15/12 – 17/12
After Halong Bay my next planned stop was Ninh Binh. I heard that there quite a few tourist attractions in the surrounding area, but I decided to follow some advise I got and booked a three day trip with a guide called Toan. I heard so many good reviews that I was really looking forward to the trip. Exploring rural Vietnam – minus the tourist masses.
From Hanoi I took the 19:50 train to Ninh Binh. As it was only a 2 hour ride I decided to get a ticket for a soft seat and not for a berth. While I got to my seat, I was eyed by the locals on the train with some curious look. It seems I was the only foreigner, and I guess they thought I am going to Hue or further and wondered why a tourist wouldn’t take a berth. The curious looks changed to more entertained impressions when I tried to load my backpack on the racks above the seats. Due my hiking shoes the bag initially didn’t fit, and a few minutes later I had all my belongings put away throughout the cabin – while everyone was watching me (and some were even laughing at me – again!!!!). The journey to Ninh Binh was rather quick. I made myself comfortable in the seat (you have plenty of space I thought), spoke to some of the locals, and was able to watch some television. You get a blanket (which I didn’t need) and one bottle of water for free. Some other passengers manage to fall asleep rather fast, but it is not quiet due to the TV and the amount of conversations going on. If you take a soft sleep overnight I hope it gets quieter during the journey. Shortly before we arrived several passengers advised me that we are in Ninh Binh in a few minutes – giving me enough time to collect my bags and make my way to the door. This showed me once again how friendly the majority of Vietnamese people are.
Before I left Hanoi I quickly booked a room in a guesthouse, as I didn’t fancy walking around a town I don’t know after 10pm to find a room. And the owner even sent me a driver to pick me up. Unfortunately it was just a scooter, and I doubted we get the bag onto that. Instead a taxi arrived and brought me to the guesthouse Kim Lien. It is a guesthouse 5 minutes away from the train station. I got an en-suite single room, which was ok for a night (even for a couple of nights). The only downside was that the window was towards the hallway. The sell tours as well, but I advised that I got a guide already. But thankfully I was able to leave my main bag at the guesthouse while I was away. This made my life much easier. After leaving Halong Bay at 1pm, I was glad to be in bed after 11pm….
The next morning I arranged my pick-up with Toan, and at 9am he arrived at the hotel – so I met the driver who will take care of me for the next 3 days. He made a great impression from the start. He is in his 20s, very friendly. Well, mostly. Still not sure if it was a compliment when he called me “Happy Buddha” when he saw me!!!!! I thought I had to carry my smaller backpack on my back, but Toan stored it on the front of the bike. I really should have taken advantage of it, and take my camera bag with me as well, instead of putting the camera in my bag. That would have saved time later on….
And off we were. First stop on my request was the train station so I could get my ticket to Hue for the 17th. Well – the train I wanted had no soft sleeper berth left, but thankfully I got one for the train at 22:25 (only 30 minutes later, so no issue). Good call to buy the ticket in advance…
Then we made our way out of Ninh Binh. The traffic in town was actually quite heavy, and I still had to find a way to make myself comfortable on the back of the bike (like all first time I was holding the back of the bike with both my hands – something I stopped doing after a while as it wasn’t very comfortable – though it felt a bit safer). But soon we were out of town – and I was greeted by some great views of limestone karsts which we passed on a nearly empty road. Soon we drove along rivers with fish farms, fisherman and heavy boats transporting goods. And of course rice paddies – and unlike in Sapa I could actually see them – big improvement!!! Most importantly, Toan was great at pointed things out, explaining stuff, and making sure we are not just passing the scenery. At one point he suddenly stopped, and pointed out a little turtle resting on a rock. How he saw that while driving I will never know!!!!
The first two hours we drove from a nicely paved road to some less well maintained roads, passing some villages, rice fields gave way to sugar cane fields and we had our first stop, Here Toan showed me a little rubber tree plantation – well, not just showing, but explaining lot of details about these plantations in general, and why this one wasn’t a very well looked after one. Throughout this trip Toan done this, and really brought the whole trip to life (which is a big different to driving around on your own bike).
