight.
I take a cold shower and go for a wander, in search for a cafe with a generator and air conditioning. It turns out to be a fruitless search but on the way I find a warren of leafy side streets with a small market. I eat a pineapple then squirm at the sight of a bucket of live eels being packaged up and bought and a stall holder picking out a fish from a bucket and cutting it up, with its gills still gaping open and shut.
The next morning I hire a moto and driver and head out to explore the countryside. We drive down county lanes that are no more than 6ft wide and through villages of grey brick homes, with front rooms open to the laneway. It is harvest time and families are threshing their rice crop, separating grain from chaff. The lanes of the villages are deep in damp chaff. A frangipani tree has shed its flowers and the heady tropical scent of the crushed petals mixed with wet rice stalks surrounds us as we drive over it. The rice grains are spread to dry on patios and on the hot bitumen of the road and the moto driver carefully avoids these.
The villages are peaceful places. Plump sand coloured puppies loll by the side of the lane, tongues out and soft eared goats look up from their grazing to stare at us suspiciously through amber eyes. Rangy chickens, their feathers looking half plucked, dance away from our wheels. We disturb a troupe of white ducks with yellow beaks who set off down the bank of the river at a jog. Their crotchety quacks follow us down the road. And all around us the mountains, blue grey in the morning light, offer a vast serene backdrop.
After half an hour or so we arrive at a temple that’s a 440 step climb up the hill. The sun chooses this moment to emerge from behind the clouds. It’s only 8.30am but within minutes the rice paddies are gently steaming and I, on my climb up the mountain, am wet through. Rivulets of sweat run down my back, my neck, my arms. My stomach is wet, my thighs damp.
The climb is worth it though. As I twist upwards I’m rewarded first with glimpses of the villages we’ve just passed through.
Then the karst mountains begin to emerge and soon I’m looking out across a deep green forest of hills, perched among winding rivers and a patchwork of lime green and lemon yellow rice fields.
Back on the moto we head through more villages. In one, a barber has set up a chair on the road, a mirror attached to the wall of a house. He’s giving his customer a neat trim on the back of his neck as we drive by, close enough to reach out and stroke is hair if we’d chosen to. An old woman on a bicycle pedals slowly by. She’s wearing a navy blue pyjama suit and an old conical straw hat that’s fixed to her head with a bright pink velvet ribbon.
Arriving at Tam Coc I hire a boat for the 6km row up river. There are two rowers on board: a woman in her late 50s who looks plump but is in fact compact and sturdy. With seemingly no effort she rows with one oar and steers the boat along. In the rear is a young man in his 20s with a round face and big soft eyes. He has two oars and is the power house of the boat.
We glide silently downstream, through limestone caves, beside rice fields and between the tall blue green hills. Occasionally we see other rowers – traders and hawkers mostly – but often the river is mirror still and the only sound is the plop and pull of our oars in the water.
When the rowers have tired arms they simply transfer the oars and proceed to row with their feet. It looks a little like riding a bicycle while lying down. The legs kick out in wide arcs, pushing the oars through the water. The rower controls their direction with his feet, using the arch of his foot to pull them through the water and then, toes opening wide, transferring the oars seamlessly to the side of his feet when he pulls them up and through the air.
I spend half the journey entranced by the skill and the flexibility of those feet. And riding back to the hotel later on, I realise I feel as satisfied and sated on the experiences of the day as if I had eaten a big meal.