Ninh Binh – Dry Halong Bay by Boat

21-AUG. Ninh Binh was new to me, but I was looking forward to it for it promising to present “Halong Bay on the Land”, ie. the same kind of limestone formations, just not surrounded by water, but by land. And LP recommended going by bicycle, another detail I liked. Probably a bit like YangShuo, I hoped. And so it was…just…well…we needed to get there.

We had booked our sleeper bus still back in Hoi An by the great people of the Nhi Nhi Hotel. It had started off on time in Hue. During the first break at a restaurant (always welcome for an iced coffee, probably a bit to eat, and certainly for the toilets) we noticed the drivers working on the engine of the bus, starting and stopping it over and over again. Finally, however, they seemed satisfied, closed the covering, and we continued our ride. Didn’t look like we lost much time, if any.

Deep in the night we stopped at another place. We had not much of a chance to figure out where that potentially was, but the toilets were like really…hm…interesting. There were a lot of other busses waiting and some of our passengers had to switch busses here. Seemed to be some kind of bus line crossing. “Hurry, busses waiting, we late.” I started to hope that our problem of arriving in Ninh Binh at the crack of dawn at 5am would be slightly shifted to the lesser problem of arriving at 6am or the like…but it came even better.

Somewhen around 2am or so…don’t ask me details…we suddenly stopped at the road side. That was definitely unplanned, no restaurant around. Nobody left the bus. Except for the two drivers, how started hammering and mauling the engine again. On and off, and off and on. We certainly used the moment of silence (no rattling of old busses through potholes) and tried to sleep as deep as possible. But whenever I woke up again we were still standing at the very same spot at the road side. Off and on… It took half an eternity (it couldn’t be full eternity…then we would still be there) until I finally heard the welcome bang of the engine covering being shut. And we continued! No clue, how much time we really lost there, but it was to be measured in hours. When we started again dawn peeked over the horizon.

In addition to having lost time waiting we now also faced the problem of hitting the morning rush hour. We slowly passed by hundreds of pupils on bikes on their way to school. Trucks hit the road. Progress was definitely a lot slower than during the night. By the time we were able to make out our location we were shocked: By 6am we were still a good 150km away from Ninh Binh, more or less…it was definitely the wrong province. There was no announcement on the potential delay and our calculations were often proved wrong.

We finally arrived in Ninh Binh around 10am. What a perfect time to go and find the hotel, for which we had a reservation. Even if we couldn’t right away check in and have a shower we could at least sit down, leave our luggage there, possible have a first walk… Finding the hotel (Thuy An Hotel) took only 10 minutes (and the help of two friendly passers-by). But there we caused some confusion: We were confronted with a couple of names of people having a reservation, but none was ours. When we finally just handed in our passports to get any available room the eyes of the receptionist brightened up: “Yes, I remember your name. We had a reservation for you yesterday. We were wondering why you didn’t come. We kept the room availble all night.” Haeh? And then it occurred to me: We had done the reservation for the next night after the previous hotel, forgetting the fact, that we had spent one night on the sleeper bus, not needing a hotel. Our fault…and as we had a guaranteed reservation we certainly had to pay…and once again for the night that we actually needed now. Grrrr….but lesson learned.

At least we could have some late breakfast / early lunch from the hotel’s menu, pondered a bit the question of how to see Tam Coc (the Vietnamese name for the area of the dry Halong Bay) and how to organize the other sights (Hoa Lu, Perfume Pagoda) and transport to Hanoi. And decided to do Tam Coc by bike and get a private driver for Hoa Lu, Perfume Pagoda, Hanoi as these three spots were all in the same direction. Our negotiations with the hotel over this entire package (2 nights, bikes driver) were not too successful…at least we could squeeze 10 USD out of the price for the driver. Still 70 USD left…

Tam Coc

Provided with a hand-drawn map (as good a quality as the various different maps I’ve seen and used in the Tiger Leaping Gorge: basically useless) we set out on our bikes into the rice paddies, avoiding the big roads. We were lost after 20 minutes. But all (but one) villagers were quite helpful in pointing in all directions of the wind when we asked “Tam Coc?” pointing somewhere. Putting all pointing together we cycled through a number of farming villages, along rice paddies and dikes, and had a wonderful time. And I even believe that the way was close to the shortest possible avoiding the highway. Should be mentioned that “wonderful time” involves clothes soaked through by sweat. We kind of got used to it…

First: Rice paddies and limestone hills. Watch the graves dotted across the paddies. The landscape indeed was very similar to what I had seen in YangShuo, China, two years ago.

