We climbed down from the train to the rough platform in Ninh Binh and were immediately approached by people trying to get us to go to their accommodation. We escaped on to the street, looking for one mentioned in the guide book. The only thing was it said the station was at the western end of the street and the sun was going down at the other end. We also couldn’t see street signs so we had no idea and simply went to the first one we found, about 40 metres up the street. Dinner was across the road, yummy fried vegetables and a ‘small’ dish of fried rice that wasn’t exactly small.
We booked a driver to go to Cúc Phương National Park the next day along with two young Germans. Really nice coffee and dense banana pan-cakes with crunchy edges, syrup and butter for breakfast and left overs for snacks through the day. Once outside of town the haze of pollution became obvious. The jagged steep hills grew thicker, lakes or dams between them and the road and houses crammed in at or under the base of the rock. People tended the fields of rice and corn. It looked like hot work, even using a water buffalo to get through the ploughing faster. We pondered robots getting bogged. The air cooled as we rose into the hills.
At the national park the park guide for the endangered primate rescue and turtle conservation rescue centres tried to hurry us along to the start while the German fellow was negotiating the WC. We all thought the guide was strangely impatient until we reached the centres and found other tourists waiting for us. The rare langurs and gibbons are rescued and gradually reintroduced to the wild or used for captive breeding to boost numbers in the wild. One gibbon had a badly damaged arm. It’s a bit hard to be a gibbon swinging from your arms through the trees when you only have one good one. Then it was on to the ancient tree and various caves. It was good to get out into a park but the idea of leave only footprints hasn’t really caught on. There are signs to that effect but then along the path there are concrete bins in the shape of tree stumps overflowing with rubbish and rubbish elsewhere on the path. And one Vietnamese woman on the walk was leaving her own unique footprints in that setting with her 10 cm high heels.
An early long dusk fell on the way back to town. Clouds dimmed the light and the haze of pollution tinted it. We cooled down at the hostel for a bit and then went out to have a look around the part of town we were in. I like Ninh Binh and think it’s underrated by reviews that say there’s nothing to do in town. The houses are ornate but not over the top. Trees line even the narrowest of streets and everyone sweeps their front patch of concrete path at least daily. Rubbish is left in tidy piles and collected each evening, so no week-old stinking bins. In the morning we watched two women selling the daily meat from one of their bicycles and vegetables from the other. Sure, I’d be washing and cooking it well before I ate any, but I liked the way it worked.
As we walked around town our appearance caused small children to scream and run up and say hello. Many said something else after and looked perplexed or disappointed when we didn’t respond appropriately. Later Ben looked it up. They were saying hello in Vietnamese. Such rude foreigners! It was a strange experience. I hadn’t expected to cause so much interest among the children, or the adults. An older fellow seemed to ask me to take his photo and then proudly showed us a laminated photo he was in that seemed to be from some commemoration event for the war. We’d read about scams etc and were on our guard so we moved on. Which is really sad because I think people were genuinely interested or curious in us and/or my camera. I’d like to go back and do it all again differently.
For our second day in Ninh Vinh we hired push bikes and rode out to a lake called Tam Cốc. You pay your money at the ticket office and someone rows you along one of those lakes, through caves and then turns around to come back. At the turn around point, women on other boats try to get you to buy anything, including a drink for the rower. For some reason we had a rower and a paddler, two teenaged boys. They’d been mixing whiskey and coke on the way up so we figured they really didn’t need us to buy them a drink. Somehow they still ended up with a beer each with no money changing hands there and then. The rocky hills were nice enough, but the mountain goats, fish and ducks were more interesting. It started to rain on the way back and the duck swam and ran for cover. If eating mountain goat makes you strong, what does eating a duck that’s afraid of the rain make you?
There’s a pagoda further on from the lake and we had time before our train so we rode on. There’s ornate buildings at several levels up the hill. A cave with a big bell, more Buddha statues and a slippery muddy climb up to a view that is apparently worth it. I got half way and covered in wet clay before deciding that it actually wasn’t. Heading back, we stopped to look at a few hundred ducklings sitting and dozing on the side of the road. One of the women came up and asked me where I was from. She then said con vịt and pointed at the ducks. I took it to mean duck and since she asked tried to teach her ‘duck’ in return.
It was too hot in the waiting room at the train station, and the seats out the front were wet, so we went around to the platform side of the building and sat on the verandah there. This much was tolerated but we were clearly told not to move. Apparently you’re not allowed on to the platform until the announcement is made, no doubt for safety reasons, but perhaps it was too much trouble to try to explain this as long as we stayed put. When the train arrived it wasn’t on the platform everyone expected, and since everyone else was climbing down and across the tracks to the train we followed suit. Carefully, Mum. The train was similar to the last one but last time I didn’t mention it was bouncey (!) and noisy with children and adults talking over the top of the train.
One night and a day in Hanoi before Ben heads home and I continue to China. It’s been nice to spontaneously change plans in the last few days or week. The last few days in Vietnam have been a strange mixture of an increase in confidence and in not understanding the people or what is expected. I’m not sure how we’ll find Hanoi. The young German woman on the tour to the national park said how crazy the traffic was in Hanoi compared to Ninh Binh just as I was thinking how crazy it was in Ninh Binh.