With Saturday afternoon upon us, Andrew and I packed up our bags and prepared to leave the hostel in time for our 6:30 pm, overnight train. As we were getting ready, the hostel owners (both Vietnamese) asked us where we were headed. They must have expected the answer of Hanoi or Ha Long Bay because their heads turned with surprise and a bit of confusion when we replied "Ninh Binh". They asked us why we were going there with equal parts doubt and curiosity in their voice. Andrew and I explained our plans and they still looked at us with blank stares which were slightly disheartening. I didn't want to let their ignorance destroy my anticipation so I decided to ignore their reaction and look forward to what was in store.
Unfortunately, before I could be rewarded with the beautiful sights at Tam Coc I had to put up with the pleasantries of an overnight train, all 12 hours of it. Wanting to save a few dollars Andrew and I booked second and third level beds which left me only inches from the ceiling. Thankfully the bottom bunk was full for the first few hours of our ride so we were able to sit there and chat before getting booted to our higher level cubbies. Despite having 6 inches of room between myself and the ceiling I got a decent amount of sleep but woke early, somewhere around 5am but found Andrew had done the same. Eventually, we pulled into our tiny town and began the hunt for a motel. There is no shortage of options in Ninh Binh but the trick is not getting ripped off. We rejected the first few hawkers but finally settled with a woman who found us only blockers from the station and led us to her Queen Motel (there's like 3 of the same name in town). I know some travelers will travel from room to room making comparisons but for me, the Thai phrase "Same same but different" could not be more appropriate here. All the rooms in SE Asia offer the basics, bed, wardrobe, nightstand, possibly a crappy TV, fan/AC options and en suite or shared bathroom. Our room was one of the nicer I've been in but also one of the more expensive (weird how that tends to happen in the tiny little towns).
It was early and I would've loved to crawl back into bed but we decided to instead get our day started. We asked our guesthouse owners about renting bikes and were sent to the store around the corner, run by the woman who had greeted us the day before. It really does seem that everyone is in business together in SE Asia. Prepared with bikes, a map and loads of water we were soon on our way; the directions seemed easy enough: straight until the 'big hotel' turn right and go until the river. Aside from the big hotel not being very big we found Tam Coc with no problems. The sun was hot and I felt like I may melt into the pavement but a slight breeze from biking helped, a little. We decided to grab some food before getting out on the river and then it was finally time for us to go.
The total price of the visit was 280,000 dong (two entrance tickets and the price of the boat) which really is not a bad deal at all. Our boat driver was a friendly woman (one of the many) but spoke little to no English so couldn't add much to our tour. We rode out under the blazing sun through beautiful sandstone formations and lush rice paddies. The reviews were correct in calling this the mini Halong bay, but on land (although to be fair I haven't actually been there to compare). The views were beautiful and the best part was that we didn't have to share them with hundreds of other tourists. The sights are by no means off the beaten track but they're not on the main tourist route either.
The tour is an in and out so we had to retrace our steps during our return to the starting point but the views were equally as impressive the second time around. One of my favorite parts was passing through the caves but that's probably just because they provided a small reprieve from the scorching sun. Although there was little else on offer in this small little town I was happy to have made the stop. We spent the rest of our afternoon riding bikes around town (cycled out to Bich Dong Pagoda which was unfortunately closed) before eventually returning for some much-needed showers and a disappointing dinner.
I was asleep incredibly early after my previous night on the train and up early enough to Skype my mom, and buy some plane tickets (finally making plans to go home) before we crafted our departure plans. We decided to test our luck on the city bus which offered various departure times throughout the day versus the (more expensive) tourist bus which left only at 3:30pm. I'm glad we made the decision we did because there really wasn't much we could have done in town for a full day, breakfast and a walk around the morning market was enough for me. Onwards to Hanoi!
I was warned that I'd either love it or hate it. For some Vietnam is a food and adventure paradise while others just can't seem to find their grove. With a turbulent history and remains of division between north and south, it's an interesting place to say the least.