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K-pop & Karsts; Cycling through Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Getting a dose of Korean culture as I cycle around Vietnam's Karsts in Ninh Binh and Tam Coc

I'm the only westerner in the carriage, a fact that's literally pointed out by a little boy who stands in the aisle calling his mother to look. She turns and laughs.

A teenage girl across the aisle waves frantically for me to sit next to her. Her names Anh, she's 14, studies English at high school and wants to practice with me. It's an odd exchange because she doesn't speak it, only writes it, so our conversation starts taking up pages of her school book. She seems like a pretty typical teenage girl. She asks me if I like Taylor Swift and we watch Tay Tay's latest music video on her phone. She complains about not having enough freedom and how her dream is to live in Korea. Why Korea? I think I know why.

"Do you like K-pop?" I write.

Anh nods enthusiastically. "I love it!!" She scrawls. "EXO is my favourite!".

The music, fashion and free and easy, affluent lifestyle portrayed really hits a chord with the kids. Vietnam may be a communist country but it's a market economy.

When I get off the train it's nearly 10pm and pretty lonely. Ninh Binh is more a stop for day-trippers than stayers. A tall thin man holds a sign I recognise. He shakes my hand then leads me silently to his jeep, a leftover from the Americans. I jump in and in less than a K were off the dual carriageway and bumping over a potholed dirt road. He pulls up at a looming piece of limestone and a little headlight appears in the darkness. I get on the back of a scooter and it's a dicey run in the dark on a path too narrow for the jeep. And then we're at a bamboo shack.

Hung Mua

In the morning I realise my little bamboo hut is sitting right on the water surrounded by magnificent soaring karsts. So after breakfast, I decide to climb one. Hang Mua, with the temple on top, is the next karst over from the one our bungalows lean against.

At the bottom of Hang Mua's steep flight of steps, I meet Hen, a Korean discovering Asia on a break between jobs. He's not sure he likes Vietnam as much as Vietnam's teenagers like his country. The food isn't Korean, the weather hasn't been good (there's a typhoon) and the Vietnamese are cheeky. Yes, they are. They have a mischievous sense of humour which I like. There is also a lot of sleight of hand and scams in the tourist cities, something that's not so funny and, I gather, isn't the done thing in Korea. He is not surprised the kids like K-pop though. He is a big fan of the 'Gangnam style' Psy. Halfway up a limestone karst seems an odd place for two tourists to be doing the horse dance but Hang Mua does mean 'dancing cave'.

500 odd steps later, past the shrine and the dragon, we get a cloudy, but panoramic view of Tam Coc. It's really beautiful up here. Tiny boats row in a sea of green between the rice paddies and karsts. The air is so still I think I can hear the paddles splashing the water. It's an incredible way to start a my Ninh Binh adventure and seems illogical that this extraordinary landscape is so close to the crazy congestion of Hanoi.

Hoa Lu

You know, they drive on the right side of the road in Vietnam? Most of the time that's a moot point as they charge up any side they fit, or, more likely, the middle. But it matters when I turn onto a dual carriageway with a medium strip and I'm going the wrong way down the highway. So when there's a gap in the strip I do the Viet veer across four lanes.

The highway runs from Hao Lu to Tam Coc but my village is in the middle so I can cut across and cycle the unpaved backroads. Not that the highway is busy and unlike most other ones I've been on here, it's sided by farms not urban development.

As I cycle around the karsts I notice how farmhouses and the animal outhouses are built up against the limestone, squeezed into a cave-like space while in front rice paddies spread out flat. The main road cuts through the karsts with tunnel after tunnel while the backroads circle around them.

You can't miss the attractions as some looney entrepreneur will leap out onto the road screaming at you to park your bike. For a fee of course. Some places like Trang An facilitate this by not allowing bikes in and having a uniformed guard on the entry to make sure of it. I'm a little wary of leaving my bike with a stranger, not least because I have a tendency to forget what my hires look like and may not recognise it when I get back, if it's there at all. But over the next few days I'll become accustomed to leaving my pushbike and have no problems at all.

