Part VI Ninh Binh Province Vietnam
Hello again. After writing the last 5 parts, I needed a break. Writing is hard for me, I have TONS of pics from this part of the trip, and this was my favorite part of Vietnam. I wanted to take some time to try and remember the high points.
We had arranged a tour to take us to Ninh Binh province after the rest of my family left. We had walked in one of the many tourism shops off the street in Hanoi and setup a 3 day, 2 night tour in the areas we wanted to go. They bent over backwards to work with us and custom built a tour for us.
The tour included:
A driver and vehicle to take us to all of our destinations, a “speaking english” guide, included 3 buffet lunches and 2 breakfasts, and a room at a homestay in Tam Coc, the nearest town to where we would be visiting. All of this for $134 apiece. Try that in the states!
A very nice van picked us up with driver, and guide. The guide said little other than helping load our luggage. He did confirm he was our guide… sorta.
This was our first clue that our guides English may not be ‘tour guide’ ready. He spoke English to us, but I understood about 1 out of every 3 or 4 words. As an aid to us, anytime he encountered a word he wasn’t sure about, he would repeat it lightning fast about 6 times in a row. I found myself attempting to translate his terrible English to my sisters. After 20 years of listening to bad Asian accents, I like to think I’m an expert. This guy tested every bit of experience I had, and then some. My sisters and I looked at each other. This was going to be… interesting. At least between my Vietnamese, and his English, we were able to get the basics. Other than not understanding him, he seemed like a nice guy. LOL. I ask him his name and he tells me ‘Oxen’. I laugh and say, OK, what’s your Vietnamese name and he says something that sounds like ‘Zyum’. Got it.
Ninh Binh Province is about 2 hours south of Hanoi. The drive is easy, and the scenery is a mix of rice field / farm country and massive construction projects. Take your pick!
Soon we turned off the highway and started winding our way thru rural roads and the scenery became… incredible. Jaw dropping. Massive limestone outcroppings emerge from the ground and the perfectly flat rice fields, creating an unbelievable, Dr. Seuss effect. I remembered seeing pictures of Asia like this when I was kid in Encyclopedias, and not believing such a place existed. Here it was before me, as proof. We rolled thru a small village along a beautiful river and the van pulled over. Our guide told us we were getting out here.
We crossed the road and onto a bridge over the river and a temple gate. We were at the citadel of Hoa Lu, the very first capital of Vietnam. We crossed thru the gate and were presented with a mural showing battles, and history of the citadel. Our guide attempted to explain it… we got the idea if not the exact details. The area was chosen because it was impossible to approach it in any other way than the river due to the mountainous terrain. One only had to guard the river to protect the entire citadel. Very cool. The temples and structures here were very old, and interesting, if not particularly ornate.
Another quick note on our guide, he apparently did not understand a casual way to address us, so every time he spoke to us as a group, he would preface it with ‘and now…. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!’ Or ‘at this time…. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!’ I had to try not to snicker when he did this. It was would have been hilarious if not for the fact that it was such a struggle to understand whatever would follow that.
We moved on from Hoa Lu and came to a parking area amongst the limestone & rice fields. We were in a very beautiful area but I had no idea what we were doing, the guide never told us what we were doing. We would show up somewhere and he would point us in a direction and then say 45 MINUTES! Or 30 MINUTES!
It turned out we were at Hang Mua (Dancing Caves). This was the place I had been dying to visit, the pics that got me to put this on my trip schedule, the iconic ‘Ha Long Bay in the Mountains’ viewpoint. The caves are apparently superfluous to the viewpoint, as we did not even visit them, and they are apparently fairly small and uninteresting. Go figure.
We began climbing the 500 steps to the top of the mountain, and were immediately rewarded with amazing views of Tam Coc in the distance. Of all the places I visited in Vietnam, this was the most iconic scenery I had seen, and I won’t soon forget it. We got to the top and spent the next half hour jostling for pics with the other few dozen people at the top, but it was worth it. I only wished we had had a clear, non-foggy day to take pics. It was still absolutely gorgeous.
We eventually wandered back down and back to the van and headed back toward town.
Next stop was lunch. A quick note about food in Vietnam:
Vietnam is a culinary wonderland. The food is amazing here, and meal after meal we were blown away by the layers, textures, sauces, and presentation of the food. And it’s unbelievably cheap, as well. I ate like a king the entire time I was here. HOWEVER… on this day we discovered what we came to call ‘The Golden Corral of Vietnam’ – The Buffet Restaurant.
Different parts of the country have different specialties. This area is known for goat meat, and a special rice cake they make in that area.
