Hanoi – Ninh Binh – Pu Luong Nature Reserve
But this morning made yesterday feel like a sleep-in.
This time, we were up before 5.00am!
They say nothing good happens after 2.00am. Well, I reckon nothing good happens before 5.00am!
I didn’t even have the kids here to act all bubbly in front of, pretending that I love to be up really early, to just, generally, annoy them.
Nope, all I had was a grumpy looking bloke looking back at me in the mirror.
Whose idea was this?
A 6.00am train!?
All just to have an extra night in Hanoi?
Ohhhh, that’s right. That’s why we’re catching the 6.00am train…..
“Come on Lisa, hurry up, we need to go”, I say, acting all bubbly, and pretending to really love being up this early…..
Not really fussed who I annoy, just so long as someone is there to annoy…..
We head downstairs and the lift doors open. The reception area is dark.
Both Sophia, the girl behind reception, and the door man, can’t remember his name, have been sleeping on the couches in the foyer. And we’ve now woken them up.
I think I kind of learnt something at that point, although I hadn’t really thought about it before.
I now feel a little bad, and decide it’s best not to be bubbly at this moment.
As we exit the lift, and Sophia gets up, the taxi that we’d booked the night before pulls up out the front.
Fortunately, we’d had a little foresight by fixing up our night’s accommodation the previous day, and all that was left to do was to leave our main bag, that we wouldn’t be needing for the next three days.
Nice to be travelling light for the first time in our lives, with just two backpacks.
As we make our way towards the taxi, Sophia tells us that the fare should be no more than 50 000 dong. And she is quite adamant about that.
I know roughly where the station is, and I know it’s not far and knew it wouldn’t be much, but I appreciated her advice.
Less than 10 minutes later the taxi pulls up at the station. 42 000 dong on the meter. Sophia knows her stuff, and we got an honest taxi driver. Good start to the day!
The station is already busy. But mainly with taxi drivers. They’re everywhere! I probably shouldn’t have been surprised…..
We enter the station; we already have our tickets; and go through to find our train. It’s not a difficult thing to do, as I think it was the only train there.
We then find our carriage and show the ‘ticket inspector’, who is standing next to the train, our tickets. I’m not sure he even looked at them.
Perhaps because no one in their right mind would be up this early to try and catch a 6.00am train without a ticket…..???
This is the second train we’ve caught in Vietnam over two visits. The first was between Danang and Hue back in 2014. On that journey, we had travelled in the ‘hard seat’ carriage to take the opportunity to take photos through the open windows. It was a great experience (the kids have a differing opinion on that….), and it worked well. But, those seats are most definitely hard, and it was a little painful.
In fact, the only thing more painful than that, was spending time in Hue.
I’m only joking, of course. Sort of…..
For this trip, though, we’ve splashed out on the ‘soft seat’ carriage. Saving a couple of dollars, and getting another ‘life experience’, just wouldn’t have been worth the grief I would have had to put up with.
If the kids had have been with us this time, though……. Hmmm, might have been worth it……
We eventually find our seats and sit down. All good, I think.
But no, it may not be…..
“We’re in reverse facing seats?”, the intrepid explorer says, but also kind of asking.
“Ummm, I’m not sure”. I say, but kind of suspect that to be the case. Not totally sure, but unless I’m disoriented like I was in HCMC, then yes, we’ll be facing the rear of the train.
The train begins to move forward. Which is backwards, for us.
Before we’ve gone three metres, she’s diving into her backpack; travel sickness tablets being the target. Fortunately, she finds them, and they’re swallowed quicker than she swallows wine.
Being the caring and sympathetic person I am, I decide that if I can’t see her feeling ordinary, then she isn’t actually feeling ordinary.
I turn to look out the window.
But now I have a problem. I’m actually sitting between two windows, and the guy in front of me has his window blind closed, and is already asleep. The window behind me is clear, but it involves doing that manouvre, that I had to do on the flight to Quy Nhon.
Must have annoyed some higher being at some point……
The next 2 ½ hours involves a combination of neck stretching, snoozing and people watching. Along with the occasional glance at the intrepid explorer who fell asleep 10 minutes after the journey began.
