July 27, 2015 - Next stop: Ninh Binh, Vietnam. Our lovely hotel in Hanoi helped arrange our transportation to Ninh Binh - little did we know we were sharing the bus with a tour and on their schedule. The route included a stop at the Hoa Lu temples of the Dinh & Le Dynasties. In the 10th and 11th century, Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam which included two dynasties. With only 30 minutes to wander, we didn’t see too much before we were back on the road to Ninh Binh. The bus dropped the two of us a couple kilometers out of the town center and they were quickly on their way. We were left to find our way, on foot.
Once we arrived into town, we explored the streets a bit before finding a noodle shop packed with locals - cheap and good! Then it was off for a special treat. We happened upon a small brewery, specializing in two German style lagers - and one a Dunkel! It’s been weeks since we’ve tasted malt in our beer. Heaven!
So, I thought Halong Bay, Vietnam couldn’t be topped until we took a 2-hour bus ride south to Ninh Binh (pronouned Neeeng Beeeng) the very next day. Yes, every day is a new, wonderful adventure. Hard livin, I know. :)
Adrian and I each rented a xe om (motor bike) with a driver for the day ($12 each) since everything we wanted to do/see was far apart. We did wear helmets, mom! Also, note that Ninh Binh only having 120,000 peeps is a much smaller and more manageable town to cruise in, unlike the bustling 6 million peeps and ridiculous amount of motor bikes in Hanoi.
These dudes took us on a fabulous journey through the back country. We drove down endless roads of rice paddies. We saw cows piled up lounging around together on the road, water buffalo, pigs, chickens and ducks. Oh, and dogs…yes, plenty of dogs and cats here like everywhere we’ve been. Some roam the streets and some are “pets,” which may later be dinner. Especially in some areas like Ninh Binh, where you’ll see “thit cho” on signs outside of restaurants.
Our first stop was Van Long National Reserve. I should mention that Van Long is often dubbed “Halong Bay on land.” Instead of emerald waters at the base of the limestone cliffs, tributaries from Hoang Bay run through. We rented a sampan bamboo boat ($4) and for 1.5 hours got paddled through the most peaceful, mystical place my eyes have ever seen. I’m serious! We, along with the woman paddeling the boat were the only ones out there. We went into a cave with dripping stalagmites and had to fold our bodies in half to fit through. Also, our paddler was so so sweet (genuinely sweet, sheepish and curious about us), unlike many elsewhere that have no problem haggling you in your face. Ninh Binh is much less touristy, so it was a more relaxed, natural spot that we totally dug.
We then visited the Bai Dinh Temple and by that I mean we hiked up and walked around a 1,500-acre complex for hours looking at various temples, pagodas and Buddha statues. Of course we didn’t cover all of it. Feel like we barely scratched the surface. If you don’t know a lot about Buddhism and the history of the religion and culture it’s somewhat challenging to take in. In any regard, it was beautiful and interesting.
We then stopped off for lunch where we ate fresh mountain goat (a Ninh Binh specialty) and drank a small shot of rice wine soaked in goat testicals. Let me repeat that…soaked in goat testicales. Neither of us wanted, but our xe om drivers insisted #fml. At least it wasn’t the barrel of rice wine next to it with baby goats (hair and all) in it. I tell ya, some of the stuff the Vietnamese eat and drink can give you the heebie jeebies.
After that ball-busting experience, we then roamed around the 10th century remains of the Hoa Lu ancient capital. Note, Hoi An was the capital of Vietnam before it moved up north to Hanoi in the 11th century.
And, finally before heading back to our hotel, we walked around these backroads (the sticks as I like to call it) enclosed by the mountains. Looked untouched (except for the trash) and prehistoric like t-rex was about to pop out at any minute. The jungle for reals! One of the coolest moments of the trip for me.
Got back to the hotel and jumped on a sleeper bus ($21) to take us to Hoi An in the middle of the country. 17 hours later and now in the relaxing beach and bicycle town of Hoi An!