Thursday mostly consisted of travelling to Ninh Binh. We had the best ‘toilet stop’ ever at Chin’s uncles house. They were extremely welcoming and gave us red wine, sweets, nuts and starfruit. The younger members of the family were really keen to talk to us to practice their English. They had a really beautiful house and are quite wealthy by Vietnamese standards (it was Chin’s uncle who paid for him to learn English). We arrived in Tam Coc, Ninh Binh at about 1pm and had lunch. When we first stopped we thought it was another break because there didn’t seen to be anything here.
After lunch we went for a walk around Tam Coc and it’s really pretty… It’s known as Halong Bay on land. We then walked to a local family house where we met Ling, the lady of the house and by far the happiest person I’ve ever met… Her laugh was infectious. She gave us tea and food and talked to us. Her son then played the Vietnamese flute (after some forcing by Chin, he was only 18 and you could see he was really embarrassed). Ling then showed us all her embroidery work and her paintings. We all left feeling really happy.
In the evening we had dinner at the hotel and then went to a bar. It was made of bamboo and we sat in our own section in the roof with tiny tables and pillows (and the occasional rat running across the top) but we played loads of games and chatted, was a really fun evening (it’s good not to have wifi, makes us more sociable).
Friday morning was a bike ride around Tam Coc, THE most perfect setting for a bike ride. Was such a good morning on these rickety old bikes with baskets of the front. We visited a temple in the morning and a couple of us had a go at playing a traditional Vietnamese instrument (one we had seen being played at the puppet show). We then went to visit a sacred pagoda called Bich Dong. I enjoyed it because I liked the idea that the 3 different areas are set on three different levels in the cliffs to represent the past, present and future. I couldn’t believe how many tourists were at this site though.
Then after lunch we went on a sampan-ride for an hour and a half, which is basically a boat ride around the flooded landscape of Tam Coc. It was really beautiful. The sampan-rowers are extremely skilled and most of them row with their feet. Me and Carol were lucky in our boat as we sat back and took in the amazing landscape but Lisa and Sophie had to help row and Jan and Flo spent most of the time helping to scoop water out of their boat! It got cold towards the end so an hour and a half was enough time. We were pretty much the only group of Westerners in the boats and there were hundreds of other boats with tourists from China, Japan, South Korea etc who kept staring at us and waving and taking photos, was quite surreal. Friday night was just dinner and chatting and playing card games.
The weekend was quite uneventful because we had free time in a place where there’s not much to do. Saturday started with some of us doing exercises with Chin on the roof, then brunch and then a trip into Ninh Binh town where we just went to a supermarket, wondered around and had hot chocolate in a cafe. Saturday night was quiz night (quiz created by Lisa and then the rest of us got into three teams) and wine, which was really fun.
Sunday was a lie-in, brunch and then a walk to Thai Vi Temple (where we visited on Friday and played the instrument) and had our fortunes told. It was all pretty generic and related to our month and year of birth so no big surprises (apparently I’ll die when I’m 83… But then apparently so will four other people in the group). Sunday night was just dinner and hanging out.
Monday’s itinerary sounded really good but didn’t really live up to our expectations. In the morning we went to the biggest temple in IndoChina called Bai Dinh. The car park by itself was crazy. It was a massive muddy area with hundreds and hundreds of cars/mini buses/coaches and a makeshift market area. The temple itself was so busy that I couldn’t enjoy it. There were hundreds of different statues and a huge gold statue (apparently the biggest in IndoChina) of the Buddha who invented Buddhism with his two ‘protectors’. We were meant to have a mediation lesson but all we did was sit down on a mat in the middle of a really busy room and were told to cross our legs and clear our minds… Needless to say I didn’t feel enlightened in any way…
We then went back to the hotel for lunch and to give Jacksie her birthday cake and present and in the afternoon made our way to the stilt house that we were staying in on the middle of an island. A coach and a boat ride later we arrived at the stilt house, which was cool (but not really the weather for it, was really cold). The plan for the afternoon was to go to the hot springs… The ‘hot springs’, however, was what looked like an old pool filled with ‘natural water’ aka dirty green water. But it was hot, so we got in! There was also a cooler pool next to it and you were supposed to go between the two. We stayed in there for about an hour and a half but got out once we realised our skin had started going a weird orange colour – looked like fake tan, although no-one was wearing it! After dinner we played drinking games, chatted, danced and sang really loud in the middle of our stilt house.
Tuesday was a lie in, eating and travelling to Cuc Phuong national park, which is the biggest national park in Vietnam established in 1962. We were staying in some very basic rooms about 20km from the entrance to the park. In the evening we had dinner, made a campfire to keep warm and went to bed early as we only had electricity 6-10pm.
On Wednesday morning we walked through the jungle to see a 700 year old tree. Henry (co-ordinator) was quite sad when we got there because the tree had fallen down (storm? rotted from inside?). So we all climbed on and had our photo taken. Although there used to be hundreds of different animals and bird most are now housed in the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre at the front of the park so we didn’t see any animals.
After lunch, five of us went to visit a 1000 year old tree (still standing!) called the cho xanh tree and also to visit one of the many prehistoric caves in Cuc Phuong. The afternoon was much more challenging, especially the cave as it was pitch black inside (when we turned all our torches off we couldn’t even see our hands in front of our faces) and extremely slippery to get out of… It was almost as bad as the rock climbing we had to do in Cat Ba national park! Wednesday night was just dinner, another camp fire and another early night. I’m really glad we stayed in the national park as it was an experience. It was good to be somewhere really quiet and isolated but I think one night would have been enough at this time of year, was really cold!
Thursday we left Cuc Phuong. On the way out of the park, we visited the primate and turtle sanctuarys located near the entrance. I didn’t like seeing the monkeys in cages but our guide explained that that’s the first step in a three-part programme (cage, semi-wild, wild) that takes years to complete. They had lots of varieties of languars and some Gibbons… Gibbons are THE nosiest monkeys ever!! Apparently they do it at 10am and 5pm everyday (around feeding time). We also went and saw some turtles, which are extremely endangered especially since there has been a boom in the Far East of using turtles in luxury dishes and in medicines. We then made our way back to another hotel in Ninh Binh. In the afternoon we went to visit the oldest church in Ninh Binh. It wasn’t like a conventional church and I liked the way that Vietnamese Christians adapted the design of the church to their own culture. The outcome is that it looks quite gothic.
This morning we made our way back to Hanoi and on the way stopped at Vietnam’s ancient capital. It is really small and is largely made up of a temple that was built for the first Emperor of Vietnam around the 9th century. Six of us climbed the 278 (wet, slippery!) steps to the top (stopping on the way to pray at a tiny temple and offer our incense) but to be honest the view wasn’t really worth it! Good exercise though!