Finally, the train pulls into Ninh Binh and we alight. Which, apparently, is a grown up way of saying we got off the train.
Even though we’ve never met him; apart from one brief encounter last time we were here, which is a bit of a long story…..; I feel like I’ve known Toan (our guide for the next three days) for years.
It seems he knows us just as well, because as we step onto the ‘platform’, he comes towards us. Maybe it was the fact that there weren’t any other westerners left – not sure there were many on the train to begin with – but he sees us and I recognise him straight away. He immediately feels like a friend.
A quick toilet stop, and he asks us if we’ve had breakfast. We haven’t, so he suggests we go over the road to a small ‘restaurant’; which we do.
As we’re walking across the road, I notice Lisa is acting a little strange. Perhaps not strange as such, but just a little more vague than she normally is.
“You Ok?, I ask.
“Yeeaahhhh”, she replies. “It’s just the tablets I took. They make me feel a little funny”.
Great….., I think……
Into the restaurant, a quick glance at the menu, and it’s an easy decision; banh mi and a juice. Easy, and good!
Breakfast done, we grab some bottles of water and head back to Toan, who’s waiting in the station carpark with our other driver for the trip, Dien. Introductions done, and ‘hellos’ are passed on from TripAdvisor posters, including Gariochlass. We even receive a return ‘hello’, from a couple Toan had just finished a tour with up in the Ha Giang region. Pretty sure he said it was Mary and Cliff, but for the life of me I can’t think of any Mary’s and Cliff’s.
Anyway, if you’re Mary and Cliff, and you did a Ha Giang tour with Toan in May, then just to let you know, he passed on your ‘hellos’ to us. Thank you, and ‘hello’, back.
Finally all set, with bags packed away and helmets on, we’re soon on our way.
As we take off; I’m on the back of Toan’s bike, Lisa’s with Dien; I start to wonder whether Lisa will be alright on the bike, seeing as she’s a little ‘away with the fairies’.
I quickly decide, seeing as they’re behind us, that as with the train, if I can’t see her…..
Anyway, I could always pick her up on the way back to Hanoi.
So, we’re on our way. We’re in Ninh Binh, but I don’t know where in Ninh Binh. We never saw the train station last time, so this part is new to me. I’m trying to see something familiar so I can get my bearings. It’s not really working.
Until we pull up at the intersection of a very busy road.
Hang on……, “Is this the main highway through Ninh Binh?”, I ask Toan, as we’re sitting at the lights.
“Yes, there’s the Nhoc Anh over the road, where you stayed last time,”, he replies.
Ahhh, I know where we are now!
Dien pulls up beside us. He still has Lisa on the back. Which I suppose is good….
“Hey, this is the intersection where the Ngoc Anh is”, I say, pretty happy with myself.
“Yeah, I know. There’s that electrical goods store that plays that really loud, awful music”, she says, sounding like she already knew which road we were on.
And she did. The little intrepid explorer had recognised a building we’d passed earlier, and knew exactly where we were.
That never happens!
If this keeps up, I’ll consider pushing her off the bike, if she doesn’t fall asleep and fall off by herself…..
The lights change, and we’re on our way again. Before we know it, we’re on the outskirts of Ninh Binh; flat farmland, and the familiar limestone karsts in the distance.
A few minutes later, and we’re right in amongst the karsts.
It’s beautiful, and it almost brings a tear to my eye. Almost! But don’t tell anyone….
It does however, make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. It’s beautiful, it brings back so many memories, and this is just the most magnificent way to see it.
Past some of the ‘attractions’, like Trang An, we saw last time, water buffalo on the side of the road, cows actually on the road, and even a herd of horses.
Part of me doesn’t want to leave, but we have, what I hope, is bigger, and even better things to see.
We continue on, and as quick as the karsts had appeared, they seem to disappear. Every so often we stop; Toan seems to know exactly when a break is required; to stretch our legs and regain feeling in our bums.
