Superb scenery! The nickname for this place is Halong Bay on the Rice Paddy Fields, and from the photos, you can see why. Although Halong Bay will come later for us, and we can now not wait to get there.
Also very pleased that we stopped at Ninh Binh to do this. Most people come here on a very long day trip from Hanoi, and we managed to avoid the hordes by getting in early in the morning at Tam Coc. And we had a fantastically beautiful day, which is rare for this time of year here. Although, it was really really hot. Both days in Ninh Binh were the hottest we have had for a while. To get to Ninh Binh, we took our first train trip in Vietnam on the Re-unification Express. Aptly named after they had to re-build the whole thing after the war. Very pleasant journey as well, A/C soft seat. Great scenery. Many many scenes of people hard at work in the rice fields. Some of the fields were being deliberately flooded as we passed by, making the land look like massive lakes in some places. And the karst mountains that make up Tam Coc start down in the south as well, and our train even cut through tunnels in some of them. Excellent. Always liked train travel, especially for the longer journeys.
In Ninh Binh, we teamed up with a 65 year old kiwi guy John, who has been doing long trips into Asia for some years, and now is coming again five months after two knee replacements. Gutsy! We met him on the train and he decided it would be worth coming along with us. It was good to hear the stories of home, as he has only just left NZ.
On first day, we spent the very hot morning going to Tam Coc. This involved a drive in a lauda! With driver and car hired from our guest house. Through great scenery - masses of karst mountains that just seem to rise dramatically out of the rice fields. Once at Tam Coc, we were on a row boat with two of the local women who would share the rowing between their hands and then their feet! They rowed us through an area where the karst mountains stand above the rice fields which then become pretty much one big lake, and we went through three caves on the boats. One of which was 120m long! It was an extremely beautiful ride, again especially being there without the Hanoi crowds. The photos do it some justice, but it is difficult to describe except to say that it is like floating peacefully through an untouched magic land. (Although there was always someone about). The funniest being the duck farmers herding hundreds of ducks through the karst water wonderland.
After Tam Coc, we went to Bich Dong Pagoda, a lovely temple set in amongst the karsts, and with a walk up to cave temples, that open out to views over the land below. Pretty dark and gloomy inside, and again with plenty of incense burning. Would have been even better without some of the persistent hassle of the people hanging around there. In most pagodas in Vietnam, you will meet someone at the entry who will follow you all the way around mumbling some guidance, even though you tell them to go away because you already have the information. Eventually of course, they want some money which we never give them, and then they act like the world has fallen on their heads!
Then after lunch, we had possibly the highlight for the day. We climbed up to Mua temple/look out. This is a bit of an unknown place as for some reason few tourists come here - might be the 417 steep steps to the top! And in the heat of midday, we nearly passed out getting up, but boy was it worth the effort. Absolutely fantastic views and no one else around. In one direction, we could see where we had gone into the caves in the morning and surrounding mountains, and in the other, expanses of paddy fields and more karst mountains! Check out the great photos!
John could not make it up that particular climb, but gamely made it up the next when we went to Hoa Lu, where there are restored temples of the ancient capital during the Dinh and Le dynasties (1,000 years ago). The temples were ok, nice and atmospheric, but not too much different to modern day pagodas, but the walk up to the tomb of the chief Dinh again had great views.
We finished this very hot day, with a well deserved bia hoi session in the small lane where our hotel is in Ninh Binh. This was one of our best sessions in Vietnam - even better than in the big cities. Said goodbye to John here and next day went on another trip in the lauda to Cuc Phuong National Park, about 45 kms from Ninh Binh.
Another very hot and sunny day, and we were on a mission to go to the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, which we had heard about when we saw the Langurs at Jungle Beach. Most primates in Vietnam are extremely endangered, but especially the variety of langurs and gibbons they have here. The animals at the centre are rescued from people who tried to keep them as pets, or worse people who tried to poach them to give to the Chinese for traditional medicines. But the breeding programmes they have here are very successful, and some monkeys have been re-introduced to the wild, tentatively in the botanical gardens attached to the national park. These monkeys are seriously cute! The langurs have amazing faces - almost human with huge eyes, and the gibbons make very high shrill noises to chat. It was good to see close ups of the langurs we had seen on the mountains of Jungle Beach. To finish off, we went for a lovely stroll through the botanical gardens - which was pretty wild compared to the average botanical gardens!
Returned to Ninh Binh before heading into the big smoke of Hanoi by bus later that afternoon.