We continued the ride until we stopped at a house with lots of sugar cane in front of it. It turned out that they produced sugar honey here. I actually never heard about sugar honey – well I did now. Apparently it is used to produce sweets and not for spreads like honey sugar. Once again Toan explained in details how the whole process works while the workers were still doing their usual activities. It was rather interesting, and I must admit, the warm honey actually tasted good – very good. Before we left Toan told me to try chewing on the white sugar cane. It is actually hard work. Take a bit, chew it until the flavour is out, and spit it out again. I am sure not everyone would find that very appealing.
After that I was able to enjoy the ever-changing scenery until we stopped for lunch in a little town. I let Toan order the food, as he knew what is good, and he paid for it as well (breakfast, lunch and dinner were all included in the price), and it was a good idea, as the food of noodle and some barbequed meat was very good. In the restaurant I met an American tourist who was travelling with a guide as well – which turned out to be a friend of Toan, and we all were staying at the same homestay.
After lunch we were back on the road, and as before I was treated with some great view, covering mountains, rivers, people waving at us, sugar cane fields and rice paddies. I was able to sit back, enjoy the show and ask for stops to take pictures (I had the camera in a little dry-bag hanging on my belt…it was brave but it worked…). Seeing the world from a bike is a great way to explore the area.
In the afternoon we stopped next to some rice paddies as I was interested to get a closer look at some of the watermills you can see throughout the area. They are used to bring water from the river to the rice fields further back. This is not needed in areas like Sapa as they have more rice terraces, but here it was the main way to water the fields. It was interesting to see it working, and the view of the green fields, the river, watermills, and water buffalos used to plough the fields was just stunning. I also learned more about farming – I guess this is an advantage if your guide grew up on a farm and not in a town – something you really appreciate.
We finally arrived in the in the Hoa Binh Province near the Lao border, where my home was for two nights. The little village Banh Hieu was next to the Pu Loong Nature Reserve. However, instead of driving me straight to the homestay Toan let me off the bike and to stretch my leg told me to walk to the next bridge for an hour or so. I say the next bridge, as I had to walk initially cross an interesting wobbling wooden bridge. I was actually glad not to be on the back of the bike when Toan drove over the bridge!!!
The little walk was actually very pleasant. The little villages were located bear a river and more rice paddies, and the mountains added a nice contrast. However, I was a bit speechless when I passed another little village, and saw people sweeping the dusty dirt road!!! Well, obviously they didn’t try to remove the dust (otherwise they would sweep like forever) but to remove any other garbage. On one side it was nice to see how much effort they do to keep the area clean – still it looked a bit surreal. While I walked past everyone the usual procedure started all over again – kids running out of the buildings, waving at me (but slightly worried about my camera) and people asking where I am from (well – only one or two asked, as hardly anyone speaks English here). When I replied I am from Germany I was hugged by one person and congratulated me for winning the World Cup. At least they watch football here….
Apparently I was walking too slowly, as Toan picked me up before I reached the other bridge, and we drove on an even smaller dirt road, passing two more suspicious looking bridges and a house with a small watermill to produce electricity, before finally arriving at the homestay. I think using the word village would be wrong here – it was more a collection of a few houses in a little mountainous area, and a great view. I must say I was impressed with the location. The home I stayed consists of one longhouse where the owner and most tourists sleep on the floor (it also housed the kitchen and small dining area), one small bungalow which has only enough space for one mattress (but through the window had a great view over the valley), and a small building with the toilet and (cold) shower. Outside are a few a benches and tables to sit down and relax, while chicken and dogs are running everywhere. It is very basic (you sleep on the floor – so no luxury here), but it was so quiet, and peaceful. The owner of the homestay is a young couple with one young son. We were told their story, and some might say it is a great little love story (nope – I don’t because I am too much of a cynic!!!). They are from two different minority tribe, but despite the resistance of the families they got married and moved near the husband’s family, and have built this homestay (and planning to extend it a bit).
