Tempting Fate, Driving a Scooter in Vietnam
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Driving a Scooter in the stunning countryside of Ninh Binh, Vietnam.
After seeing the chaos of cars, trucks, scooters, and hordes of people on the streets in Hanoi Vietnam, I was pretty apprehensive about renting a scooter (also called a motorbike) to get around. But it’s the preferred method of travel by the locals in Vietnam, and we were going to travel like a local! We decided not to risk our lives by driving in the city, and instead waited until we were in the lush tropical countryside around Nihn Bihn. When you first start to think about travel in Vietnam, the stunning jungle covered limestone cliffs and rice paddies of Ninh Binh and Tam Coc are surely an image that pops up. The landscape is remarkably beautiful, jagged cliffs and craggy mountains pierced by rivers and valleys surrounded by picturesque rice paddies and farmers leading herds of water buffalo and ducks. Stepping out into Ninh Binh and Tam Coc is like stepping back into time.
We were staying at Mua Caves Ecolodge in Hang Mua, and as such we were too far from town and the nearby neighborhood to walk. We needed some transportation, and we decided to jump right into the Vietnamese lifestyle and rent a scooter. Conveniently there was somewhat of a rental place on site. I say somewhat as I’m not sure how official it actually was, no one ever wanted to see any ID or Credit Card, the older gentleman just handed me a scooter, keys and two helmets and stated in broke English to “park back here” when done. Easy enough. Now we needed to figure out where to go as Google maps wasn’t the strongest in this area. But before we set off, we decided to try something equally as foolish and difficult: climb the more than 500 steep steps up the Lying Dragon Mountain in 97F weather to visit the pagoda and dragon sculpture at the top.
The steps up Hang Múa peak are meant to resemble the back of a dragon crawling up the side of the mountain. I’m sure if you’re a super conditioned 20-year-old Olympic athlete you can sprint up the many stone stairs quickly. We are not. We were huffing and puffing halfway up the mountain and pouring sweat. It was hot, tiring, and tedious, but the views of the valley, river and rice paddies below made it worthwhile. We made sure to take an absurd number of pictures as there was no way I was climbing back up ever again! The silence and the expansive panorama views from the top of Hang Múa were breathtaking. Endless seas of green karsts mountains and hills, a gleaming river flowing through and immense valley lined with tropical jungle and rice paddies tucked in almost every corner. The pagoda at the top and the huge dragon sculpture traversing several peaks is neat, but the real attraction is the one-of-a-kind view. We did run into the ever present “Instagram models” while at the summit, and they of course took an obscene amount of time in the best picture spots with blind indifference to anyone else wanting a picture. I guess this is just be expected everywhere now.
After we finished physically assaulting ourselves in our climb up and down the dragon’s back, we formulated a plan to head into town on our scooter and find some lunch. We also wanted to check out some of the other temples close by and take a boat trip in Tam Coc. We hoped on our motorbike, strapped on the very questionably sanitary helmets and sped off down the dirt road. We chose to stay off the main road and continued driving on a narrow rice paddy walkway/path into town. The views as your whipping around the rice paddies and towns in this area are spectacular. You pass picturesque vistas of rice fields melting into jungle mountains as you drive my family memorials and monuments to passes relatives. We even found the occasional water buffalo grazing away peacefully among the monuments with it’s farmer owner nearby tending to crops.
Flying into town on our scooter we received a lot of waves and smile from the local kids. While there was a good bit of tourism, I think it’s still a slight novelty to see some Americans flying by on a motorbike. We needed to find some lunch and while the town of Tam Coc has plenty of choices, we opted to try something more local and pulled over into a roadside restaurant. We noticed that a lot of businesses in Vietnam, including restaurants, have the business up front and the family dwelling behind. This was certainly the case for us at Tuan Vu restaurant and we assumed that most of our ingredients in our Pho were picked from the attached garden. The chicken in the Pho Ga may have been one of the members of the family flock earlier that day as well. Vietnam has remarkably fresh food, even in the city and it’s not uncommon to practice a lot of farm to table. We each had a bowl of fresh Pho Ga and a couple large beer Hanoi’s. One of the best parts about Vietnam, the entire lunch was just under $6 US.
