A River, a Pagoda and Karst Mountains in Ninh Binh

So we skipped Ha Long Bay.  Skipping Ha Long Bay when you have a month to see Vietnam is probably the equivalent of going to Paris for a week without ever setting eyes on the Eiffel Tower or something, but we gave it a pass anyway.  It was cold and drizzly and a long boat trip just didn’t sound like fun.  Instead, we took the train few hours south of Hanoi to Ninh Binh, which is supposed to be the inland equivalent of the Ha Long landscape.

When we woke up in Ninh Binh, we fortified ourselves with a massive jolt of caffeine and sugar via Vietnamese coffee at the cafe next door, while enjoying a very strange TV program.

Vietnamese coffee

Many (if not most) cafes in Vietnam also serve as the owners’ homes, which is why it looks like we’re hanging out in someone’s living room.

TV program

Remembering our great times in northern Thailand on a motorbike, we decided to rent one from our hotel instead of getting a taxi.  It was actually just a spare bike owned by the woman next door, who sloshed a Pepsi bottle full of gasoline into the tank and pointed us in the direction of the nearest petrol station.

It was cold and the road was full of deep potholes. Parts of it were under construction and there were lots of heavy trucks on the road which added a challenging element to the usual traffic patterns (marked lanes merely a suggestion, two way traffic in both lanes and shoulders, turn signals and mirrors irrelevant, right of way belongs to the biggest vehicle and/or whoever begins honking first and loudest, etc.). We quickly learned the difference between the normal “hey guys, coming through” courtesy honks and the urgent blasts that screamed “you are about to die, fool!”

Railroad safety gate

When we finally found Tam Cốc (which means “three caves”) after some backtracking, our nerves were a little on edge and our fingers were stiff with cold.  We bought a boat ticket down the Ngô Đồng river, and it wound through some amazing karst scenery and caves. Our rower used her feet the whole time and sometimes talked on her cellphone.  Most of the other rowers we passed used their feet, too.

Our boat rower

Woman rowing with her feet

First cave

Us

Boat approaching the first cave

Cave interior

Kingfisher

Cultivated river bank

A dog and a house

Through the second cave

Other tourists being rowed by foot

Vietnamese women fishing

Through the cave

Large white bird

Vertical face

At the turnaround point, we managed to resist the concession stand flotilla ladies who tried to sell us drinks and snacks.

High-pressure concession flotilla

Back on shore and tip delivered, we headed for the nearest cafe to thaw out.

After we recovered, we got back on the bike and motored just up the road a bit to Bích Động pagoda, which is a temple complex of three different pagodas set up the side of a mountain.

Tony at the entrance to Bích Động pagoda

This place is not for impolite visitors

Corner of a roof

Mossy roof tiles

Glowing altar

Dragon painting

Buddhas

Alicia taking a group photo

Small shrine

Bare frangipani trees

After reaching the final pagoda, a path continued up the mountain and we followed it through jagged karst and over boulders and were rewarded with a spectacular view.

Jagged rocks on top of the mountain

Our feet in sharp rocks

Us at the top

Flooded fields below

But we quickly realized that we wouldn’t have much daylight left to get back to town, so we hurried down.

Hurrying down

A huge flock of large white birds were restlessly settling in the marsh as we walked back to our motorbike.

Flock landing

We pulled off the road to take a few last photos before the cold ride home.

Tony on the bike

Ninjas!

The area around Ninh Binh was beautiful, but we craved warmth.  We also missed the sun, which we hadn’t seen since we left Laos two weeks prior.  Although we usually stay for several days in each area we visit, we bought train tickets south that night and left first thing in the morning.

Train ticket

Ninh Binh train station