Both of them were lovely hosts, and in the evening I was sitting with Toan, the American tourist I met earlier, his guide and our two hosts on the little dining table, and had an absolute delicious dinner. It consisted of fantastic bbq meat, spring rolls, vegetables, more meat and rice. It was a feast. To fight any thirst we got beer and some homemade rice wine (we only finished one or two bottles during the night – and the bottle was refilled from a big 5l container with that wine…). It was a great evening that everyone enjoyed. Only downside was that I had to make a comment my fellow tourist was apparently not too happy. Toan told us a lot about Vietnam, and our American friend just said “Great to hear about Vietnamese culture. Do you want to hear anything about US culture?” I couldn’t help myself, as I thought it is a stupid thing to ask, and replied instantly (slightly annoyed) “What culture???”. Toan and the others couldn’t help laughing, while he was looking at me shocked and insulted. Well tough – just don’t say stupid things…
Initially Toan told me I could sleep in the little house with the great view, but as it was a bit late I just slept in the longhouse with everyone else. I slept pretty well there, and the thick blankets made sure I didn’t freeze.
I was up first the next morning (yes – this can happen sometimes), and instead of lying around I went for a little walk to a small stream and waterfalls down the valley. It was great to do such a lovely morning walk, enjoying the peaceful surrounding, and watching some locals ploughing their fields with a cow. What a start to a day.
The plan for day two was to explore the area a bit by bike and foot. So after a breakfast (how great is a nice banana pancake in the morning?!?!) we were on the road again, passing the road I walk along the day before, and after a short ride myself and the other tourist (I really cannot remember his name – probably because he annoyed me too much over the three days) were unloaded from the bike, and told to follow the road for an hour or so, where we will meet our guides again. So we did that. The weather was a bit worse than the day before (when the sun was shining, now it was clouded) but you still got a good view from this area. It was a pleasant walk passing fields and some villages (including the usual waving kids and adults) and soon the dirt road was more like a path, and we had to walk up a hill (good exercise after spending so much time on the bike the day before). And it seems we just walked there during the lunch break of the local school – as we were “followed” by a group of children. They were a bit curious, and we heard constant laughter behind us (I didn’t do anything – but why are people laughing about me again????). Well – at least it was not a boring walk. Soon enough we met our two guides on the top of the hill. Here Toan showed us an old cemetery from one of the villages, and explained quite well the different meaning of the presents next to the graves. From here you also got some absolute stunning view of the rice terraces. It was just beautiful.
We decided to walk around a bit more in this area instead of riding on the bike again, and I am glad we did. It was just enjoyable to explore this beautiful area, and listen to more stories and explanation from Toan. He is a great source for information (in comparison the other guide – who just stared – was quieter, didn’t explain things that well according to his guest. Besides, his English was a bit limited, while Toan’s English was pretty good).
After learning a bit more about Vietnam’s history and rice fields it was time to head off for lunch. But instead of taking the bike up the hill we were asked to walk up to the main road instead. We followed the direction, but after a minute or so the main path we used didn’t seem right. Thankfully I had Toan’s number with me and could check with him which path was correct – and it turned out I was right, as we had to turn right into a smaller path up the hill (I was actually afraid he would say that – as it was a steep dirt path). Well – you have to work for your lunch it seems. At least it gave me some appetite (it was after 1pm – so I was hungry anyway). So we made our way to the restaurant. Unfortunately we had to follow one of the very basic physics laws: what goes up – has to come down. After climbing up two hills we had to drive down. The route reminded me of some serpentines I know back from Italy. Lot of curves, downhill. While Toan is a very good and safe driver, I was nonetheless a bit anxious during that route, and was holding the back of the bike very tightly – it didn’t help that I felt immediately when we rode over rubble. At least the scenery distracted me a little bit.
