Pu Luong – Ninh Binh – Hanoi
Up early. Again…..
But that’s alright. Sort of…..
Everyone else seems to be up anyway, so why shouldn’t we.
I’m feeling alright, not 100%, but nothing that’s going to stop me doing anything.
Laying in bed, I grab the camera to look at some of our photos. Mucking around, I then take a ‘selfie’ of the two of us laying there.
Let’s just say that I was feeling far better than I looked in the photo. Lisa as well.
Time for a new camera, I think.
And don’t bother asking. That photo will never be linked to.
We get dressed and head out to see our little village in the morning light. It’s calm and peaceful and we just take it all in. Our little puppy is out and about, and much happier today since ‘our’ dogs are no longer protecting us.
It’s not long before Toan comes up the hill with breakfast.
Another one of Dien’s pancakes, some fruit, as well as my favourite morning drink; caphe sua nam.
The holes in the condensed milk tin are now slightly larger, so it’s still reasonably ‘nam’, by the time it’s sorted.
Once again, the pancake is bigger than my stomach can handle, so before things get messy, I pull the pin on trying to eat it all.
Lisa’s in the same boat. Although, if it happened to have been made of chocolate……
We put a fair dint in the fruit, but even that is more than we can handle.
Stomachs now as full as we want them, we just sit and take in our surrounds. There’s not that much else to do; not that we were looking for something to do. There’s no wifi, and I’m not sure I could have made a phone call even if I wanted to.
And that was one of the nice things about where we were.
Simple, back to basics stuff. Yep, nice!
While we were sitting there, one of the neighbour’s kids from yesterday, came up to us and sat next to Lisa.
He didn’t say anything; he just sat there.
Seeing as we had all this food left over, I offered him some fruit.
He responded with a quick shake of the head.
Hmmm, ok, maybe he’s already had breakfast, and like us, he can’t fit anymore in, I thought.
I still had half the pancake left, so I thought I’d give that a try.
Ahhh, the pancake was far more appealing to our little friend, than the fruit.
He sat there intently, and ate it as most seven year olds would do; picking it apart, and handling it far more than he needed to.
I think he enjoyed his pancake as much as I enjoyed watching him.
My pancake finished, we then offered him Lisa’s one, expecting him to decline the offer. The thinking being that, seeing as we could only eat half each ourselves, there would be no way he could eat any more.
Nup, wrong assumption.
He polished off the second one exactly the way he had done the first; pulling it apart, studying it, part playing with it, and then finally eating it.
Just another one of those ‘little’ moments…..
A little later Sohn came up and sat with us. We try to communicate with hand and arm gestures, which kind of worked. She seems an incredibly genuine and caring person, and I think she’d also be a lot of fun.
It’s times like these that I really wish I spoke Vietnamese. And I suspect she really wishes she spoke English.
I would love to hear and learn all about her life.
We get ourselves organised, sorting out our stuff and packing up our ‘house’.
Then, that time arrives. The first of the ‘goodbyes’, for the day.
Toan does some translating, and we thank our hosts very much for having us.
We’re soon on our way back down the mountain.
It’s actually quite comfortable, weather wise. A bit of cloud cover is keeping the temperature down a little and it’s making for a very pleasant ride.
Eventually the track makes way for the road and we’re back to travelling at a reasonable speed. Not that we’re in a hurry, but it just makes for an easier ride.
I really have no idea which roads we travelled on, either on the way up, or on the way down, but I’m pretty sure we were on different roads. It just seemed different, and in fact, I probably found things more interesting on the way back down.
And here was my problem back again. How was I going to remember all of the things I was seeing?
It played on my mind the whole way. Damn it!
The number of the little towns we went through. Seriously, you’d be hard pressed to count them all.
And all the things that were in these towns, or villages. The shops, or more importantly, the type of shops, and what they were selling. Also, where they were set up in the town.
There were the usual ones that sell things like food, fruit and drinks. But then there was the plumbing supply place next door to the guy that sold bricks. Or the hardware store next to the restaurant. And the open fronted hairdressers, with two salon chairs in the middle, next to the mechanic’s workshop.
Once again, just something so very different from what I normally see. But oh, so fascinating.