Trang An

When I arrive at Trang An I'm surprised most of the tourists are Vietnamese. This is the new face of Vietnam's tourism industry. Western and Asian tourists have been coming for some time (especially from South Korea which is expected to send 4 million visitors in 2019) but it's Vietnam's own emerging middle class who are showing up more and more. My cruise in Bai Tu Long Bay was 50% Vietnamese tourists with the guide giving us dual language explanations. And in SaPa my guesthouse also had a contingent of Vietnamese tourists. But here I'm certainly the odd one out. I suspect that there are considerable challenges for ordinary Vietnamese leaving to travel overseas, however they are lucky to live in one of the most beautiful and varied countries in South East Asia and home grown tourism will make the industry more sustainable if the foreign tourist bubble bursts.

I wait for a rowboat with a guy from Saigon before being piled in with 4 middle-aged, stout, loud Viets. They nearly tip us trying to change seats until our lady captain screams at them to sit down. The three women then take up paddles and sing traditional songs between competitive paddling, shouting and laughter with the other boats. Their whoops and oohs echo off the cave walls. The man travelling with them films it all on his iPad.

At some point you run out of superlatives. The mist adds a translucence to the scene, bends in the river open out to soaring casts or low slung caves and temples, waterlilies dab colour along the water's emerald edge. This is the place of dragons and legends. The fact that the river is being plowed by cheerfully hollaring Vietnamese doesn't actually take away from the serenity and mystery of it.

It's a new day and after lunch my host asks if I want to go on a cycle around the villages and meet some of the locals. Her family is from the area, but she grew up outside of it. However, she likes taking travellers around to talk to the local women and see how they live. Our first stop is a temple where the elderly nun greets us and chats a little before letting us make our own way around. At the school we chat to the teachers as the kids fleeing for the afternoon bowl us over.

Then we call on a couple of the cottage industries: a woman making tofu, a group of women making garments and hoping their village business will be able to compete with the factories and allow them to make money without leaving the village. We meet a husband and wife duo working laboriously making clay bricks. The woman stops work to shoot random questions at me. How old am I? How much was my airfare to Vietnam? What did I eat on the plane? Why don't I have children? My host rolls her eyes as we leave. "The people in this village are so nosy," she smiles. "When I came here I was shocked at all the questions they asked but they just want to know you." I don't find it that confronting, I'm usually the one asking odd questions.

Cycling back from a pagoda outside of Tam Coc I spot a familiar face. Helene who I met in SaPa is sipping coffee at a cafe so we stop and chat awhile. We like it here, it's pretty chilled. Yes, there are a couple of overly touristy spots but they're limited and hidden amongst rural life and generally filled with day-trippers.

Though there are a few homestays around, and a bit of a hotel and backpacker scene in Tam Coc, you wouldn't say tourism has flooded the place. Yet. It's a bit sad to see the resorts being built. Even sadder to know that locals are being paid off for their land so hotels can be built for Korean tourists. One of the charms of Ninh Binh is the fact the karsts rise from the rice paddies instead of water (as they do in Halong Bay) so presumably, they'll leave enough farmers to maintain the show.

Back at the homestay, Tai wants to friend me on Facebook. When I open his page it's peppered with K-pop stars.

Want more KASTS?

MORE STORIES: Read my Karst Away story on Bai Tu Long Bay, the less touristy alternative to Halong and check out my Made In Vietnam photo story about Ninh Binh. TAM COC TOURIST TIP: Tam Coc is a tourist hot spot. Avoid the crowds by coming in the off season and skipping weekends.

WHERE I STAYED: I stayed in the glamping bungalows of the family-run Nguyen Shack, tucked under a limestone Karst it's picture perfect; a bit eco-friendly; and a whole lot people friendly. They have bikes, on-site restaurant and a whole bunch of things to do. There are also other Nguyen Shacks dotted around Vietnam so check them out!


PHOTO STORY | Made In Vietnam



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