Ninh Binh and area - 24- 26 July 2008

Ninh Binh itself – a small town just 93km or a couple of hours by train south of Hanoi – isn’t terribly exciting its appeal  lies in the access to a couple of interesting attractions nearby so we decided to make it our first stop on the road south. Being less visited by tourists that other areas there was little in the way of public transport but we were lucky enough to meet up with 2 English girls –Rosy and Hannah – and we combined resources to share a car and driver for a day’s site seeing. First stop was Tam Coc or “Three caves”.

This area is described as “Halong Bay on the Rice Paddies” and amazingly enough that is exactly what it is. Rather than out of the sea the rock formations rise out of the green paddy fields. You get on a little rowboat (only 2 per boat as our rower said “four Vietnamese same weight as 2 foreigner!” and are rowed up the Ngo Dong River. You pass rice workers and other boats some of which are rowed in the traditional style using the feet – on the way to the afore mentioned 3 caves which you row through. They are lovely and really cool inside – decreasing in size from 127 to 70 to 40 metres long.

Once you get to the end you get the hard sell from the drink vendors to buy a drink for yourselves and your rowers. Our rowers had a drink each and some snacks though they put them away at once without drinking or eating. We were later told they later sell them back to the vendor at half the price!!  We also got hit on to buy some local embroidery and bought a table cloth – not sure quite when it’ll come in a bit like something grandma might have made!  Recipients of any future dinner parties remember to take note!!

Next stop was to nearby Mua Cave. This involved a steep climb up to an old temple which afforded incredible views of the surrounding area  back down to the row boats on the river.

The climb up was pretty hard going especially in the intense heat but the views made it worthwhile. We also went to Hoa Lu once the capital of Vietnam (back in the Dinh dynasty 968 AD approx) and the site of an ancient palace where the royal family once lived. With a non English speaking guide and little information in English it was hard to understand what was what but we saw a few temples and palaces with some interesting relics – though the full story was a bit lost on us!!

Finally we visited Kenh Ga or Chicken Alley Floating Village- named after the flocks of wild chickens that used to live here –we saw none no doubt they’ve all been eaten!! To get here we got on a small boat for a scenic ride up the river passing fishermen/ women rice workers and buffalo. The village is- as the name implies, floating with very few permanent building and a stunning mountainous back drop. We were dropped off at the pier and had a look around. It is mercifully untouristy and so whilst people were friendly no one came to try and sell us anything (long may it last!) it was a bit strange though we just wandered around and I felt a bit odd and wondered  what the locals made of us …a bit like a tour party arriving in your suburb at home and walking up and down looking at your everyday life!! River life was going on here as it would have done for years people bathing fishing etc but it felt a bit intrusive to take photographs.  Rosy and Hannah were off on the train that night but we were unable to get on the bus to Hue our next stop so we decided to stay another day and visit the nearby Cuc Phong National Park.

Again we were lucky to team up with a nice Dutch family (Michel, Yonna and 13 year old Martin) to share a car and driver as we were told there was no bus to the park (it later transpired that we’d been lied to there was indeed a bus at a fraction of the cost of the car but that’s another story!) The journey there was a bit cramped and not helped by the driver’s penchant for Boney M but mercifully we arrived before we had to hear Ma Baker for the 4th  time!!  We stopped first at the endangered primate rescue centre. This park which is a joint effort between locals and German biologists is an animal hospital/ wildlife park where native primates are bred and cared for, and in any cases possible returned to the wild. The 20 species of primates are endangered due to hunting both for use as pets and to export to China where they are used for medicines. I liked the Douc langurs or “monkeys wearing shorts” best. The name  is exactly what they look like – don’t think any of my pictures showed this properly they were moving too fast!

After this we had lunch as it   tipped down with rain but thankfully this stopped before we began our walk, an 8km return to the 1000 year old Big Tree. It was a lovely walk though the wet had made it a bit slippery for me with my foot problems and I was slowing everyone up a bit. The jungle scenery was wonderful and we saw lots of lovely butterflies though we didn’t see any of the 97 mammals or 320 birds which live here (though we heard the latter!)

We were all a bit tired and muddy on the (mercifully almost Boney M free!) return journey. We got back in time for something to eat and a shower prior to boarding the promised “luxury overnight bus” to Hue. This was our first taste of the inaccurately named “sleeping bus” a delight of Vietnamese travel and it is an experience! The bus consists of rows of bunk and it helps if you are very vertically challenged!   The guard was very gruff and had obviously failed at charm school herding us on and slapping my leg to tell me to move as I was trying to fold it in to the limited space. Settling down for the night I was pleased to find a pillow and a thick blanket as well as the standard tissue paper thin one. Just dozing off it was wrenched from my body by the guard ..no explanation offered - we assumed the better blankets belonged to the staff but a simple sorry would be nice!  After that it was a while before we dozed off and then it was patchy at best. Finally thank god we arrived at Hue at 7am on the morning of Sunday 27 July feeling very groggy.