November 21 and 22, 2016
After a month and some in Hanoi, Lizzie and I were more than ready to escape the air, light, and noise pollution and find some peace and quiet in rural Vietnam. Plus, I was getting itchy feet since we hadn’t yet been more than 10 km radius from the airport! I asked a few friends their recommendation for a brief two day adventure. The unanimous response was Ninh Binh. Situated only 1.5 hours from Hanoi, it was an easy journey that was to provide us with the desired solitude and repose, serenity, peace, tranquility, rest, calm, and stillness. (I’m a freaking thesaurus.)
You know, something like this:
Next, we had to organize how to get to Ninh Binh. Buses and trains just seemed too complicated to arrange three days previous to our departure. So, we opted for the motorbike. It did seem the better option for seeing rural Vietnam and for stopping whenever we wanted to take a photo or stretch our legs. In hindsight, it wasn’t entirely a mistake, but it was as close as one can get to making a mistake without actually making a mistake. Okay fine, it was probably a mistake. No, it definitely was a mistake.
The noise of my little Honda Wave, the highway, and the wind passing our ear canals was enough to make a deaf person grateful. The wind harshly battered our faces and sent countless bugs into my nose and teeth. The black goo, that is the collection of dirt and dust and exhaust pollution, that found itself in my eyes wasn’t to be completely removed for another week after the trip. And on top of all that, going our own way meant that we were entirely responsible to know the route. I mean, we were never truly lost, just kind of stuck once or twice.
It’s important to note at this juncture that my planning skills are honed meticulously to a macro level. This means that the minutiae, the small stuff, which I usually don’t sweat, can pivot an entire scenario 180 degrees. For example, 10 minutes outside Hanoi, we were seen roaring down the freeway at 60 kmph, roughly. (My bike’s odometer has never worked.) I knew to expect tolls on the freeway because my macro-level planning skills told me so. I didn’t know how much to pay, however. Oh, I also didn’t know motorbikes weren’t allowed on the freeway in the first place. Whoopsies. The policemen on the other side of the tollbooth kindly informed us of this slight error in my planning.
Now, normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but the only map I had (which was proudly sketched by hand) didn’t have any other other roads to Ninh Binh but the one we were just booted off. No problem, I convinced myself, quickly utilizing my macro-level planning skills. There was no point in telling the unsurprised Lizzie this; she’s a micro-level planner, you see, and was expecting this. Thanks to my immaculate spacial cognition, and somewhat to the loose indication from the policemen,”Way [and point]”, we were soon on an unknown dirt road, bouncing around and enjoying a moment of repose from the incredibly loud semi-rigs, dump trucks, lorries and buses that were moments before unforgivingly overtaking us on the freeway.
An hour outside Hanoi and we still hadn’t left its mad hustle and bustle. We were beginning to wonder if quiet serenity was just an illusion in this land. Soon the hustle and bustle was to belong to the city of Ninh Binh itself. In retrospect, we realized that this main road is never without demand for food, drink, helmets, limestone sculptures, bike mechanics, wifi, lantern shops and even a number of geese farms. Smith’s economics was never clearer.
At one and a half hours in, Lizzie aptly queried our progress. I checked my old hand-written map, cross referenced it with my iPod to triangulate our position and realized that we were still only halfway to our destination. But wait, you remind me, wasn’t Ninh Binh 1.5 hours from Hanoi? Yes, thank you, Captain Helpful, it was and it still is. But, we had lost a good 30 minutes due to an insignificant series of u-turns and the aforementioned forced detour off the freeway. I was, however, able to estimate our location and we proceeded in a south-westerly direction, hoping to arrive by sunset.
Finally we had made it. After nearly four hours of sitting on the motorbike, our bottoms were liberated. If you would like to try it, you’ll need a few things: five fans on high, a rickety table, a horrible chair, and 3.5 hours of concentrated staring 20 meters ahead because your life depends on it.
The homestay was all very charming, complete with bamboo sidings and palm fronds for a roof. It was the real deal, and I loved it! Granted, a simple sofa would have been a welcome sight after three and one half hours of sitting on the motorbike! While not by definition a homestay, we had a stilted hut to ourselves with an ample bed, a much-needed mosquito net, and our own private (?) bathroom.
As well, the locale offered delicious food in their informal restaurant. This was a welcome relief as my superior macro-level planning skills hadn’t accounted for something as unimportant as food. Obviously, I knew breakfast was included.
After dinner, we tucked in for the earliest night in a some time: 9:30! At 6:30 the next am, we woke up breathing the clean air, hearing the sound of the river and mosquitos buzzing… I missin’ me some nature ’bout now. A coupla critters we found stretching our legs at sunrise:
After a filling brekkie and some helpful information from our hosts, we were on to our next adventure of Ninh Binh: a river boat tour! You must understand that originally I was deigned to participate in such acts. I don’t know where this disinclination from tourism is derived, but I’m learning to feel less guilty for doing tourism. As a result, we found friends in our rower and our fellow boatspeople. What a lovely lot! Here’s Lizzie pathetically rowing.
Our final destination was a pagoda. That’s what we knew. Come to find out, there were several pagodas, temples, and other things of a sacred nature on this enormous hillside. We sought to explore what we could:
After exploring the grounds, we finally found our way back to my faithful motorbike. Hungry, thirsty, and anxious to hold a position other than walking or sitting, we headed off in the direction of home. Naturally, a quick and delicious bite at the most random restaurant/hotel/museum/artifact store room just off the main road made the day seem complete.
It took two hours to return home. What. I’d say this efficiency was in part due to my astute map reading and also managing to not get lost. As they say, all’s well that ends well. (With the obvious exception of Lizzie’s knee getting crushed in traffic when I lost control of the bike…) Luckily, we made it home intact, one knee and two bums bruised with many a tale to tell!