We were ushered into a buffet style spot called ‘The Long Hotel’. The buffet had a few american items as well as Vietnamese food. It looked ‘somewhat’ clean, and somewhat appetizing. Boy… were we wrong. Goat skewers and prawn crackers were the highlight of our food. The food was bland, half warm, and it seemed the people running the place had no interest in serving anyone. We just wracked it up to ‘one bad place in a land of fantastic places’. More on this place in a moment…
After lunch, we crossed the street and were surprised to learn we’d be taking a boat ride. We were split into two boats and off we went. We all enjoyed our Vietnamese rowers, who powered the boats entirely with their bare feet. I struck up a conversation with my rower, He wore a green pith helmet, a popular hat that civilians wear in North Vietnam and seemed a jovial fellow. The route took us down the Tam Coc river and we were delighted when the river passed thru 3 different caves, going into near darkness and emerging on the other side. At the end of our route were several women in boats selling fruit, beer and snacks. My niece Emma decided to buy some fruit and pulled out some money. Sensing an easy mark, the fruit seller spotted her large bill and immediate bagged up a bunch of fruit, handed some to our boat rower, some to Emma, and took the whole bill from her. No bartering. Emma looked confused and got her first lesson in overseas negotiations… never show your hand before bartering!!!
I purchased a beer for the return trip and sat back to enjoy the view. As we neared the end we were cutoff by a guy who had nabbed pictures of us on the way out and was doing his best to sell them to us… I held up my camera and said ‘I made my own postcards’. He ignored me with a smile and kept trying to sell his wares. My sis ended up paying something for pictures that we’ll probably throw away, just to get him to stop trying to sell us something.
After the boat ride we went back to our homestay. They handed us menus and told us to let them know what we’d like for dinner. We put our orders in and went off to relax for a bit.
Dinner turned out to be fantastic, and the family that prepared it were awesome. After dinner I drifted back towards the kitchen / work area our homestay lived and worked in. They were surprised to see me and leapt up to see what I wanted. I asked for a beer and somebody ran to get one, they pulled out a chair and asked if I’d like to sit with them and drink my beer. I said yes and sat down.
Our driver and guide are here as well. They all seemed thrilled to have me in their area. I just sat and listened to them talk, and engaged in some small talk with them. I smile as I hear our homestay family ask our guide his name and he tells them ‘Oxen’ to which I reply… Zyum! He laughs and say yes, that is his Vietnamese name. I was offered some rice wine, and a hookah pipe, and accepted both. A little girl came back and I asked her name and how old she was. She ended up sitting on my lap, and her grandma told me her parents were divorced and were elsewhere and that she was raising her with her aunts and uncles. She was super cute. Soon I noticed some people yawning and took my leave. I knew if I stayed they would stay until I left and these people work HARD.
Later on we go for a walk and had one of my favorite moments in Vietnam. Its dark and foggy and the rock formations look spooky and surreal in the darkness. We hear an eerie chanting coming out of the fog and follow it to a little house a few blocks away. Not sure what it was about but i record a bit with my phone. So cool…
The next day we went to Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s first national park.
They have an endangered monkey rescue there, which is incredible. I got a little emotional hearing the monkeys ‘talking’ to each other. The guy in charge informs us just how endangered they are… less than 400 left on earth. They also rescue rare turtles. They have one of the last 3 known to exist of a particular soft shell water turtle. Very cool what they’re doing, but also depressing.
After the rescue, we hiked a jungle trail to see a tree that is over a thousand years old. The hiking was pretty tough going, lots and lots of up and down in semi-muddy conditions. 6 miles worth. Came away feeling like it was a bit of a waste of time. If you’ve hiked a mile in a triple canopy jungle, you’ve hiked a hundred. You can’t see much of anything!
We headed back towards town as it was near lunch time, and as we grow nearer to town, we start to realize, we may be returning to the famed goat skewer restaurant… My sister grows concerned and they attempt to ask the driver if we’re going to the same place for lunch… YES. We ask if we can go elsewhere… he says, ‘Food already cooked, too late’. But he makes a phone call and tells us we will eat elsewhere tomorrow. So back to ‘The Long Restaurant’ for more goat skewers and prawn crackers… it was even worse today!!!!
At this point it becomes a joke to us, and on a whim we decide to look online to see if there are any reviews of this place and sure enough, there are PLENTY. Of the 308 reviews left, 176 are rated “terrible”, 50 are “poor” and 39 are “average”…
I will provide some samples from Trip advisor here…
“OH GOD NO PLEASE NO
This “hotel” was hands down the worst place I have ever stayed. The moment I walked into my room, a strong whiff of musky uncleaned bathroom smell overwhelmed my senses. This smell resonated during my entire stay there and I resorted to basically never going to the bathroom until absolutely necessary.”
