18th March - 20th March, Ninh Binh
18.03.2009 - 20.03.2009 29 °C
Our night bus to Ninh Binh dumps us on the kerb at 3.45am - exactly the predicament we'd tried so hard to avoid. Being a quiet town, there is nothing going on, so we stalk a closed hotel until the receptionist awakens and takes us in. Such convenience that they sleep at their desks! We surrender to sleep then wander down to the local market in search of breakfast. A novel experience as no-one hassles us, just friendly welcomes. We see a few resto's that advertise "Thit Cho" (Dog) and see our first fried dog (among many other tantalizing treats) at the market.
Along the riverfront friendly locals drink beer from kegs. They try entice us to join them at their stations but we've just woken up - maybe later guys! We join some locals for green tea and a fun game of shirades enables a very basic form of communication. We're joined by a businessman who speaks little English and proceeds to invite us to his shop to meet his wife. More shirades follow... He is Guido's age and his 23yr old wife is pregnant with their first child. Ultimately, the inevitable question arises - "why don't you have children?". We read utter incomprehension on their faces when we plead our case, since "children are happiness" they say...
We drink another weasel (poo) coffee and carrot shakes. Maybe we really should learn some Vietnamese to prevent us from ordering such oddities off the menu! We relax with some flaming cocktails, melt a few straws, start a fire... an uneventful night.
To truly appreciate the nearby attractions, we hire a motorbike and head 9km away to the countryside where karst rock formations erupt from the fields of rice paddies. Built into a karst cave is "Bich Dong Pagoda" (Jade Grotto) where burning incense pervades the senses while sun and rain fight to break through the overcast skies. A holy site of pilgrimage for Vietnamese - quiet and tranquil (only until the tour buses arrives - abort abort!).
Various back roads reward us with idyllic karst landscapes, decorated with houses and cemeteries backing onto mountains, a sea of green lapping at their doors.
Enough procrastinating - time to brave the touristy and potentially financially hazardous boat trip up the river - the Tam Coc Tango as they call it. We pay entry fees 30,000 Dong each plus another 60,000 for the boat. We sit back and relax while two guys row us up the Ngo Dong River. Soon enough Guido is handed a paddle and puts in the token stroke while the primary and secondary rower row away. Lots of muscle power going on for a river that other rowers paddle lazily with their feet (no doubt a fair bit of extortion for tips and souvenirs will come our way - we've been warned!). But mostly, Tam Coc is renowned for its grotesque and low caves that the river flows through, and life is superb while we cruise through these, surrounding rice paddies and rugged limestone formations. Soon we spot the first fellow tourists on their return trip - getting pestered by their secondary rower to buy t-shirts and embroidery souvenirs. Let's dance!
We vow to remain strong and when our secondary rower tries it on with us we do not buy into it. Nor do we succumb to the pressures of the ladies who chase us through the caves with their assorted foods/drinks on their boats. They try unsuccessfully to scam us into buying drinks for our rowers (which they sell straight back to the vendor for half the extortionate price). Very cheeky! By this stage our secondary rower has realized that we are a lost cause and duly bails onto another boat. An unprovoked outburst from our primary rower follows demanding we tip the other 'poor' guy. Guido happily infuriates him further by asking him for a tip. True enough, Guido did at least, if not more, rowing than the other guy! Almost back and our rower changes his tune - he's happy now. Tipping time comes around the corner and we give more than a day's wage. Another outburst follows as he demands double. Pretty ungrateful. Still we had a great time admiring the surroundings and managed to avoid getting scammed too badly!
We take the scenic back road route and accidentally end up at Mua Groti, where a daunting staircase winds up to the top of a small pagoda which looks out over the river (we'd actually spotted this from the boat earlier). This stairway to Heaven really takes your breath away (literally and figuratively). At peace we sit here and enjoy the panoramic views of nature at its best. Somehow we've also finally escaped the sellers and the noise. So there are limits to how far they will come to pawn off their goods...
Pressing on, we head to the ancient citadel of Hoa Lu; the capital of Vietnam from 968 - 1009, chosen for its natural protection by the surrounding karst. It is undergoing seriously major reconstruction so we seek solitude in the two remaining temples up top, paying homage to the giant Buddha within (and seeking shelter from the dynamite blasting of rock outside - hello safety reg's???). Inside we're especially quiet and respectful (as our teeth are glued shut with toffee snacks).
Time for Thit Cho at a dodgy looking local resto out on the back roads. Alana is very reluctant while Guido gets stuck right in. Tastes kinda like roast beef. A petrified/mortified Alana works herself up to take a bite. Oh how the tides have turned from when dogs took bites out of Alana - ha! Meanwhile Guido is skulling shots of rice wine with the local guys. Since it is rude to refuse, they all take turns challenging Guido... it wasn't a big bottle anyway (and only 10 000 dong!). Before we take our leave the chef brings out his specialty dessert - and he proudly presents us with a plate of doggie kneecaps... maybe it was the rice wine that made G think it was a good idea to try this...
At the bottom of our dog bowl remains what we think are spring rolls - G tries them, and confirms that they are most definitely not spring rolls. We inquire with the chef who points at his intestines. Mmm, time to leave. We don't get far though before we head back for something we left behind. We get pulled in again by the same guys for some green tea - and the rice wine makes another appearance. Such firewater is not for the girls however and Alana, by now, bored with not getting invited to drink with the guys does so anyway - receiving a seriously stern growling from the elder of the group in the process. Instead she may pour Guido rice wine shots while subsisting on green tea (grrr)! But Alana the devil's advocate gets the last laugh the next morning when Guido is on his death bed (mwahaha).