24.11.2010 - 25.11.2010 28 °C
We left Cat Ba on a ticket for bus, ferry and bus to Ninh Binh. The start of the journey was fine however in Haiphong our bus stopped and ordered all passengers to get off. Thankfully the driver also got off and walked us all across the road where he flagged down another bus for us. I say bus, it was more an antique battle bus. It didn't actually stop for us to get on, we just had to dive on as it continued to roll along the road. Inside it was packed with locals sat in a decrepit, worn, dusty & dirty bus. The driver had a type of flask on the dashboard with a little cup next to it that he regularly used to poor himself a tea, to keep himself refreshed between smoking cigarettes. There were several other locals working on the bus, with one bloke always stood hanging out of the open door (whilst bus was moving) looking for potential passengers or freight - as the buses also operate as a postal service, taking products and packages from locals on the roadside and delivering them to addresses on route in return for cash. It was really dusty inside the bus and the roads outside were also dusty, so at times we were sat in clouds of dust and cigarette smoke as the old bus rumbled along, as usual overtaking on blind corners and blasting the horn regularly at other road users. After a couple of hours the drivers assistant flagged another bus down by hanging out of the open door and waving (as we overtook it). Our bus stopped and we were told to get off and change to the bus behind that had just been flagged down. After another hour on this local bus we arrived in Ninh Binh and we walked around looking for a hostel to stay at. The rooms in the hostels we looked at were worse than in other towns we had visited and it took us some time until we found a reasonable place to stay. We went out in search of some food and found that there was a real lack of food vendors, cafes and restaurants in the city. We went to the one restaurant that was recommended in Lonely Planet that specialised in Goat and found the service, food and interior very disappointing. We had come to Ninh Binh as we had heard that it was a good place to access the many sights in the surrounding countryside, so we planned to get out of this disappointing city on an excursion the next day.
We walked to the train station to book in advance an overnight train out of Ninh Binh and found that the station office was closed until 20:30. We met Henrik & Stephanie, a German couple who live in Freiburg close to the Swiss border who were also hoping to book train tickets. We had an hour to kill before the ticket office re-opened so we went for a drink in a nearby cafe. When the ticket office re-opened we managed to book 'hard sleeper' tickets on the train leaving the following evening, with Henrik & Stephanie also booking tickets in the same cabin.
As we walked through the city towards our hostels amongst the manic evening traffic, we witnessed an accident on a pedestrian bridge. It may have been a pedestrian bridge but a woman (with her child sat on the back) was knocked off her bicylce by one of the many mopeds that were using the footbridge. The Vietnamese locals appear a feisty bunch, in particular the women and this lady picked herself up off the ground and started punching the moped driver (bloke) who had collided with her. After numerous right hooks to his face, she decided she had given him a good enough beating and got back on to her bike and off they all went back in to the crazy traffic.
The next day we booked a car and driver to take us to some of the local sights, having decided against the cheaper moped option due to traffic in the city. We went on a boat trip at Trang An, with a local lady rowing the boat along the river which past temples set in the green jungle clad mountains, fantastic scenery even in the overcast weather. We rowed into a cave where the river ran through the mountain, with the mountain rock so close to the boat that Chris was having to duck around them in the complete darkness. There was no light at the end of the tunnel and with thoughts of trapped miners and earthquakes fresh in our minds Chris explained to our boat lady that he wanted to get back outside into daylight rather than contine to explore the caves. Next we went to the Bai Dinh Temple complex, which is a mixture of old temples and new temples that are still being constructed, which is apparently the largest complex of temples in Vietnam. After walking around the complex we returned to the car and went to Hoa Lu, which was the first capital of independent Vietnam under the Dinh dynasty and the early Le Dynasty (968-1009), chosen as a capital location due to it's proximity to China and the landscape that allowed protection of the city. Hoa Lu is set in a landscape of limestone mountains and the ancient citadel has mostly been destroyed. We walked to the top of one of the mountains and saw and ancient temple shrine at the summit, along with great views of the nearby area. We were chased up the steps by a local who was trying to sell us incense sticks who turned into a tour guide at the top, showing us which direction to look and then demanding money! After we escaped down the mountain we walked through the old town residential area and experienced some true Vietnamese tradition. Small local businesses were set in the front rooms of peoples homes, opening out onto the alleyways or food stalls set just outside the homes in the street, locals walking by or passing on their bicycles and animals wandering the streets. We were waved at and many locals said 'hello' as we wandered through the charming streets. School kids followed us on their bikes, it appears not too many tourists make it to this little traditional town and it was a highlight of the day for us. After our day out we made our way to the train station and waited along with a large group of other travellers for our train to arrive. Shorly before the train was due the gates were opened to the platform and we wandered across a track in darkness to a platform where a large tour group of French travellers had congregated. The train rumbled in and once on board we settled into our hard sleeper cabin, six of us getting into our beds, ensuring that we killed a few mosquitos that had followed us into our cabin before we slept through the majority of the journey to Hue.