The women of Tam Cŏc row sampans with their feet along the Ngo Dong river in northern Vietnam. It’s easier on the back to do it with your clenched toes, apparently. The rowers face forwards, oars tied to rowlocks with skeins of rags. The women convey trippers for an hour through low limestone caves and past gothic escarpments where mountain goats graze near-vertical cliffs. Most of the tourists, when I went, were Vietnamese. It started to rain half way through the excursion, and everyone except me produced rain ponchos from their bags.
I was staying in Hanoi and took a bus for a couple of hours to get to Tam Cŏc, stopping off at Hoa Lų to inspect the temples: it was the capital of the country in the tenth century (now in the Ninh Binh province), situated in a basin rimmed by mountains, the better for spotting invaders before they invaded. The moats and canals were embroidered with pink, bowl-shaped lotus flowers and shardy waterlily blooms. The temples, from the Dinh and Le dynasties, were too crowded.
In Hanoi I stayed in a cheap hotel on Hang Be in the heart of Hoán Kiĕm, the old city. Highly recommended. And the street food in Hanoi! In Hang Be itself, a girl of about ten crouched in a doorway from morning till night selling fragrant pork parcels her mother was ferrying from a gas stove at the back of the adjacent alley. Unbelievably good. At Xoi Yen café, all they sell is xoi, sticky rice with bean curd, shallots, spring onions and egg or pork. Everyone, it seems, can cook in Hanoi. When I hired a bike for the day, on my return the staff at the shop were about to eat, and they invited me to join them for a bowl of pho. It emerged that the cook was off that day so this delicious food had been prepared by someone who was apparently not a cook but a bike mechanic . . .
I dutifully called at Café Giang on Nguyen Huu Huan to try the famous Hanoi cà phê trúng, a foamy blend of coffee, egg yolks and sugar. Like many dishes across the world, you wonder who ever invented such a thing. Apparently it started here when milk was short. Not as bad as I expected, though once was enough.