I Will Follow
Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
92Trip End Aug 27, 2010
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The train journey itself was actually quite pleasant, ambling slowly through the Vietnamese countryside while serving up picture postcard vistas of rice paddy fields being tended by Vietnamese ladies in the coned hats and water buffalo grazing nonchalantly. Sarah tried opening the window to take some pictures only to be told that this was dangerous as children have a penchant for throwing stones at the trains…with bonus points for hitting tourists! One of the less pleasant aspects of train journeys are the bathroom situations. If you’ve ever travelled by train in SE Asia you’ll know what I’m talking about, if not, then I’ll try to provide some clarity. Each carriage has toilets at either end and if you’re lucky they’ll be western style toilets (usually the case on the first class or soft sleeper carriages frequented by Westerners), but more often than not, it’s squat style toilets to contend with. Squat toilets are as delightful as the name suggests and consist of a whole in the floor with feet shaped/sized platforms either side of the hole…..I shudder to think just what the railway tracks look like….and remember that in the poor parts of town, people live right alongside the tracks. Whilst it seems reasonable to think "well, I’d just use the western style toilets then", it’s not that simple. They are tolerable to start the journey, but by the end they actually become even less appealing to use than the squats
Despite the ticket scam, hard beds, stooped necks, drunks and squat toilets we made it safely to Ninh Binh, arriving shortly after nightfall… and apparently on Christmas Eve. Ninh Binh is a small industrial town south of Hanoi that is slowly beginning to develop its tourism business, and it appears that a cheap truckload of neon lights must’ve seemed like a good investment. We had made reservations at the Ngoc Anh which is a lovely small, clean hotel a short distance from the train station. One of the ladies there fell in love with the kids and would fuss over them whenever she could, bringing them fruit and drinks at every opportunity….who says it doesn’t pay to travel with kids? We decided to venture out from the security of the hotel in search of some dinner off the beaten path and found a very busy looking restaurant, full of locals… usually a good sign. We soon discovered that although they had an English menu, there was little or no English spoken at all, and that the menu was quite limited for a diet like ours. However, they had lots of interesting sounding dishes if you like beef, pork, goat, eel or tortoise
Most of the hotels in Ninh Binh double as tour operators, and so after looking through the offerings we decided to book a bicycle tour which involved Lin, the hotel owner leading us all over the area by bike, and seemed to include most of the highlights we wanted to see. At 9am, Lin had two bicycles ready for us fitted with additional "soft seats" on the back for the kids. These were very simple bikes with no gears and nowhere for the kids to rest their feet, so they just dangled all day! Due to the size of Ninh Binh the traffic is a little saner than the cities and it was pleasant riding a bike through the streets, though we were soon diving into some back streets and riding through a busy street market. Once clear of the market, we were off into the countryside, through small villages and the same panoramas we had been admiring from the train the day before. Only now, in this part of Vietnam the backdrop is even more spectacular than the foreground, for everywhere rising out of the paddy fields are huge limestone “karsts”, tall mountains that seem to appear from nowhere. Ninh Binh is often likened to an inland version of Ha Long Bay.
One of the great things about this pedal powered trek was a feeling of greater integration with the landscape rather than viewing it from somewhere else
Our first stop of the day was a pagoda on the top of one of the karsts. We hiked the 500 steps to the top where we had beautiful views of Tam Coc, our next destination for the day. The kids had great fun yelling across the valley and listening to their echoes. After taking a break climbing, we were soon back on our bikes and riding to Tam Coc, or the three grottoes. Here we joined the hordes of tourists and took a small boat up the river through three caves or tunnels that have been carved out of the karsts by the river. Many of the other boats around us were full of school kids and we soon noticed a subtle difference between their boats and ours…ours had a mysterious mound in the middle of it covered with tarp. The mystery was revealed upon reaching the end of the river where all of the boats turnaround. We were greeted by numerous ladies in boats selling drinks and other refreshments, one of whom soon pulled alongside our boat and tried to convince us to buy drinks at least if not for ourselves to buy one for our “driver”. Once cornered (literally jammed between her and the river bank) she then revealed the mysterious mound and tried pressuring us into buying the drivers wares of tablecloths, napkins and t-shirts
After lunch our cycling took a bit of a downturn as much of the route was along a very busy road undergoing massive tourist development, making it dusty and busy with tourist buses (Ninh Binh town itself is pretty choked with dust from the mining factories). We stopped briefly at Trang An Grotto before visiting Hoa Lu the ancient (and apparently being rebuilt) capital of Vietnam. It was very weary legs that we finally rode back into Ninh Binh, a mere 38km under our belts, and the kids were complaining that their legs were sore from dangling! A last, and unplanned stop, would never have happened with a large organized tour group. We came across a funeral of sorts. Apparently after death the remains are buried in a temporary grave for a time, and are then exhumed from time to time so that the family can pray for the bones (reincarnation into a sweet next life), before being relocated to their final resting tomb. We stopped to view one of these prayer/funeral gatherings in the courtyard of a largish house and were soon ushered inside, much to our surprise. There were prayers and incantations going on and as we were quietly and reverently observing as requested, an old lady comes over and tries to get us to leave a million dong as an offering – “you buy mister? you buy?” – do they ever stop? We paid our respects and left
That evening, too tired to wander around town and not sure what else we might encounter on the menu (this is one of the areas of Vietnam that they do eat dog and occasionally cat), we ate dinner at the hotel and were pleasantly surprised with the quality.
Our second day in Ninh Binh was spent at Cuc Phuong, a national park 45 km away. Once there, we went to visit “the cave of prehistoric man”, a cave complex that on discovery had contained artefacts from prehistoric man, including three tombs and various tools, though all that remains today are the caves. We ventured into the caves armed with Sarah’s headlamp, though due to the weak beam and a fear that the batteries were close to failing we were rather timid adventurers (much to Lauren’s disgust who thought we might have a “Famous 5- like” adventure). There really wasn’t a lot to see, the access railings were rusted through and we soon left. It was neat to be able to explore these things alone rather than with hoardes of other tourists, but it brought to light something we’ve been feeling much of the time in Vietnam – the Vietnamese appear to want the money that tourism brings, but their apathy (and we’re being generous here) in respect to tourists is fairly incompatible with sustainably achieving that goal. Now their history, both recent and otherwise, probably and understandably goes some way to explaining their feelings toward foreigners, and maybe we should feel lucky to be here (access hasn’t always been a given) but the point stands that if they want to maximize their tourist potential then they have to leave visitors with a positive feeling about the people as well as the country. Another possibility is that with the recent Chinese prosperity maybe Western visitors are no longer the target
The main point of our visit to Cuc Puong was to visit the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, home to many different species of primates. As risky as it may seem to expose Lauren to yet another round of monkeys, this visit went without incident (they were in cages afterall). While it’s very sad to see these beautiful creatures in cages, it is better than the alternative. These are all animals that have been rescued from hunters/poachers and were probably destined for China where they would’ve been used for medicinal ingredients or worse still had their brains eaten, possibly while still alive (a delicacy)L Not in China yet though, off to Hanoi…