The stops are determined by the amount of shade available. Nowhere in particular; a tree or two on the side of the road usually suffices. No real landmarks as such, but there’s always something to take a photo of.
After a while we pull up out the front of…..ummm…….I’ll call it a shop. Shop, type restaurant, type café, type place…… It’s just on the side of the road and it’s kind of just out in the middle of nowhere.
At the front of the shop there are several different fruits on display, including pineapple and one that I’d seen around before but didn’t know what it was. Turns out it’s jackfruit.
Toan talks to the owner and then asks us if we’d like some pineapple.
Ha!, would I like some pineapple!?
And, judging by the fact that there are pineapples growing in the field next to the shop, I assume they’re reasonably fresh.
We take a seat inside while the owner prepares it.
Toan’s jackfruit lesson, and the shopkeeper preparing our pineapple.
While we’re sitting there, a police officer turns up. It’s amazing, not only what, but how many things, go through your mind when something unexpected happens.
The overriding feeling was one of nervousness on this occasion. It shouldn’t have been, and I’m not really sure why, but it just was.
He comes into the shop and walks straight up to us.
That didn’t help the ‘nervousness’.
He smiles, shakes our hands, and asks us where we are from.
Tempted to ask him where he’d like us to be from, I answer truthfully.
He nods approvingly, and then makes his way into a room of the shop owners house. We can hear him talking to someone, but still don’t know why he’s here.
While we’re eating our pineapple, which incidentally is as good as I knew it would be, he returns to the front room of the house, which we can see from where we’re sitting.
I’m still trying to figure out why he’s here.
He takes a seat on a couch, and then lays down.
Ohhh……., the penny drops, he’s just dropped in to have a mid-morning nap. As you do.
No longer nervous or concerned, we finish our king of fruits.
Pineapple devoured and legs stretched, we leave the snoozing police officer, and continue on our journey.
Life is pretty good at the moment, and even Lisa seemed to be coming out of her little haze. Although, it can sometimes be a little difficult to tell…..
Apart from only knowing that we are somewhere a little South of Hanoi, I have absolutely no idea where we are. I don’t even know how long it will take us to get to where we’re going, as I never thought to ask. But really, in the end, none of those minor details are terribly important, anyway.
Sometimes, the destination is just a small part of it. The journey can be pretty good, too.
And in this case, it most definitely was.
But this was also my problem.
While you wouldn’t describe the scenery as stunning, it certainly wasn’t ho hum, either.
But it’s not just about the landscape, it’s about the people, the buildings, and just the ‘everything’.
Everyday stuff, everyday life. The stuff that’s here, that goes on whether I’m a part of it, or not.
There was so much to see. So much interesting stuff.
And yep, this was my problem.
How was I going to remember it all? And I wanted, actually, needed to remember it all.
Why was it so important?
Because of these bloody Trip Reports.
Yep, there I was, sitting on the back of the bike, and one of the things that was constantly going through my head was, ‘how am I going to remember everything I’m seeing, so I can put it all in the Trip Reports’.
I was concerned then, and I’m concerned now.
I haven’t been looking forward to this one, because as with the Nhon Ly report, I’m worried I won’t be able to do it justice.
Tempted just to say we had a great time, met some nice people, and the scenery was really, really good. But that would be a cop out, and I can’t do that.
See, I’m even crapping on now so as to put it off just that little bit longer……
Sooooo, back on the bike…..
The landscape is changing. Not drastically, but changing. It’s not as flat as Ninh Binh, but just a little more undulating. And there are mountains off in the distance; a long way off in the distance.
A thought then crosses my mind. Is that where we’re headed? I don’t know a lot about Pu Luong; I tend to not want to know much, appearance wise, about where we’re going so as to keep an element of surprise; but I do know from a couple of photos that it looks hilly. Even mountainous.
But these mountains are a long way away. I don’t ask; ‘take it as it comes’ type of thing; but they are a long way away. Surely not……
A bit further on we come into a smallish town and pull up in front of a restaurant. Toan does the ordering and we go and take a seat.
“Would I like a beer?”, Toan asks.
He seems to know me better than I thought….
