Saturday, 15 November 2014

Ninh Binh

The packed bus from Cat Ba. People in the middle are sitting on stools!

I had a pleasant little amble as B was writing the last entry (and being bitten all over his back by something up his t-shirt). I went to collect the laundry and to hunt for a new bikini. It was obviously end of season as there were more padded jackets on offer than bikinis so I had plastic bags of hideous offerings opened for me. It was a nice walk though past a bride-to-be trying on outfits in a window happy to be admired, down residential streets with kids waving and through the market past the live chickens, ducks and seafood.

This is our speedboat driver, he looks about 12 years old!
Had our last Cat Ba meal in the hotel as I'd seen the fresh mantis shrimp she was preparing in the morning. She called them lobster so at least I knew what to look for in the menu! Yummy they were too.

Again a gentle travel day, not leaving till 0900, bus across the island, ferry, bus to bus terminal (where B went to the loo only to come out and find we'd all vanished. I considered going too, but the nice Polish girl said "no!") 

Jackie finds a puppy to stroke
Off to Ninh Binh, and we decided the driver was on a mission, or a promise, he couldn't drive like that every day, could he? Seems he could as we only arrived on time, not in half the time! Turns out the nice Polish couple were expecting to be met by our hotel man as, although they weren't staying, he was going to help them with their onward overnight travel, out of the goodness of his heart it seems. He is a strange man, variable review on TripAdvisor, friendly till you don't book his tours, but we've decided he is slightly hyper, not helped by the bong smoking that people seem to pop in for on their way to work and throughout the day, but has a heart of gold! Us asking to cancel our last night so we too can get the overnight sleeper to Hue wasn't a problem, and actually nor was not going on any of his trips but just hiring a moped for a couple of days and doing our own thing!

Why isn't everyone in Vietnam fat? Look at this cake shop window, do those cakes look fabulous or what? Bear in mind there are 34,000vnd to £1. from LtoR they are 5,000, 15,000, 6,000 and, middle row, 5,000, 10,000 & 10,000. 5,000vnd = £0.14. Even the big Swiss Roll at the bottom is only £0.56!
The start of the Trang An river trip
We have decided to miss out the hard-to-travel north as we hadn't fully appreciated how long and thin Vietnam is and the travel times involved. Our minds have been focussed by the fact we have got a cat sit in a quiet northern suburb of Hanoi for three weeks over Christmas which we are really pleased about, yes we'll probably have to fly from and back to Ho Chi Minh city to do it but it will be lovely to have the enforced stop, and I'm already dreaming of being able to roast a chicken and wash all our clothes! 
On our boat with granny to row
Talk about changeable, I wrote this yesterday, and now after 5 hours planning, we’ve decided perhaps we will only go so far south before going back up to the north before Christmas. It’s a 2 hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, that’s a lot longer than Birmingham to Glasgow! And coming in at £180 return so negating any saving we may have made on accommodation!

Approaching the first cave. Can you see the cave and a couple of boats about to enter in the middle hill?
Just about to enter, it's got a very low roof, so we had to crouch down in our boat
Talking of cats there is a kitten in a box here, I was slightly unhappy with it being in a box but he explained mum, dad and brother have all been run over and that he lets it out when the traffic quietens a bit and more importantly probably when people have finished eating as it is the cutest little thing, just wants to be on a lap being loved. I understand not everyone wants this with their food, particularly as it's slightly grubby due mostly to sleeping in its dirt box, which is just a dirt box! She’s been out most of the day fortunately, as we have been tearing our hair out about this trip, so has had a very calming effect! As I type she’s fast asleep on B’s lap, but keeps disturbing his reading with her dreaming!

Got lots of pictures of our various cave exits, they make such scenic pictures!
Another one coming up. We must have done about 8 of them
Anyway, not much to do in Ninh Binh itself, it’s a proper town, with proper working people, however roundabout there are many things to spend your money on! So, over the last two days we’ve done 140km on a moped, it got nicer and nicer to get off! The first day we went to Trang An Grotto, which was lovely, a little 2 ½ hour boat trip, they like to have 4 per boat, so we got to the jetty to be greeted by a couple of French girls who had been on our bus who were waiting, so away we went by one granny power! 
A 'selfie' of us all
We did all ‘help’ but she did most of the work as she does every day! We went through some improbably low caves, and some caves that have been enlarged to allow us to fit through, the natural ones were much nicer, even with the removal of the odd pesky stalactite! Half way round we disembarked and walked up to a little view point and temple, and back to the jetty. It was lovely, peaceful and tranquil, unlike the pictures they show of peak season where it is a constant stream of boats, glad we weren’t there then!

