From dawn to dusk

The Karsts of Tam Coc
The Karsts of Tam Coc | Art by Todd Berman

The sleeper bus pulls away, its driver honking repeatedly to warn the empty highway that it’s about to barrel through, leaving Todd and I standing on the dark sidewalk at 4:45 am, a full hour earlier than we expected to arrive.

We hope we’re in Nimh Binh, a small town worth visiting only for its proximity to the karst-studded Ngo Dong River of Tam Coc. Ignoring the two moto drivers offering us a ride to the hotel of their choice, we check our compass and map and optimistically walk in the direction that should lead to the town’s center and some hostels.

Hauling sticks by boat, Tam Coc, Vietnam
Hauling sticks by boat, Tam Coc, Vietnam | Photo by Lauren Girardin

A short nap later, we bike first on a murky-aired, earsplittingly loud highway and then on a shadeless tour-bus-ready avenue to Tam Coc. There, we board a small boat and are rowed silently along the water in the shadow of tall karst peaks where goats graze in defiance of gravity, past one-man boats hauling in strands of long wicker fish traps, and through low-ceilinged stalactite-covered caves to emerge into yet another dramatic karst-ringed bend of the river. We’re constantly distracted from the scenery by our boatman, who uses his bare feet to push the oars.

The Tam Coc way of rowing with bare feet
The Tam Coc way of rowing with bare feet | Photo by Lauren Girardin

We find new roads to pedal on during our bike ride back – bumpy dirt paths that wind by rice-paddy fields backed by a panorama of karsts tinged purple by sunset. We pass by a cemetery where a group of men dig a new hole in the ground. As the full dark of night settles in, we blindly make our way, asking barely seen villagers “Nimh Binh?,” who point us on the right path back.

Photos from Nimh Binh and Tam Coc, Vietnam

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.