Had the expensive special: goat with garlic and lemongrass for 150.000 vnd. The goat tasted like rubber and the flavour was mostly just old garlic. Definitely microwaved. We felt like lured into a tourist trap “
“I recommend you to stay here in the dorms if no better choice is available but for the sake of your health and taste buds, don’t even think to order food here… “
“Staff was rude despite me and my friends continuously trying to be nice to them. They have mold all over the bathrooms, they overcharge by the the extreme for tours. FOR YOUR SAKE: FIND ANOTHER HOTEL!!!”
“Would really recommend not going anywhere near this place. The hotel is filthy and the rooms are even worse. There was a massive hole in the bathroom and you could see straight up to the filthy attic. There was bugs all over the room as well. We didn’t even stay the night we packed our bags and moved to another hotel.
“The most horrendous hostel I have ever stayed in! I had a mouse in my shower, my bed was FILLED with bed bugs and the staff were so rude!! The facilities were very poor and covered in mold. Literally stay anywhere else but here!! It doesn’t even deserve one star!”
“AVOID AVOID AVOID
I can not speak any lower of this place. It is horrible, the staff are hideous, rude and arrogant- especially the awful counter staff, who thought nothing of screaming at me. I rented a bike here, no left brake, no mirrors and no kick start, which was not handy when it broke down in the middle of nowhere. I had to pay for a whole new battery which they refused to compensate me for but happily screamed at me for having it put in. I’m not sure how it is still in business. Avoid this place at all costs and it’s awful staff.”
OK. You get the idea. We forced enough calories down to qualify as ‘lunch’ and met our guide out front. We now realize we are going on a bike ride. OK, sounds fun! The downside… the bikes are being provided by The Long Restaurant & Hotel. Any guesses on the quality of those bikes? The fact that I survived this day does not attest to just how terrible these bikes were… felt like I was riding a bike setup for a 3rd grader who was 7 feet tall and had their knees removed. Possibly the worst bicycles in all of Vietnam. The person handing out the bikes was also rude and just shoved a bike at me and waved us away. We stopped a few blocks down the road and I used all of my mechanical knowledge and no tools to make adjustments to my and my sisters bikes.
We continue on and soon turn off the main road and are immediately transformed into an utterly delightful Southeast Asian wonderland. Riding along dikes in colorful rice fields among the limestone outcroppings and checking out life for the locals is just beautiful, and quickly overcomes our crappy bikes and turns into an unforgettable afternoon. We spend some time on the trails and eventually head back on to the roads and ride on a little further. I spot a temple gate across the way and it turns out our guide is leading us to a parking area for our bikes. The person ‘parking’ bikes is rude and I see him arguing with people about the price to park their bikes (I discovered a lot of comments on this part of the tour on Trip Advisor as well!). The nice thing about having a guide in a foreign country is they handle these type of interactions leaving us unmolested, and un-ripped off.
We park and head towards the field and temple gate, and pass a group of the usual ‘salesmen’ sitting on the path to the temple gate. Inexplicably, a women is sitting there with little wooden cages with SQUIRRELS in them, apparently selling squirrels? WTF. My sister asks me in a whisper: “was that women selling squirrels?!?!” I said I have no idea.
We move on to the temple gate, which is very old and beautiful and in a very picturesque place. We take pics and stroll on towards the apparent temple behind it. Again, we have NO IDEA what we’re doing because the guide doesn’t tell us… The temple is really old and pretty cool. I wander behind it to check out a couple statues and spy a set of stairs heading up, so follow. Another temple, this one a bit more interesting than the first one. More stairs…. up we go. ANOTHER temple, this one built into a cave in the cliff face… we keep going up and keep encountering more and more temples each one a bit cooler than the next. I am in ‘explorer heaven’ at this point. This place was really astounding and completely hidden from view. I’m often a bit blown away at how hard it had to be to build some of these places, and haul the materials and prerequisite Buddha statues up. Labor of love I suppose.
I later learned this place was called Bich Dong Pagoda.
This kind of wraps our day and we head back to the trail head. As we approach the squirrel cage lady, we all notice the cages are now empty… Apparently she had some buyers? Who knows…
We mount our untrusty steeds and pedal back to town. All in all, an interesting and unique day.
After returning the bikes we walk by a restaurant with some nice looking smoothies and decide to grab one. It is amazing. Delectable. Wonderful. Delightful. Exquisite. Tasty!
I remark… if their smoothies are that good, what must their food be like? We decide to return for dinner.
My sisters went out to find a massage and happened to walk by the same place and notice it’s packed with locals. Suspicion confirmed. Great food. When they return from their massage we walk downtown to the place, only to see the lights off and the family that runs it singing karaoke. But when they spy us standing there, they wave us in and tell us to sit down. Open at a moments notice! The karaoke singer waves at us, and motions for us to join him and I’ve been waiting for such a moment… I have a few Vietnamese songs nailed down and have been waiting for the chance to hit karaoke in VN. So I go over and he offers me the mic, and the search function of the karaoke machine. I dial up a song and he looks at me and goes… ‘But that’s a Vietnamese song?’ I say yes and motion him to play it. I launch into my spotless rendition (it’s my story I can tell it how I like) of “Go Cua Trai Tim” (knock on the door of my heart) in Vietnamese.
