More disappointing weather affects our boat trip plans in Ninh Binh – but it does not affect the photographic potential of the area (too many pictures, again!).
Because of its many karst hills, onshore rather than offshore, the area around Ninh Binh is often called ‘the dry Halong Bay’. Not when we were there! Ten minutes after our first outing – once more on a bicycle, but in a much more benign environment this time – it starts raining; not a lot, but enough to be annoying. And to affect our intended program, because the prospect of a three hour trip in a small, open boat to the Tam Coc caves suddenly becomes a lot less appealing. So we cycle on to the Bich Dong Pagoda, a few kilometres past the jetty from which the Tam Coc boats depart.
The Pagoda, originating from late 17th Century, is situated on the slopes of another karst mountain, and consists of three levels, each with their own temple, and expansive views across the surroundings. Which were somewhat inhibited, to say the least, by the low hanging clouds that produced the rain lower down, but at the same time also obscured the tops of the karst hills. So we cycle on a bit, for fun – really! Did I say somewhere that I don’t like cycling? To add insult to injury the fun was exacerbated by a flat tire; admittedly, not difficult to have repaired in Vietnam, where every 500 meters there is a tire repair shop.
Missing out on the boat trip was going to be compensated the next day, with a visit to the nature reserve Van Long, where another river leads to another cave, in between other karsts mountains. Hmmm. Let me put it this way: we are not the only ones (which probably would not have been different in Tam Coc, either). Our little sampan moves in convoy, with several others, through the reed landscape, which is oddly lacking any birds, to the rocks, where the entire fleet stops for a while to look at some distant, high-up monkeys, and then continues to the cave, which we enter one by one, before commencing our return. On our way back, meeting a stream of sampans filled with mostly local tourists, I have the strong impression that we are even more of a tourist attraction than the monkeys.
Our next target is Kehn Ga, yet another boat trip, to a village which is, according to my guide book, entirely surrounded by water, and thus has no cars, neither motorbikes. Not anymore. Several pontoon bridges have connected the village to the main land, which, of course, also limits the reach of our boat. Which is probably why this is a far less attractive tourist destination, these days: we are the only ones. Well within the hour we are back from where we started, a bit unfair given the effort it had taken to get here, circumventing road works and streets blocked by weddings. But where the village tour was perhaps somewhat underwhelming, this is compensated by the environment, extensive rice paddies, some already green, and lots of people working them. Where they have planted the young rice seedlings already, the fields are protected by lots of fabulously constructed scare crows.
On the way back to Ninh Binh we pass by the Trang An area, famous for – you guessed it! – its boat trips, through – you guessed it again! – the karst mountain landscape. We give the boat a miss, but we do walk some of the area, which is, in the late afternoon sun, a pleasant enough experience. Better than sitting somewhere inside the flotillas of rowing boats that we observe from a distance.
Perhaps the tourist activities around Ninh Binh are a little disappointing, especially after Halong Bay, of course. And the weather doesn’t help, either. But Ninh Binh itself is a nice enough place, nothing special – or it must be the completely empty football stadium, which, since the local team collapsed some years ago, is not being used anymore, other than for a friendly game between local youths. The daily market next to the stadium provides lots of interesting nutrition to the shoppers, who pass on motorbike on their way home. And from the town’s railway station the train brings you – us – in less than three hours comfortably back to Hanoi, again (remember the picture of that narrow single track in Hanoi? That’s the one!).