We took the train down from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, a small city about 90km south of Hanoi. We were met by a guy from the Thanh Thuy hotel which we had booked. We were told we’d be given a motorbike ride to the hotel with our bags but when question he told us that it was only a two minute ride. We arrived at the hotel and quickly checked out the hotel’s restaurant menu. We had read in the guide that weren’t really any restaurants in Ninh Binh and so most people ate at their hotel. After looking at the menu and noticing a distinct lack of vegetarian food we asked if they could make me some to which the reply was ‘no’. Unimpressed we asked if there was somewhere nearby that we could get something that I could eat and were told about a restaurant around the corner. We headed over and were met by what looked like a seafood restaurant complete with several fish tanks with the day’s menu swimming around in them. Sceptically we asked to see the menu and although there wasn’t exactly a wide vegetarian choice I was pretty sure I could get a meal and since we were all pretty hungry we took a table.
We looked through the menu and I ordered the vegetarian dish, Craig inquired about the turtle and no sooner had he said turtle (in vietnamese) the waitress called to the guy at the counter who immediately picked up the phone and started shouting turtle down the line. Realising that he was probably ordering a live turtle and that we might have to pay for the entire thing (at GBP14 per kg) we quickly made it clear that we were not interested and Craig ordered eel. Tom ordered a fish and a few minutes later our food arrived mine being actually quite tasty, Craig’s being a pile of chopped up cooked eel, head and all and Tom’s being an entire large fish seasoned and covered in veg. Tom thought that he’s need help with this but actually the fish turned out to be surprisingly unmeaty. In the evening we headed out to a popular Bia Hoi spot where we were quickly shown to plastic kid’s chairs around plastic table and handed large glass of Bia Hoi for 10p each (alternatively a large plastic pitcher was available for 60p). The locals quickly made us feel at home by offering us their snacks (large thick rice cakes bigger than a popadom and covered in what looked like toasted sesame seeds, along with dried, toasted and shredded squid) , cigarettes and even their beer which we had no use for having full glasses. A couple of locals came over from another table said cheers and downed their full glasses, Craig followed and was given a round of applause. The toilet at our wooden poles and canvas bar was the river just behind the bar which we avoided as long as possible but eventually had to use. We reciprocated by buying our new found friends a pitcher of beer and stayed around for some more drinks the locals didn’t really seem used to tourists and we were most definately a novelty to them. Just at the point that we were actually getting quite drunk we decided to leave and paid the GBP2 bill to the owner who seemed genuinely pleased to have us as customers though this most likely because we attracted more people to his bar to observe the westerners. We headed back for an early (10.00pm) night and to sleep off the local beer and snacks. The next day we had planned an early start so we could hire bikes and see Tam Coc, an inland equivalent of Ha Long Bay and Hoa Lu the site of an ancient temple.
We got up a little later than planned the next morning but were still out on our three speed rickety bikes by about 9:30am. We were given a hand drawn map and recommended the country road to Tam Coc. In actual fact the map turned out to be more of a general impression of where we needed to go with roughly the right roads marked. We proceeded by heading in what I thought was the correct direction (west then south) and asking directions from the locals at regular intervals. Surprisingly we made pretty good time and were surprised when, cycling along the road we saw the ticket office with a woman beckoning us over. We had heard horror stories about being pestered by locals and in fact on the way in had already been chased by a woman pointing us the wrong way telling us that she’d take us their and give us a tour. We paid for our tickets, took our bikes to a place we had been told we could leave them for free and found the place where we would board our boat. Our boat was another sampan like at the perfume pagoda but this time we were joined by a guy who rowed and an old woman who had a paddle but almost immediately handed it to us inviting us to paddle. The boat ride was meant to be two hours and we started by heading along the water and through some natural caves that formed tunnels. After about 30 minutes I was getting a little bored as although the scenery was beautiful I wasn’t really at ease sitting next to an old woman who didn’t really speak and was obviously only along for the tip. We reached the end of the waterway turned around and stopped. Immediately refreshments boats pulled up along side us offering us food and drinks. Politely but firmly declined and after a couple of minutes they gave up. Our rowers, realising that we were not easy to break started to quickly row us back to the dock. On the way the woman produced all kinds of hand made good from a chest and I was expecting to bear the brunt of the sales pitch for the last 20 minutes of the ride. Surprisingly after we all refused her wares she put them away and didn’t mention them again. We got back to the dock where we were asked for a tip and seeing their lack of persistance we gave them something small.
We headed back to the hotel where we’d left our bikes and, feeling hungry, had a basic lunch a got back on our bikes to head to Hoa Lo. I had heard of some abandoned resort nearby where you could walk up the mountain and get a good view and sure enough on the way back we spotted a sign down an empty road to a ‘tourism resort’. We headed down and were greeted by a women selling tickets for admission, obviously not so abandoned! We walked into the ‘resort’ which consisted of adandoned bars and souvenir shops and even a long abandoned water puppet theatre around a pretty ornamental lake complete with statues. The place had obviously been scaled back due to a lack of visitors but they did still have a couple of staff keeping the paths clean. We walked around and then headed to the steps up the rock which was about 200m high and almost vertical. the steps had been built to allow people to get to the top. We walked up the path and quite a while later all feeling very tired we arrived at the most amazing view I have seen in a long time. I don’t really have time to explain it but I’ll put up some photos soon. It was like being perched on the top of a skyscraper and even gave me a hint of vertigo. We stayed up there until our legs had somewhat recovered and headed back to the bikes. Seeing us dripping with sweat the ticket lady offered us shade, cold drinks and the use of her fan which we gladly accepted. After this we cycled home, back through the country roads, tiny villages and stunning scenery, to the hotel. That evening we went for food at Xuan Hoa a little hotel run by Xuan and his wife Hoa and the rest of their family who were very nice and we even got a game of chinese chess out of one of the family (we lost, badly). The food was great for Vietnamese food and they were very willing to cater for me providing separate meat and non meat spring rolls for Craig and Tom and I. After dinner they brought out shot glasses and a water bottle for what they called ‘Ninh Binh water’ which turned out to be a home brew rice based spirit at least as potent as a strong whiskey. We ordered a taxi and headed back to the Bia Hoi bar. We were enthusiastically greeted by the owner who insisted on shaking all of our hands. We had a few drinks and again made a few friends but tonight we concentrated on debating nuclear power which inevitably led to nuclear weapons which caused quite a heated debate. Once the debate got loud enough that we might have been at risk of offending the locals we headed back to the hotel to finish the discussion and get some sleep.
The last day in Ninh Binh was largely concerned with how we left the city. I was going back to Hanoi to wait for Alex to arrive while Tom and Craig were heading down to Hue. This was a day earlier than we had originally planned but there was nothing more that we really wanted to do in Ninh Binh, we did actually head over to Hoa Lu in the afternoon but were not there long enough to actually see much as I had to get back for my bus. Travel wise we eventually settled on buses my bus left at 4pm and was a minibus that for the same price as leaving at the bus station, picked me up at the hotel saving me a motorbike taxi ride. Tom and Craig opted to take a brand new ‘sleepy bus’, an air conditioned coach with almost fully flat beds. Unfortunately for me my bus did not take me to the centre of Hanoi but to the south bus station 7km out of the centre of the city, however since this is the end of the Ninh Binh story I will continue in a new post.