Not Really a Blog

March 10, 2012

From Ninh Binh to Hué

I really don’t know any more which day it is now. I mean, I know the number, as I base my bookings on that. I also know when my visa is expiring. But I don’t know if it’s a Thursday or a Sunday. Not anymore. I guess this is what happens when you are doing pretty much every day the same thing and there are no ‘weekends

That’s what happened to me when booking a train from Ninh Binh to Hué. I thought it was going to be on a Sunday, but it ended up being a Tuesday Morning.

Anyway, I had this train ticket I had bought in Hanoi to go to Hué. I found out that I paid some commission at the hostel. OK, fair enough, they did all the work and I didn’t have to go to the train station. In Hanoi. Beep beep.

But today, I was talking to this girl at Ninh Binh train station. She’s German, but from Vietnamese origin, so she looks totally Vietnamese, and people treat her as a local, until she speaks, because she only has a basic command of Vietnamese.

  • Yeah, I look Vietnamese but I pay foreigners’ price.
  • Foreigners’ price? What?
  • Oh yeah, they have a two-tier pricing system here. Institutionalised.

Fantastic. I still don’t know if it’s true or not. But on the tickets themselves it’s printed with a big font: Foreigner

Score: Vietnam 5 – Jesus 1

From Ninh Binh to Hué
Typical Vietnamese Train

From Ninh Binh to Hué
My cabin

I had a ticket for this soft sleeper on an empty cabin, just for me. Boring. Almost every carriage was empty. And I had 12 hours ahead of me on this train. Only the people who work on the train are using one of the cabins. Luckily, after one stop more people come in and it becomes nicer, as you see you are not the only one travelling on this carriage.

From Ninh Binh to Hué
Empty train

Alright, what do I do? The train is moving. There’s nobody in this train except two women and a semi-naughty kid on the adjacent cabin. Get some sleep? No, too noisy to get some sleep at 10 in the morning. Try some music? Could do, but I still have 12 hours ahead of me…

It was obvious that this was going to be a really boring trip, 12 hours trapped in this metal cage without having anyone to talk to.

From Ninh Binh to Hué
Kid next door

But as it happened, the guys working on this train were very nice and they somehow managed to get my attention. First, one of the girls gave me some sunflower seeds, like the ones we have in Spain, but not salty at all. And while I was eating them, a middle-aged woman called me from 5 cabins away. Intrigued I went there and found all these guys who work on the train. They were all sitting comfortably there.

Three girls, one guy and this woman. Ah, yes, and a Spaniard. All the conversation carried in Vietnamese, as English was only spoken by a couple of them, and by English I mean a variation of ‘How are you?‘, ‘What’s your name?‘ and so on.

So what happened is that each of them sat in front of this woman, who had deployed a table-cloth on the train seat, on which she put some cards, while all of them paid attention to her. WTF? After a few moments, I figured it out. She’s a fortune-teller. In Vietnamese. Awesome!

Fortune Teller
Fortune teller in action

From Ninh Binh to Hué 13
more fortune telling

So I sit there for like an hour watching the whole thing fascinated while I try to speak some rudimentary English with one of the girls, who had a limited vocabulary and pronunciation. At the same time I’m paying attention to this woman and the reaction on these guys. Well, trying to get their body language, because to say this was a conversation would be a bold statement.

I was enjoying watching all of that, actually. When the lady finished we all moved to my compartment (except the lady, who wanted to get some sleep ;-)) and they all tried to engage me in some conversation. They either kept my company as way to spend some time or they really wanted to know more about me because they don’t see many like me (I know, I know, one of a kind…). Probably they were equally bored about being trapped on a train to Saigon (36 hours)

And to top it up, the kid sleeping next door joins us attracted by the smell of some Oreos cookies, so a lot of fun was guaranteed.

From Ninh Binh to Hué 30
Oreo cookies, anyone?

