Before actually going to Ninh Binh, we spent one morning researching and booking tickets online and another morning collecting the bus tickets. I thought this might be a more difficult journey, being about 3 hours away, but I didn’t know quite how challenging it would be. It’s times like these I wonder how I’d cope on my own, as there’s a strange sort of reassurance in having somebody else with you, even if they’re not being particularly reassuring; simply just the presence of them there makes you feel like it will be okay.
Having left our hotel in Haiphong at around 8am, we arrived in Ninh Binh at around 12.30pm. We walked to the hotel, and stopped off on the way at an art shop full of embroidered pictures. We talked to the guy working there and he gave us a picture for free, so I ended up buying one too. We checked in and had a meal at the hotel, which was pricier than some, but we wanted to get on with the day.
We arranged a driver with the hotel for 500,000 dong, which seemed like a lot, but we figured it’d be worth it. The main attraction was Tam Coc, and we also went to a pagoda in the mountains and a very modern temple. The latter two locations were quite small, and there was some confusion when we almost missed one off and were brought back to the hotel, but Tam Coc was well worth the visit to Ninh Binh.
We hired a boat, and a woman rowed it for us – using her feet, which was really impressive! Sadly, it wasn’t without its stressful moments – being conned into buying expensive drinks and snacks from another boat (which I’d read get sold back when you buy them something as a tip), and a confusing moment being told to get off the boat early. That being said, it didn’t take away from the stunning views of mountains, river, and rice paddies. We sailed under mountains through caves and, similarly to Cat Ba, the beauty simply couldn’t be captured by photographs.
We ate at a place called Chookies, where we had our first non-Asian meal. Beef burger and chips never tasted so good. The only thing souring my tastebuds was the knowledge that the UK had a majority vote to leave the EU. This upset me so much, I fought to hold back tears, and I felt sick about the state of my home country. Why this particular issue was put to vote, I don’t know. At a time where society is so divided, migrants are used as scapegoats for the government’s failure to tackle issues of unemployment and lack of affordable housing. Fortunately, only the latter applies to me, but other than thinking about how this impacts on my work teaching EFL, I know that there are so many more vulnerable people who this will hurt in the UK. The rhetoric around migrants is disgusting, and the declaration of “Independence Day” shows a complete disregard for the colonial history that some seem to see as glory days, celebrating the British Empire.
Anyway, back to Ninh Binh and the next day we went to Chua Bai Dinh, which is a modern temple complex. I had seen a review that stated it lacked spirituality, I could see where they were coming from, but believe it is important for cultural preservation to keep building such things if they are important to the people of that country. Just because something is old doesn’t automatically make it more spiritual. One day, these temples will be old. It was clear from the amount of construction work that Ninh Binh is becoming more developed, wanting to attract more people to the region. That said, I’m aware of the negative impacts of this, and I tried to be as respectful as possible, even if it meant wearing my cardigan in the sweltering heat and humidity. The amount of skill that had gone into crafting the site was immeasurable, each statue unique, and every corner was something more amazing.
We had lunch at the site, but after hours of walking I felt dehydrated and sick. My phone ran out of Internet, and so we went back to the hotel to check the Internet. We walked to the bus stop to check when to arrive so we didn’t have to worry about missing the bus. They had told us when picking up our tickets something about the 9.54pm time being a mistake. They’d given us a 7pm time on one ticket and wrote over the other one in pen. I had a sense of unease about this that built up to this point. They told us at Ninh Binh bus station that they didn’t have a bus passing through to Haiphong. However, they were incredibly helpful and took us to an alternative bus stop.
We had been told to wait 60-80 minutes, and after a stressful wait, I realised the woman at this new bus station didn’t have a clue what was going on, but because of the language barrier, it was difficult to communicate what had happened. Thankfully, a man appeared and spoke to her and us, and he seemed in a rush, but also happy to see us, so we started running with him towards the bus on the other side of the road. I was so relieved and as soon as I found a seat, I lay down (they’re very reclining) and gradually started to feel better.
I stared our the window for a good two hours before feeling inspired to write a poem, and then decided to write this. So, I’m still on the way back and hope to get some food once we’re back in Haiphong, and that this will be smooth sailing from now and no nightmare story to add!