Sometimes travel is a struggle. Everyone suffers moments of discouragement and frustration, times when everything seems to be working against you. But it’s often these times that turn out to be the most memorable, when you learn something about yourself while trying to see the world from someone else’s perspective. Ninh Binh was supposed to be a fun, interesting alternate route, a detour from the typical tourist trail. While it did give us a glimpse of a more “real” Vietnam, we found we had to look pretty hard for it. We arrived early, on the overnight train from Hue, the names of three hotel possibilities in hand, prepared for the train station touts to try and reel us into their transportation or hotel so they could earn their commission. Sure enough, they were out in full force. The 8-10 tourists who got off at the station were immediately surrounded by young men wielding business cards for nearby hotels. Several were wearing suits, and with their slicked-back hair and lanky frames looked rather like gangsters. We took the opportunity to sneak around them and make a beeline for what we thought should be the road to the main part of town.
The trouble with most train and bus stations (airports are even worse) is their distance from town center. This leaves travelers unfamiliar with the way things work at the mercy of those who do. Unfortunately, unless you have arrived in a city with mass transit that’s easy to navigate, there will always be those who will take advantage of your disorientation. Every so often a taxi or motorbike would pull up with the classic “Where you go?” When you clearly are heading for lodging, this is often followed up by the driver knowing the cheapest, cleanest, best place. Wherever you might answer either burned down, are crooks, or is just plain a “bad place.” Experience has shown that the best response is saying you already have a prepaid reservation. When walking without a backpack and the corresponding excuse I also like to switch into Spanish and just pretend I don’t understand. On the other hand, in a pinch these guys can be life-savers, and just because they are getting a kickback doesn’t mean they won’t take you to a decent place.
Our strategy generally is to do as much research as possible before arriving, familiarize ourselves with the map so we don’t have to pull it out every block and have at least three places to aim for. After 45 minutes or so of wandering with our packs, we ended up staying at our second choice, mostly due to sheer exhaustion (we never found the first). The hotel was adequately clean, but from the time we entered, management seemed only interested in selling us one of their tours of the area. The only advice they gave was related to in-house services, the only restaurant recommendation for the one they ran. They charged twice as much as we were used to for bicycles barely held together by tape and wires. Our opting out of a room rate that included breakfast had already made us pariahs. We played the game and did our best to keep the peace by having our beers there in the evening and using them to book a bus to the next town, once we determined the price was about the same.
Not having breakfast included forced us out onto the street to fend for ourselves. It can be intimidating to march into a place filled with locals, no menu in sight, and imagine you’ll be able to eat. Waitstaff, if there are any, get flustered and forget about asking any questions. One good thing in Vietnam is the abundance of one-dish shops. Pho, the famous noodle soup, is pretty easy, so we chose one of those and made it our every-morning stop for a steaming bowl of beef noodles with chili sauce, leafy greens and lime.
Our next issue was getting around. Opting out of the hotel’s group tours, we wanted to be independent, having heard the main sights were in cycling distance.Where in other cities there would have been at least a couple of choices, we couldn’t find a place to rent us a bike anywhere. When we finally found a place that looked like a travel agency, we left after waiting almost an hour for someone to “be right back.” In the end we did find someone willing to rent us decent bicycles without demanding a $200 deposit and holding a passport, and stuck with them for the next few days. The lady who ran the shop didn’t speak much English, but she compensated for a lack of vocabulary with lots of smiles and some earnest pointing at the map.
The city of Ninh Binh was traffic and exhaust-choked, with lots of construction creating even more dust and debris. Once you get out of the city, however, the landscape is gorgeous. It reminded us a bit of southern China, with towering limestone peaks and small-scale farming dominated by bright, green rice paddies. We got lost repeatedly, drawing lots of stares in the winding, narrow alleys of nearby villages. Sleepy-eyed water buffalo gazed up at us from their endless grazing. People rode by on bicycles, nodding as they passed. A man with a crate full of piglets on the back of his motorbike stopped in the middle of the road to chat with a friend. Uniformed school kids giggled and said hello. Ladies sat in tiny plastic chairs by the roadside, inviting us in to try the local specialty, goat.
The biggest tourist draw in the surrounding area is being rowed along the Tam Coc River, past some of this amazing scenery. The rowers all line up at the river’s edge, and after buying a ticket someone puts you in a boat. Our rower was a middle aged guy who, like most of the boatmen and women, paddle much of the time using their feet. It’s a pretty impressive talent and we wondered if they all didn’t have some ripped abs to show for it. Passing through some caves, and seeing people inspecting their nets or wading in the river was interesting, but there were a few things that took some charm away from the trip: pressure to buy snacks from the ladies in their boats at the end of the route before the boat would turn around and head back (higher pressure than usual using guilt to get us to buy a can of juice at 5 times the normal price for our hard-working rower); more pressure to buy embroidery from the rower himself, and to give a good tip; and extreme persistence from someone who had snapped a photo of us during the journey to buy the printout.
The mountain-top pagoda/shrines we climbed to near Bich Dong cave was a perfect, peaceful place to get away from it all. The views were spectacular. The only other people we saw were a young couple who seemed to be trying to hide away from the world themselves. Another day we visited the famous tombs of King Dinh Tien and King Le Dai Hanh at Hoa Lu, which was Vietnam’s capital for a short time. There are a number of structures and artifacts on the grounds to explore, and an incredible amount of souvenirs and snacks for sale if you’re so inclined.
Yet another day of cycling brought us to what looked like a huge construction site, with mountains of dirt and tiles and bricks piled up everywhere. The grounds of the pagoda we were looking for seemed to have been completely dismantled for reconstruction, but the landscapes and scenes of daily life we encountered on our bike rides more than made up for the rest of Ninh Binh’s many challenges.