But I decline the offer, which probably surprised him almost as much as my answer surprised me.
We settle instead for a Coke.
Dishes of pork, morning glory and rice, soon turn up. It’s really good, but there’s heaps of it. We can’t eat it all and I feel bad about that. I hate wasting food.
The Coke is cold. Really cold. I’m not a big Coke drinker, but that was one that I enjoyed more than most.
Food and drink done and we’re soon back on the road.
Through countless little towns, past numerous fields of various fruits and vegetables, as
well as vast expanses of rice paddies. And people. Not heaps; we’re out in the country; but a steady stream. On bicycles and on motorbikes. And most of them pretty happy to see us. There was lots of waving and ‘hellos’.
I loved it.
A few more stops, including one on a bridge over a fairly wide river.
Down below there are a few small wooden boats, more raft like than boat like, and what I think are fishing nets. They are. They’re nets attached to bamboo poles that are lowered into the water. Every so often they are pulled up with the hope that fish will be scooped up in the process.
While we are standing there, a fisherman in his covered boat comes out to raise his net. The four of us stand there in anticipation. The net………….is empty.
I think we all let out a rather loud ‘Ohhhhhhh……’ in disappointment.
The fisherman looks up to us, and smiles and waves. We have a bit of a laugh and wave back.
Just another one of those ‘little’ moments.
The journey continues, and as it does, the scenery begins to change a little more. Still not terribly hilly, but it just looks different and has a different feel. We stop in another small town and enjoy a cold drink. I stick with the Coke again.
Suitably refreshed, we move on.
And that scenery that had been slowly changing?
Well, now was a different story.
The road had narrowed, and you knew you were gaining in altitude.
And the stuff on the side of the road was of a higher scenic level.
Not long after our drink break, we stopped again. Mountain rose to the left with a couple of small houses and shops on that side, while on the right the land slipped away into a bit of a valley.
We hopped off the bikes and followed Toan down into a field.
The rice paddies that you could see that stretched to the base of the next mountain, was most certainly photo worthy. The mountains in the distance were also just a little bit more than ‘reasonable’. The combination of those two made it incredibly scenic.
But it was the addition of the third thing that took it to another level.
Bamboo water wheels in the small creek that ran through the valley.
Definitely a ‘Wow’ moment.
We walked through the field to take a closer look. It wasn’t until you got up close to them that you fully appreciated their beauty, as well as the ingenuity of their design.
And now another place I wasn’t in a hurry to leave.
As we head back to the road, we had to wait for a farmer who was bringing his water buffalo down to the field. Just something else to top off the view and the experience.
Back on the bikes and the scenery well and truly has my attention. Both the natural, and the man made. The houses were the most notable change. We’d seen them in Mai Chau, and they were the same here; stilt houses.
On we went until Toan pulled over again.
“It’s about six kilometres to the homestay. We’ll go on ahead with the bags, and you two can walk”, he says.
He also says that he’ll come back down the road to meet us when we get close to the house.
No problem I think. A walk will be nice to stretch the legs, and now it’s a little cooler with a bit of cloud cover, it should be reasonably comfortable.
We make sure we have plenty of water, and pass on digging out our hats out of our bag. It’s cloudy now, and there’s no way it will get hot and sunny again.
I also check with Toan that we don’t have to turn off this road, and that we won’t come across any forks in the road.
He says no. And his answer is still no, when I check again for the sixth time.
Toan and Dien disappear into the distance and we’re left to begin our ‘trek’.
We don’t get very far before we’re forced to stop. Well, not forced so much, but had to stop.
Playing on, and beside the road, are six or seven young kids. Both boys and girls, and aged from maybe four to ten.
They’re very happy to see us, and more than prepared to give us heaps of ‘hellos’.
We reciprocate and stop to watch. But they’re just a little shy, and if we walk a little towards them, they run away giggling and laughing. And when I try and take some photos, the same thing happens. They were having a ball, we on the other hand were having a ‘wow’ moment.
Even the guys that were building the new house next to the road; may have been the kid’s parents, or at least relatives??, were enjoying the scene.
