Tam Coc is a popular tourist destination in Vietnam’s north and many people visit here throughout the year for the famous boat ride.
It’s a pleasant, two-hour journey where a local man or woman rows small groups of tourists down the Ngo Dong river with his or her feet.
The major draw card of the ride, other than the foot rowing, is seeing the beautiful landscape – a glass-top river enveloped by large karst topographies.
In the summer months, rice fields frame the river too.
Tam Coc means ‘three caves’ and the boat ride lives up to this name.
Tourists are rowed through low-roofed dark caves during the journey, with the longest cave stretching 125 metres.
The rower is often a Vietnamese woman who does back-to-back shifts of the seven-kilometre rowing journey throughout the day.
The whole experience is understandably impressive, but searching most travel websites before doing this activity can make tourists cautious.
Commonly, reviewers of Tam Coc on websites such as TripAdvisor and other travel forums talk about rowers trying to scam and guilt people into buying food and souvenirs at unreasonable prices.
These reviews are often harsh and could easily steer people from taking part.
Regardless of the sentiment, the reviews show that the boat ride always seems to follow a similar pattern.
The rower spends the first half of the journey being kind to their passengers, then at the halfway point the rowers take their passengers to a group of women on boats selling soft drinks, biscuits, and other treats.
The sellers ask the passengers to buy goods and encourage them to buy a drink for their fatigued rower on top of other foods.
The price of this is generally quoted in US dollars rather than Vietnamese Dong too.
Passengers comply, and will sometimes then see the drink or goods given straight back to the seller by the rower in exchange for the money.
The boat ride continues, and a short-time later the rower opens a trunk of handicrafts such as table cloths, napkins, t-shirts, and bags, and again encourages the passenger to buy something.
Some TripAdvisor reviewers claim their rowers would not continue until the tourist purchased something.
Finally, a few hundred metres before shore, the rower will request a tip for their services.
Seemingly, how much each of these will cost is dependent on how affluent the tourist in question looks, with prices varying for different people.
Although this does indeed sound like a scam and may dampen the experience, many tourists have not put the reality of these rowers’ lives into perspective.
“Duyen” says she rows boats three or four times a month and also sews to support her two children, aged four and six.
“If they are not [at school] they stay home with my father. Sometimes I come home and feed them, shower them.”
This might just be a familiar form of capitalism developing in a Communist country.
Duyen’s husband also supports the family as a tourist photographer in Tam Coc, and says her family has been rowing the Ngo Dong river for thirty years – ever since tourists came.
While she says she could still maintain her job without tourists, it is clear that for the moment the tourism industry is how her family survives.
Currently, there are few careers available in Tam Coc other than rowing.
“Sewing, and taking photos, and some people are builders,” says Duyen.
“And rice fields. If you come here in February we have rice fields by the river.”
Speaking with Duyen, she clearly works hard to support her family. Her sister currently rows boats too, despite being pregnant.
Both Duyen and her sister are slight women, and Duyen chooses to cover her feet with thick socks to reduce the calluses that so many of the other rowers have on their feet.
Although she does follow the same routine as other foot rowers in Tam Coc, tourists only seem to feel ‘ripped-off’ if they don’t consider the reality these rowers face.
Duyen tries to sell her table cloths for around $US15 for a six-pack; The food sellers during the journey may try to sell you a packet of biscuits, two drinks, and another small item for around $US5.
For Western tourists who can afford to travel, this shouldn’t break the bank, and if you really don’t want it, a polite but firm no will usually do the trick.
As for tipping, the amount is entirely up to the passenger.
Tourists seem to forget the little wage these rowers make, and that they are only trying to support their families too.
Duyen says she loves her job, and that her favourite part about rowing in Tam Coc is, in fact, meeting tourists.
“I meet a lot of people. Many from other countries. They are from France, China, Korea, Australia, Poland, a lot of countries,” says Duyen.
She says she does not have much money, and likes to learn about other places in the world from tourists since she can’t leave Tam Coc.
Although some feel like they are being taken for a ride on more than just the boat, there should be consideration for the behind-the-scenes life of these women.
If you’re lucky enough to see the beautiful scenery of Tam Coc and the Ngo Dong river, get to know your rower before dismissing them.
It might seem like a scam, but the foot-rowers are just doing what they have to do to put food on the table.
For more information on Duyen and her life, see Harry Clarke’s reporter page.