Sunday, June 14, 2009

VietNamNet - The quiet caves

The caverns of Tam Coc (three caves) and Bich Dong (emerald grotto) in northern Vietnam have been known for centuries as the inland Ha Long Bay.

It took millions of years for nature to hollow out the country’s second most beautiful caves by the Ngo Dong River in Ninh Binh Province. Huong Tich Cave in the former Ha Tay Province, now a part of Hanoi, is still considered the most beautiful.

The only way to visit the caves in Ninh Hai Commune, Hoa Lu District is by taking a three-hour cruise in a sampan rowed by one or two local women who also sell embroidery.

All is one

“It’s so peaceful and quiet, you can hear the sound of butterflies beating their wings,” says boatwoman Chu Van as the first morning sunbeams illuminate the placid countryside where creeks tumble down between huge rock formations.

The boat journey begins at the village of Van Lam and proceeds through a scenic landscape dominated by rice paddies and karst towers.

Edwen Bell from Britain is spellbound by the chain of sheer limestone peaks rising out of the verdant paddy fields and sees no boundary between land and water.The two seem to merge into one.

The first underground excursion is through Ca Cave, the largest and longest of the caverns. It was created when the sea occupied the area, long ago, and is 127 meters long with a ceiling about two meters above the water.

In the morning light, the cliff above the cave entrance is vividly reflected in the water as it sparkles in the sunshine.

The longer we travel in the row boat, the more beautiful, fanciful and poetic the scenery becomes.

“The air is so fresh. It’s a far cry from the bustling, dusty streets of the city,” says Nguyen Thu Oanh from Hanoi.

Charmed by the interspersed peaks and water, she finds the name “Inland Ha Long Bay” very apt.

We duck as the boat scrapes under a low bridge and feel ourselves lost in a paradise of never-ending lotus ponds and their distinctive aroma.

Farther along the meandering river we come to the shady entrance of Hai Cave, which is 60 meters long and 18 meters wide.

The roof of the cavern is studded with magnificent stalactites that reach nearly to the water and makes us feel like we are floating in a cloud of dripping limestone.

After Hai Cave, we travel along the river through scenery even more imposing than before.

The entrance of Ba Cave looms ahead like a fracture in the mountain. It is the smallest of the three caves and is the coolest thanks to the pleasant breeze.

We duck inside for a spell, say goodbye to Ba Cave, and go along the river a bit more to relax, enjoy the scenery, and smell the perfume from the lotus ponds.

Soon after leaving the spectacular vista of Tam Coc, we alight from the boat and climb a pretty mountainside to visit the tiered temples of Bich Dong Pagoda. The view from the top temple is spectacular.

The French actress Catherine Deneuve left her footprints here when they filmed the final scenes of the film Indochine in 1991. It sparked a rush of French-speaking tourists to Tam Coc-Bich Dong.

From the pagoda, we have the option of traveling farther along the Ngo Dong River before returning to the village, or visiting a brook called the Fairy Stream.

Our journey back is broken with a visit to the centuries-old temple of Thai Vi, which is only a short walk from the river through lush fields of green.

VietNamNet/TN

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