We spent a good 5 – 10 minutes there, managing to take several photos, and eventually a couple of them plucked up enough courage to come over and look at some of them. The others followed and they loved seeing themselves on the camera.
Finally, we just had to move on. We’d only just started our ‘trek’ and if this type of thing was to keep happening, well Toan would be picking us up in the dark.
We waved goodbye to the kids, and they ran off laughing. We walked off with big smiles on our faces.
And they stayed there for quite a while, too.
Yep, a ‘Wow’ moment.
On we walked. Stopping often. It’s just impossible to walk that road without stopping.
The stilt houses, the views, the people riding past, the kids playing in the street or calling out ‘hello’ from their houses, the locals going about their day working in a field, or walking a buffalo to wherever a buffalo needs to be walked to.
And then another ‘little’ moment.
As we walked along the road, we could hear singing coming from up ahead. As we got closer we realised it was coming from a school. When we walked past, we looked up the path leading up to the school, and saw a couple of young girls standing out the front, singing. We couldn’t see everything that was going on, but it appeared they were rehearsing.
I think the girls saw us before we saw them, because as we looked up towards them, they were already waving to us. And they never missed a beat with their singing, while doing so. Even with the big smiles they had on their faces.
It really was amazing.
And lucky it was amazing, because it took our mind off the heat that had returned. Yep, that cloud cover that looked to be a permanent fixture for the remainder of the day, now wasn’t.
The early start, the many hours on the bike, the now walking up, while not overly steep, inclines, and now the heat, not to mention the lack of a hat, was starting to take its toll.
The intrepid explorer was starting to wilt, but, for the time being, the views and things to look at were taking her mind off it.
Her drinking our water, which I was carrying by this stage, was also helping. My conversation topics, along with me kind of pretending she wasn’t there, helped both of us.
More photo opportunities around each corner we came to, as well as an interaction with a local woman who was cutting, what looked like grass, with a scythe.
She was on the other side of a fence and I thought she was about to climb back over it. I offered to help her by taking her basket of ‘grass’ from her before she climbed over the fence. She thought I wanted to use her scythe. Eventually she gave in and handed me her basket. Her friend, who was some 30 metres down the road, called out something to her and they both laughed. I have no idea what was said, but we laughed as well.
Another ‘little’ moment, but for all I know, they may have been laughing at me…..
We continued on.
While there are still plenty of things to look at, and I for one remained in a constant state of awe, the heat and her knees were really starting to get to the intrepid explorer.
It started with the usual, ‘I’m really hot’, and then progressed to, ‘My knees are sore’.
Subject changing and ignoring was starting to fail.
Encouragement and positive reinforcement, while not a strong suit of mine, managed to eke out a bit more territory.
But it wasn’t long before we reached the, ‘Can’t we just wait here for Toan to come back and get us?’
I was now in trouble. More encouragement and positive reinforcement was trotted out, which managed to prolong the agony for both of us.
Love and affection was considered, but quickly dismissed. It was both too hot, as well as too difficult to fake at that point.
The, ‘Can’t we just wait….’ line, was used a few more times, until it finally happened.
Yep, the salty, clear liquid out of the eyes thing, again.
The toys were still in the cot; but only just. The horse, was now significantly worse than, not well.
It appeared as if we were done, until, as if by some miracle, Toan appeared from round a corner up ahead.
Problem solved!, I thought.
He didn’t have his bike.
Assumption quickly made that we must be very close. Lisa must have assumed the same, as the puffy eyes were dabbed dry and the toys were put back down.
The assumption seems correct, as a few metres further on, Toan begins talking to a local working on his bike outside his house.
Ha!, we’re here I think.
Again, incorrectly….. as we walk on.
The intrepid explorer is hanging in there. But only just.
I keep looking at houses ahead in the distance, trying to see which ones might look like a homestay. I pick several out. We then reach them, and then walk right past them.
We come to a bend in the road which swings around to the left. Toan walks off into an area to the right, and over to a part where it appears to be overlooking a valley.
“Come over and look at the view”, he says. I walk over expecting to see something pretty special.