Between the towns, the endless fields of rice, bananas, pineapple, corn and just about any other fruit or vegetable. Or so it seemed. I didn’t know what half of it was – I could have asked – but I wouldn’t have remembered anyway….
It didn’t really matter.
So yeah, great scenery. But the thing that really stuck out?
Yep, the people.
Mostly the kids.
I have never waved and said hello so much in my life.
They loved it, and I loved it, too.
For the first time ever, I felt like I was someone important. They just wanted to interact with these strange westerners in their community.
The most memorable occasion was probably towards the end of the descent down the mountain. A group of maybe seven or eight school children, distinguishable by their distinctive school uniforms, were riding their bikes towards us. As we got closer they recognised that we were most definitely not locals.
A chorus of hellos rang out from the ones at the front; mainly girls; as we passed them. But it was the young boy, who was lagging behind them a little, that seemed the most excited.
As we came towards him, and while he was continually calling out hello, he put his arm out to ‘high five’ me.
He doesn’t know it, but he well and truly made my day.
We continued on, stopping occasionally to stretch our legs. It was now starting to get a little warmer; now actually bordering on hot.
Into another, of the many, many small towns, and we stopped at a small shop on the side of the road for a drink. While the ‘shop’ was interesting, as per normal, it was what was underneath it that I found even more so.
In a quite large ‘pond’, or tank, for want of a better description. The shop, and house, was actually above this big tank and the tank was full of fish. Pretty big ones, too.
Toan got them excited when he threw some leaves in. Yeah, they eat leaves.
While we enjoyed our cold drink, we walked behind the house to take in the view. Which, even though we were well down the mountain now, was still pretty impressive. A bamboo bridge over a small stream, with rice paddies on the other side, and off in the distance, another mountain range.
Yep, not too shabby.
As we walked back to the shop, Toan pointed out something else that was interesting. It was a communal ‘bathroom’ behind the shop. A man made bathing pool, I suppose you’d describe it as. Apparently a lot, if not all, villages have them. Yep, interesting.
Drink done, legs stretched, and now slightly more knowledgeable, we were once again back on our way.
It wasn’t long before we were completely off the mountain. Two things told me that. One, the scenery had changed and the road was now flatter, and two, it was no longer ‘pretty warm’. It was now just plain hot.
At one point, we were going along a road that was either a very long bridge, or just a bit of a raised section. It was a bit hard to tell. Anyway, this section was quite exposed. It was at that point that ‘hot’ went to another level.
The sun beating down, the heat radiating back up from the road, and the hot wind hitting us head on, was just incredible. Like being in an oven.
A few minutes later we turned off to the right and came into another small town. We then pulled up out the front of a familiar looking restaurant. It was same one we’d had lunch at two days earlier.
I can’t remember what we had, it may have actually been pho, but it was just nice to sit and relax and cool down a little.
As we were getting ready to get back on the bikes, I mentioned to Lisa about how hot it was going across that raised section of road. She’d noticed it as well.
Heading out along the main road of town we got to an intersection and turned left. Up ahead was that raised section of road. Yep, we were going to finish off the cooking process…..
It was around about now that I was starting to struggle a touch. That worried me, because if I was feeling it, the intrepid explorer was going to be in more trouble.
Yep, the relative coolness of the restaurant was now a distant memory, and we wouldn’t feel that again, for quite some time.
On we pushed,……..; well, Toan and Dien pushed, we just hung on, both literally and figuratively. The scenery, while not as picturesque as earlier in the day, was still worth admiring.
Just as I was thinking I wouldn’t mind another break, Toan pulled over out the front of another house / shop arrangement. A very open ‘shed’ like structure with the obligatory small plastic chairs. Very basic looking, but judging by the house behind it, a very profitable business.
A very new looking traditional stilt house. But different to the other stilt houses we’d seen, because this house had concrete stilts and a tiled roof. Apparently timber is becoming difficult to source, and as such, more modern materials are now being utilised.
Toan orders four sugar cane juices (yep, even the intrepid explorer indulged. Finally……) and we sit in the shade and cool down with the aid of electric fans. It works surprisingly well.
