My Vietnam Launch – Ninh Binh & Beyond – 2018 Backpacking
After a sad farewell to great people looking after me at the Hanoi Hotel Gratitude and knowing I may never get to see my favourite school student Julia (pls refer to previous blogs) for some years or possibly never who has been wonderful to start mentoring and monitoring her progress. Farewell Hanoi you have been superb.
My hotel’s valet driver with utmost precision wound around the congested streets to land me at the bus interchange for my bus journey (Hotel booked my trip $10USD) to Ninh Binh where it will be a 1 ½ hr drive (94klms) and with precious few minutes from boarding. Ninh Binh is the next tourism location South from Hanoi and that will be my direction for quite some weeks ending in Ho Chi Minh. Keep scrolling as you will discover there are lots of photos in this blog.
I didn’t get to view my fellow bus passengers with the time available as my large backpack was loaded into the trunk of the bus so I grabbed the first seat behind the driver with only a few travellers left to board. To my pleasure a Malaysian woman sat next to me and her daughter across the aisle. She was most vibrant and welcoming. Her name was Thilaga. Her daughter’s name I was unsure of (hard to understand) but I believe she was one of her twins, either Manjushri or Maanushri. She too, was most pleasant but quite shy.
With Thilaga’s enthusiasm the trip seemed like 5minutes. We talked non-stop and within 10mins Thalinga had connected me on facebook. What a wonderful human. I can’t even remember the halfway stop where we were able to see a disability workshop where the work was truly amazing. Such artistry. Again, on the bus, Thalinga & I chatted, and in a flash, we had stopped suddenly, and the Ninh Binh travellers were asked to depart. The language barrier kicked in and for some reason we were departing some 5klms out of town. Thilaga soon arranged for a taxi to take us into town. My hostel was one street off the main road so I was the first to be dropped off. I couldn’t thank Thilaga enough and we said good-bye both with huge smiles and continued our friendship on facebook ever since.
My hostel was called ‘Go Ninh Binh Hostel’, a revamped ex-railway station with the train line some 50m behind the building. It never dawned on me about the potential for train noise .. LOL!!! DER!! The train noise was enough but somehow for reasons unknown the train drivers always blew the loud horn at the station … probably historical or superstition reasons but that’s what can be expected at a railway station. Arriving at Platform 9 ¾ .. LOL!! I unpacked into their luxury private room they called it (private ensuite) where I am not commonly allowed to stay in communal rooms due to my age above 40. (hostel’s universal rules, I believe). With my age look, I could not say I was 39. Haha!
Due to being well before lunch I took to the hot weather streets of Ninh Binh where I walked some 5-6klms and sadly, found nothing but a plain, lazy unimpressive township and a large dilapidated lake being renovated by excavation equipment. Why the big thing about Ninh Binh? Upon my return and with a bit of heat stress I figured I asked reception what’s the deal on staying at Ninh Binh. The lovely young lady was most helpful by stating most travellers stay approximately 2 days and after seeing Tam Coc, a river rowboat through rice fields under a UNESCO heritage site. To get there I must hire one of their scooters at 100,000Dong, about $5.50 AUD for a full day. The last time I was on a scooter by myself was when I was 17yrs old … I hope it’s just like riding a bike .. pardon the pun?
So, with some trepidation, I scoffed down my brekky, studied the road map the young receptionist provided and headed S/West with my first test a busy traffic light intersection over a river crossing. Surviving that, I enjoyed the straight road and some very large roundabouts (7klms) to enter a quiet village and noticing the entrance and parking for the Tam Coc row boats. The entry fee was 270,000 Dong ($16AUD) where I was advised not to buy any goods (food & drink) from the ladies at the end of the ride plus not to provide any tip to the rower, usually a female as it is quickly handed over to the boat owners.
Your first task is to find a functioning and clean life jacket (mandatory wearing) and gamble on getting a good rower with some personality … well, I achieved a cleanish lifejacket, but it’s clear her name is ‘I’m Fine’. A see a sign which implies I must report rowers who use their feet while rowing to ensure maximum safety. Can’t see me dobbing people in .. it’s so un-Australian we call it .. unless it is extremely dangerous. We are under way & with no communication I was left in silence with no commentary to just look at the adjacent rice fields (the river, much like a stream is mainly 20m wide) and smile/ wave to passer-by canoes. Most people smiled & waved back. I noticed my rower is using her feet to row, plus I see others doing it so it is prevalent I’d say. TAM COC Photos below.
