Views of Vietnam: Ninh Binh

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May 22nd 2009
Published: May 22nd 2009
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Hanoi to Ninh Binh

So I got back from Halong Bay and decided to head southwards towards Ninh Binh. When I got back to the travel agency I collected my luggage and waited for the Open Tour Bus. It’s this bus service that allows you to get on and off wherever you like in Vietnam and it’s pretty darn cheap as well, something like 50 US Dollars for the whole of Vietnam and they drop you off at hotels - but you’re not obliged to take a room. Only thing is, despite it being convenient as the bus stations are all bloody some kilometers away it just seems you are following a route in Vietnam and travelling with the same people.

Tam Coc

Anyway, I got on one because getting to the bus station with my luggage was a hassle. I’d also have to pay for the motorbike taxi there, actually costing me money. Ninh Binh was only two hours away too, so I put up with the organized tour sided of things and accepted its benefits but was determined not to go to the designated accommodation when I got off. And I promised myself more adventure in my continued journey through Vietnam. Fortunately when the bus stopped at the side of the road in Ninh Binh, we happened to be at the hotel that I had chosen from the guide book so I did not have to go walkabout in an unfamiliar town.
The next day, I rented a motorbike from the hotel to take in the nearby Tam Coc (or “three caves”) which is a three-hour excursion by small boat along the Ngo Dong river. The boats are typically rowed by one or two local women who also sell embroidered goods. When I got to the beginning at the village of Van Lam, I paid for my ticket and I noticed two western lasses there who asked me if I wanted to join them on their boat. Fair enough I thought, this will make it less lame if I take a boat by myself. Anyway, so we spent the next couple of hours being rowed by a laughing woman down trough a scenic landscape dominated by rice fields and karst towers. The route includes floating through three natural caves (Hang Ca, Hang Hai, and Hang Ba), the largest of which is 125m long with its ceiling about 2m high above the water. Anyway,
Our rowerOur rowerOur rower

Yes, she's rowing with her feet
the two Dutch girls Sacha and Linda were from Utrecht and spending a few weeks on holiday in Vietnam. They were not the first people I’ve met on a three week trip to Vietnam.

Tripping out on tipping

Anyway, we had some lunch afterwards, but not before the usual bollocks of the boat people asking for a tip. Now, we had already bought a ticket for the boat and a ticket for entry into Tam Coc and now they wanted a couple of dollars of tip. Not that we seemed to have a choice in the matter, as we were told rather bluntly that “we pay tip now”! Anyone who knows me well will know that this is like a red flag to a bull. Well, as she’d rowed a long time and I also knew that most Vietnamese earn on average about 28,000 Vietnamese Dong a day I gave her 5,000 Vietnamese Dong, as a tip. Now, she wailed in shock at this, insulted clearly by the amount, so I tried to take it back, but of course she refused. These people are pretty well off in Vietnam if they earn the money from rowing and receive 2 dollars per person in tips for every voyage they make. I made a point to prove that we’re not all gullible guilt ridden Westerners and know the value of the money we give, I also wanted to make the point that tipping is for extra service, and it is not obligatory. Don’t expect me to get a job working for the United Nations any time soon. Way too many Yanks who tip for sake of tipping are visiting me thinks.

Biking it around

Anyway, I was getting on really well with these two Dutch girls both in their late twenties, so we decided to go to have some lunch in the village. The food wasn’t brilliant and I chose not to eat the beef cuttings, they just smelt that creamy smell that suggests it’s a bit off. Anyway, these girls were staying at the same accommodation and so we agreed to meet up later for a drink. So, they went off on their bicycles and I sped off to the nearby Bich Dong cave pagoda on nearby Ngu Nhac Mountain dating to 1428, and comprising three structures: Ha, Trung, and Thuong Pagodas, in ascending order. Some terrific countryside views of houses in amongst these huge karsts on the way there.

Searching for Hoa Lu

Anyway, this area has the ancient ruins of a former capital of Vietnam (yes another ancient ruined capital to add to Sukhothai, Bagan, Chiang Mai, Ayyuthaya, Luang Prabang I’ve visited so far, this one was the capital of Vietnam under the Dinh Dynasty (968-80) and early Le (980-1009) and as I had the bike and the scenery was so spectacular, I had a look for them. What a trip this turned out to be as I drove for miles and miles through villages and the quiet back roads surrounded by lovely scenery. I only found two remnants of the old capital of Hoa Lu, some temples, but they were remote and deserted. I only had myself and a solitary monk chanting and hitting a bell when I visited one hidden pagoda.
I returned to the hotel at Ninh Binh just before sunset and reflected upon a great day in and around the karsts of Ninh Binh, a really enjoyable day.

Additional photos below
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Pagoda advice signPagoda advice sign
Pagoda advice sign

Boy did I regret not bringing that tie

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