Time to confront the heat again, we continue our journey. Another half an hour or so, and we pull over again. This time we stop at a pagoda. Yep, one of my favourite things.
And just to make it even better, there’s a heap of stairs to climb up to see it.
“Coming up for a look?”, I ask the intrepid explorer, knowing exactly what her answer will be.
Yep, I’m right.
So it’s just Toan and I who head up. We get to the top, and yep, it’s a pagoda. It’s interesting, but my legs probably got more out of it than I did.
Back down all those stairs, and we’re on our way again. I ask Toan how far we are from Ninh Binh. Another couple of hours, apparently.
This is starting to get difficult. Who would have thought it was so hard to just sit on the back of a motorbike….?
Our next stop is beside a river. I can see more signs of civilization, so I think that we must be getting close. Hoping that we’re getting close. We’re not really.
I mentioned the heat before. It really is draining.
At one point I walked behind Lisa and noticed the back of her shorts. They were soaking wet with perspiration. I then realised mine were the same. Normally you’d feel that; a slight coldness on the skin; but the perspiration itself was obviously the same temperature as me.
Yep, just so hot…..
I would kill for a beer right now. In fact, that’s probably the only thing that’s keeping me going.
We continue on……
Finally, I see something that I recognise. I still don’t know exactly where we are, but I now know we’re not too far away.
It’s the river just outside of Ninh Binh. It’s a fairly decent size and it has plenty of boats on it. Big boats, too.
Between the road and the river is rice paddies. The last time we were here, in early October 2014, they were harvesting the rice. It’s now May, and I’m surprised to see they are harvesting at this time as well. Probably couldn’t have planned that any better if I’d tried…..
I like rice harvest time. There’s something about watching non la’s bobbing around in a field. It’s such a quintessential Vietnamese thing.
And this time it’s the same.
But in one field, it’s a little different. There’s a motorized rice harvester doing the work.
I’ve talked about the contrasts of Vietnam before. Well, here was another one. And it didn’t fill me with happiness.
Can’t hold back progress though, I suppose…..
Further on ahead there’s what looks like a new bridge across the river. And that’s where we need to be, on the other side.
I’m not sure it’s actually open, but I see a local on a motorbike going across. I start to get a little excited that we really are very close. As we get to the bridge the local guy has come back again. He yells out to Toan that, while on this side you can just drive around the big pile of soil that they’ve placed at the start of the bridge to stop people from crossing it, on the other side there’s no way of getting off the bridge.
This both disappoints me, as well as amuses me. I think it’s funny that even though the authorities are making it quite clear that the bridge is not yet ready for service, this guy believes he knows better.
Again, one of the things I love about Vietnam.
We continue on and Toan mentions that we can actually get a boat across the river further up, to avoid having to go all the way up to the existing bridge.
We pull off the road and head down a narrow dirt path to a small tributary that runs off the main river. There’s a couple of small wooden boats floating there.
Toan calls out to one of them and a lady appears. I think he may have woken her up. They have a conversation. Obviously I have no idea what is being said, but I suspect Toan is being told what he doesn’t want to hear.
Unfortunately, I’m right.
The guy that ran the ferry service across the river, has given it away. There’s now no call for it since the new bridge has been built.
The fact that it is not yet open, seems to be of no real consequence.
Back up our dirt track and we’re soon on the main road again.
We continue along past the river and I’m still staggered by the number, and the size, of the boats on it.
There’s even a dredge doing its thing.
But it’s not your standard type of dredge boat. This is the Vietnamese version.
An excavator on a barge!
And each time the excavator reaches forward into the water, the barge tilts with it. And quite significantly, I might add.
I’m shocked, horrified, amazed and amused, all at once.
Just another Vietnamese thing……
Finally, we get to the bridge. We’re almost there and I think I can smell the beer.
And that is exactly the plan. Beer.
Last time we were here, in 2014, we finished our final day of our two day tour with Toan, with a couple of beers at a bia hoi place. It was great way to unwind and just have a chat about things. We didn’t know it at the time, and it’s a bit of a long story, but we weren’t actually with Toan. We were with his cousin, who is also Toan. Known by us now as T2.
