Ninh Binh, Vietnam

After stopping briefly back in Hanoi to pick up our visas for Myanmar we got in a bus to Ninh Binh, Vietnam.  I’d seen this place before, from out the window of a bus, and thought that it looked beautiful.  The guidebook described it as “Ha Long Bay or rice paddies” – good enough for us.

Usually when we get off the bus we are swarmed by touts.  Some want to transport us, some to house us, and some, it seems, just want to bother us.  Getting off in Ninh Binh was quite different though.  No one greeted us, in fact no one seemed to care about us at all.  We had no map so we just started walking.  We checked quite a few hotels but all were well out of our price range, we’d spent a long time looking and Val was near the breaking point.  “Let’s check this alley, it looks promising,” I said.  Sure enough, there was a hotel.  The lady did not speak a word of English so I just pulled my dong out of my pants and pointed to it (it’s their currency silly!).  She responded by pulling 120,000 dong ($6 US) out of a drawer.  Hurray we’ve done it.  This room was more than just cheap however.  I entered and looked around, it seemed very clean but basic.  “Look up,” Val said.  Holy smokes!  The ceiling had been artistically fashioned into hundreds of plaster icicles lit up by various colored lights.  Disco fever!

The next day we got on a motor bike and took off down the highway.  For those that aren’t familiar with driving conditions in Vietnam, I’d look at it this way.  At the driving range golfers like to try to hit the ball collector, who probably secretly hates them but at least he’s safe in his cage.  Imagine not changing the size of the ball collector’s mesh cage but giving the golfers semi-automatic hand guns.  That’s what driving in Vietnam is like.  Getting gas proved challenging as well, but the 4th gas station was willing to let us fill up.

We tried to go to the Cuc Phuong National Park, which is about 50 kilometers from Ninh Binh.  While we definitely did not make it, we did have quite an adventure.  We overshot or first turn, which irrevocably sent us off course, but we ended up in some beautiful rural scenery.  Vibrant rice paddies, meandering livestock, and conical hats were everywhere.  I suppose we should have figured out we were on the wrong track after the second stream crossing (which is pretty fun with two people on a small scooter).

Finally after many muddy kilometers on unpaved roads we found a major landmark, oriented ourselves, and headed for our goal.  We made it to within 3 kilometers (we would find out later) where an official looking man told us we were 26 kilometers from our goal.  Slightly dejected, we turned back. No matter we’d seen a ton of cool stuff, including a dog being filleted on the side of the road.  Who needs a table?

On the way back we tried to visit the ancient capital of Hua Lu.  Again we were within spitting distance but it just didn’t work out.  Again there were so many beautiful and interesting things along the way that it didn’t really matter that we were technically “unsuccessful”.

The next day we tried again.  This time we navigated perfectly and made it to Cuc Phuong in record time.  Cuc Phuong is home to the Endangered Primate Rescue Center which houses 140 monkeys and apes, all from critically endangered species.  An small approaching tour group saved us from having to find someone to unlock the gate and we nonchalantly followed them in.  Success!  The brief tour took us past some of the strangest looking creatures we’ve ever laid eyes on, and the most adorable.  There were gibbons (apes) and langurs (Asian monkeys).  They swung around gracefully.  Bright orange babies were an obvious sign of a successful breeding program.  While we were on Cat Ba island last week, we had been sad not to see the most endangered primate on earth, the Cat Ba Langur.  No worries though, they have six here!  We were also mesmerized by the Gray-Shanked Duoc Langurs, which are what you might imagine the monkeys on Venus would look like if they existed.  The tour was great, and totally worth the two days it took to find it.

Back on our trusty 115cc steed we barreled off towards Tam Coc, where we’d heard that two women would row us through some magnificent terrain.  The back roads took us through small villages oozing with charm.   Steep limestone cliffs and lush hills surrounded us the whole ride.  If it wasn’t already so late in the day we would have stopped many times to admire the scenery and other roadside wonders.

We rolled into Tam Coc with about an hour of day light left.  Sure enough as we approached a group of boats two women found us and we quickly boarded their craft.  Heading upriver we passed fisherman and rice paddies before the horizontal land ended and gave way to sheer vertical spires of rock.  The woman behind us skillfully propelled the oars with her feet while the younger woman next to us paddled traditionally.  The setting was spectacular, well beyond the ability of pictures to adequately capture its majesty.  Soon it looked like we would run into a wall, but just before a collision a hole appeared and we entered a long cave, the first of many.  Our feminine ferrymen had the endurance of oxen and wisked us along at a remarkable pace.  Had we not run out of daylight we could have gawked for hours, but a new adventure called to us.

What’s more dangerous that driving in Vietnam during the day?  Doing it after sunset.  Val clutched me like like a baby langur as we weaved and dodged the swirling mass of traffic.  I learned that if you go slightly faster than the flow of traffic you only have to look out for what’s in front of you, and this made our lives substantially easier.  We put out four eyes together, “bogey 11 o’clock” Val would should and I’d maneuver us away.

Back in Ninh Binh we let the adrenaline dissipate over a steaming bowl of pho soup and spring rolls.  It took a while to get into the swing of life in Vietnam, but having braved the sea and surfed the blacktop we’re finding we fit in just fine.

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Scott Dusek is a writer and photography originally from Seattle, Washingon.

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