Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Vietnam – Cycling the back roads & villages of Ninh Binh – the waterway

The day started with a jolt – other than waking at 5am due to dehydration – my alarm kicked into gear for the first time this trip, stirring me to an unwanted consciousness. The hard bed provided my fellow travelers and myself with a deceivingly great sleep.

A two-egg omelet and three plates of food filled my breakfast stomach before we hopped on our bikes for the countryside and local farms of Ninh Binh.

The sky remained grey with fog and light cloud – as the day matured the sun strengthened and blue skies attempted to force their way through.

We visited the ancient capital of Vietnam – it survived for some of a century in around 900-1000BC before moving on. The Vietnam War had pretty much destroyed any heritage of the country yet we visited two temples – including that of a king with a thing for playboys.
We navigated small road and dirt pathways between limestone hills and vivid green rice paddy fields. In fact it was the Vietnam we see in the storybooks, travel guides and TV documentaries. I suddenly felt swept up by the country.

Lunch was hosted by a local family – traditional Vietnamese in their former wooden shack built in 1963; so it survived the war!

Mid-afternoon we took a trip across the river; a woman rowed us for two hours through the slow moving river frames by dykes and ornamental limestone hills. Here peace, relaxation and a true slow-pace of life revealed itself.

Evening came, 9.30pm and I boarded my first sleeper train. The 1920’s diesel engine rolled in some minutes late. It was due to pause in Ninh Binh for little more than three minutes – the crew of nine ran for carriage 9 bumbling up the stairs before squeezing into tight dormitories. It was a dream come true.

I felt like Indiana Jones – just in the wrong decade.

We ordered our beds and supplies for the 13-hour journey to Hue and prepared for sleep. I, in my silk sleeping bag from Hanoi.
Cycling the back roads to Hoa Lu this morning, we visit the country’s ancient capital. Once the political and cultural centre of Dai Co Viet (Vietnam), the city ruled over the region’s first centralised feudal state. Whilst many of its ancient monuments are long gone, we will get a chance this morning to visit the temple of King Dinh Tien Hoang, the man who unified the country and founded Vietnam’s first feudal dynasty. From here we cycle along narrow concrete paths through picturesque local communities on to the 12th century Nguyen Saint Temple. After a break at the temple we head through rural countryside towards the spectacular limestone karst formations of Van Long, and finally on to the nearby village of Vuon Thi, where we enjoy a delicious traditional lunch. There may be an opportunity to try some traditional farming and fishing instruments in the yard. After lunch we cycle the short distance to the nearby dock for a tranquil sampan journey around the stunning caves and Karst scenery of the Van long Reservoir. Returning to Ninh Binh later this afternoon by bus, there will be some free time in the city and to freshen up in our hotel dayroom before we board the Reunification Express for the overnight journey to Hué.