After leaving Hanoi I headed to Ninh Binh along with Sophie, Simon and Carla who I met on my Halong bay cruise. This town is about 2 and a half hours south of Hanoi and has a region called Tam Coc which according to the Lonely plant is like a Halong bay of rice paddies – quite an apt description due to all the impressive rock formations sticking up out of the group with rivers and fields weaving between them. If Cat Ba island was Jurassic Park, this place felt a little more Middle Earth-ish.
Sophie and I had grand plans to hire a motorbike for the day to see the sites, but when we woke up in the morning it was pouring down rain and the hotel owner strongly recommended we take bicycles instead, which we did. We rode to Tam Coc and spent two hours being rowed down the river in light rain, Sophie playing the role of “Umbrella Wench” holding up the umbrella to keep the rain off my camera as I took some photos. We ended up bring lucky as there was almost no one on the water when we were there, but by the time we got back scores of Chinese tourists were arriving and clogging the water ways and the rain was starting to pick back up.
Our next stop was a nearby temple, but on the way there the road forked in two and not realizing the tree surrounded building shortly down the right hand path was said temple I decided to take the left fork. This lead to a construction yard, and after ignoring the barrier and riding through I realized where the temple was and that this road was a dead end. As I went to turn around a Vietnamese guy in one of the buildings in the yard waved us over holding up a tea pot. After a moments hesitation we headed over and got out of the rain for some tea with the stranger. He only spoke a couple words of English and mostly we just sat there sipping tea and smiling awkwardly at each other. Twenty minutes later we took our leave to cycle over to the temple, then backtrack to a pagoda the other side of Tam Coc. By the time we got there we were completely drenched and as we entered an extremely cheerful Vietnamese man asked us where we were from and almost exploded with joy when Sophie said she was from England. We climbed up some quite slippery stairs to see the shrines and then on the way out our cheerful friend ambushed us and dragged us off into a room with some of his friends for more tea. These guys must have been high on something cause they were pretty crazy… Cheerful man kept rubbing at my beard and my wet pant legs before laughing and wanting us to take endless photos with him and his mates. Conveniently sophies camera battery died, and my camera started playing up and wouldn’t switch on. We stayed till the teapot ran dry, Sophie looking a me with eyes saying “get me the heck out of here” and me laughing manically at the whole situation.
On our way back to Nimh Binh we got hopelessly lost while trying to find the back way there, which locked simple on the badly drawn map from the hotel. We ended up spending a couple hours riding through small villages endlessly saying “Hello, hello” and high fiving all the school kids that were walking home as we road through. Miraculously, with the help of some vague gesturing by the locals and a lot of blind luck we found our way back to the hotel. I almost got cleaned up by buses a few times trying to weave through busy anarchic intersections on my bike like a local while Sophie screamed out “Nooo stop!”. Back at the hotel, a much needed shower and change of dry clothes later, we said goodbye Simon and Carla who were heading back to Hanoi and met up with a Doug, a Canadian we met at our hostel in Hanoi, and prepared for our first sleeper bus ride to Hue.