These reports are from our very first trip to Vietnam in September 2014, so therefore prior to the previous trip reports! Originally posted on TripAdvisor, this is trip report #7…
6 – 8 October 2014
Arrived in Ninh Binh around 6.00pm just as it was getting dark.
My initial opinion on the town, actually…., city, as we drove in was one of,….ummm…..not much to be honest. It just looked like a big rural city; and one that wasn’t overly interesting.
Don’t make a judgement yet, said that voice in my head…..
We arrived at our hotel, the Ngoc Anh 2, and checked in.
Once again we had separate rooms but this time the kids were on the same floor as us.
Bit closer than I preferred but there were still 2 doors between us and them. Much better than no doors…..
Bear in mind we’ve been away for 2 1/2 weeks by this stage…..
Our usual ritual of a quick unpack and then it’s off to have a look around Ninh Binh.
Surprisingly, the kids decline the offer to explore with us…..
So back out the front and we get back onto the main road. The plan is to see what’s around and to find somewhere to have dinner.
So my initial thoughts…….? Pretty much confirmed. It is a big rural city. Touristy is one word I wouldn’t use to describe it. In fact, on our 30 minute or so walk we didn’t see too many westerners at all. That’s good; not unhappy about that. But the place doesn’t grab me at the moment and I’m wondering if Ninh Binh was such a good idea. It has a different feel from any other place we’d stayed. Different shops, different traffic feel.
Still lots of bikes, lots of cars….and lots of trucks. Lots of trucks….
It seems that every truck in the country drives through Ninh Binh. It actually wouldn’t surprise me if they even go through Ninh Binh when they drive from HCMC to Danang. Check a map if you don’t get it…..
And they’re noisy. Very noisy.
Anyway, I listen to that voice again. You’ve been here 5 minutes, give it time.
We don’t really find anywhere that grabs us for dinner. Actually, we found one possibility. A fairly plain looking place about 3 or 4 blocks away.
I’m not looking forward to the prospect of telling the kids how far we’ll need to walk…..
As we come back to the hotel there are lots of people sitting on the usual plastic chairs at the three or so food / drink places next door to the hotel. One of the owners motions to us, and one of the few tourists we’ve seen tells us the food is good.
The kids have been saved a walk. I’ve been saved a lot of whinging.
We retrieve them from the hotel and make ourselves comfortable…..? on our cubby house chairs…..
Can’t remember what we had, but while it wasn’t great, it wasn’t that bad either. It was some kind of soupy noodle dish with beef and these little roundish white coloured balls that had a meatish texture.
Lisa reckons they were exactly that. Yep, balls. Testicles.
It wasn’t something I had initially thought of.
And I would have preferred she hadn’t mentioned it while I had one in my mouth….
Anyway, whatever they were, they were nice. Not quite as nice as before Lisa mentioned it, but still ok.
The next morning we were due to meet Toan, our tour guide, outside the hotel for day one of our two day exploration of the outskirts of Ninh Binh.
At breakfast that morning we met another family from Melbourne. Turns out they were doing similar things to us. They too were doing the motorbike thing, as well as a homestay near Mai Chau and then a return to Hanoi.
It was now time to meet Toan. It was great to finally put a face to an email address.
After a quick introduction, he asked us what we wanted to do and what we wanted to see.
My answer – “I don’t care”. “Show us what you think is worth looking at”.
Him – “Ok, no problem”.
So, we were off.
It was great to have the wind in our faces once again. It truly is the best way to see the sights.
First stop was a boat ride in Bich Dong to see just a few of the limestone karsts.
The boy and I were in one boat while Lisa and the girl were in another. Didn’t see any other tourists on our way out and only saw a couple on the way back. Very scenic and very quiet and it was quite an experience going through a couple of caves. Not much room at times.
We knew when we had got to the end of the first leg of our paddle, as the bag containing the souvenirs made an appearance. Ahhh, so that’s what that bag was for…..
Bit of a captive audience….
So a little lighter in the back pocket and we were off on the return leg.
Almost back to the start and our lady started calling something out. I didn’t understand at first but eventually got it.
Glad we didn’t buy more stuff…..
Our next stop was Bich Dong Pagoda which is built into the side of a cliff. Interesting place with good views.
Back on the bikes and it wasn’t long before we were off the main roads and in amongst the fields.
I have no idea where we went but it didn’t matter. This was Vietnamese countryside and I loved it.
Eventually we got to the end of a dirt track. In front of us was Tam Coc River and beyond that was this huge mountain with some kind of lookout on top.
Turned out it was Hang Mua – and it’s 500 steps.
Again, the scenery!
Time for lunch.
Toan and his mates took us to a very local restaurant just down the road from Tam Coc.
A nice meal and the chance to have a bit of a rest before our afternoon challenge; those 500 steps.
Again, through the back blocks and there they were.
Those steps take you a looong way up.
The boy raced off (think he just wanted to get away from us), I tried to keep up with Lisa (but I can’t walk that slow) and again, surprisingly, the girl stayed behind.
Couldn’t have been bothered putting up with her whinging anyway….
Finally we had all made it.
I’d asked a few people on the way up, that were on their way back down, if the views were worth it.
They said yes.
They were right.
Absolutely worth the effort!
Our next stop were two temples in Hoa Lu.
Lovely architecture and a very interesting story to go with it, that Toan explained to us.
Can’t remember the finer details but it involved poisoning and a little adultery.
We had time to see one more pagoda but that involved more steps.
I was all stepped out, Lisa even more so, and to be honest, I was pagoda’d out as well.
The kids even more so.
Back to the hotel and it was time to try out the little plastic chairs out the front again. But this time it was for beer, not food.
