During my time in Mui Ne, I met another backpacker called Jerry, from the Czech Republic. We inevitably got in to talking about where he had been and where he was going, over dinner in Hoi An.
He mentioned that on his way to Hanoi, he was stopping off Ninh Binh.
Ninh Binh?! Where the heck is Ninh Binh, I asked.
A few hours south of Hanoi, he replied.
Jerry told me that he would stop there for a day, just to break up the long journey from Hoi An to Hanoi (which is about 14 hours).
I hadn’t really considered Ninh Binh, but after my motorbike accident, and having to spend time being treated at a hospital in Hue, I had some time of reflection and was able to look into Ninh Binh a little more.
They said it was like Ha long Bay in land, and it looked beautiful.
By this point, I had decided that I would have to skip doing Ha long bay, mainly due to the fact that my knee was still messy and sore and I knew swimming and kayaking was off the cards for a little while, and I’d maybe not enjoy it as much as I wanted to.
So Ninh Binh it was.
After 5 days in Hue. I headed off to the bus station (on the back of a scooter!!) and waited for about 2 hours to get my bus that was due to leave by 5:30pm.
A sleeper bus seemed like a good idea at the time. It was cheap, and in theory, you can sleep.
After I finally boarded, the only seats available where lower ones in the middle, with my leg in the state that it was in, and the fact that I couldn’t bend it too well, I had a very uncomfortable journey, but perhaps not as uncomfortable as my bus ride from Cambodia to Vietnam.
Arriving in Ninh Binh. It felt a bit like the little town Pakbeng in Laos. Very much a one street affair.
However, Ninh Binh itself isn’t a town as such, it is more of a Province, and there is a larger town like area, with shops and services spread out. But you’d need a taxi/scooter to get you there.
I was dropped off in front of Ninh Binh Backpackers, that I saw advertised at my last hostel.
Not seeing any other options available, I checked the price $7 a night, with breakfast. Done.
I wondered down, had breakfast, and was promptly talking with one if the staff who talked me into buying a tour around the area, for two days and an onward bus ticket to Hanoi. Meaning I paid $53 for a two day tour, 2 nights accommodation and a bus. It didn’t seem too bad, and although my body was telling me to sleep, within an hour, and after painfully trying to clean the wounds on my knee, I was off on the back of a scooter, less than a week after my accident, to explore Ninh Binh, and surrounding Tam Coc National Park. I wore closed toe shoes this time, even though the material stuck to the cuts on my knee, and made for a painful experience later.
I went, along with a German girl, who had also just arrived off the same bus. Our first stop was to a Pagoda. A short walk around it, and we were off.
We then went for a boat ride through Tam Coc National Park. The journey time was about an hour; our guide on the boat attempted to relay facts to us in broken English.
It really was a stunning area; limestone caves reflecting off the clear and still water, with locals fishing on the water. There was only another couple on the water, during out time, so it felt very much like a tranquil oasis for ourselves.
After getting back to where we got on, our guide shouted at us to come back, with another local saying ‘money money’. But we have paid, I protested (the lady I booked the tour through had said, we didn’t have any other fees to pay, unless we wished to buy souvenirs along the way). i had very little change in my wallet, apart from 100,000 Dong ($10), I had perhaps the equvaliant to $2. I gave it to him, and he frown, but I said I had no more left. I felt a bit annoyed with the travel operator, as the money I had paid, should have gone towards the entrance fees; except, I’d imagine a lot of it went in their own pockets, with just a fraction of it going where it should have.
We then went to climb a mountain ..
“It is about 500 steps” our guide said. I looked up. It looked like the view could be good. “I’m in”, I said. We set off. It was a steep climb, and with the heat, I sweated prefusly, and slowly my baggy pants, stuck to the open wound on my knee, which I later had to attempt to peel off, with the rest of my skin.
I stopped several times on the climb; my knee was still stiff and sore. The guide told me that perhaps I should wait and they would continue, and meet me on the way down. That statement only made me more determined, and I pushed on; reaching the top. I made it, and the view was stunning.
After our mountain climb, we stopped off at a restaraunt, were lunch was provided; a huge meal with rice, veggies, meat, fresh spring rolls. I was stuffed, and glad I could refuel after a long walk.
We rode back on the back of the bikes, and recovered by chilling out in the lounge area of the hostel.
Day two of the tour was similar; we visited more Pagoda’s, a rice field, and local markets. Our guide was very helpful in explaining everything to us along the way.
At the end of the tour, I was left to wander around the small town myself for a few hours, before heading to Hanoi. I wandered into the small market area by the river, when I saw someone waving at me. I squinted and looked several times, thinking that they obviously were not waving at me, but I looked around, and no one else was there.
I wondered if it was another traveller I had previously met; but no – this was someone new. Someone called Jordan, from the US, who was waiting to go on a boat ride on the Tam Coc; a section of the river, I had not been on. It was much cheaper to go as a pair, and she wanted a buddy. So I bite the bullet and paid the $4 for a one hour long trip, where the locals row the boat with their feet (what legends!)
I am glad I did, as it was stunning, and Jordan and I had great conversations about life and travel, and what we had learnt during our time in South East Asia. This was particularly good, as I was coming towards the end of my solo travels; in two days I was meeting my sister in Bangkok, for our final three weeks; so it was nice to relfect.
Although a sleepy little town, I think Ninh Binh is often overlooked, and skipped through, but it is a beautiful and very non touristic area in Vietnam; head there, for a more local and authentic experience, before it becomes like the rest of the country.