My family is from Ninh Binh but then my great-grandfather moved to Quang Binh, and my grandfather moved to Rach Gia. My father and his siblings were born in Saigon but still took the hometown under my grandfather’s, Rach Gia. As for me, I am a Saigon child because wherever I go, I find Saigon the most familiar place, the place I want to return to the most, and I have never thought that if anyone asks where my hometown is, I will have to answer “Rach Gia”, “Quang Binh”, or “Ninh Binh”. But I will just have one answer: Saigon.
On Tet holiday, when I traveled with my family from Saigon to my husband’s hometown in Ba Vi to celebrate Tet and then traveled to Ninh Binh, my father took us to visit his aunt’s oldest daughter’s family. Father’s aunt? She is the grandfather’s sister. How come I’ve never heard of her mentioned in all these years? After being introduced to everyone in the house, I greeted an old man over the age of 80, calling him “brother” as in the family tree, listening to his story of Mrs. Ninh in the thick Northern accent I could only catch a few words. The story is that in the old days when the whole family went to the South, my great-grandfather was still in Ninh Binh. Until my great-grandfather got old, my grandfather told Mrs. Ninh to come to Ninh Binh to take care of my great-grandfather. She came home and lost contact since then. Not until recently have our family in the South and the family in the North got some news. We went to visit her grave, then said goodbye, and wished to see each other later. I wonder when that “occasion” will come.
In the moment of breaking up, I dimly realized “my family is from Ninh Binh”.
The scenery in Ninh Binh is quiet and peaceful as its name. It turns out our family used to live in such a beautiful and proud place!
We arrived at the hotel early in the afternoon. Tam Coc Bungalow has only ten rooms. Forked entrance. This place has only been opened for over a month, thus the service is not stable. I personally think that the tourist services in the North, in general, are not as good as Central to South’s services, so I did not expect too much. But the naivety of the service people here did not make us uncomfortable. I found them lovely. It was as if we were visiting an acquaintance’s house. Maybe I was subjective because I thought Ninh Binh was my home. The rooms here were small, with dome and cozy thatched roofs. There was a row of rooms and a restaurant overlooking the Ngo Dong River. From here there was a shortcut to the boat station to catch the boat to visit three caves in Tam Coc.
The name Tam Coc is as easy to understand as the name of this quiet and peaceful land. “Tam” means “three”, and “Coc” is a cave. Sailing along the Ngo Dong River, you will pass through 3 caves: Ca cave (big cave), Hai cave (second cave) and Ba cave (third cave). My favorite part was probably the time when the boat entered the dark cave, I only dimly saw the boats ahead and heard shaky voices from the people in the same stream. The boat driver said, on sunny days, the cave would not be this dark but the sun shone beautifully into the cave! I said it’s okay, I loved it. How amazing it was when the boat came out near the entrance of the cave, the cave was lightened up! Besides, I would still come back here. She said, next time remember to come back in the ripe rice season, around April in the lunar calendar, or in September and October in the lunar calendar, near the two limestone mountains will there be the immense rice fields; sailing in the rice field, we would feel the fragrance of aromatic water lilies. I automatically said yes!
Currently, the marina is strictly managed, so you do not worry about being invited with insistence or being overpriced. You can buy tickets at the ticket counter. The ticket is 150 thousand/ person to visit Tam Coc. Besides, the cost of renting a boat is 150 thousand/ a boat which can carry up to 4 people. The boat driver said, this boat actually can carry 7-8 people but it is not safe. The rental fee is sent directly to the boat drivers by the management board. The whole marina has about 1,400 boats. The boats are coordinated in turn to welcome passengers, so depending on the number of passengers, the number of groups of passengers each boat driver can serve varies. On days there are not many passengers, they drive boats 1-2 times and then go home to do other work. I asked her what her name was. Upon hearing her answer, the two of us laughed out of joy because her name was so beautiful: Thien Bich (“Blue Sky”) (After that, she told us her husband’s name was “Thien” (Sky), her name was “Bich” (Blue) so people often called her Thien Bich). Sailing past the marina’s entrance, she pointed to the left bank saying that her house was up there. Her land was wide, with a big apple garden. She worked as a boat driver for more than 20 years to raise her two children who are now studying at Universities in Hanoi. Her cheerful voice on the boat during the 2 hours made our New Year days more cheerful.
On the Ngo Dong River, there are 1,400 boaters – 1,400 stories.
In Ninh Binh, besides Tam Coc and Trang An, which were the two places that made me most excited, there were still many pristine beautiful places for us to take photos. Like this picture – taken when we climbed to the highest part of Bich Dong – about 2 kilometers from Tam Coc marina.
In the evening, even though it was very cold, I did not want to enter the room, but for several nights, I sat on the seat in front of the room inhaling the smell of the river and the smell of life from the two sides of the river. It was indescribably peaceful! I thought I wanted to come back here many more times.