originally published on facebook –  October 28, 2010 at 1:51am ·
Cat Ba to Ninh Binh – day 16

Up early and on the bus to Ninh Binh. I sit right up front, behind the driver, not actually the best choice as there is a metal bar wedged in front of me and when the driver gets in he wrenches his seat back as far as it can go. I’m short but still feel cramped. I stick my feet out sideways and prop them on the padded engine cover, I get told off for this because I’m still wearing my flip-flops, bare feet are acceptable to put anywhere but not my shoes apparently. Good lesson. I also discover that my ipod is gone, either lost or stolen at some point during my stay on Cat Ba (big,big bummer). The bus arrives in Ninh Binh in the mid-afternoon and I find a hotel pretty quickly and check out train vs. bus prices for the next leg of my journey. Have some cheap food and got introduced to a side of Vietnam I hadn’t seen very much of so far, sincere friendliness. Also bananas as dessert for “free, no money”, love it. I have wifi in my hotel and hook up with Alex and Anders (from Cat Ba) via facebook, we arrange to meet up in the morning.

Ninh Binh – day 17

Meet up with the boys and we rent bikes with the plan to ride about 10km out of town to the Trang An Caves/Riverboats. Riding out of town on our bikes is a little nerve jangling at first, horns are always blaring and on a bike you are the littlest, least important guy on the road. Fortunately the road leading to the caves is big (and dusty) but not very busy. We see rice paddies and limestone karsts rising out of them, on one we spot a goat climbing over the impossibly steep sides as if it’s nothing, he’s nibbling trees and vegetation, pictures are a must.

We pass by a pagoda and decide to take a look. We pedal our bikes down the path to the gate and run into Dave, an Irish guy who is staying at the some hotel as me. He’s been waiting an hour for someone to come and open the gate. Alex solves the issue by climbing over the wall and unbolting the door, it feels a little unorthodox but we all go in anyways. It was lovely and small and fairly typical of others I have seen but quite nice. Dave decides to join us for the day and we get back on our bikes, lock the gate behind us and head off again. Just around the next corner is a little restaurant, we decide to stop. The only customers besides us are a couple of Vietnamese guys drinking beer. We get lots of attention and are presented with an English menu. It’s much smaller then the one in Vietnamese and our options are goat, goat and vegetarian. We opt for veggie and have some fried rice, spinach with garlic and noodles with veg, it’s decent and cheap.

Back on the bikes it’s a beautiful sunny day and we continue to try to find the boats. We end up pedaling right past it and going 3km further down the road then we needed to. Every schoolchild and lots of adults say hello to us and wave, probably their one word of English, I never get tired of it. Once again I am noticing the difference in the friendliness of the people here compared to everywhere else I have been so far, it’s lovely and a relief as I was starting to feel a little cynical about being seen as a walking wallet. We realize our mistake and backtrack, finding the boats this time. Dave decides to opt out because he’s already seen the other caves (Tam Coc) and doesn’t want to spend the (overpriced) entrance fee, fair enough. Alex, Anders and I pile into our small boat. I’m wearing shorts and I am told to cover my legs, I’m not sure if it’s because of mosquitoes, fear I will get sunburned or to show respect, no matter, I pull out my trusty shawl, drape it around my legs and everyone seems satisfied.

Our rowboat lady starts off, she’s not a big girl but god she’s strong. The river is beautiful, this area is described in Lonely Planet as “the Halong Bay of the rice paddies”, it certainly is. We paddle for a bit, surrounded by the karsts and then start to head into our first cave. Our rower has us sit in the bottom of the boat and a good thing too as the ceilings are very low. As we navigate through the twists and turns we have to duck and swerve around formations that hang almost as low as the water. We can touch the limestone all around us and we can help the rower steer by pushing and pulling on the rocks and walls. We take pictures, lots of pictures and I’m sure only a few of them will turn out. It’s difficult to get good shots because there are only a few light bulbs hanging widely spaced from the ceilings. We travel through a series of caves, I lose count. Sometime we emerge from one cave to find ourselves surrounded on all sides by steep rising limestone cliffs, the only way out is through another cave, it’s quite awesome. Our rower shows us how she can also row with her feet, in case her arms get tired, it looks quite odd, she’s got surprisingly agile toes, little weird actually. In all our journey takes about 2 hours.

