During my final weekend in Hanoi, I decided to take book a day-trip outside the city through my hotel, Rising Dragon Villa — I saved one day for seeing the sights of Hanoi that I hadn’t yet seen, which left one day for either Ninh Binh or the Perfume Pagoda. As I really haven’t been impressed by any of the temples in Vietnam, I decided to head for a little more nature that surrounds Ninh Binh at Nam Coc.
The highlight of the tour was Nam Coc, a lake surrounded by the karst mountains of the region through which tons of sampans filled with tourists float through caves for almost two hours.
Nam Coc is just outside of Coc Phuong National Park, but only two-day tours go into the park, so I had to settle for this version of tourist adventure. The whole region is referred to as “Halong Bay on land,” which is why it reminded me more of Yangshuo without the cool tourist town.
My guide gave us a little speech about tipping the sampan rowers — he said we should generally tip about 20,000 dong per person in the boat (usually two people). However, sometimes they stop and switch rowers and request tips at that time, but we were told to wait until the very end. We were also told to not even consider looking at any souvenirs from the rowers unless we were actually going to buy something — and they were rather persistent in their sales pitch.
Our first rower didn’t last long — the elderly man with a long beard stopped at home after about 10 minutes to let his wife take us. After another 10 minutes, she handed me an oar and told me to help out, which I did for the rest of our time in the boat. We even had a third rower, the daughter-in-law, who jumped from her boat that carried four people to our two-person sampan.
It was fun to see all the other boats, with rowers using their feet on the oars while texting on their cellphones — true multitasking ability.
It was a rather relaxing day in the boat. It also included pleasant conversation with an Australian woman from my tour.
When we got out of the boat, my Australian companion thought our tour guide said 50,000 dong per person and thought we should tip a total of 100,000, which isn’t outrageous considering it’s about 21,000 to $1. Unfortunately, our rower wanted more and asked plenty of times for more, but we refused. I was tempted to say that I was paddling most of the way and deserved a tip as well.
The expectation of the tip reminded me of the Malaysian couple on my cruise of Halong Bay. They had mentioned that their guide for the Perfume Pagoda expected a tip, and demanded more after they had given her a decent tip. When the guide gave the money back and demanded more than double, the couple kept the money and walked away. Everyone who heard the story applauded their reaction. I don’t mind giving tips, but I don’t like being pressured into giving more.
After our boat ride, we got on bicycles and rode along a narrow, bumpy dirt path through the farms and mountains. The bike was more comfortable than the one I had around Angkor Wat, but the brakes weren’t as good. It also wasn’t anywhere close to 40 miles this time around.