I was told that nobody goes to Ninh Binh, which isn’t in itself a reason not to go but went some way in explaining why we found it so difficult to find somewhere to eat that first night. After walking the dark, rainy streets for half an hour or so we settled for a pho place which wasn’t particularly clean or waterproof but the man in charge was friendly and there was literally nowhere else. We concentrated on our noodles and ignored the tables of teenagers who were pointing and laughing at us but I couldn’t help wondering what was so amusing. Just us, probably.
It’s a peculiar kind of sadness that can come over you when you arrive in a new place after dark, especially a place like Ninh Binh. The reviews for the guesthouse we were staying in had said how wonderful the woman in charge was, how warm and caring, like their surrogate mother for the week. But when we arrived it was late, everything was quiet and the lady of the house had retired back to her own private space. I’m not sure what I expected but some hot tea and a puppy or two would have probably done the trick.
It’s really damp in Ninh Binh, a cold, chilling damp that creeps into the walls and makes them mouldy and creeps into your chest making you sick. Shaun felt poorly as soon as we arrived and took to his bed to repair himself in sleep. I crawled into bed too with a cold, empty feeling in my stomach that started to melt as I fell asleep, telling myself that tomorrow would better and it always, always is.
Of course,the next day was infinitely better in Ninh Binh. We hired a pair of local students who were interested in improving their English skills to drive us around all of the places we wanted to see on motorbikes. We realised that day what everybody else already seemed to know, the only way to explore Vietnam is on two wheels.
Where Ninh Binh town is ugly, dreary and congested, Ninh Binh province is beautiful with unusual scenery and endless open spaces. At Tam Coc we paid a boatman a few thousand dong to row us up a river in his boat. The views were like no others I’ve seen in Vietnam.
In the heat of the midday sun we went to see Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, an area that was the capital of Vietnam in the 11th century. Our guides stayed outside of the compound, choosing to do what we should have done which is to lie in shaded hammocks in a nearby café, while we walked around a mostly featureless place getting sunburnt and not learning much.
After lunch we biked miles to Bai Dinh Pagoda, the largest Buddhist temple complex in Vietnam. The ‘new’ pagoda, that is, which is just four years old compared to the ‘old’ pagoda which is over a thousand years old.
While this was one of the most challenging and exhausting places someone who struggles with stairs could possibly visit it was worth it. Bai Dinh is the largest temple complex in South East Asia, is home to the largest bronze Buddha and rests halfway up a mountain slope.
We walked behind a young girl for most of the way up as she offered an individual prayer to every single disciple statue lining the path up the mountain – a total of 500 prayers – and were waylaid by groups of women in all their tribal finery who had a good point and laugh in our direction. It was friendly and fun but I couldn’t help wondering what was so amusing. Just us, probably.
– We took a local bus from Halong Bay to Ninh Binh. Get a taxi from the docks at Halong Bay to Bai Chay bus station and tell the ladies at the desk you’re going to Ninh Binh (pronounced Neen Been).
– We booked our motorbike tour through Chookies travel agent, who I would definitely recommend.