We were woken up by bus staff around 4 am and promptly deposited somewhere in a new town: Ninh Binh. Instead of finding ourselves at the bus station as we had expected, we were suddenly at some random tourist agency, but it was so ridiculously cold that we did not mind being invited in. The man in charge immediately offered to take us to his hotel and quoted 10USD as the price. I asked for 8 instead, and we had a deal. We loaded our packs onto his rickety car and were on our way to New Queen Mini Hotel. The place was clean and the room comfy, so no complaints there. Without thinking about it twice, we crawled under the blankets and went back to sleep.
A few hours later, we slowly raised again to welcome a new day. We decided to take it easy and just explore town. Without a clear goal in mind, we put warm clothes on and started strolling and enjoying the quiet of this smaller town. We were greatly surprised to find multiple veggie gardens that seem to be communal, some forming a sort of boulevard in the middle of the peaceful streets, others occupying otherwise vacant lots. It gave the place a particular feeling that I enjoyed.
We walked until our legs ached, and then some more. In the local market we purchased a small electric cooker so that we could boil our own water, cook eggs and even soup. The 1 USD we paid for it ended up being one of the best investments of our whole trip. The locals were very smiley and seem utterly surprised to see white people on their domain. As usual, I made friends with a bunch of dogs and cats we encountered. This town was the first place we saw dog meat for sale, and seeing the whole pup hung by a leg was rather shocking. Later on that night we enjoyed our first home made soup in a long time…
The following morning we got up early, donned our thermals on once again and set out towards the train station to find and rent bicycles. We had a hearty brunch before departing and promptly started heading south on a busy road. After about 12km we made it to Tam Coc. The typical tourist activity here entails jumping on a boat that takes you through the rice paddies surrounded by gigantic karst formations. However, the price had gone up about 300% from what we were planning on spending, and we did not have enough money to pay for that – not that we would have done it even if we were carrying enough… Instead, we jumped back on the bikes and got off the beaten path. A few roads ended abruptly and we were chased off others by wild dogs, but apart from that, we had an amazing day, and got to see a different picture to what most do.
We did visit one of the local temples, built on 3 different levels. Above the last one, we climbed the steep sharp rocks until we got to the top and were able to get a panorama view of the whole area. Sitting there made me feel one with the universe and in complete harmony. Such a gorgeous and eerie place can have that effect on anybody!
The next day was dedicated to visiting a similar land formation: Trang An Grottoes. On the way out, a pair of Italians stopped us to ask for directions, and together we tried to make sense out of my GPS map and help each other get to where we were going – it was fun. We also went past some beautiful scenery once again and enjoyed pedalling greatly.
Eventually we made it to the temple that served as entrance to the protected area. We locked our bikes with the locals to skip paying for parking, and walked around trying to decide if we wanted to take the boat tour. This site was less expensive than the more famous Tam Coc, but still steep for our shoe string budget. We eventually convinced ourselves to suck it up and do it regardless, as neither of us know when/if we were ever coming back. A decision we are not likely to regret.
The man powered vessel takes you out into the river and through some wonderful caves. The first one was so low we had to sit on the floor and watch our heads. The stalagmites surrounding us were utterly surreal, and the cave about 200mts long. Eventually you emerge back into day light, to find yourself surrounded by mountains lush with green forest: a very awe inspiring panorama.
For the next two hours, we repeated the experience with about 7 different caves of various sizes, and more impressive karst formations engulfing them. Apart from the fact it was quite cold to be sitting on a boat, it was one of the best experiences of my whole life and I would recommend anyone coming to Vietnam to make sure it makes it to your itinerary! No amount of photos can do it justice. Finally we returned and cycled back to our hotel with big grins on our faces.
The last day in Ninh Binh we just enjoyed the warmth of the blankets and accomplished not much at all. This was our first proper rest day since we left Cambodia, and we both needed it. Our bodies were also grateful for having a day off. The next morning we got ready slowly and took the two hour bus into the crazy capital: Ha Noi.