I booked a shuttle to go to Ninh Binh from Catba. It was supposed to pick me up from the hotel and, later than expected, a motorbike rider appeared to ferry me to the minivan, 50 metres down the road! I would have walked if I’d known. We drove through a populated area to the western part of the island to catch the ferry to Haiphong. Catba would have been the perfect place to hire a motorbike but I have never driven one. It is difficult to see the island without one and I now realised there was a lot more to investigate.
The bus drove onto the packed small car ferry. The trip was uneventful as we travelled a short distance across the strait past boats of various sizes and condition. I amused myself watching a group of Chinese ladies posing for photographs with a scarf and hat which they shared.
On the other side, we stuck to the toll roads and bypassed the city. We made one stop at a restaurant/shop where I hoped to buy a coffee. There was no sign of one and we all spent half an hour lounging listlessly waiting to leave again. It was a strange place.
The weather was miserable, and it was raining when they dropped me off at the bus stop in Ninh Binh. I walked to the hotel where the receptionist greeted me. The Vietnamese hotel staff, I found, were always helpful. As with all my other accommodation, I was shown the tour list before I’d even checked in. They were keen to make sales! I booked one for the next day that included Trang An,Hang Mua and Bai Dinh Pagoda.
In the afternoon, I wandered around the city. Like Hanoi it was noisy, uninspiring and busy. I found a beautiful flower market and a park that housed a small temple and a pond where swan shaped boats lined up waiting for people to ride them. There was a lot of improvement work underway around the park.
I wanted to try some local food in the evening but was wary. Ninh Binh’s specialties are goat and dog and, whilst I have eaten goat, I would baulk at dog. I walked around indecisively and opted for a busy cafe close to a food market. The plastic tables and chairs were those used for children at home but I was now accustomed to them. I chose what everyone else was eating which was a good decision!
I was ready early the next day. Departure time came and went and I was still waiting. The receptionist told me they were often late because other tourists weren’t ready at the right time. It was an excuse I had heard before. They must teach it in hotel reception school! She disappeared and returned a while later and bustled me into a taxi with a non English-speaking driver. I had no idea what was happening and was quite annoyed by this stage. We arrived at Hang Mua and I joined the small group. They had presumably forgotten to pick me up.
Hang Mua is a temple complex whose top is reached by ascending 500 steps. It was raining and misty so the views were not as spectacular as they might have been. There were too many people at the peak so I waited and looked whilst the others fought their way onto the dragon. I found the guide’s accent difficult to understand so did not gain much knowledge about any of the sights I visited that day.
Back at the bottom, our ‘seen better days’ minivan was waiting to take us to Bai Dinh Pagoda. We stopped en route and two of the group left and four Czechs joined us. The Pagoda complex was vast. Much of it had been built recently but there was also an old temple on the hill. Electric shuttles ferried us from the car park and we started our tour admiring the 500 Buddha statues lining the side of the temple. We climbed up to view the enormous bell in the bell tower and then our guide shepherded us off for lunch. We were on a strict timetable so didn’t have enough time to look everywhere.
On the way to the restaurant, we passed many stands displaying whole cooked goats. They were rigid but propped in such a way, it appeared they were still alive (almost!) and standing. It was an odd sight! All the stall holders beckoned to our vehicle to stop but our driver continued on until we arrived at a resort where a buffet lunch was waiting. We were late, so the food had been resting for a while. Here though, I tried goat kebabs and stir-fried goat. Whilst tasty, they would have benefited from slow cooking.
Our last stop was at Trang An. Ninh Binh is likened to Halong Bay but on land. Most people visit Tam Coc and I had read Trang An was more picturesque and less crowded. The information was wrong on the latter point. There were swarms of rowing boats on the river. There are three routes and our guide had told us the best one was Route 2. For the next two hours, a lady rowed us around loops and curves in the river. She must have been exhausted at the end of the day. We got off two or three times to look at temples and the set of the King Kong movie. At this last stop there was also a replica tribal village where people with faces painted red and wearing red clothing waited for someone to pay them to take their photo. All the way round the boats were bumper to bumper (if that is an expression you can use for boats) and it was noisy. At the start, one boat had a boom box and the occupants were doing karaoke which the Vietnamese love. It was incongruous in such a beautiful setting and unexpected. I felt as though I was in Disneyland. The visitors were all local Vietnamese having a fun Saturday afternoon out.
We were late arriving back and one of the group was getting anxious as she had an overnight train to catch. Her hostel had told her one time, and the guide said another so there were many phone calls whilst we waited for our mini bus. I was relieved to be back in my room. It wasn’t one of my better days.
The next day, I left early to catch the train to Hue. This was a 12 hour trip. I love trains and the journey passed quickly. I read, admired the scenery, enjoyed the coffee that came around and waved and smiled at a baby who came to sit next to me. She screamed the train down which was a little embarrassing!
It was dark when I arrived in Hue. I ran the gauntlet of the taxi drivers and walked to my hotel. It was in the central area and the streets were closed to traffic at the weekend. The noise from the bars and cafes and people in the streets was deafening. All I wanted was to get to my room and have a beer. But first the hotel owner had to explain the tours. After the previous day’s experience, I declined and retired. It was wonderful to be in the warm again. I had been cold for most of the previous week.