● For full details on our route, transport info, hotel details, etc, look at our Google Maps page

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Ninh Binh

16th – 17th December

After 2 bone shaking buses, a taxi and a boat, we made it Ninh Binh (details on the Google Map). There are very few hotels here, and settling into a room at the Queens Mini Hotel, we wondered what else there would be in the town. The answer to that is a short one – not much! After a walk around town searching for food, we ended up back at the hotel eating with most of the other people that were staying there.

The main attractions are in the vicinity of Ninh Binh so we hired a motorb
ike for the day to see the area. The area is know as the Halong Bay of the paddy fields, with it’s spectacular limestone rock formations. It was good to be back on 2 wheels, independent again, although this Chinese bike wasn’t in the best condition – we were lucky to complete the day with it still intact!

First stop was Hoa Lu – the old capital of Vietnam under the Ding dynasty. After a few wrong turns, we happened upon the place, several tour busses hinting that we could be in the right place. We slowed, but the number of women running towards us trying to sell their wares encouraged us to speed up and not stop! What a couple of meanies! Also, the entrance fee was quite steep. Instead, we decided to ride down a road a bit further off the beaten track. We ended up in a couple of villages where, judging by the stares, tourists rarely venture! Ah, the wonder of having your own wheels!

The other major attraction in the area is the Tam C
oc caves. On the way to the caves, we stopped off at the Ban Long pagoda. It is built into a natural cave, and when we arrived there was nobody about. As we walked up the steps, we were joined by an old lady who came out of her house next to the pagoda, and started to turn on all the fairy lights inside the cave. The overall effect was quite comical and we had to hold back our giggles for risk of upsetting her. She gestured for us to follow her as she walked behind the Buddha – pointing out lots of formations in the rocks – you can see them in the photos. We left a small donation, and left much more satisfied than when we visit the larger pagodas where an entrance fee is charged.

Several more kilometres of riding and we thought we wer
e lost. The road turned into a track which was barely wide enough for a motorbike – had it not been for the western cyclists that we bumped into with their guide, we probably would have turned back! Assured that we were heading in the right direction, we continued and arrived at the Tam Coc cave complex.

Paying 30,000 dong per person, plus 60,000 for a boat, we thought we’d already
been cleaned out for the day, but it was only the start. All the places to eat were charging exorbitant prices, so two plates of fried rice were lunch that day. Then 5,000 dong to park the motorbike in the special parking area… we tried to park next to the local’s bikes but were spotted. Our friendly boat rowers, a girl our age and her mother took us for our trip down the river, through the caves. The journey through the caves and back again takes around 2 hours, and the first hour is spent enjoying the scenery with some background info from our rowers. They also strike up conversation about their lives and yours. Then they go in for the kill. We already learned that they only get to row the trip once every 10 days, as there are so many other families with boats. (Really?!) They practically tell us that we are the only chance they get to make some money for the next 10 days… feeling bad yet?

Through the last cave and at the half way point, miles from home, and a fleet of rowing boat mobile shops come over to greet us. “Buy something mister… drink for your rower!” 2 drinks, some oranges and some nuts come to $6… more than a nights accommodation to us! Guiltily we put back the nuts and barter the price down to a still expensive 40,000 dong. How could we refuse to by a drink for the lovely girl and her mum that had rowed us!

Next step on the plan of attack was the onboard sale of tablecloths and other linens, ‘handmade’ by the family. We were sitting ducks. From what we saw on the other boats, it looked to us like every family in the village ‘handmade’ the same goods and packed them just like they had come out of a factory (how cynical are we???!) After declining the offer to buy 23 times, they gave up and we rowed back in silence… that must be it we thought… we’d got off quite lightly.

Not quite, as the request for a tip for the rowing came while we were too far from shore to escape… Another 20,000 dong later, we were back on dry land, feeling bad, but still like we’d been taken to the cleaners!

Traveller Tip #8 – If you visit the Tam Coc caves, buy some Red Bull or other refreshments at the supermarket before your trip. As you get through the 3rd cave, get them out for your rowers and it will save you a few dollars. In conversation on the first half of the trip, mention how you own a large tablecloth and linen company, specialising in factory made goods that look handmade. It may help, but then again they may have a plan B…
Also, visit late afternoon for smaller crowds, but then again you will be the sole focus of all the sellers! You could also jump in a boat with a wealthy middle aged American and let them take all the flack!

On reflection, the caves were OK, but not as spectacular as some we have seen on the trip, and certainly the most expensive cave visit to date.

Back in Ninh Binh, we had a long wait for our overnight bus – it didn’t leave until 9pm. Our bargain price bus ticket, 10$ for a 12 hour journey was on a sitting bus, so a questionable nights sleep lay ahead!

No comments:

Visitors Since 19th May 2009...