In the end we arrived in one piece down and stopped at a little eating place in a tiny village – just in time to see the owner to remove the feathers of a duck they just killed. Two other ducks were sitting nearby – waiting for a similar treatment. We got out seat and ordered our Pho, when I realised that I could only see one duck, so we walked out to watch them how the process works. I was out in time to see them cleaning the dead duck in cold water, before dipping it into hot water to be able to remove the feather. When duck #2 was done, the last one was ready to say goodbye to this cruel world. I never seen an animal been killed in front of me, so I was curious and even recorded it (no worries – not publishing it here). Unfortunately the person who killed the duck was according to Toan not a very patient man (unlike the one who dealt with the first two ducks), as he didn’t wait long enough after cutting the throw of the duck to let it die. It looked dead, but as soon it was thrown into the boiling water to remove the feather it was clear it was still alive. It looked cruel, and Toan was not too happy either with it (back to the advantage of someone who done these things at the farm of his family). Despite witnessing it, I was still happy to have a great bowl of Pho soup in front of me a few minutes later. It wasn’t duck though – sadly!!!
Following our lunch we rode back towards our homestay, and had time to explore the area there. Toan advised us where to go, and off we were. Once again it was a lovely walk along a stream, seeing some little villages, rice paddies and lots of green. As usual the local people were friendly, and kids came out waving at the two strange looking men. This time they even asked to get pictures taken so they can see themselves on a screen. Unfortunately it seems that even in a remote area with hardly tourists (besides the guy in my homestay I saw in total two more foreigners in this area) kids learn to beg. We passed a house when the kids were waving, and then opened their hand to ask for money. I know the impact of giving gifts or money to children as it encourages begging, so as usual didn’t give anything. But it was sad to see it here as well.
After this enjoyable walk for nearly two hours we returned to our homestay to relax a bit – however we had to made one quick stop. I saw a few locals shooting with crossbows – the real ones. When they spotted me I was called down and suddenly I had a real, big crossbow in my hand. It looked so much easier to handle it… I aimed at the wooden target board, and shot. Well – I was happy that no one walked along the path above the board (I am sure the bolt was never seen again!!!).
After the lesson of how not to use a weapon we were back at our current home to relax a bit, before it was time for dinner once again. Toan and the other guide were quite happy preparing pork and chicken skewers, while our host prepared some stir fry, salad and even homemade chips. It was another fantastic dinner – food was great, we drunk more beer and rice wine, and even met the husband’s brother and mother. Spending time with the locals for dinner is one thing I loved about the homestays I have been to. It is just a complete different experience than sitting in a restaurant.
For my last night I took the opportunity to sleep in the little bungalow to experience this as well. In hindsight I should have looked through the window when I woke up at 3am, as apparently there was a clear sky to enjoy the stars without any light pollution. Well – I didn’t.
Once again I got up a bit earlier, and this time I walked up the hill behind our homestay. From the top I got some nice view, saw more locals working on the farm (waving happily and even posed when I took pictures), and saw another homestay further up that is used by other guides. I could have easily stayed there much longer to walk further, but I had to return for my breakfast as we planned to leave a bit earlier I was interested taking a small boat ride through some caves near Ninh Binh in the afternoon.
To make sure we didn’t see the same all over againe Toan took us a complete different route. After getting out of the area we stayed the last two days the scenery constantly changed – from rice paddies to sugar cane plantation to rubber trees to villages and rivers and hills. It was just stunning. We had some stops to take photos (I was far too well behaved and hardly asked to stop for pictures. Still, we tried to have regular breaks to give our bums a rest – being on the back of a scooter is not the most comfortable bit for a long time. Toan tried to stop at places where we could go for a wee walk (i.e. over an interesting looking bamboo bridge), next to some fields etc. The rest of the time I was busy turning my head all the time to see as much as possible from the scenery s I could.
