Monday, 9 April 2012

Crazy Karst Action

We had done it again. Just like Thailand, we were travelling too slow through Vietnam. We had been here for four weeks and we were not even half way through. We had hoped to see more of central Vietnam, especially the biggest caves in the world at Phong Nha National Park, but time was really getting away. The fastest way for us to move on was to just close our eyes, take a sleeper train from Danang straight to Ninh Binh, and reluctantly skip all in between. We jumped onto our soft-sleeper bunks, immediately realising that the term soft-sleeper was a bit of a misnomer - stiff-sleeper would be a better description for the rock-hard slabs that tried to pass for mattresses. We didn’t complain for too long though, because soon we were lost to the views. The train line closely hugged the coast between Danang and Hue, winding its way around and through mountains that fell straight into the crashing South China Sea. The countryside was rugged and lush with wild jungles, picturesque coves and sandy bays.

After arriving at Ninh Binh, we hired some pushbikes from the hotel for a dollar a day. We needed to fix the broken brakes and pump up the flat tyres first, but we were soon ready to tackle the main attraction in Ninh Binh, Tam Coc. I wrongly decided to take the most direct route there, via the main road. It was insanely busy with many trucks, buses, cars, and motorbikes, the latter often driving straight at us on the wrong side of the road. Some how we avoided any accidents and arrived, shaky but well.

Tam Coc simply translates to three caves. The experience is a ride on a row boat that takes you meandering down river between rice paddy fields and through caves slipping beneath massive limestone karst hills.

Rowing on the River - Ninh Binh
Its neck-breaking stuff as you are constantly looking up at the magnificent karsts. I had seen a great photo taken somewhere overlooking the river and I spent most of my time trying to find where it was taken. On the return leg I noticed a small goat track, and taking a chance we asked our rower to stop as I hopped off the boat, rushed up the path, climbed some rocks and was rewarded with the view I was looking for.

Meandering through Green Rice Paddy Fields - Ninh Binh
Nearing the end of the trip we decided to tip our rower. They don’t earn much and she was good, as she didn’t try to sell us souvenirs on the return leg. We gave her what we though was about right but she whinged a little and asked for more. Grrrr. The problem with the highly touristed areas is even tipping undergoes high inflation.

The small backroads beckoned us to detour on the return ride back to our hotel. Beautiful Vietnamese country life was on show, with buffalo bathing among reeds in the rivers, ducks feeding on rice paddy embankments, as relaxed peasant farmers weaved between fields on bicycles.

Rice Paddies at Ninh Binh
Ducks on a Rice Paddy Path - Ninh Binh
This detour also took us via the second biggest attraction at Ninh Binh, the view above Mua Cave.

Steep Stairs to Viewpoint near Mua Cave - Ninh Binh
It was a steep 500 stony step climb (well 448, but who’s counting) to the top of one of the limestone karst hills, with an impressive view well worth the short hike.
360 degree panoramic of view above Mua Cave - Ninh Binh
It was a great little side-trip, and riding bicycles around made us feel like we had achieved something. Back in town we wolfed down some local thit ge (goat, the thing to eat in this region) done two ways, and bussed it to Hanoi the next day.

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