Second: Farmers along the way…the geese crossed our way and stopped us for the moment. The lady took her chance to study the hand-drawn map. Looked like she were fascinated by the sheer concept of a map.

After arriving at the Tam Coc entry we had to find a restaurant, which would look after our bikes while we would do the boat ride. We had a drink (one of the better iced coffee ;)) and got on our row boat, rowed by two young ladies. Nina was sitting in front, me a row behind her. To keep the boat in balance one of the ladies sat down next to me. And as she started a shy “Where you from?” I thought she would probably tell us a bit during the ride and encouraged her a bit later by one or two simple questions. But all in all the ladies didn’t talk much while Nina and me had fun.

First: LP already warns that the beginning looks quite a bit like Disney Land. See here why.

Second: But as soon as you leave the “harbor” the landscape turnes natural and you are being rowed through rice paddies, lotus lakes, and limestone hills.

Third: There were locals on other boats offering to make photos. Here I contered by making a photo of them…they at least smiled at the reaction 😉

First: There were two rowing techniques: The obvious one we would think of: by hand. But most rowing ladies also master the art of feet rowing. That’s not too easygiven the fact that you also need to turn the paddles when diving into the water. It looks relaxing. And it probably wasn’t.

Second: We decided that these red cluster of things were dragonfly eggs. Never seen them before…

Third: The turn of the tour. Many boats gathered here, river hawkers came by and offered their usual stuff like water, soft drinks, and biscuits, which we know would happen, but certainly didn’t want to buy anything.

But during that time Nina and I had agreed on a way of solving the problem of tip and being offered paintings/table clothes. I had seen that when returning the rowing ladies opened a metal container fixed in the boat to offer this completely useless tacky tourist stuff. We didn’t want to be rude, but we didn’t want to buy anything either. So when, on the way back, the lady next to me opened up the container I handed her and her companion 20.000 dong each, thank for their hard work and suggested to keep the touri stuff for the next guest. They understood, closed the container, and everything was fine.

We congratulated ourselves to the strategy when seeing how other couples tried hard to ignore the offerings of their respective rowing ladies, which is quite tough given the very limited space on the boat, and would spoil enjoying the scenery. The only little set back was that it seemed that the ladies had to pass on the tip to their boss upon return to the boat quai as I briefly saw in the corner of me eyes. Maybe because they would need to report on their selling results anyway…I don’t know. But I had hoped they could just keep it. 20.000 dong is about one euro, but said to be sufficient to feed a rural Vietnamese a day.

If you still wonder why it’s called “Halong Bay on the Land” but requires a boat to visit, then…welcome to the club. I can’t tell you either.

Bich Dong Pagoda

Close by was a pagoda. Surprisingly one of the hotel staff recommended against visiting it…we went there anyway and that was a good decision. The 2km from the boat quai were easily cycled. An attentive old man watched our bikes for 4.000 VND. And the temple turned out to be carved into the rocks, with lots of staircases and altar rooms actually carved into the rock or making use of natural caves at the site. Definitely a very worthy visit!

First: The landscape seen from half-way up.

Second: By the time I took this picture I had no idea what these pots would be potentially be used for, Nina had just pointed me to this potentially interesting motive.

Third: But two minutes later at the next altar we learned it: Incense pots 😉

First: The short walk way to the foot of the pagoda. Unfortunately there aren’t any good pictures from inside. Was just too dark in the caves. Seems you have to get there and see it for yourself!

Second: On the way back, between the pagoda and Tam Coc some of the never-ending rice paddies, surrounded by limestone hills. Plus a family of geese.

Third: Home we went on the very same way we came earlier and again passed by this graveyard, which in the setting sun looked great. Probably need to add some post-processing to the photo once I’m back home…

Back at the hotel we went up to the fantastic roof-top terrace with a great view across Ninh Binh, watching some heavy clouds and lightning come, and finally had a simple dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. Ninh Binh itself does not seem to be worth a visit and no restaurants would be available anyway,according to LP. But anyway…what could you possible want more than a cool beer, Wifi / Internet for free, and great vistas?

Today’s Lesson: When spending a night on a sleeper bus you don’t need an additional hotel room.

Categories: Asia, Ninh Binh

Originally Created: 08/26/2009 07:14:57 AM
Last Edited: 08/26/2009