When all of that came out after our return, I was, initially, fairly disappointed with that. But after thinking about what we’d done, and how much fun we’d had, as well receiving a couple of apologetic emails from the original Toan, (T1) I’d accepted his apology and moved on.
So much so, that in the lead up to our second trip, I’d asked Toan by email if we could finish our three days doing the same thing. I’d also asked that if his cousin was going to be around, then we would love to see him again, as well.
We eventually pulled up at the same bia hoi place as last time. It was great to see it again. Not too many tourists here. Actually, there weren’t any. Just the way I like it.
Beers arrived, and seriously, I’m not sure a beer has ever tasted that good.
A few minutes later, Toan motioned to me to look over my shoulder.
Aha! There was his cousin, getting off his bike. He had a big grin on his face. Almost as big as mine.
I jumped up and went over to greet him.
A handshake was never going to be enough. Only a hug would do.
Even though we had only spent two days together, and that was 18 months ago, it was like seeing a long lost friend again.
The five of us spent the next hour just chatting, and generally enjoying each other’s company. It really was a great way to finish our three days, and as I said, it was wonderful to see T2 again.
Just when I thought my day couldn’t get any better, I received a text message on my phone.
It was Stefan (who we’d got to know on TripAdvisor). We were due to meet him next week in HCMC but he’d changed his plans slightly and was actually spending tonight in Hanoi, before leaving for HCMC the next day.
Would we like to catch up tonight as well?
Absolutely we would!
But first I had to go through one of those ‘goodbye’ things.
And unfortunately, that time had come. It was now just after 5.00pm and our train was due just before 5.30pm. Time to go.
Back on the bikes and off to the station we went. And just for old times’ sake, I jumped on the back of T2’s bike. Well, he insisted I do that.
I wasn’t going to complain.
Once at the station, I ran over to our little café from two days earlier, and grabbed some water.
On the way back, I took one last photo.
And then that ‘goodbye’ thing.
It was tough. Real tough. But I managed to get through it.
But perhaps only because I’d already planted the seed for the possibility of a return trip, which gave me at least something to look forward to.
Goodbyes done, not to tour guides, but to friends, we headed into the station and through to the platform.
Timing was pretty good, too. The train turned up within a minute or two.
We found our carriage, and took our seats.
Two things were significant about that.
One, once again, we were in seats that were facing backwards. I think I heard a groan of dismay…..
And two, Toan had booked us hard seat tickets.
Yep, after spending the best part of a day sitting down, and looking forward to something comfortable to sit on, we found ourselves on hard seats.
I actually had a bit of a chuckle to myself. Well, you had to laugh…..
Lisa did what Lisa does best, and managed a bit of sleep. Maybe she has a little Vietnamese in her…..
I think I lasted about an hour before my rear end had had enough. I just couldn’t sit any longer.
This seemed to worry some of the locals a little. More than once I was offered a seat, but I think with some pointing and gesticulating I got my point across as to why I was standing.
Well, I assumed they understood, judging by the big smiles on their faces.
Getting close to Hanoi, some of the locals nearby were starting to get a little agitated. It took me a while to work out that they were unhappy with the temperature inside the carriage. Apparently the air conditioning wasn’t working.
A few minutes later, one of the conductors came through. I bet he wished he hadn’t, because a couple of the ladies really gave it to him.
It was funny to watch, and he handled it as best you can when middle aged women get stuck into you. At one point the women pointed at me, and then back at the conductor. That just made him feel more guilty and he then even apologised to me.
It was funny, and in the end we all just had a bit of a laugh about it.
We finally pull in to Hanoi station about 8.00pm and head out the front doors.
Yep, they’re all there. As I knew they’d be.
Spot the distinctive green of a Mai Linh taxi to my right, and head towards it dragging the intrepid explorer behind me.
Oh the joys of having done all this before. Having the knowledge and the confidence to just know what you want, and then go about getting it.
Past all the touts from the dodgy companies, ignoring their requests to rip me off.
Yep, a man possessed, I was.
As we get closer to the Mai Linh, a guy approaches us. But not the Mai Linh guy.
Before he has a chance to say anything, I look towards the Mai Linh guy and tell him, “Mai Linh”.
He stands there blankly, looking like I was speaking some foreign language, or something.