I think I’ve probably said this before, there’s just something about sitting on the footpath, beer in hand, watching the world go by. I could still hear, and see, the noisy trucks up on the main road going past, but it didn’t matter. It’s all part of it and watching the locals do their thing quickly takes your mind away from all that.
It was now around this time that I started to feel something for Ninh Binh.
Starting to understand it.
That night we ate at a restaurant over the road (Chookies) owned by an Australian girl and her Vietnamese husband. It’s tourist orientated but it does very good western style food. The Vietnamese dishes aren’t too bad either but I think the western stuff is better.
The next morning we began our second day of adventure and exploration with Toan.
Before we left he suggested we might do things a little differently today. I think he’d sensed that the kids weren’t overly enamoured with pagodas and excessive walking.
He’d summed them up quicker than I ever had…..
He also suggested, as we had discussed beer the day before, that we could perhaps finish a little earlier and spend the last hour drinking Beer Hoi.
What did I think of that he asked?
I almost kissed him before I said Yes!
Our first stop was Trang An.
He suggested a toilet stop before we got into our boat.
I said I was Ok.
But he was quite insistent. The trip takes 3 1/2 hours.
3 1/2 hours!!!!!???
Toilet thing done and off we went.
Four of us in the one boat, our Vietnamese man in the back doing all the hard work.
Ten minutes in and I notice another boat about to pass us.
Gee, their paddler must be faster than ours, I think.
Hang on, two of them have their own oars.
I look down, I’m sitting next to an oar. So is the boy.
I motion to our guy – “Can we paddle”? “Can we help”?
Well, he was never going to say no, was he…..?
Now we’re motoring along.
And I feel much better because he’s not doing all the work.
We go through several caves, some quite long and low, and just generally take in the scenery.
Again, just stunning.
We get to the turn around point and decide not to get off. Our guy actually seems to encourage us not to, so we turn around and begin the journey back.
We’re still assisting with the paddling and we’re still flying along.
We have some fun with a few of the other boats and end up having a race with a couple of them.
Half way back we stop at some sort of temple or pagoda that just happens to have a snack and drink cart near it. Time to reach for the wallet again….
The lady there suggests I buy our guy a drink too.
Yes, I was going to do that anyway.
Ever get the feeling you’ve been set up?
So we all sit, and we rest, while they chat. And chat…….and chat.
I suspect we made up too much time by helping with the paddling and he doesn’t, or can’t, be seen getting back too early.
Eventually we’re back in the boat. It’s been fun, and the scenery is amazing, but by this stage I’ve had enough. My bum is really sore – not sure if it’s recovered from the train – and I just want to get back.
Finally the finish is in sight and I’m ready for the tip request.
Sure enough, it comes.
I don’t have a problem with it – it’s been great – but I’m wondering if the tip should have been coming from him.
My arms are almost as sore as my bum…..
Back on land it’s time for lunch
Toan takes us to a different restaurant this time. Again, very local.
They seem to specialise in goat. All different parts of the goat.
Yep, there it is, the goat testicles (yes, plural) dish.
I see a photo of a goat. Wow!
I’m now wondering if a goat testicle (yes, singular) dish wouldn’t be more than enough.
You learn something new every day……
Lunch done, Toan suggests we just ride around. Yep, more than happy with that.
Along narrow tracks and laneways only a bike could get through, past locals harvesting rice with their non-la’s on, along roads covered in rice which is being dried in the sun.
It was an afternoon of amazing sights.
This was exactly what I wanted to see and I loved every bit of it.
We travelled through a fishing village, rode past Van Long Nature Reserve and even stopped for a closer look at a water buffalo and her twin calves lazing in a river by the side of the road.
Yep, amazing sights.
It was now time for that beer, so back to Ninh Binh we went.
A little non-descript place, not too far from the hotel as it turned out, under cover, but out in the open, the usual plastic table and chairs.
Beer never tasted so good.
But it wasn’t just about the beer.
It was the experience.
An opportunity to spend time with new found friends and to experience the real Vietnamese culture.
What a way to finish our two days with Toan.
That night we went out to dinner with our fellow Aussie travellers. We ended up going to a restaurant that one of the guys at the hotel recommended.
Following a short taxi trip we were ushered into a rather empty looking building and then into a lift. Reaching the second or third floor we entered another rather empty looking large room. We were then directed to a smaller, again empty, room which we then had to ourselves.
A few minutes later a waitress appeared and we ordered drinks.
Warm beer, warm coke and plenty of ice in glasses soon turned up.
Managed to, well kind of, decipher the menu and the food was ordered.
The food was good. Not the best meal we’d had, but it was Ok.
The chicken dish – which somehow we’d managed to order two of – was not really what we were expecting.
I’m not really into heads and feet, and unfortunately, the two plates came with both.
It really did look like some kind of chicken jigsaw puzzle.
As we were finishing dinner the boy (need to mention here that he’s 6 foot 2) needed to use the toilet.
Fifteen minutes later he finally returned.
Me – “Where have you been?”
Him – “Standing out there having my photo taken by all the girls that work here. They’ve been giggling and calling me a giant!”
Our friend’s two daughters (8 & 16) along with the girl, decided it might be fun to see what sort of reaction they drew.
Yep, same response; photo after photo.
They were absolutely fascinated by these “strange” western kids.
It was funny to watch.
They even wanted me in the photos too.
I did have to walk past several times though before they noticed me……
There’s still another day left in Ninh Binh but I’ve just stopped and read what I’ve written, and once again, it’s gotten out of hand.
I’ve said before that I have a tendency to crap on a little…..
I’ll leave the last day till the next instalment which includes Mai Chau.