In Ninh Binh we made up for all the sitting on our backsides and eating that we did in Hanoi. We hired some bicycles and spent a few days cycling around the beautiful countryside.
On our first day we saw big new temples and huge statues of Buddha being constructed at Bai Dinh. While there we also came across rows and rows of statues in a field, I guess they were waiting to find a home in one of the new temples.
On our second day we cycled to Tam Coc and took a boat ride along the river, visiting beautiful caves and grottos along the way. We had a lovely smiley lady rowing our boat – sometimes she would row with her arms but mostly she would lie back and row with her feet!
We cycled some more at the Cuc Phuong National Park where we stayed for 2 nights. This is the oldest national park in Vietnam and was opened by Ho Chi Minh in 1963. Also based here is the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. It houses gibbons and langurs who need to be rehabilitated back into the wild after being poached from their natural habitat for various reasons. We had a tour of the centre and it moved me so much to see these absolutely beautiful animals. In the park we also saw some colourful butterflies and other insects. Pete was really good at spotting stick insects clinging to the trees.
On our final day we went on a walk into the forest in search of an ancient tree. We were following a marked path, but never did find the tree. It was my first time in a rain forest and it was a little bit scary. We kept walking into big spiders webs, with big spiders attached. It was slippy and wet on the path and the trees and plants were so dense that it was quite dark and very steamy. It wasn’t particularly comfortable for me, a city girl, but it was very beautiful and well worth while – I’m glad we did it. It was great to see what a dense rainforest is actually like. It’s a shame they’re getting smaller and not bigger.
I’ve been really enjoying our bicycle rides – well mostly anyway. I’m not about to rush out and buy a pair of lycra pants – even though I’m told they make all the difference – but I really enjoy getting out, doing some exercise and seeing the sights all at the same time.
We got caught out in the rain on one of our rides the other day. I call it rain for want of a better word – I’m not even sure downpour cuts it. By the time I got my poncho on there wasn’t really much point to it anymore – I was already soaked. Each drop of water stung a little and the sound of them hitting the hood of the poncho was deafening. I discovered that the waterproofness of my shoes works better from the inside – they were full of water that wasn’t going anywhere. After the intense heat of the day, the rain did cool us down somewhat – and maybe made us go a bit silly… It was all kind of exhilarating in fact.
Riding through the rain forest at Cuc Phuong National Park made me jealous of people who were on motorbikes. It was so hot and steamy. By the time we got to the centre of the park (about 20 kilometers), I was almost as wet as I was after our ride in the rain – quite a bit smellier too no doubt.
We stayed in the centre of the park that night and the next afternoon we rode back. I was looking forward to the ride back on account of it being mostly downhill. After about six or seven kilometers though, my bike fell apart – the back gear changer was completely mangled. There was no way I could get it back to a working condition but I did manage to bend it enough so that the back wheel could turn pretty freely. Susan rode on ahead to try and get some help from the park headquarters (where we’d hired the bikes) leaving me to a 13 kilometer walk with the bike.
After a couple of kilometers of walking it dawned on me that I was being downright stupid. I still had wheels and the way home was mostly downhill. Why didn’t I just roll? It might even be fun. I was a bit worried that the chain might somehow get snagged and throw me off the bike so I pulled it out of the way, secured it with a safety pin, and off I went. After 5 kilometers of mostly rolling, a park ranger turned up on his motorbike and gave me a push whenever there was an uphill stretch. The whole thing turned out to be a good bit of fun.
We interspersed our various bike rides and explorations with some lovely moments of relaxation. After one of our rides, we wandered down to the river in Ninh Binh where people who had just finished work were sitting around in street stalls drinking ice cold Bia Hoi – basically cheap but tasty home brew. A group of four men called us over to sit and relax with them. Their English language was pretty minimal but there were plenty of smiles and friendly vibes. Most evenings we went to a restaurant called Thao Son Quan where we ate some really nice food, drank a glass or two of mulled local rice wine and chatted with Nils about life in Vietnam. The hotel we stayed (Ngoc Anh Hotel) was great as well – every time we walked in we were greeted with big smiles and cheers, an enthusiastic thumbs up, and fresh fruit. Nice.