The smaller, non Mai Linh, guy comes forward.
“Where you going?”, he asks.
“Hang Hanh street”, I say, not really quite sure why he is getting involved.
“100 000 dong”, he comes back with.
“Hey!???”, I reply, both stunned and confused at the same time. I know it should only be 50 000 after what Sophia had told us and what we’d actually paid two days earlier.
“No. Meter!”, I finally come back with.
“No meter. 100 000”, my little cretin mate responds with.
The Mai Linh guy stands there, saying nothing. Obviously he’s just there for show.
The intrepid explorer, however, is now all up and about.
“It’s only a 50 000 fare! Why would we pay 100 000?”, she says, in a more aggressive manner than I normally see.
Hmmm, she has learnt something, I think…..
This seems to concern cretin guy, and he begins to move away.
“Come on, let’s go. We’ll start walking and get a block or two away”, I say, a little warily, worried that my request for her to walk after a pretty long day may result in some more aggression.
Fortunately, she follows, and before long we see another Mai Linh taxi go past. He spots us, does a U turn, in typical Vietnamese fashion, and picks us up.
“Hang Hanh street, please”, I say, and he immediately acknowledges with a smile.
A few minutes later we’re driving past the lake, and just after that we pull up outside the Artisan Boutique.
The fare came to less than 40 000 dong, so I hand him a 50 000 note. He goes to give me change but I tell him to keep it. He gives me a big smile and thanks me. He seemed like a really nice guy, and it just restored my faith after dealing with cretin guy at the station.
We go inside and re-check in. It’s nice coming back to a familiar place.
We retrieve the bag that we had left, and while Lisa heads up to the room, I duck outside to the mini-mart a couple of doors down to grab a few beers.
Back upstairs, and I phone Stefan. We’re all still good and we make plans to meet at beer corner.
I jump in the shower, and I’m seriously not sure if a shower has ever felt this good.
Feeling, almost, human again, we venture out. Up through underwear lane, and then on to beer street.
I’ve seen plenty of photos of Stefan before, so I know what he looks like. This shouldn’t be too difficult….
We get to beer corner.
Hmmm, this might be a little more difficult than I thought.
As it was always going to be, you idiot!, I think to myself.
It’s almost 9.00pm, and it’s a Friday night, and the weather is good.
A quick text, and he’s on his way.
Two minutes later, and we’ve found him.
It’s nice to finally be able to actually meet the person I’ve had so many conversations with. I feel like I already know him.
We head out of the mayhem and make our way up to Ma May street. Stefan mentions New Day restaurant; he’s been there a couple of times and says it’s good; and we’re more than happy with that.
Over dinner; and no surprises here, I can’t remember what I had; we spend an hour or so chatting and catching up on what we’ve been doing.
Dinner done, and we need to find something else to do.
As is usually the case, beer is the answer. We head back to the chaos of beer corner and we pull up a small plastic chair each.
Bottles of beer, not glasses, so it’s not quite perfect, but it’s close enough.
Lisa has one with us and then pulls the pin. She’s knackered. So am I, but I’m not going to let that stop me.
We order another one, and as we’re finishing that one, there’s a bit of movement from over at the other establishments.
Yep, the fun police, which are actually the police, have come to shut everyone down. It’s midnight. Apparently it’s time to go to bed.
Actually, it probably wasn’t a bad thing from my point of view, because really, I’m not sure I could have gone on much longer.
Our catch up, while fairly brief, had been a bonus.
This particular HAG (Hanoi Appreciation Group) meeting had never been on the agenda. It only came about when Stefan’s plans changed slightly.
Although, I suspect he may have changed his plans on purpose just so he could meet me earlier.
Which in my eyes, was completely understandable…..
Anyway, as it turned out, it was quite fitting that my first HAG meeting was actually in Hanoi. My second one, however, would be in HCMC in just under a week. And I was very much looking forward to that.
So, HAG meeting adjourned, I bid farewell, promising to catch up in a week, and headed back to the hotel.
More than just a little happy in the knowledge that before that would happen, I had a full five days in Hanoi.
Yep, these next five days were most definitely ‘Christmas morning’ type stuff.