3 October – Hanoi – Ninh Binh
Wake to the sound of an alarm.
Which I guess is a positive, seeing as I wasn’t laying there awake waiting for it.
And yep, it’s painful.
Damn beer corner.
Damn friendly tourists.
Damn late nights.
But I wouldn’t change any of it, for anything.
Bags packed, we stumble downstairs.
Door guy is asleep on the couch.
I hate it when we wake them up. I feel so bad about it.
We leave our main bag with the hotel, who are always happy to look after such things, and our now awake door guy rings us a taxi.
Two minutes later, it arrives. Heartfelt sorrys and cam on’s to the door guy, and we’re quickly in the taxi by 5.30am, with just a couple of backpacks.
The taxi driver is female, which is a little unusual, but at the same time, a nice change. We then hear a recorded message that tells us to put our seatbelts on, and hopefully enjoy a safe trip.
Hmmm, never heard that before.
Well, not in a mode of transport that’s not going to leave the ground….
Less than ten minutes later, we’re at Ga Hanoi (Hanoi train station).
It’s only barely light, and the usual taxi queue and taxi touts are already about. But it’s much less confronting when you’re arriving at a station by car, as opposed to when you arrive at one by train.
Well, it used to be confronting.
Into the station, and it’s all pretty straightforward finding the platform we need. Even if my eyes aren’t fully open, nor my brain fully switched on.
I do however notice a large rat scurry across the platform. But Lisa doesn’t. I don’t tell her.
Into carriage two, because that’s what our ticket tells us, and now it’s time to find our seats.
“Which way is the train going?”, asks the very much direction troubled one, even though we have discussed many times about where trains go when they leave Hanoi station.
Sometimes it really is hard being me…..
We find our seats, and my worst nightmare is realised.
Yep, and because I actually know which direction this train is travelling in, we have rear facing seats.
It’s my worst nightmare, not because I have a problem with that, but because Lisa does.
Seat is taken, carriage perused for passenger numbers, time checked, and advice of ‘wait 10 minutes and we should be able to move seats’, is given.
In the meantime, to help me take my mind of the problem to my right, I just sit and watch the goings on around me.
The Western guy, across the aisle, with his Vietnamese wife or girlfriend. She seems happy, but he has the most crappy and grumpy look on his face I think I’ve ever seen.
He must be a morning person like me….
At least he’s facing the ‘right’ way!
A group of mid 30’s local girls giving their phones a workout taking selfies. Now trying to also avoid eye contact with grumpy guy, I offer to help.
They’re as appreciative of that, as I am of the distraction.
Their friend, who’s most loved possessions in this world are both her mobile phone, and food. And no, it doesn’t appear possible for her to do both at the same time…..
I notice a small cockroach on the wall of the carriage. But Lisa doesn’t. Again, I don’t tell her.
Especially while she’s facing backwards…..
The train begins to move right on time, and seeing as there are plenty of empty seat options, we do some moving as well.
Relief for all concerned achieved, I spend my time looking out the window, while Lisa sleeps.
And I’m really struggling to work out which I’m most happy about; the fact that I have a window seat, or the fact that Lisa is asleep???
I think back to when someone told me when we first had kids – ‘You always love them a little bit more when they’re asleep’.
It’s so true…..
The city life of Hanoi whizzes by, and it’s not long till that city life gives way to the country life. The open spaces, the green fields, the quiet roads. I love it.
I love Hanoi, too. And now Saigon, as well, but it’s this real stuff, with real people, at a slower pace that I also love.
I start thinking about the time we have left, and while we still have a week, it’s racing up far quicker than I’d like. This particular day during the planning, seemed so far into our itinerary, that it was hard to see and imagine. Now it’s here, and I can’t help but wonder where our time has gone.
The early start, along with the rocking of the train, is making staying awake rather difficult. I want, and need, sleep, but I don’t want to turn away from the window.
Eventually, after about an hour, I have no choice, and the fight is given up.
Surprisingly, the sleep thing actually works, and a bit after 8.00am, with only ten minutes till we’re due to arrive, I’m back in the world of the living.
I look out the window at the Ninh Binh countryside, and the first thing I notice is that it’s raining.
And judging by the clouds, and the darkness, it doesn’t look like a passing shower.
Faaaark!!!!!! I’d never even considered that possibility!
Train, and rain, continues, and pretty much right on 8.30am, we pull into Ninh Binh station.
Out onto the platform, along with grumpy guy and his wife, and off in search of Toan.
Around the corner, and all poncho’d up, a familiar face!