The only time my rower spoke to me (in Vietnamese) when it was obvious, we were entering a cave where I had best almost lie down to avoid hitting the roof of the cave & protruding stalagmites. It’s been a while since I was inside a cave and it was so serene, yet truly amazing with the light patterns and years of nature’s magic showing. If you suffer claustrophobia, you may well be challenged. There is not much room at all (height wise). We encountered 3 of these marvellous caves and with exiting the last one our canoe was besieged with several canoes of women trying to sell you food, drinks, etc. I thought I would never escape even while showing my daypack & drink bottle. Wished I had an oar/ paddle to either defend myself or start rowing. Finally, we headed back along the same route we came in, so it can be a long 2hr row course. The outer scenery past the rice crop was so amazing with high peaks of limestone, much like the Halong Bay islands. Mother Nature’s true glory.
I still had more hours left in my day and reading my map from the hostel I noticed there is a place called Mua Caves (4 on the map) not far away at 3klms. Winding through a small village, narrow road and almost getting rammed by a stupid, arrogant van driver I made it to the entrance. The trick here is to avoid the first person trying to enforce you to follow a sign and park there, when you can keep going right up to the entrance gate and park there at a much lower cost. The entrance fee if you followed my advice is 100,000 Dong ($5AUD). There’s a small cafe at the foot of the hill to climb and there I met a young newly married Netherland’s couple and we ‘enjoyed’ the 576 uneven steps up to the top, in between the huffing & puffing and it is best to take your time. It’s a challenge to get to the peak but truly worth it. Along the way is the Thai V1 Temple (Tiger Cave) and that is worth entering and make sure you enter all the way in otherwise you won’t think much of it. Look out for the miniature bats on the ceiling.
Getting to the top is called The Lazy Dragon (Lying down) where there is a dragon cement plaster model bolted to the jagged rock surface, approx. 25+m long and 3-4m high. Amazing to see. You can check out the photo showing you the stair route and the dragon just in view on the horizon. From this height you can see the panoramic view for miles 360° and it takes a while to see everything in view and take it all in. Looking down you can see Tam Coc row boat ‘river’ winding through and into the caves. What a view!!!
You have to be careful up here but always you see the idiots or the foolish in their antics. The rock surface is extremely harsh and sharp due to the rain erosion carving indents throughout the rock surface to razor sharp edges. You can easily cut yourself deep. The young couple stayed longer at the top so I allowed them their space and said safe travels and thanked them for their company.
Apologies for my shabby look with Ninh Binh in the far background. I’m now a backpacker with no-one to impress. I used to shave everyday back in Australia so I’m enjoying my new found freedom. Nearing the bottom of the stairs I met an English woman (58) & her daughter and I advised them of what the mountain climb offers, including the steps and what to look out for. They were very thankful and it wasn’t hard to find more communication. We discussed her recent Machu Picchu Peru trek and praised me for booking it. I’ll be doing this in 2019 with my eldest son, Scott where I can’t wait for March, the next year. At this time, a young athlete raced past us to our horror. He appeared to be Swedish and the humidity and heat was quite high. He returned much the same way, knowing he didn’t go to the peak but it was quite impressive to see that athleticism; obviously super fit.
By the time I reached the bottom, the young couple met up with me again and we sat and chattered further about our travels. They discussed locations for me heading South and I, for Hanoi, their next stop. Riding back to my hostel the traffic was more intense and crazier so more care required (peak traffic). I was so thankful I went to Mua Caves and survived the travels. I almost did a Pope thing & kissed the pavement when dismounting from my scooter.
There’s no food available at the hostel so you enter the street where there are a couple of family restaurants out the front of their homes. I chose the less promotional one advised by Tripadvisor as I felt for the family next door being ignored. I was extremely happy I chose Duc-Nhat, for more people joined me and the family took great care of me over my 3 days here. The menu was very good and so were the servings. So, loving and always gave me too much food to further impress on my ongoing custom.
