With Christmas passed we had the excitement of family visiting throughout January into early February. It was pretty amusing actually that both sets of parents decided Jan/Feb was a good time to visit. So we ended up having Jonny’s parents visit for 2 weeks, then my parents arrived on the day that Jonny’s were leaving. Jonny’s parents visited on weeks when we were still working, however we met up with them each weekend and enjoyed exploring new places.
On Friday 18th January we flew up to Hanoi to meet Carol and Carl there. They had been in Cambodia the few days prior exploring Siem Reap and Ankgor Wat temples, so they had lots of exciting stories to tell us when we reunited. We arrived late into Hanoi, checked into our hotel then Jonny went to walk the nearby streets of Hanoi with Carl before hitting the hay for good nights sleep.
The next morning we were catching a train to Ninh Binh from Hanoi. We ate breakfast at the hotel and took a taxi to the train station. The train comprised of different class sections, we took the cheapest option of the soft seats (much like train seats in UK). However there were second and first class sleeper cabins which we could see as we walked along the train and peeped in through the windows. The train ride was pretty smooth, all running on time and only stopping the once before we arrived at Ninh Binh two hours later. The scenery was mainly small villages, road networks and some areas of paddy fields, I was surprised at the lack of countryside we saw. We were met in Ninh Binh by a driver who drove us to our nearby homestay, which we loved. What a find on Air Bnb! The place was more like a small B&B hotel than a homestay, however it was ran by a very friendly and accommodating Vietnamese family who helped us to organise transport and gave advice on trips in the area. That afternoon we decided to hire mopeds and drive to a nearby bird park. Driving to the bird park we really got a feel for what Ninh Binh was like. A network of rivers connecting together with limestone peaks emerging from the water. Ninh Binh was a very flat area so these limestone peaks really stood out looking magnificent. The bird park was where we spent our afternoon wandering around the park, exploring caves and using Carl’s binoculars to spy on hundred of birds (mainly storks and egrets). Carl was in his element here and I enjoyed listening to his knowledge on the birds we were seeing.
That evening we decided to try a nearby Indian restaurant which ranked highly on Trip advisor. We’d eaten plenty of Vietnamese food so it was time for a change. Nearby the restaurant were plenty of souvenir shops where you could try your best haggling skills for a cheap deal. Here Jonny and I picked up a fake North Face coat each for a grand total of about £20 for 2 coats! We were really feeling the cold in Ninh Binh so were desperate for some warmth. The temperature change from Saigon to the North was a drop of about 10-15 degrees, we were not prepared for this at all as we stood there in our shorts and thin jumpers.
After eating we returned back to our homestay for some pre-bed card games. Carol and Carl taught us a new game called Hearts. This was a confusing game and took a while for us to get our heads around. But after a few rounds of playing and hints and tips from the Turner’s we finally caught on.
The next morning we were up early for breakfast at the homestay, the menu was Vietnamese breakfast choices. We fuelled up for our day out on bread, jam and omelettes. We also enjoyed unlimited sweet honey tea and strong Vietnamese coffee served by the family. We were then met by our guide for the day whose name was ‘Hi’ (probably not spelt like that). As she introduced herself to us she handed us some authentic rice hats which we enjoyed wearing throughout the tour. We were going to do a full day tour exploring Ninh Binh in all its glory. Our first stop was the Trang An Grottos. The morning was misty and cool which made this experience a whole lot better. The whole place was magical and etherial as we boarded a small rowing boat with a small Vietnamese lady at the back wearing her rice hat and rowing us along. We travelled through caves and along the network of lakes in the misty cool conditions. We helped the lady row the boat with our seperate ores, I must admit I was a bit lazy and too busy enjoying the scenery and snapping photos than rowing the boat. I hope these photos do it justice!
We stopped at a small island surrounded by these beautiful caves and limestone peaks, which was called King Kong island. This is because King Kong the movie was partly filmed there. There were some very grand concrete steps leading up to an archway which took you onto another part of the island. There were some small tepees together with acting locals dressed up for photos with the tourists. After a few photos here we continued in our wooden rowing boat back to where we would be reunited with Hi.
We then headed off for a bike ride around the quiet roads in the tranquil setting of Ninh Binh. A lovely way to blow off the cobwebs and do some exercise, although the bikes were pretty rickety and I’m almost certain my breaks didn’t work – it was still great!
We enjoyed a huge spread of Vietnamese food which was included in our tour before heading to Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s ancient capital. This was where our tour guide came into her own, enthusiastically telling us stories about the King’s that ruled there and the different dynasties. We enjoyed walking around the ancient temples and hearing the rich history about the place. There was some sort of youth gathering at the ancient city that day and as we were leaving I was mobbed by young Vietnamese girls for a photo (very cute!).
Our last stop with Hi was the dragon mountain which got us climbing up hundreds of steps to a dragon monument at the top. The views of Ninh Binh from up there were incredible and would have been even better without all the mist, but this was what made Ninh Binh so magical. My legs shook at the top as I tried to manoeuvre myself onto the dragon for a photo. I remember Jonny and Carl showing off their climbing skills by scaling along it a little, I don’t know how they did it!
Exhausted from the day we enjoyed staying at the homestay for dinner where they put out a large spread of Vietnamese food. We enjoyed meeting other travellers staying at the homestay with Vietnam playing football on the TV in the background. The whole family intensely watching and cheering at any moment, I specifically remember the little girl of the family cheering ‘Go Linh Vietnam’ which translates as ‘keep fighting Vietnam’ – very cute.
The next day we were taking the train back to Hanoi in the afternoon. That morning we took a trip to Vietnams largest pagoda – Bai Dinh pagoda. Luckily we all wore our rain jackets as it rained the whole time we were there. This took us around 2 hours to walk around all the different sections of the pagoda which were joined up with networks of stairways and corridors. We enjoyed admiring all the traditional architecture and buddha statues. Although it was a rainy day it didn’t dampen our spirits. We felt like we had seen all the main sights of Ninh Binh and got a good sense of what this northern Vietnamese province was really like.
Next blog will be about when my parents visit, can’t wait x