From Ninh Binh to Hué 19

I have to say that the Vietnamese have surprised me in many more ways than the Chinese. While they try to squeeze a few dollars off you, when buying stuff or negotiating a taxi, etc, they always do it with a smile and, true, they try to get your money. But the normal people you see on trains, hostels, etc, they seem very very nice, and they actually are very friendly by inviting lame foreigners like me to share a bit of their lives, which has made me very happy on all of these tiny moments so far :) It’s nice to get to talk to local people and know a bit about their lives (and I guess them knowing a bit about mine too)

From Ninh Binh to Hué 12
Fun and giggles

From Ninh Binh to Hué 15

From Ninh Binh to Hué 18

This trip has been very enjoyable, what looked like a train trip from hell turned out to be a fun trip. There was even more to come. Apparently one of these girls seemed to fancy me as she gave me her phone number. Like she saw my phone, grabbed it and put her number on it. She didn’t speak any English so I’m still wondering what she was thinking, as most of the time she was ‘translated‘ by the other guy. This one even wrote on my notebook ‘Dung loves Jesus‘ (I think he meant ‘likes’ instead of loves). To which I tried to reply with ‘everybody loves Jesus‘ but they didn’t understand the pun ;-)

From Ninh Binh to Hué 26

From Ninh Binh to Hué 28

And now the other girl moved the conversation about whether I was married or not and whether I wanted to get married and, specifically, married to a Vietnamese girl. Oh, I can see where this is headed. He he he. And, the thing is that all of this was happening while I was cracking up and didn’t have anyone there to tell this story while it was unfolding :-)

From Ninh Binh to Hué 17
Rice fields along the way

From Ninh Binh to Hué 22
And the kid who would not stop

This way, a 12 hour train ride to Hué that looked like it was going to be hellish turned into an entertaining day.

From Ninh Binh to Hué 21

And then I got to Hué, got to my hostel finally. I took a taxi which reminded my of my first day in Hanoi. Again, they try to scam you and get more money. You get approached, no, harassed when you get off the train by all these ‘taxi‘ drivers and they offer you a flat-price ride to your hostel. Where flat is 100000 dong ($5). But I thankfully had done my homework and had found out that the taxi rate in Hué is 15000 dong ($0.75) per km. Telling these guys that you want to use a metered-taxi for 15000 dong makes them disappear. And when they disappear you can see the official taxis that use that rate. Total fare in the end was 45000, so a bit less than $2.

And, 22:00, I need some fresh air and I go for a stroll around the hostel. Just have an hour. Guess what? you get approached by moto and cyclo drivers. Every 5 minutes, and the conversation goes like:

  • Where you going sir?
  • Just want to walk for a bit.
  • I can take you anywhere.
  • No thanks, I want to walk.
  • Marihuana?
  • No thanks
  • ‘sniff, sniff’ (while he does the snorting gesture)
  • No, thanks.
  • Boom Boom? Girls, pretty girls?
  • No thanks.

(If you are interested, it’s $20 for one of these girls…).

Anyway, welcome to Hué.

February 25, 2012

Ninh Binh

Filed under: Ninh Binh, Places, Travel, Vietnam — Tags: , , , , , , , — jesus @ 12:00

I was hoping to go south seeking warmer climates and different scenery, but Amy and Mike recommended me to stop in Ninh Binh for a couple of days to explore the area as it supposed to be pretty. They were right.

Ninh Binh 1

The city itself is like 3 hours south of Hanoi by minivan, with not much in it and not many foreigners. They come usually on a day-long trip so they don’t usually stay overnight. You can tell because there’s nothing for tourists in the way of restaurants, bars and other tourist oriented establishments. And that’s good, because you get to experience the Vietnamese style. On the other hand, once it gets dark there’s absolutely nothing to see or to do. Zero, Nada, Kaput!

Like the eatery I found on my rented motorbike. I was going around and I saw this dodgy-looking eatery that was full of local people, so I decided I had to tray that. If it’s full of locals it has to be good.I was welcomed  by big smiles and fascination looks as I think they must not get many foreigners there. The food was really good and I kept coming back for the rest of my two days, as good food plus beer for 42000 dong ($2), what can possibly go wrong? I even took Santuu and Ella, a finnish couple I met at my hostel there so they could enjoy it and come again if they wanted as they were staying in Ninh Binh for longer. :)

Ninh Binh 86
The machine!!!

