Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Ninh Binh & Hue Motorcycle Diaries

I took a bus with Lars from Cat Ba to a city called Ninh Binh, we weren't sure what our plans would be but the weather forecast for the north of Vietnam was pretty grim for the next seven days and we both wanted to find some sun. On the bus I got chatting to Alex, from Nottingham, who didn't have any concrete plans either and so decided to join us in our indecision. We arrived in Ninh Binh in the afternoon, and after a brief consultation with each other and the clouds, decided to take the train that night to Hue (pronounced Hway), a city halfway down Vietnam's long coast. 

Alex and Lars walking through Ninh Binh to the train station.
After booking our sleeper tickets, we had a few hours to see what was on offer in Ninh Binh. We decided to rent some mopeds and take a little tour of the city ourselves and find some dinner. I hadn't ridden a moped for seven years, and rush hour in a Vietnamese city was a pant-shitting baptism. I really was quite nervous crossing busy highways as the chaotic traffic whistled past in both directions like bullet-fire, and I didn't feel confident on the bike at all. We didn't ride that far at all, only a mile or two, but it was enough for me, I was paranoid of hitting something or someone, as the roads were so busy with traffic and pedestrians swarming around me. Fortunately, I didn't kill anyone, and we parked our bikes in a side street and headed off on foot through a shadowy market. Ninh Binh felt a scruffy town, but I quite liked it. We took some dinner in a hotel, before heading back to the bikes, and I was trying to hide my trepidation, as now we were riding in the dark. Whilst my heart was still pounding I was slowly gaining confidence, and picking a moment to nip across a triple lane of oncoming traffic was quite the adrenaline rush. We returned the bikes to the hostel and waited until it was time to head to the train station. I bumped into the guys from Finland I had met in Hanoi, so chatted with them for a bit, before walking five minutes to the basic station and taking the midnight train. 

Street food near Ninh Binh market.
Inside the market.
The streets of Ninh Binh.
Fruit seller.
Veg seller.
A heavy load.

Waiting for the train to arrive.
We arrived in Hue early the following morning and found the sun we wanted. After grabbing a coffee in a street side cafe, we accepted the sales pitch of one of the hotel hawkers who had approached us exiting the station and took a taxi to a hotel. After checking in we decided to rent some mopeds again and find the beach. The roads were much quieter this time, and after yesterday's experience I felt much more confident. Within 15 minutes on the bike we had left the city and I felt comfortable on my machine. The main highway out of the city was wide and pretty calm, and I pushed the bike as fast as 80km/h before deciding that that was quite fast enough. We followed a coastal road that was lightly populated, stopping a few times to look at things of interest along the way, including an ornate temple and rural Vietnamese scenes of long boats and farmers in fields.

River boats seen from the highway bridge.
Boats on the way to the beach.
Some sort of temple we stopped to look at.
We found the beach quite easily, which was deserted apart from a young Vietnamese couple, and a few hawkers who tried to sell us some fruit and crisps. After sat watching the breaking waves and eating a nice lunch of sauteed garlic king prawns with the sand between our toes, we headed back to the bikes to continue our exploration. We carried on down the road the way we had been heading for fifteen minutes, before deciding to look for a lagoon we had heard about. After asking a few people, we headed back the way we came and persevered north into unchartered territory. I was expecting a lush lagoon of turquoise waters and china-white beaches. My paradise hopes were replaced with the discovery of a more interesting scenery. The lagoon was in fact a large area of wetland, used by the villages for agriculture and fish farming. It was exciting to see local life up close, and felt a long way from the horns of Hanoi. The roads were empty, we barely passed any traffic the entire time, and we followed them into sleepy coastal villages. The tarmac roads gave way to sand tracks, and the bikes slid as they lost grip on the loose surface. The villagers were incredibly friendly. Many waved and smiled, or called out 'hello', and when we stopped to take sights in, some emerged from houses to come and see what we were up to with friendly curiosity. It felt like they don't get too many foreigners riding mopeds through their village, but they certainly didn't seem to mind we were there. As the light began to drop we decided we should head back to the city whilst we still had an hour of light. We passed many cemeteries all day, and other places that looked like graves in the middle of rice paddies. There seemed to be as many places for the dead as they were the living in this landscape.

Rice paddies on the coast road.
Colourful boats in a small harbour.
Lars on his moped.
A cemetery we explored.
Working the paddies.
Hell's fairy.