Then it was time for the short drive over to Bich Dong Pagoda. Go ahead and laugh at the name, we did. There is a small charge to park your scooter before entering the temple, but nothing more than $2. The causeway over the lily filled pond leading up to the pagoda entrance is straight out of a movie. This area of Vietnam is full of amazing views and photogenic spots. Curiously, there were no Instagram models perched here for a change. The Bich Dong Pagoda is more like a temple complex with several levels and some interesting caves with shrines. There were again lots of steps here to make sure we punished ourselves more! The views near the top are fantastic and it’s a great place to take in the local culture. We walked around a path to local rice paddy farm down the opposite side of temple. Although this seemed to be there for tourists to experience, we really didn’t know what you were supposed to see or explore here. There were some small house were people live/lived and you can get a sense of what some of the local life is like. Oddly, there were lots of goats darting in and out of the rocks and bushes along the path to and from the rice field.
We pulled away from Bich Dong on our scooter and headed back on the dusty road towards the town of Tam Coc to take a rowboat trip into the river. There is something very calming and comforting riding a scooter through the Vietnamese countryside. You just feel right. The fact that we stood out as complete tourists was confirmed as we passed an improvised two wheeled cart pulled by a cow with a couple locals in the back smiling and waving at us. It didn’t matter, we were in Vietnam and we were doing what the locals do. We made our way back into town and pulled up to boat trip embarkation point. There was a small fee to park our scooter here as well, but again not more than $2. We purchased our ticket and were pointed to the group of ladies in colorful shirts and black pants, all wearing Vietnamese traditional rice hat, the nón lá. By this point in the trip, we too had adopted this hat as it’s both comfortable and practical as it blocks the harsh tropical sun from your face. In fact, we had so many requests from friends and family for these hats, we ended up lugging around ten of them through southeast Asia to bring back home. We found our boat captain eagerly waving for us and we boarded the small, manually paddled wooden flat boat. The cost of the trip is about 120,000 dong or around $5 per person and tips are expected. We really enjoyed our skipper and we tipped her 50,000 (I believe the usual is around half that).
I’ve never seen someone paddle a boat with their feet. That is until this boat trip. To see it in action looks effortless, just lay back in your seat, grip with your toes and paddle. I’m sure if I were to attempt this we’d be at the bottom of the river, but these ladies made it look effortless. The river was crystal clear and full of different plants and the occasional fish. We were lucky to spot a few metallic blue and orange kingfishers skillfully dive bombing their prey in the still waters. You eventually come to some caves, and it gets very dark and cool as you paddle through. At the halfway point of the boat ride, a few other ladies in canoes row up and offer trinkets and snacks. We actually did purchase a small replica boat complete with oars for about $1, and it still sits in my office today. But the best part, these ladies were selling ice cold beer Hanoi for about $.50 per! I’ve never been one to shy away from a good beer, especially on a boat, and when it’s hot and humid, how can you resist? I think they were a little surprised that we purchased all six of the remaining beers, but they were delicious and refreshing during the 45 minute boat ride back to Tam Coc. The floating bartender was so happy we purchased all of her stock that she gave a bouquet of lotus flowers. While they were beautiful, we had no idea what we were going to do with them. After all, we still had a scooter to get on a trek back to our room.
We said goodbye to our boat captain and walked over to one of the many restaurants that surround the area and found a cool spot in the shade. We ordered the house specialty, a dish of rice and shrimp and it didn’t disappoint. It was time to get back onto our scooter and make our way over the dirt roads and paddy levees to our room. We did have time to stop in the small local neighborhood right outside of our lodges entrance for a quick snack and a beer. This insane noise and commotion suddenly starts to get louder coming from the darkness down the road. We get up from our table to investigate, and eventually out of the murky shadows a herd of water buffalo comes walking down the street, straight towards our table. They seemed to know where they were going, and we just stood and starred as this group of massive animals walked on by and towards the other side of the town. Just another night in Vietnam.
Can’t wait to do it again.
Where we Stayed: Hang Múa Ecolodge (Mua Caves Ecolodge)