It’s been a long two years, but at the same time it feels like only a week ago, and it’s just great to see him again.
A quick toilet stop – 2000 Dong each – and then back to Toan and out into the car park. Toan 2 isn’t here at the moment; he’s doing a tour in Pu Luong; but Toan has brought along another friend who looks familiar.
And there’s a reason for that, as it’s Dien, who came with us on our 2016 trip to Pu Luong Nature Reserve.
It’s great to see him again, and a really unexpected surprise.
The rain is still coming down, and while it is not overly heavy, it’s still significant enough to get you considerably wet.
Especially when you’re sitting on the back of a motorbike.
Ponchos on, and we’re quickly out into the countryside of Ninh Binh.
And it doesn’t take long before I’m reminded of how beautiful the area is.
Fifteen minutes later, we pull up at the homestay that Toan has arranged for us; An Phu Homestay.
First impressions are really good, and the owner, Luong, is incredibly friendly. He shows us to our room, and yep, love it already.
We head back to the restaurant part, and then meet Huong, Luong’s wife, who also seems lovely. They both then organise some breakfast for us, of pancakes with banana and honey, some fruit, as well as a caphe sua da.
It’s all really good, but as usual, it’s far more than I can eat at this time of the day. But that’s okay, as Toan and Dien help me finish it all off.
With the rain still coming down, we just sit around and chat. Toan tells me that a couple who he took to Pu Luong recently; Julie and Tony; said to say hello.
I don’t know them, I don’t think….., but it’s always nice to hear that someone has visited a place that I’ve talked about.
More rain, more chatting, and more sitting around. But that’s okay, as from previous experience, sitting on the back of a motorbike in the rain wears real thin, real quick.
Finally, a bit before 11.30am, the rain eases and we decide to take a chance. Ponchos on, and we’re soon out in the countryside once again.
Amongst the karsts, the rice fields, and the everything, it’s just stunning. And it’s probably more stunning than I’d remembered.
I’ve really missed it, and I didn’t even know that I did.
We catch a lucky break when the rain, which was now little more than a slight annoyance, completely stops. We pull over to remove our ponchos, as well as to try and get the camera to do justice to what we’re seeing.
It’s mildly successful….
Back on the bikes, and it’s lovely to feel the wind, minus the plastic. A few minutes later we pull over again next to a small canal. There’s a guy actually in the canal itself, and he’s throwing a small cage like thing into the water, and then dragging it back towards him.
Turns out he is catching snails, and on a good day, he can end up with 30 kgs of them.
With them not being overly big, that is a lot of snails!
Toan suggests we walk along a path between two fields, while he and Dien ride up ahead and wait for us. Apparently it’s only about 300 metres, and it’ll give us a chance to stretch our legs.
Not to mention getting a closer look at the stunning scenery around us.
And it is. Lush green rice fields, with the occasional sight of a non la wearing farmer, going about their business.
Yep, I’ve said before that I love the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, but just like down in the Mekong, there is huge appeal to the quieter way of life out in the country around here.
It makes me think that future trips may have to have more time allocated to the more rural areas of Vietnam.
We eventually reach Toan and Dien, and if that walk was 300 metres as Toan suggested, then I’d love to buy real estate from him.
But complaining I was not, and if it had have been double the distance, I would have been more than happy about that.
Back on the bikes, and because it’s close to lunchtime, we find a bit of a touristy place to get something to eat.
Simple lunch of fried noodles and vegetables, as well as tra da, while watching a number of tour groups turn up and do the same.
Which makes me think that I’m much happier doing it our way, as opposed to their way.
Lunch done, tour groups farewelled, we’re soon back on the road again.
Through Tam Coc, and we see the ridiculous number of homestays that have opened up in the last few years. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the big problem is that there are now far more than is sustainable, for the number of tourists that actually visit.
Apparently many are now on the market, with the owners trying to recoup some of their money.
Like a lot of things here, it was well and truly overdone a few years ago.
It’s a bit sad.
Past the Tam Coc boat ride, which we haven’t done; Trang An five years ago is probably enough; and then we see Hang Mua in the distance.
And Hang Mua is something we have done. And with fond memories. Although I think Lisa’s knees are still angry with her after that day…..
Our ride, and the taking in of the countryside, continues. And while a lot of the homestays are struggling with a lack of tourist numbers, there are still quite a few tourists around. Many self driving scooters, or bicycles, and some even just walking.
It’s something that I didn’t notice when we were last here, but that again could be more a memory thing.
On we go, and the more I see, the more I realise how much I’ve missed it all. Not just the picturesque postcard scenery, but also the everyday life stuff.
