We spent the last few days in a small town of Ninh Binh, located 92km south of Ha Noi. There isn’t too much to do in the town itself, except meeting loads of kids who love waving at and saying “Hello” to every white person they see, but there’s a lot going on in the surrounding area.
We started with a day trip on bycicles, visiting the famous Tam Coc, where we hired a boat rowed by a Vietnamese woman and saw the impressive and numerous limestone mountains. The river actually doubles as a rice field, so all along the way we met local farmers walking in the neck-deep water doing their thing (we couldn’t work out what they’re up to and our rower wasn’t able to explain it either, did we mention they don’t speak any English here at all? Perpetually disappointing). The river follows through 3 caves under the mountains and so you get to see the nice work water and wind did over thousands of years, aka erosion, creating a harmonic mix of both smooth and edgy surfaces. There are also stalactites, dripping freshly made calcium-water on your head. Again they try to sell you hand-made stuff before turning back at the end of the tour, but that is what it’s like in tourist destinations in Viet Nam; we should really learn how to say “No thanks, I didn’t travel to Viet Nam to buy stuff” in Vietnamese. Or, try and sell them stuff instead – “Here’s a paper airplane, unlike your puny origami dove, this thing actually flies!”.
Once of the boat, we exercise our advanced tourist-saleswoman outmaneuvering techniques and cycle off down the road to the next item on the list – Bich Dong temple. We get sidetracked by a small claifort running between more rice fields (they’re literally everywhere) within minutes though and spend a good few hours cycling between even more rice fields and limestone mountains. Could have easily done it for the entire day, if not the uncomfortably small bycicles.
Along the way we find a different temple than the one we were looking for and decide to go in for a look. In the yard, we meet a group of two monks (an elderly man and a woman of about 40) and a young Vietnamese couple drinking tea around a plastic table. The atmosphere is very serene and we can’t help feeling like intruders, a feeling made stronger by the male monk starting to grumbe about something in a not-so-happy kind of way, and we can tell the grumble is aimed at us, but the other people around the table respond with smiles and warm laughter, so we assume its probably OK and proceed to have a quick look around the place anyway. When we’re back where the tea drinkers can see us, the female monk invites us to sit with them and shortly after offers a tour of a nearby cave for 10k – we immediately agree. The cave is awesome and continues deep into the mountain, its also extremely humid, we’re sweating profusely 2 minutes after entering.
Once out of the cave, we’re invited back to the table and are given tea (green and really strong), while they (mostly the old male monk actually) ask us, in sign language, questions relating to family matters. We tell them we’re together but have no kids, the young couple say they have two kids and live in a nearby village. They also ask us where we’re from, but we only get puzzled looks in response to “Lithuania”, “near Sweden”, “near Poland”, “Europe”. This one is a miss. The old monk then explains he’s 65 years old, so we tell our age, and they are a little surprised to learn that Gerda is older than me (29, when I’m 28). All isn’t lost though, as we are given some bananas from their garden and the male monk stops grumbling quite so wholeheartedly. When leaving, we offer them some sugar-coated peanuts (the only thing we have), but the old monk points at his teeth and explains that those won’t do him any good. The young guy accepts our offer though, so we’re happy to be able to give something in return for the gifts we received.
More cycling around the villages and waving at the locals and we eventually reach Bich Dong temple. We park our bycicles in an official parking area for 2,000 VND each and head off. There are quite a few tourists around here and so are the predatory post card and souvenir saleswomen, but they’re no match for a stingy westerner (I really meanwesterner travelling light :) The temple is situated over 3 levels, each progressively more impressive, with the first one on the ground and the next two carved into the mountain slopes higher up. Once we get to the top we find a little path over the rocks leading up the mountain – we take it of course, even though we’re only wearing crocs, the idea of getting to the top of the mountain is too tempting. The path quickly turns from walkable to climbable, but its easy to spot smoothed-out edges on the rocks from all the other people who went here, so we make good progress. We get to about 4 meters away from the peak, but a gap of about 1 meter in the rock stops us from going further. We take a moment to cool off and gaze at the views around (endless mountain peaks on one side and Ninh Binh on the horizon on the other) and bellow (rice fields and villages we so eagerly explored earlier). Here’s a picture:
Trip back to the hotel followed, including cycling on a stretch of a highway shortly after dark, but its actually not as bad as in London as the road is wide enough for everyone, there could be a few more street lights though.
PS this post should have covered our motorbike adventures from the next day too, but thats old news now and we have new stuff to write about :)