After dinner I had a conversation with another receptionist & she said I should go to Trang An where she found it better than the more well-known Tam Coc. Again, I rented the scooter the next day and headed almost due West to Trang An for 6klms. What an amazing place and a far better setup than Tam Coc!! You have a choice of 3 different canal tours but each one provides walking access over Kong Island where the movie Kong- Skull Island was made (part of airplane and huts). I noticed the tourist buses mostly choosing route #1, so I chose #2 as the best option. Each boat tour was 200,00Dong, cheaper than Tam Coc. My problem was being a sole traveller where the cost was higher, so I waited for some 30 minutes before I could engage a young couple to share my boat. We had a great time together without imposing on each other, apart from getting the odd head, umbrella, etc in my other photos which happened all too often in a small row boat. Trang An photos below.
The 3 caves were more impressive and much lower at times than Tam Coc and it was beneficial of being able to walk onto Kong Island & the temple island for breaks in the 3hr journey. You can’t help but notice the clarity & stillness of the water. Utter peace surrounds you and you know you are walking and rowing on nature’s sacred place. It was like I was travelling in another world of tranquility. At the completion of a wonderful 3hrs, I was able to sit in the auditorium and watch a couple of promotional videos of Trang An & the region. The views were spectacular where drone views were used predominately to show the best of this region. In time, Trang Ang will take over Tam Coc as the prime venue, I’m sure.
Surviving yet another return bike ride I exhausted my stay at Ninh Binh & it was time to move on. My hostel doesn’t offer travel bookings so I had to venture across the street to buy my next bus ticket to Hue (Qway), the next major location to the South, some 11hrs away. I was strongly advised to book a sleeper bus for this type of journey. A train trip was far more expensive. From here I was truly tested as you will follow.
A small car, like a Barina or little Fiat arrived around 6pm with 3 travellers already jammed in all with backpacks. I was pushed in amidst my backpacks and from there I could not see where we were going for some 15mins. We all exploded out of the tiny car to a street with a couple of cafes and lots of bus travellers waiting for their rides. From this, utter confusion!!! Bus valets had limited English and no-one knew which bus to board when they parked in the street. My car companions were going to Hue as well and they told me we have unknowingly been swapped on 2 buses since arriving, despite showing our tickets. 90 mins later, we were pushed onto a bus with others again left stranded on the footpath. The bus had 3 long rows of bunk beds (2 tiered high) and appeared fully booked. A local was ushered out to make way for me where I felt guilty but it was explained they ride free and must make way for paying travellers. The locals use a blanket to sleep on the floor in the aisles. So much for a sleeper bus, with managing only about 2 hours sleep to Hue.
At some point in the early hours of darkness and windows fogged up, the bus almost emptied with a mass exodus to a shady looking village. I was quite surprised and couldn’t find out why until I reached Hue. The exodus was to explore the Son Doong cave, the largest cave in the world & found by accident in 1990. It is located in the heart of the Phong Hna Ke Bang National Park out from supposedly Hoan Lao in the Quang Binh Province, some 500klms South of Hanoi. It then takes a 6klm trek through the rainforest after a bus to the park’s entrance. Quite a journey, to which I was not geared up for anyway. The cave is 9klms long and some parts open up to a 200m ceiling. Apparently, this is the major secret tourism journey I missed by not doing enough research. The cave is beyond words & must be on everyone’s bucket list.
After the longest bus trip known to man, I was dropped off at a street stop in the middle of ‘nowhere’, again with no commentary. You take everything as it comes during these travels .. to Google Maps it locates me just 3mins from my Holiday Hotel Diamond so a tut-tut scooter was the call & within minutes I was directed down a pedestrian lane-way some 75m, to a sign and shop front-type doorway of Hotel Diamond. I was greeted by a wonderful manager, Ms Anna who looked after me so well in handling everything I needed in Hue including an impromptu breakfast upon arrival due to the long bus trip of no food or drink. My room was superb and on the 5th floor but what took me to a greater surprise and much laughter was using the tiniest passenger lift I believe in the world. The floor size was a mere 600×1200 (2 persons or 1 person with backpacks). LOL!!!! Breathe in! I felt I was travelling in a food dumb waiter. 😊 A photo of the lift in my next blog.
Over the centuries Vietnam had a procession of capital cities and Hue was one of these so I’ll leave this blog here and compile the next one on Hue, The Imperial City (Citadel) and The Vietnam War Demilitarise Zone, so stay tuned. Stay safe, happy & hopefully enjoy the photos.
Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, especially through this COVID-19 pandemic and for 2022 to be a far better year. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.
I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be more of the amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.
Live life to the most and a quote that I truly love is from Eckhart Tolle ..
“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”