There are a definitely a few interesting things you can visit in Ninh Binh.

The city of Hoa Lu, the ancient capital, was the capital of the old Vietnam back in the day. There you can see a few temples and other random ruins. It’s interesting to note that it’s full of Chinese tourists. Dunno why. Interesting for a couple of hours, better if you get a guide who explains the history to you.

Ninh Binh 4
He took a photo of me, I took one of him

Shadow

Ninh Binh 5

But if you are interested in landscape and nature, you definitely have to visit Tam Coc and Mua Cave.

Tam Coc is this river across mountains (same style as in Guilin) where  you can hire a boat and you get taken around this river while you look at the fantastic scenery and go through a few caves, one of them is 120 metres long. The fascinating thing apart from the scenery is that these guys row their boats with their feet. Yes, feet, not arms, so it makes for a nice photo moment.

Tam Coc 1
Feet rowing

Tam Coc 4
Isn’t it amazing?

Tam Coc 6
Fishing

Tam Coc 9

Tam Coc 10
Getting out of one of the caves

Tam Coc 15
A shame it’s not sharper

Tam Coc 17

Not just photo moment, it’s just mesmerizing to look at them how they do it, as they are really really skilled. Totally recommended.

If you have a look at wikitravel and/or the Lonely Planet Guide, they warn you about people trying to hard sell you things on your return trip (on the boat) and getting really aggressive and rude if you don’t buy anything. Not my experience though. True, there are people there who try to sell you stuff, but if you refuse politely all is good. All you need to do is give them a small tip at the end of the trip and that’s it.

Tam Coc 3
One of the vendors

There’s this other place called Trang Ang Which is basically like Tam Coc but less crowded and apparently nicer. I didn’t have time to see it but just saying in case anyone wants to pay a visit as they say it’s less crowded than Tam Coc and you get to see the same kind of scenery.

Mua Cave is this cave at the bottom of one of these mountains. A bit difficult to find actually, so you’ll need a scooter or a bicycle and, armed with the map, ask locals for directions. The cave itself is not really great, to be honest. Just a hole at the bottom of
the mountain which lets you get literally to the other side.  It’s just like 60 metres at most.

Mua Cave 18

Mua Cave 15
What you see is Tam Coc

Mua Cave 20

But the interesting things for me were the pond at the bottom where I could take some amazing pictures (lucky me) and the stairs to the top of the mountain.  I arrived late in the afternoon when it was getting closer to the sunset and the pond, with its lighting and crystal clear water it seemed fantastic. Just check the photos! :-) (more on flickr)

Green Reflections III

Mua Cave 1

The stairs have around 500 steps that take you to a kind of sanctuary on the top of the mountain. There you have an amazing view of Tam Coc (the river on one side) and rice fields (on the other side). Really really nice! (Big warning, there are mosquitoes of the tiger variety, and this was Vietnam’s winter, so be warned if you go in the summer.

Mua Cave 12
The start of the 500 steps

Apart from these, there are a few other spots you can see close to Tam Coc, like a small pagoda and temples in a cave on a mountain, not much, but you can climb to the top (with someone who will take you up there for a small fee) where you can get a pretty good view of the area. Difficult and  dangerous (really) but worth the visit, as you get a nice view of the area (which must look amazing if you get it on a clear day)

Let me take a picture of you
They get the ‘let me get a picture of you’ treatment :-)

Ninh Binh 31

Ninh Binh 34
Our ‘guide’

There’s also a set of temples around 25 km away from the city.  That’s the Bai Dinh temple area. It’s interesting because it’s got a pagoda in construction. And they seem to be building this huge complex to visit it, including a road through some tunnels across nearby mountains. But you’ll definitely need a scooter to visit it.

Ninh Binh 20

Ninh Binh 21

Ninh Binh 17

Ninh Binh 19

Ninh Binh 27
Before you say anything, have a look at the history of the Swastika

In summary, I liked it. I thought it was pretty and interesting to see, plus the city is mostly interesting as it doesn’t have almost any tourists, so you are seeing a real Vietnamese city!

Mua Cave 22
Bye, bye. See you next time!

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