At some point we had an involuntary stop, as we were stopped at a police check point. The officers spoke to Toan, and then I was asked to come over. Was it my fault we were stopped? Do I have to pay a bribe? What else could happen to me???? The reason was very simple, the police officer wanted to say hello, and after shaking the hands of the officers we were off again. As Toan is in this area very often most police officers know him and he doesn’t have to show the licence all the time. Quite handy. During our next stop the same officers passed us with their bikes, and they slowed down to wave at us. Well – this has never happened to me before….
After the four of us had lunch (once again simple but delicious) we turned onto the Ho Chi Minh Highway. What a difference it is to be on a mayor road. While you still had some lovely scenery the traffic got heavier and heavier, and I must say I was happy to be off that highway after an hour (still felt safe during this time, as Toan drove very careful).
After a short while riding on a little side road we actually went off-road (including driving up some little steep bits – I was impressed we managed that with 2 people on the bike), and we were on a little dirt road in the middle of a valley. To give us a little break my American companion and I walked across some fields (trying to keep a bit of distance to the water buffalos running around) towards quite a big lake (man-made). The contrast of the green fields, the hills in the background and the lake was just stunning. That was the nice thing about the whole trip – you constantly saw something new, and Toan was good at pointing out the differences and gave us time to watch it.
As it got a bit late, we continued our ride towards Ninh Binh, either on paved roads, dirt roads or driving along some rivers. But one thing stayed the same – the beauty of the landscape. One specific area closer to Ninh Binh looked a bit like Halong Bay, as limestone karsts were in the middle of a lake area, where local farmers were working hard. I could have easily spent ages there, sitting down and drinking a beer of ice coffee.
However I still had one thing I was interest at. In Hanoi I heard about Tam Coc, but I was advised at my guesthouse in Ninh Binh that it is not that beautiful this time of year (it is apparently stunning when the rice paddies are green or yellow). Instead I was told about Trang An, which is also a river going through a mountainous areas, and the several areas are connected by a series of caves. To enable me to visit it we rushed a bit after lunch (less stops), and just after 3pm we arrived at Trang An. The other guide with his American tourist continued their journey, Toan made himself comfortable nearby and I tried to get onto one of the rowing boat. I joined a group of Vietnamese from HCMC, and was in a boat with three of the group. As most Vietnamese I met they were very friendly, had a good chat with them, took pictures of each other, and I was fed oranges during the journey.
We travelled through the cave network and river with a boat that was rowed by one woman. I never got the impression any of these women get tired – and if they needed a break for their arms or had to use their phone they just used their feet to row!!!!
So you slowly travel on the river, which is surrounded by massive limestone karsts, and soon enough you are in the first cave. Some of the caves in this area are rather long (500 – 700m) or very short (less than 100m), but the differences of the caves made the journey actually interesting. In addition of the caves there are a number of stops – to visit some temples and one Buddha shrine (for that one you actually have to climb quite a few stairs to get to the other side of the hill). I actually never asked how long the tour will be, but I just assumed it would be an hour or so. I was on that boat for over 2 ½ hours – it was much bigger than I have anticipated. Don’t worry – at the various stops you find toilets and places to buy drinks and snacks (or you are lucky and people feed you during the trip…). It was dark when we arrived after 6pm, but I must admit I enjoyed the trip. The scenery was once again great, and you could easily relax on the boat. As Trang An is not surrounded by rice paddies I understand why it is more recommended in December. Though after seeing pictures of Tam Coc in the summer I would like to visit that area in the future as well.
Thankfully Toan was still outside the entrance where I left him, and in the dark we headed back to Ninh Binh – with the benefit of seeing the massive gate outside of Ninh Binh lid up. My train didn’t depart until 22:15, so I was in no rush. And Toan ensured me throughout the ride that I don’t have to worry about the arrival time anyway. We finally arrived at the guesthouse after 7pm, and this 3 day trip was over. I must admit, if I haven’t had my train ticket already booked, I would have loved to stay longer out there. The homestay was lovely, the scenery was stunning, and Toan was a fantastic guide to have with you. He is super friendly, knows a lot of the area, farming, the history of the area – and he is happy to share it all with you. And most important – he ensures that you have a great time. He was worth every single Dong I paid in the end. After this trip I was not surprised why he is so highly recommended.