They are blown away and people are coming out of the woodwork to see who this crazy american is… when it’s over the kid says to me, you work in Vietnam, don’t you? I say no, I live in the USA. He responds… I don’t believe you!
My sisters then take turns butchering some american songs (again, my story…)
Fun times. As suspected, the food was phenomenal at this place. We have a few beers and head back. Only one day left.
When we get back to the homestay we are relaxing in our room when I hear a knock on our door. It’s our guide. Something is wrong, I can see it on his face. He tells me he needs to talk to Miss Mindy. I tell him she’s in the shower. He then tells me something is wrong at home and he has to leave us. He has a new baby at home (in Hanoi 2 hours away) and something is wrong and he needs to go, but we will have the same driver tomorrow, who will take us where we need to go, buy all of our tickets, etc. I tell him I understand and am sorry he has to leave and hope that everything is ok. I wish him well and tip him and go to break the news to my sisters. We all agree, not much will be lost without him. He was nice, but not real good with information.
When we arise the next morning and get our breakfast, the entire family at our homestay assembles, and the grandma makes a little speech about how much they enjoyed having us there, and then gifts us with hand sewn bags for us to remember them by. It was a great moment and I get a tiny bit emotional at the show of gratitude and friendship. This is what I love about traveling.
We head out to Bai Dinh Pagoda (our driver actually tells us where we’re going, and he doesn’t speak English!).
As we’re driving down the road, our driver suddenly pulls over and a man walks over, opens the door and climbs in our van. Ummm… wtf?
He sits down and says (in excellent English) Hi Guys! I’m Tony. I’m the one you talked to when you booked the tour! We all laugh and Tony apologizes for the snafu with our guide. We are thrilled. Tony speaks great English and is college educated, we can ask questions and learn things today. We carry on to our destination. Bai Dinh is a brand new pagoda complex being built by the Vietnamese government. It is MASSIVE. It is not yet finished but already, it is the biggest pagoda in all of Asia. Tony tells me the Vietnamese government believes this pagoda will really ‘put them on the map’. We spend some time visiting and I find myself almost bored. The pagoda is big, and beautifully built, but it’s BRAND NEW. I prefer old churches at home too. No offense Vietnam. It does have a tower that is hundreds of feet tall with various levels of shrines inside and an amazing view from the top, but it’s quite foggy and hardly worth the look on this day. We finish up and head to our last spot on our tour, Trang An. Trang An is an eco-tourism complex. Famous for it’s caves and the fact that “Kong – Skull Island” was filmed there. We are taking another boat ride. This time we notice paddles in the boats along with our rower. We can help the rower! Once again we head down the river and again are rowing thru caves, and also see various wildlife along the river, pigs & goats & such. It is beautiful.
We approach Kong Island but do not stop. Basically we all grab paddles and row the entire time as we are now eyeing our watches and doing mental math on reaching the airport in Hanoi at our goal time. It was a beautiful ride, and a beautiful area, and we probably spent less time than we should have due to thinking about flight. We came off the river and are taken to a different restaurant near Trang An. Turns out to be another buffet. It is clean and looks great. Well…
Looks can be deceiving. It was tasteless, bland, and had even less choices than the crap hole in Tam coc. It was like they made Vietnamese food, but left out all of the flavoring that makes the food taste good. Very weird. Lesson, NEVER EAT AT A BUFFET IN VN!!!!! There are millions of great restaurants in the country and there is no reason to ever set foot in a buffet joint in that country!
It was still a great day. Tony was very conversant in English, and I asked him a million questions. We even talked politics and religion a bit and he was very willing to engage on any subject about his country.
We let Tony know what we thought of the buffets on his tour… hopefully he takes that into account in the future. And that basically wraps it folks. This part turned out to be my favorite part of Vietnamese and would have been AMAZING had we had Tony from the get go. If you hire a tour in a foreign country, be sure and converse a bit with your potential guide. It could be the difference between a fun trip, and a phenomenal one.
The last two hours were spent driving to the airport at just under death-warp speed, as we had expressed a desire to reach it by 4 o’clock and our driver was doing EVERYTHING in his power to make it happen. When we pulled into the airport he looked at his watch and exclaimed ‘EXACTLY 4 O’Clock!’.
It’s hard for me to quantify just how much fun this trip has been, with all it’s ups and downs. Travel is the spice of life for sure. And I still had a week to go in Cambodia!
Thanks all who are reading this. I was encouraged by the people who told me how much they were enjoying reading about my adventures, and I basically wrote this last bit with all of you in mind.
Peace, Love & tạm biệt, Vietnam.