Halfway stop to go and walk up to a temple
Got lots of these as well as we passed through a cave
On to Bai Dinh Pagoda, well it was free according to the book. And so it was, however the 15000dong to park the bike and then 30000d each for the little yellow bus to take you round to the entrance, and B was feeling like I did at Monument Valley – ripped off! I pointed out that 75000d was only £2.50, so perhaps he should chill out. 

500 Buddhists statues? Maybe! Lots of steps as well!
We both felt a bit miffed however to discover the return little yellow bus was another 30000d each! The book says you enter past 500 life size stone devout Buddhists. “There aren’t 500” B moaned, only to realise that was the first gallery, and the steps and statues went on, and on and on! Wish he’d kept quiet! Still, we’d had the upper body workout, so good to have some leg exercise too! 

The 'under construction' Pagoda and view beyond from the 'Jolly Buddha' statue
There he is up there. He's very big when you get to him, and made of bronze!
The pagoda, which we’d seen from miles away, as we’d driven round and round before finding the off-site parking, is huge, 14 storeys, but still being built. There is also a huge jolly bronze Buddha at the top 10m high. Down through the various temples with lots of bling Buddha’s and Vietnam’s biggest bell, what we noticed though was there were stone Buddhists in the gallery up the opposite side, all individual, so is that 500 in total or 500 a side? A good trip, but enough for today.

Bling Buddhas!
Nice architecture!
Leaning on the clanger of the very big bell
Getting settled on our concrete boat, ready to sail
Woke up to something we hadn’t seen since our arrival! The sun! So, out on the bike again (well we’d filled it with fuel so had to get our monies worth!) Went slightly too far (about twice as far as we should have) up the busy main road, all a bit scary, but he did very well. Turned round and found the road we’d been looking for, much quieter and more pleasant. 

Great views on the way
Found our way to the jetty for the boat trip to the Kenh Ga fishing village, uhmm’d and ahh’d but decided to go for it, and really pleased we did, just us on a big powered concrete boat with an old boy driving. We both had a go which was fun. We had a short walk in the village while he pottered past, saw the tiniest kittens, a cute puppy, pigs living in a boat plus lots of chickens and ducks.

This guy, who didn't seem to be the normal operator, opened the pontoon bridge and then seemed to be asking for money. Our driver ignored him!
Why is he laughing? I thought I looked pretty cool!
Mmm, thumbs up for Jackie, was she better then?
Drove back out the way we’d come, wondering what to do for lunch as options were very limited, and English was going to be unlikely! “Stooop, she’s making spring rolls there”, so in we went, fresh spring rolls, some dipping sauce and the plate of ‘leaves’. ‘Leaves’ seem to be a bit of lettuce, and a whole pile of herbs, mint, something aniseed, who knows, and of course coriander, which I don’t like! 
These girls are washing a duvet in the river
I had a lesson on coriander that morning at breakfast, I thought we had coriander, and the Americans had cilantro. This may be, but here they have both! Cilantro is cooked with and coriander is a herb they eat raw! More importantly I now have them both written down by the very nice motorbike chap so I can show my piece of paper in restaurants and go “NO”.

Water buffalos at the river side
A stroll along the river bank
We thought we’d have a quick trip to Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam, very near to where we’d been yesterday. Well not the way we went! We kept stopping and asking and being pointed before realising that as well as being a historical place it was also the local village! We went round and round! Just as well we had the GPS with us, no maps, but at least if all else failed we could retrace our steps (well that was the plan but we’d gone round in so many circles, we’d still be there) 

Our man motors past as we walk along the bank. Concrete boat! Can you believe it!
Look at that tiny little kitten peering at us
Our roadside lunch stop. You can just see Jackie sitting inside, and the spring rolls I spotted from the bike!
Fortunately we recognised our route from the previous day, so all was well. We got back in time to shower and have the local delicacy of goat. I asked the Aussie couple, with a very small baby, on the table next to us what it was like, “try a bit, it’s a bit chewy”. I had to confess that the bit I’d tried was lovely, so he tried a bit from where I’d taken and agreed, shame I had one of their two good bits! Ours was much better!

Jackie at the entrance to the Hua Lu Ancient Capital, expressing her thanks that we had arrived after driving round and round for so long!
But it was quite interesting and the view from the top quite good
11 hours on the overnight train to Hue await us tonight, so we’ll compare it with Thai and Malay trains!

Kinh Do Hotel kitten cat

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