A few weeks ago we followed a dinner recommendation and ended up eating some of the most delicious vegan food we have ever tasted (in the business end of someone’s garage).
The creator of these Vietnamese vegan treats (and part owner of the garage) recommended we visit Ninh Bình on our journey south. Ninh Bình was her ancestral home and the place she considered it to be “the most peaceful place in all Vietnam”.
Tam Cốc-Bích Động is not, as one of our friends suggested a string of obscenities, it is actually a collection of very beautiful places near Ninh Bình in Northern Vietnam.
Apprehensive at the thought of a tourist town, we plotted a route that would take us over mountain passes, away from the main roads, across rice fields, past grazing water buffalo and between towering chunks of limestone known as karst mountains.
These “mountains” (not that they comply with what I believe is the internationally accepted definition of a mountain) appear to be carefully balanced on the otherwise flat Vietnamese landscape.
I say balanced rather than embedded – once you have been paddled underneath a few of these enormous rocks by ageing Vietnamese women with what must be incredibly strong thigh muscles, you realise that these huge boulders are usually resting on comparatively small surface areas.
We found ourselves a quiet hotel on the edge of the tourist area and close to the bird sanctuary. As the memo telling the birds where the sanctuary ended had clearly been lost in the post, we set out to explore with a backing track of wild bird song and dragonfly wings (imagine hundreds of tiny eggbeaters gently bumping into each other while someone imitates a variety of car alarms).
The ancient pagoda of Bích Động dates back to 1428 and the serenity of this place completely took my breath away. The small wooden structures of the pagoda hidden in and protected by the rock have outlasted countless wars, regimes and political opinions.
The hardwood and stone structures are home to a myriad of benevolent effigies all of whom will probably smile back at visitors for another 600 years.
Vietnam is home to some of the most venomous snakes in the world and while we weren’t quick thinking enough to take a picture of the one we encountered in Tam Cốc, we were sensible enough not to stand on it.
Having googled our combined descriptions of the snake in question and come back with one likely suspect, we are even more pleased with ourselves for not standing on a red headed krait.
We have agreed not to stand on any snakes at all.