Friday, September 25, 2015

Ninh Binh

One of the defining features of Viet Nam is that every mass transit vehicle is equipped with high speed WiFi. And because of that evil, the journey to Ninh Binh from Hạ Long bay felt like a short one since each of us had buried our heads into our smartphones (at the cost, as the missus repeatedly pointed out, of experiencing the actual real world we had paid so much to explore). When we arrived at Ninh Binh we looked up and realized it looked nothing like the pictures of this place that we had seen on the travel brochures. However, as we left the city of Ninh Binh behnd and towards our destination the scenery began to change. The urban landscape gave way to rice paddies and then to a countryside dominated by karsts. It looked a little bit like Ha Long bay with all its water suctioned out.

Our hotel was adjoining the Mua caves, a moderately popular tourist destination. Right within the property was a hillock that gave us a great view of the karsts that surrounded us on one side and the rice fields on the other. We also saw the Ngo Dong river weaving its way around, and sometimes under, the hills. The travel brochures hadn’t lied.

Early the next day we rented bikes and headed out towards the Tam Cốc caves. My son, who had so far mostly been treating this trip as a minor inconvenience finally found a reason to smile. This was the travel equivalent of the Buy-him-a-toy-and-he-plays-with-the-box moment. After traveling on an A320, sailing on a cruise and riding on a luxury bus what eventually gave him kicks was being saddled on the back seat of a bicycle on a hot sunny morning while we rode through bumpy country roads. I wish we got our kicks that cheap too.

We hired a couple of boats at the Ngo Dong river to take us to the Tam Cốc caves. Most of the boats are run by women who have perfected the art of using only their feet to operate the oars. Our omnidextrous wonder boat-woman was deftly maneuvering her boat through the 2m high grottos while alternately knitting and texting with her hands.

When we returned, it was time to check out of the hotel and leave the karstic landscapes for the plains and deltas of the south. There was something intimate about the Mua Cave Eco Lodge (our hotel) that made me wish we had had a few more days of stay there. The staff exuded a sweetness (except when they were talking about the chinese) that didn’t just stem from a sense of professional duty. The bonsai trees lining the walkways made me feel like a brobdingnagian.
The lodge itself seemed removed from civilization; the nights had that therapeutic quiet about them. The food was simple, yet delicious, and a welcome change from the excesses of the cruise. And there was Wifi.

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