Mountains, and very large ones at that, rise up on the other side. But in front, and down below, are rice paddies. They stretch up the valley to the left, and down the valley to the right. They are a beautiful vibrant green colour, and they’re lush.
I do the camera thing again, even though I know I won’t be overly successful. But I can’t not.
I turn to see where Lisa is. She’s sitting on a rock about halfway back towards the road. She has ‘that’ look on her face, which makes me get ‘that’ look on my face. I know where the kids get it from, now….
From where she’s sitting, she can’t see what I can see.
Through slightly gritted teeth, “Ummm, you might want to come over here to have a look at this”, I say.
Fortunately, for all of us, she does. And, she’s glad she did.
Looks on faces are restored to slightly better ‘looks’, which is nice for all concerned….
It’s time to move on, it’s starting to get dark; partly because big black clouds are beginning to roll in. Back on the road, I look up ahead. I can see a few houses in the distance. I’m hoping it’s one of them, seeing as her mood has changed.
It turns out it is; we’re finally there.
And like the scenery, the house is pretty impressive. It’s a large stilt house overlooking the valley as it makes its way down past where we were standing earlier.
Stunning, sublime, surreal even. It’s just beautiful.
We meet the owners and then take a seat at the table under the house. The dark clouds continue to roll in and it’s not long before it’s teeming down.
We sit and watch it all unfold, and it just gives me even more of an appreciation for where we are. I loved it.
Toan explains that our hosts have recently built a ‘bungalow’ type building out the back. It’s where we’ll be sleeping, but only if it stops raining, and if they feel it’s unlikely it will rain again during the night. Otherwise, we’ll be sleeping in the main house with the family.
I think our own room would be nice, but really, I’m not fussed.
It’s not long before the rain stops, and it actually clears up as the last light disappears.
We go upstairs to check out the main house. It’s big! Open plan living at its finest!
The kitchen is at one end, and a few steps down. A few steps down from the kitchen, and actually a separate building outside, is the toilet and bathroom. It’s all very clean, and well maintained.
Lisa and I sit upstairs and just try and take it all in. I can’t believe where we are, and I can’t believe what we’ve seen and experienced today.
It makes me think of just how far we’ve come, since that day we stepped out of the Tan Son Nhat airport in HCMC, for the first time, just 18 months ago.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Toan comes in with a couple of beers. I love him.
Soon after, dinner is served in the main room. According to Lisa’s notes, it was spring rolls wrapped in some leaves, zucchini that was stuffed with something, some meat, some rice and some other stuff.
I don’t know, I’m just not the right person to ask.
I can tell you this though; it was magnificent! And again, there was heaps of it.
And it turns out that Dien is the cook!
Not only can he handle Lisa on the back of his bike, he can also cook! And, he is very, very good at it.
A few rice wines, or ‘local waters’, with dinner, along with the obligatory ‘mot, hai, ba, yo’s!”
It was a lot of fun, and just a great experience.
We then sat downstairs and just talked, while enjoying a few more beers. It had been a fantastic day, and yes, there had been a small hiccup, but I wouldn’t have changed anything. And sitting here now, just winding down, was a great way to finish it.
Knowing we would be up reasonably early, as well as feeling pretty knackered anyway, we decided to call it a night. Toan then let us know that seeing as the rain had passed, we would be sleeping in the bungalow.
We said our ‘goodnights’, and made our way round the back of the house. I’d only seen where the bungalow was in the dark, so didn’t really know what was situated around it. To get into it we had to climb a small ladder of five or six steps. Inside, there was enough room to sleep two, as well as room for bags and things. Very basic, and very simple. But very good.
Being made of bamboo, it certainly wasn’t a ‘sealed’ room, and as such, a mosquito net was provided.
The other good thing about it not being ‘sealed’, was that you were able to hear all the noises of outside. Not sleep disturbing noises, but soothing noises.
Including the constant sound of running water.
It was an enjoyable way to drift off to sleep, and as I hadn’t seen what was around our little hut, I was looking forward to finding out the next morning.