Seven months into my trip and I had yet to experience the glorious live cargo trailer that is a Vietnamese sleeper bus. I thought I’d give it a go as my experience with sleeper trains on my visit to Vietnam in 2009 had been cockroach infested and terrifying. That theme continued when I took the overnight train to Chiang Mai in Thailand.
The Sleeper Bus
So of course I thought I’d give this new-fangled way of travel a go and to be honest, it wasn’t half as bad as some experiences I’ve heard of. I was fortunate enough not to have the back seat in which you can be lying dangerously close to a stranger/spoon-happy weirdo.
I got settled in my top bunk and chilled out until we made a 40 minute stop. I left the bus in search of a bathroom and wandered into the café, in which I was given a guided tour of Oreo cookies just for merely glancing at them. After 5 minutes, I decided my legs were stretched enough and returned to the bus, only for the driver to tell me ‘No, go to restaurant’ and I said ‘No, I don’t want to’. That was that and back on the bus I went.
Arriving At the Hotel
At 5am I was dropped in the middle of nowhere but found my hotel and managed to check in early, hitting the sack for another few hours. When I was alive again, I went for a wander around the very quiet town, seeing nothing more than a few locals going about their business and children playing in the street. I tucked into some awesome chicken pho and got given some tasty fried sweet stuff and a banana for free. Back at the hotel, I booked a motorbike driver to take me on a tour of the sights in Ninh Binh the next day.
Up at 8am, my first stop was Tam Coc where I hopped on a row boat for a very peaceful journey down a river surrounded by huge limestone casks and a few caves. I had been warned by friends about the intense sales experience that would occur at the end of the ride. As I neared the third and last cave, I spied a cluster of women in boats. The multicolours of their mish-mash garb made them easy to spy against mellow greens and greys of the water and rocks. They donned the conical hats of vultures waiting to pick the meat from my bones, or in this case, the money from my purse. I was surprised that they didn’t even bat an eyelid at me but more fool me, they got me on the way back. They hassled me to buy drinks even though I had water.
Just when I thought it was safe, my rower tried to sell me some embroidery stuff to which I smiled and shook my head at pathetically. I don’t mind tipping people but again, I’d learnt from friends that they’d just demand this anyway. Although the views were spectacular and the boat ride relaxing, someone needs to tell the Vietnamese that they really leave a sour taste in your mouth when you’re so exasperated from refusing sales and it tarnishes your experience of natural beauty a little.
I wandered to find my drivers in the restaurant he’d parked in and had lunch. I was given fresh ‘build your own’ beef spring rolls which were delicious but I feared they were not a substantial enough lunch for a day’s sightseeing. Then came the omelette, and fried spring rolls, and pak choi with garlic, and chicken noodle soup, and of course rice. It was hands down the tastiest meal I had in Vietnam. My theory behind that is that it’s not very touristy in Ninh Binh so there’s no feeble attempt at Western food therefore there’s lots of real Vietnamese food.
Bich Dong & Hang Mua
The next stop was Bich Dong, a pagoda in a cave. I took a quick look-around but it was pretty cool as pagodas go (I’d seen A LOT of pagodas in the last few months). There were lots of Vietnamese tourists and a the best one I saw, or should I say heard, was a man who nonchalantly did a massive fart that only I acknowledged, spinning round in disbelief as the rest of his family carried on, obviously used to his flatulent antics. I was in hysterics and couldn’t get oven this brazen bum burp.
Next stop was Hang Mua which apparently was built as a version of The Great Wall of China, which although is by no means is on the same scale, the 482 steps were still a challenge. I was rewarded with spectacular views, which means something coming from me as it takes a lot to impress me after such physical exertion. Fortunately it was cool and cloudy enough to not work up a horrendous sweat and I caught my breath taking in the endless views of lime casks jutting out of the rice paddy fields, making it live up to its nickname of ‘Halong Bay on the Rice Paddies’.
At the bottom I chilled with my driver and his two mates, drinking green tea and smoking some weird pipe, enjoying each other’s company although there was no understandable conversation to be had, just nodding and laughing.
My final stop was Hoa Lu, an ancient capital. It’s similar to Hoi An in that there was not much to see but shrines and some pretty décor.
My personal highlight there was a cow in what I deemed to be fancy dress. Of course some random old man wanted some money for taking a photo of his tarted up cow but he didn’t speak any English so I pretended not to understand and smiled stupidly whilst backing away.
The tour of Ninh Binh was by far my favourite day of my three weeks in Vietnam. It’s a bit off the traditional tourist trail and therefore has good food, incredible scenery and a flavour of the ‘real’ Vietnam. I think too many people miss this stop between Hue and Hanoi so get yourself there, before everyone else does!” take a leaf out of my book by visiting the real Vietnam.
Holly Graham took part in the May 2011 Thailand Internship and has many a hilarious story from Thailand and more on her own personal blog we definitely recommend checking it out! You can also read her first guest post on the TEFL Blog…worth a click to read her responses to our random questions.