Including the animals, mostly on the side of the road.
The water buffalo, so big and imposing, but at the same time with the most docile looking faces. The cows, the goats, which the area is known for, the geese, as well as the many ducks and baby ducks, which I probably should be calling ducklings….
And not to forget the chickens, which still have no road sense whatsoever.
It’s lucky they lay eggs, and taste good….
We end up at the Thung Nham Bird Park, and while Toan and Dien look after the bikes, we head off to stretch our legs and look around.
It’s all very scenic and pretty, with some nicely manicured gardens, but it occurs to me halfway through that we’re yet to actually see a bird. Lots of butterflies, which I suppose are a bit like really small birds, but no actual birds.
We find the thousand year old tree, which gets me thinking as to how do they actually know it’s a thousand years old?
Not sure, and probably doesn’t matter. And while the hunt for it was a pleasant enough walk, the finding of the tree was all rather underwhelming.
It’s fair to say that I think it’s seen better days.
Although it’s obviously done well to ‘live’ as long as it has. If in fact it has….
We make our way back towards the entrance, still minus any bird sightings, although I think I may have heard one, and stop off for a quick toilet break.
Talking to an Indian guy there, he too is bird-less. But he did mention that he saw a rather large lizard, which is arguably more interesting than a bird, anyway.
Bird-less park done, we find Toan and Dien, and we’re soon back on the road. A quick stop for petrol, as well as a wasted stop at an ATM that wasn’t even turned on, and we start making our way back towards An Phu Homestay.
Well, I believe we are, as it occurs to me that I have absolutely no idea about where we are, or where we actually need to be.
But that’s okay, as when you’re sitting on the back of a bike that someone else is driving, you don’t really need to be concerned with such minor things.
And anyway, when you have scenery like you have around here; which just happens to have gone up a notch with the change in light from the fast setting sun; who wants to be concentrating on the road and what the other road users are doing?
We get back to the homestay around 5.00pm, and it’s time for both a shower and a beer. Both of which were much enjoyed.
I head back into the dining area, and two guys are setting the table in anticipation of tonight’s meal.
One of them looks up and begins walking towards me with a big smile on his face. I must have been a little away with the fairies, thinking about what we’d done today, as it takes me a split second to realise who it is.
It’s Toan 2, who we haven’t seen since 2016!
It truly is great to see him again, and it was certainly a bit of a ‘wow’ moment.
We have a chat, catching up on what’s been happening, as everyone else who is joining us for dinner begins to arrive.
A young couple from Israel, a Belgian couple; Stan and Sabine; who are all staying here, as well as Toan, Toan 2, Dien, and another guide, and of course Luong, Huong, and their two young boys.
With the tables set up down the length of the room, we all take a seat. There is so much food; goat, chicken, pork, spring rolls, morning glory, to name just some of it.
And then of course there was the beer, red wine, and the Vietnamese staple of rice wine.
To add to the night, was the celebration of Sabine’s birthday, with a cake to help mark the occasion.
So much food, so much beer and so much rice wine, with much ‘mot, hai, ba, yo’-ing, to signal each shot.
It was such a great a night, with truly great company, and one that it is right up there in the most special of nights we’ve ever had in Vietnam.
And once again, it just confirmed how lucky we’ve been to be offered the opportunities we have, over the whole Vietnam journey.
I have spent much time scratching my head at what we’ve experienced.
The night rolls on, and all too soon Toan 1 and Dien have to leave. It was a tough goodbye, made only slightly easier by knowing / hoping that it was more a ‘see you later’. Or in Vietnamese – Hen Gap Lai.
The drinks continue to flow, and I’m not sure I ever finished a beer before another one was put in front of me.
Eventually Toan 2 needs to make a move, and once again, it wasn’t an easy goodbye.
Tentative plans are made for a possible trip up to Mu Cang Chai, with both he and Toan 1, on our next trip. I just need to convince Lisa that she’s up to it…..
He heads off, and as he does, I realise I didn’t get a photo with him.
It’s the only thing of the whole day that annoys me.
Will rectify that next time.
It gets to almost 11.30pm, and unfortunately it’s time to call it a night. Lisa’s had one or two too many – she’s certainly her mother’s daughter – and while I could always have another, I probably don’t need it.
Commonsense prevails, for once, and we head back to the room.
Yep, it had been one unbelievable night, and one that I wasn’t really expecting. And it will be one that I will remember for a very long time.
It has, however, given us one of those dreaded goodbyes to do tomorrow.
And that is also something I wasn’t really expecting.