Back on our bikes for the ride back to town it’s getting dark and there aren’t any lights on the road at first. This means the bugs are out in force and we feel them hitting our faces as we ride back, not so pleasant. I keep my mouth tightly shut so as not to eat any and mostly succeed. Once we are back in town I see a road sign that stops me in my tracks, it’s a trumpet with a red circle/slash over it. I don’t get it at first and say, it’s a no trumpeting sign, the boys have a good laugh at me and explain it’s a no horns sign. I still have to take a picture however this is another photo I can never show you as at some point soon I lost/have stolen my camera case with the full memory card inside.

We make it back to the hotel and get showered. The boys and I have decided to travel together for a bit and we have booked an open bus ticket that allows us to hop down the coast at whatever speed we like until we hit Nha Trang. Or first journey is tonight, an overnighter to Hue, about 12 hours. We get on the bus around 10:30pm and are all separated into different bunks, the bus is full. There are bottom and top bunks, the beds are pretty narrow and short and each one has a plastic box at the end of it for your feet to go into. I fit into it ok (top bunk of course) but poor Alex is about 6’4″ tall and has size 13 feet, he can’t even get his foot to fit inside the box, poor guy. We all spend a fairly uncomfortable night, and are not feeling rested when we arrive in Hue in the morning.

Hue – day 18

Off the bus at 10am, we are immediately swarmed by hotel touts. Overnight my Havianas have disappeared, bummer. To get away from the touts we go for some coffee and breakfast before facing finding a hotel. We find a place called the Mandarin Cafe about a block away. It’s great and run by a guy called Mr. Cu, who is a fantastic photographer, his pictures cover the walls of the cafe. He is also very generous with his information, telling us we could book a tour of the DMZ but it’s easy to do it ourselves if we want to. We like him. We find a hotel after breakfast, great room,shower, clean, yay.

We’re all pretty wasted after our bus ride, the guys want to just hang out and have some beers, I decide I want to get some “culture”. I arrange a motorbike and driver to take me to 5 locations, all in just a few hours. Tu Hieu Pagoda, Bunker Hill, Tomb of Tu Duc, Thien Mu Pagoda and the Citadel. Tu Hieu was in the forest, there are lots and lots of tombs scattered all over the place. It’s very pretty but I didn’t get much of a sense of the place. Moving on to Bunker Hill, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t even know whose bunkers they were so I asked my driver to tell me a little about it. His English wasn’t great but from what I understand the bunkers were built in the 1880’s to fight the French who had set up their own bunkers on a hill on the other side of the Perfume River. Not really a lot to see here, you can’t go inside the bunkers so they just look kinda like lumps of concrete. However the view of the Perfume River is stunning, I could see it winding off a long ways in both directions.

Next off to Tu Duc’s tomb, a let down actually. Very old and rumbling which was actually cool but it was quite barren, it seemed like all the life had been stripped out of it. A few areas were closed off due to “danger”. Mostly it was just empty buildings and tombs, of which I have already seen quite a lot of and could have done for free. Oh well. My second to last stop is Thien Mu Pagoda, this is the “famous” one you might have seen in images of Vietnam. It also was the home pagoda to Thich Quang Duc who burned himself to death in 1963 to protest against the policies of then President Ngo Dinh Diem. He was driven to the place he choose to stage his protest in a car which is now on display at the pagoda. In pictures of the event you can see the same car in the background behind his flaming body. This place was quite busy and touristed yet I really enjoyed it and felt that lovely presence which I’ve spoken of before. In the pagoda there was a monk wandering around, he had a lovely gentle face and demeanor, I’m assuming he was there keeping an eye on the tourists as there was an area inside the pagoda that was designated “for meditation only”. I went in there and knelt before Buddha, took some time with my eyes closed and allowed the serenity of the place to wash over me, blissed.

I couldn’t stay long though as I knew I was running out of time to get to the Citadel before it closed. Hopped back on the bike to try to get there in time but made it literally a minute too late, closed. I had the driver take me back to my hotel and met up with the boys. I found them much as I had left them, though maybe more inebriated. They had spent the day hanging around the river drinking beer with some Vietnamese guys, learning how to “cheers” in Vietnamese – “yo”. We had some dinner and I decided to sample the Vietnamese wine Vang Dalat. Was pretty good actually and though we had meant to have an early night we somehow made it through 3 bottles.

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