A Travellerspoint blog

Northbound to Ninh Binh

overcast 28 °C

Late in the evening and with heavy hearts we said goodbye to the warm hospitality of our guesthouse staff at the Hue Riverside Villa. We taxied to the nearby train station for what would be our first (and our only) authentic Vietnam train trip.

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We were booked on an overnight train from Hue to Ninh Binh, a not-terrible duration of 13 hours in total. The train arrived punctually and all the waiting tourists slowly boarded. Too slowly in fact, since the train started pulling away with me still on the platform. I’m sure the reality was slightly less dramatic than I remember it, but I found my way onboard after a few tense moments of clinging to the outside stairwell, bags in hand.

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Once on board we found our way to our cabin, the two lower bunks of a double-bunk cabin. We found one roomie inside, a friendly solo traveler who introduced himself as Felix from Germany. Adam’s bunk was unmade, and Felix explained that a Vietnamese girl had been in that bunk up to this point. While we had reserved that bed for the whole of the trip, apparently there were many opportunities for the train staff and the locals to self-upgrade (wink, wink). Later on, the one remaining empty bunk in our cabin was filled with a local man from another car, with no explanation given. A bribe, surely, as we saw a 50,000 dong note exchanged. Well, no bother.

It was a rough ride with lots of swinging, swaying, and noise. To make matters slightly worse, our cabin’s air conditioning seemed to be defective. Disappointing, as we had paid for the luxury! Sleep was difficult at first but in time our exhaustion took over. Our upgraded cabin-mate had gotten off at a stop a few hours before sunrise (I think) and it was just the three foreigners in our cabin when the sun came up. I was feeling groggy and grimy when the train finally stopped at Ninh Binh at around 10 o’clock in the cloudy, humid morning.

Ninh Binh province is located about 100km south of Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi. It’s a destination growing in popularity with tourists but still relatively off the beaten path. The real allure of Ninh Binh is the opportunity to spend time among the gorgeous inland limestone mountains known as karsts - which emerge from otherwise flat rice fields - making a very dramatic backdrop for exploring the many grottoes, varied wildlife, and laid-back agricultural lifestyle in rural North Vietnam.

We stayed in the nearby village of Hoa Lu and checked in to our home for the next two nights, the underwhelmingly-named Nguyen Shack. Nguyen Shack was a perfectly lovely series of shared-wall bamboo dorms with rooms backing directly onto a huge karst formation and a shallow lake, right outside your door. A thin bamboo wall is all that separates you from the nature around you (but be warned, it's also all that separates you from the noises and smells of the neighboring dorms and shared toilet). A small deck and hammock accompanied each room. The lake was very low, this being the end of the dry season, but all kinds of fish, goats, geese, swans and other bird species could be spotted any hour of the day.

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In our two days at Hoa Lu we filled our time with outdoor activities:
- We took a boat ride through the Trang An grottoes, and helped with some of the paddling;

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- We climbed the many steps of the Am Tien Caves to see the Buddha, huge iron bell, and experienced our first rain of the trip (!);

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- We rented a scooter and toured the winding highways and back roads of Hoa Lu and Tam Coc;

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- We visited the Van Long Nature Reserve … which was really just another boat ride … and saw critically-endangered langur monkeys scaling the karsts overhead.

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Ninh Binh was a relaxing and welcome departure from the big cities and tourist attractions of a typical Vietnam itinerary. I'm glad we took the time to visit, even if it was only two days.

Next up: a week among the coasts and crags of Cat Ba Island!

Posted by Casualodyssey 12:58 Archived in Vietnam

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