The swarm of tourists, cameras around necks, visors against the sun, umbrellas against the rain, and socks up to the knees beat me to the entrance. Crud. But they milled a moment, waiting for someone to tell them what to do, so I smiled and slid through them like unfamiliar street food to get in line for a ticket.
I wanted to see Tam Coc-Bích Đông and its flooded caves, but preferably without 70 gawking foreigners. Granted they’d been born closer to this place than I had, but their mass seemed inauthentic, obstructive to the sort of Vietnamese experiences I was seeking. As with all other bajillion tourists, I wanted to be the only one.
The blob of them started oozing towards the boats, but in the unfocused way of passive participants. More of that time-proven tourism technique, aggressive-with-a-smile, and I cut through their shuffling tsunami to the line of waiting skiffs.
“Xxxxzzzz” I have no idea what she said, but the efficient woman pointed me towards the first boat, followed by the two women behind me. Our rower arrived, one of the women in conical hats who’d been chatting in the shade.
In my weeks in Vietnam I’d noticed a trend. Most of the people I saw working were women. The motorbike taxis and barbers were men, but women staffed the shops, hawked in the market, poured the tea, cooked the food, and now, rowed the boats. Most afternoons I’d take a low plastic stool by the side of the street with the men. They’d smoke and play a board game, we’d all drink a beer and share smiling motions before settling in for silent camaraderie. But the work? Women did most of that.
I’m not inclined to tell anyone how to run their culture, but having this lady do all the physical labor while I sat back and relaxed? Just not how I was raised. I accompanied my words of “Can I help you row?” with more useful gestures, and a big smile erupted under the conical hat. She passed forward an oar made from a section of a bucket strapped it to a piece of PVC pipe, and I dug in.
We passed through cave after cave, sometimes leaning low under the sharp karst stalactites and jagged cave mouths. We three visitors got out to explore temples and pathways, then rejoined our hostess in boat 11.
My companions were a mother and daughter from Hanoi, but that’s as far as our gestures could take us. They found it uproarious every time I thanked them in Vietnamese. “Cảm ợn!” they’d cry after I said it, and we’d all grin at each other. (I don’t think it’s supposed to have that dot under the o, but I’m lost in Fontlandia.)
As we moved from place to place, something else became apparent. We were the jet boat superstars of Tam Coc. I don’t really know what I’m doing with an oar, but it’s not hard to fly past everyone else when they’re not helping. Boat after boat of fit young men, doing nothing. It was weird.
My mother and daughter friends loved it. “Oh yeah!” the daughter would laugh and pump her fist every time we passed another boat, especially when they’d take up oars and try to race us, splashing ineffectually before falling behind. I admit it was a bit of an ego stroke for me, but more importantly, it was just fun. My Vietnamese ladies and I, out for a cruise on the cool green waters of Tam Coc, our laughter bumping around the karst canyons.
That set the tone for my time in Ninh Binh, smiles and Vietnamese encounters. A day-trip from Hanoi, it had its tourist enclaves, but if I avoided those I’d go days without seeing another white face. (It was a great place for local kids wanting to practice English.)
Yes, Ninh Binh was my semi-secret town, discovered enough to have good, cheap hotels, but not railroaded by tourism. Just as long as Hollywood didn’t come along and film a major blockbuster action movie in its gorgeous scenery.