I’m happy to report that train sleep is a lot better than plane sleep.
Everything about the experience was not amazing but hardly awful either. The washrooms, for example, were in much better shape than the washrooms on our train trip in the former Yugoslavia. I understand why people feel it’s a waste of money but if you are travelling from one city in Vietnam to another and one doesn’t have an airport, it’s the train or the bus, and everything I’ve read about the bus in Vietnam suggests you don’t want to do it. Now, it’s possible my expectations were so low that I wasn’t critical enough. (I sort of feel about my panic about this trip as if I pulled a bit of a WebMD only with train reviews. I just read the worst possible things and it turned out that they were talking about a different train.)
We’re not particularly anxious travelers but Jenn noted that, while normally she’s a little more anxious than me, I was more anxious as our train was late getting to Ninh Binh. My explanation was that I had never taken an overnight train before. But, moreover, usually when I travel I am on a vehicle with a definitive end point. In this case we were not getting off at the last stop. Without Jenn’s phone, how would we know where we were and when to get off? Especially with all the extra stops the train was making. Well, it turned out that the announcement for Ninh Binh was very clearly for Ninh Binh.
We arrived in Ninh Binh over an hour late. It was raining. But we found our driver pretty quickly and headed off to our “homestay”. I said in the title of this post that we were spending the day in Ninh Binh but that’s not technically true. Ninh Binh is the name for the major town in this area but we didn’t stay there. We stayed right near Tam Coc and as far as I can figure the area we stayed in is called Ninh Hai. But there are multiple places called Ninh Hai. So I went with Ninh Binh even though we stayed well outside of it.
It wasn’t a very long drive and I must say that the community we stayed in – whatever it is called – is a lot nicer looking than Ninh Binh itself. But though everything looked very pleasant, I was very unhappy to discover there was no pool. If you asked me, on the train, if this “homestay” had a pool, I would have swore on my mother’s yet undug grave that it did. To this day I don’t know what happened, but I booked a different place than I thought.
“Homestay” is a term that is thrown around a lot in Vietnam. Initially, it meant staying in someone’s home. Now mostly it really means B&B or something like that. And that’s what I booked.
Anyway, it was a couple minute walk from the “downtown” of whatever the little community around Tam Coc is, so the location was great. So after we settled in we walked into town and found some lunch. (By this time it was lunch time.) We soon discovered we were in a bit of a tourist trap and most of the restaurants were basically identical to each other. We picked one where we were served beer by a child. (We didn’t pick it because of this, as we didn’t know. But we were very happy to be served beer by a child, let me tell you.) Goat is a specialty in this area and I got to have some. But the food wasn’t great.
After lunch, we tried to figure out what to do based upon the weather. When we learned the rain shouldn’t star again that day, we decided to go to the Mua caves. It was too far to walk but it seemed like it was too close to cab. So we rented bikes from our homestay.
Jenn thinks she hadn’t been on a bike in 12 years. For me I think it was closer to 18. Biking in Vietnam for the first time in a decade or two is probably not the way to do it. Fortunately where we were was considerably more sedate than the rest of the places we stayed. But it was rough going. I had trouble getting my balance and also had trouble figuring out my speed. (I would pedal too hard.) Also, I kept trying to stop myself with my foot, not the brakes. Frankly it’s a miracle I didn’t hit someone.
I did fall into a rice paddy, though. While standing still, trying to get out of the way of some motorbikes. I took a “short cut” that ended up being fairly confusing and resulted in multiple dead ends as well as basically off-road biking and lots of potholes. But a British cycling tour passed us at one point and we just followed them the rest of the way.
It was a gorgeous trip but I must say that my stress over biking distracted me too much of the time, and I’m not sure I entirely appreciated it.
Though it supposedly translates as “Mua Caves”, you don’t go to this place for the caves. You go for the view.
Up 500 steps is a shrine at the top of a karsk, affording great views of the surrounding area.
It’s a bit of a hike to the top, and the stairs are not in the greatest shape, but as you can see, it was worth it. Frankly, we were barely aware there were caves here, as we only made it into one, which was partially flooded. The reason to go is the views.
At the bottom we sat down for a while, as the walk up and down was a little strenuous. Then we went and got our bikes from one of the many improvised parking lots on the road to Mua. I thought we would be ripped off by the guy we paid – I was expecting to be double charged – but he seemed to forget about us and we got away with paying for parking once.
The bike ride back was a lot less disastrous than the ride there, and I was much more able to enjoy the views. Though I initially struggled, by the end it really felt like an essential experience of coming to this country – biking through rice paddies.
The stress and and heat and the walk made us pretty exhausted and I thought seriously about going to the pool down the street and paying for entry. But I guess we were too tired so we just crashed in the room for a bit before dinner.
For dinner we once again wandered through the stretch of identical restaurants before having picking one. I had goat again and we had some spring rolls. The food was better than lunch but we both agreed the food here was the least good we had so far. In retrospect we should have wandered further afield or taken a cab into Ninh Binh (or to a place with good reviews online). Ah well.
Our host had asked us to tell us the time for the bus the next day. We had meant to and forgotten. Then, when we wanted to tell her we couldn’t find her. When we finally told her after dinner she said all the small buses were full but she found us one we could take a cab too.
We got into bed to realize there was no duvet. Every other place had one. we wondered if this would be a problem, because the AC in most places is insanely cold. But it proved not to be. Neither did the hard mattress. I slept really well.