Underwater ox ploughing.
Fish farm.
More large cemetery complexes.
That evening we went out for dinner along the main drag of restaurants. It was pretty touristy and we sat down in the place where the young staff tried the hardest to get us in. After dinner we ended up in a bar called Brown Eyes, playing loud music, and were joined by two Swiss girls we had met on the boat trip in Cat Ba, who'd passed in the street whilst we were finishing dinner and sat down for an epic game of Jenga. We inevitably knocked back quite a few drinks, and danced the night away with a healthy mix of Vietnamese and Western backpackers and were pretty much the last ones to leave the club. It'd been a fun night, I'd jokingly promised one of the waitresses that I would marry her in the morning, but I didn't wake up until 11am and felt like shit, so I guess it worked out for the best.

That afternoon we cleared our hangovers with fresh air blasting into our lungs by riding the mopeds out to some tombs. The tomb we visited charged $4 to enter which we felt a little pricey for Vietnam, but decided we may as well. It was only 100 years old, and belonged to a former King who ruled under the French rule of Vietnam. As it was not that old, and photographs were displayed of the dead guy, it wasn't that interesting, but some of the ornate wall decoration was pretty enough. It felt a bit arrogant though, to have such a huge and flamboyant grave constructed, when you're a puppet king ruling over peasants in shacks. In the pictures of him too he looked like a midget wearing make-up, so I didn't have the most favourable opinions of the chap.

We'd been approached by a local guy, who said he wanted to practice his English, and he wanted to invite us to his home for tea. I don't usually trust people in double denim with double lazy eyes, but there were three of us and so we felt safe enough to follow him on our bikes to his humble village home. His name was Ty, and he did seem keen to learn English, writing a few new words he picked up down. He poured us some nice tea as we sat in his one room shack, with no decor and just the simplest of furniture. He told us his life story, which had some sad elements such as his wife leaving him after their previous home was flooded, leaving him to raise his two children alone. Whether the story was true, we will never know. He also had a nice story about when he was a child, an American military base was close by, and one day he got to go inside for some reason, and was offered a short ride in a helicopter. He told us he was terrified and cried the entire flight. It was a sweet story. As we readied to leave, he said he wanted to buy an English - Vietnamese dictionary, and could we help him with money. I'd half feared and expected this to happen, so we gave him $2 each, which was enough for the tea and hospitality, though he said not enough to buy a book. We told him he'd have to invite a second lot of tourists back to get the rest for the dictionary. We said thank you and goodbye before riding back to our hotel. That night we took it easy with just a few games of pool against some locals, as we had to be up early the following morning for a trip we had booked on.

Looking out from the King's tomb.
Inside the burial chamber, taken on Alex's fish eye lens I borrowed.
Ty, the farmer who invited us back for tea.
The trip was exactly the kind of thing I hate. A bus full of tourists dumped at various locations for five minutes picture opportunity before being ushered back onto the bus. The first few stops were boring. They included the side of the road which looked at some hillside, and then a bridge built in 1991, but it marked the area of the war time Ho Chi Minh trail. We got talking to some American girls who we had noticed at breakfast for being pretty, and spent the journeys in between locations chatting and playing games with them. They were both recent graduates and knew each other from growing up in Boston, and were good to talk to. The next stop was a rural village, but I felt a bit awkward being part of a bus load dumped there to gawp at them, our experiences meeting people on our bikes the previous two days had been genuine and unimposing; this was not. Eventually we went to some war exhibits, a few tanks, planes, helicopters and trench reconstruction in a field. I actually found the field and landscape as interesting as the exhibits, with low valley cloud, maize crop and red earth, and I spent more of my time field walking looking for spent ammunition than I did looking at the parked vehicles. I didn't find anything. The final part of the trip took us to some of the Viet Cong war tunnels, constructed to hide from the American aerial bombardment, and entire communities of North Vietnamese lived in this dark and claustrophobic conditions. They were interesting to see and explore, and were the highlight of the tour.

From the village our bus tour stopped at.
The landscapes I preferred to tanks.
A US military plane seen across a maize field.
Behaving with dignity and respect.
Lars in the Viet Cong tunnel.
Descending steps in the underground world.
The bus was stuck in traffic for a while on the way back due to an accident, and so we were a little late arriving back at our hotel. We said goodbye to the American girls, not knowing we would be seeing them again soon, and had a quiet evening in Hue, as we would be taking the bus the following morning to Hoi An. 

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