After our (second) brief stop in Hanoi, we decided to start heading south, so we jumped on a train and headed to the sleepy town called ‘Ninh Binh’. There isn’t much to do in Ninh Binh itself, but it is close to many great sights, so we stayed for 2 nights so we could check them out. Ninh Binh is really rural, it wasn’t uncommon to see a buffalo pulling a trailer down the main streets among the multitudes of motorbikes, bicylces and cards and trucks!
The train to Ninh Binh was a great way to see some of the countryside. It was full of locals (who liked to stare but were not very talkative), had no air conditioning and had a resident giant cockroach doing the rounds. On arrival in Ninh Binh we checked into our hotel and decided it was a bit too flash for us so I went for a walk to find something a bit cheaper while Megan had a snooze in the nice air conditned hotel room. Naturally I was too stubborn (or chicken?) to get a motorcycle so to much amusment of the locals spent the next 30-40 mins walkng around in the 37c + heat!!! Silly silly girl…. Once I had found us a new hostel I caved and had my first motorcycle ride back to the hotel (holding on for dear life) to get out of the heat.
On our first full day in Ninh Binh we went on a tour organised by the hotel which was very good value for money as we got a driver and a guide for the day (to ourselves) and checked out many of the sites in the area. First we went to the Kenh Ga Floating Village where we got to see ‘real’ river life with a beautiful mountain backdrop. The river life was very rural, the people were quite poor and were just going about thier daily life (fishing, harvesting river grass, trawalling for shellfish, doing thier washing in the river…etc). The people were lovely, smiling and waving hello at us.
After an hour or so on the boat we hopped off and went for a walk to a cave. It was stinking hot, so once we got to the entrance of the cave we had a rest in the shade, had some much needed water and Megan made a new friend. Megans friend was a 71 year old woman who was quite taken with her and wouldn’t leave her alone (talking away in Vietnamese and touching her skin every 5 mins). It was quite amusing! The cave was nice (our 3 or 4th cave in Vietnam), it wasn’t lit up so we needed torches and it made a nice break from the heat.
After Kenh Ga Floating Village we checked out the Bich Dong Pagoda – a series of temples on the side of a hill, one of them built into a cave. It was quite peaceful and rather pretty:
We also went to Tam Coc which is an area that looks lovely and you go in a row boat though 3 caves on the Ngo Dong River. Its a bit of a laugh really, you pay for the boat ride (which due to the number of boats cruising up the river feels like a Disneyland ride), they pick up a ‘helper’ who ‘helps’ row the boat. You get to the other end and spend lots of money on drinks and nibbles (shouting your driver and his helper as they have been rowing for the last hour) and then on the way back the ‘helper’ pulls out the embroidery and gives you the hard sell when there is nowhere to run!. I caved in and bought my poppa a table cloth, Megan stuck to her guns and consequently ended up rowing home while the ‘helper’ put her feet up. Nice one! That will teach her for being tight!
The second day from our new hostel we hired a driver who took us to Cuc Phuong National Park. The (non-english speaking) driver was a hoot and thought Megan was hillarious (as you would when some strange Westener makes animal noises and jokes around all the time). He took us though to the National Park via acres and acres of pineapple plantations, we went for a walk to the Cave of the Prehistoric Man (up a lot of steps) and then much to our protest put us on a 8km walk in the jungle to see a 1000 year old tree. We had clearly told him no walking as we wanted to swim and relax but he tricked us telling us there was a pool/lake for swimming around the corner! By the time we worked out we had been tricked it was too late. Oh well, I got to hug a 1000 year old tree, get bitten by mozzies, see a crab in the jungle (weird) and a few big spiders.
After our walk the driver greated us with a big smile (he’d obviously been napping for the 2.5 hours while we walked), he took us to the promised pool (which hadn’t been cleaned in years because it was the colour of dirty river water) and we went for a swim. I was obviously dilarious from trekking in the 35 degree heat as I would normally never ever ever swim in such a manky pool (it was pretty bad, don’t worry Mum I didnt put my head under).
After the swim the driver negotiated entry into the closed Endangered Primate Rescue Center so we got to see lots of monkeys and learn about the programme to try and save several endangered species (very cool). On the drive back we encountered a herd of buffalos on the road. The driver thought we were nuts when we motioned for him to stop so we could lean out the window and take photos. We arrived back to Ninh Binh to wait for the ‘tourist bus’ that would take us to Hue. We sat around in the Hotel lobby playing cards with the locals and making them laugh with our crazy antics.