Arriving back at the Kim Lien guesthouse I had 3 hours before the train departs. The lovely owner allowed me to stay at the reception area to use the WiFi until I have to leave. I obviously used the chance to get some food as well. Near the guesthouse are a number of local restaurants to have a lovely dish. Nothing in comparison to the feasts I got at my homestay, but it was still absolute lovely. I also got some snacks and drinks for the 11 hour train journey.
Soon enough I was back at the train station I arrived exact three days ago, and had to wait for my train. I would highly recommend going to a toilet before arriving at the station – as this was probably the worst I have seen so far. Also, most shops near the station were closed around 22:00, so make sure you buy anything you need for the journey before. But for a short wait the station is sufficient, and soon enough we were called out to the platform (I slightly panicked as I couldn’t find my ticket just when we were called – I was quite relieved when I found it in one of my hundred pockets…).
The setting of the night train was the same as for the train to Sapa. This time I shared my cabin with a Vietnamese who slept the whole time, and a Dutch couple. We had a nice wee chat (great way to meet people), and it seems they paid 300,000 Dong (~$15) more each for the ticket using an agent. So if you have the time, buy a ticket from the station to save some money. Soon enough I fell asleep, but unlike to the journey to Sapa I woke up a few times, and was not fully rested when we finally arrived in Hue on time (I am still impressed how punctual Vietnamese trains were!!!) – still, a sleeper train still beats a night bus by miles…. I was now wondering what was waiting for me in Hue after my great tour in Ninh Binh.
Overall I can only say one thing about this 3 day trip – it was amazing. Initially I didn’t even plan to go to Ninh Binh, but after I heard about Toan and the experience everyone had there with him, I decided to contact him. And I must say I was happy I did, as this was a great way to experience the “real” rural Vietnam without the tourist masses. I would have missed so much if I wouldn’t have gone to NB, as it is an absolute lovely area. It helped that the weather was pleasant – dry and not too cold. And while the rice paddies were not in full colour, it was still lovely, especially as rice paddies were next to sugar cane fields, pineapple farms and rubber trees. For this variety (and the lack of fog) I much preferred Ninh Binh over Sapa.
And I am sure the trip wouldn’t have been half as good with another guide – Toan really made this trip. I was lucky to see the difference between him and another guide. There is no comparison (I would have been disappointed with the other guide). But I was lucky to get a guide who brings the whole area to life, explaining little details, about the life of the local farmers. No way could someone who grew up in a town have done that. I am really glad I came to the Ninh Binh area, and I think it is a place I would return to see other parts of it – hopefully with the same guide….
It turned out that my guide was actually not the original Toan, but his cousin. THe original one was not available and instead of telling me send his cousin. Toan 2 as he is now knows was still great, but I wish the original TOan would have been more honest. Still, contacting him for a tour is still worthwhile. Just ask who will be the guide – Toan 1 or Toan 2.
I only stayed one night at the Kim Lien Guesthouse in Ninh Binh, but I must say the service was great. They sent a motorbike to pick me up (though this can be a challenge if you have a rather big bag with you), I could leave the bag while I was away, and was able to stay there and using the WiFi until my train left. The room was good too (it was a single room), but the window was out to the hallway.
The homestay in the Banh Hieu village was amazing. It is very basic, but the location, the hosts and the food was just great. It is a very special way to experience the real rural Vietnam.
I only have to recommendation: 1) Include Ninh Binh in any trip to Northern Vietnam. 2) Try to get Toan (1 or 2) as a guide. The area offers a lot of activities – beautiful scenery, several highlights like Trang An or Tam Coc, and some national parks for hiking. And if you need someone as a guide try to get Toan – you won’t be disappointed.