Motorbike in a karst landscape

(No.5, Vol.2 May 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

My knees felt closer to my chin than ever before. The driver was constantly on the wrong side of the road. He persistently honked his hooter, and locals continually turned and looked at us as though we were a species from another planet. In our attempt to get off the tourist trail, we might have got more than we had bargained for.
Leaving the ever popular Halong Bay, Vietnam, on a local bus seemed like an invigorating idea, until I was actually on the bus and found myself gripped not only with paranoia that I would be robbed but with an honest fear for my life.
I have never seen such reckless driving, and, despite being a happy sleeper on most modes of transport, I found myself wide awake and counting the minutes or rather the hours (five!) until our arrival. Finally, jubilation washed over me as I stepped off the bus and realised we were in a place very few backpackers made the effort to visit, Ninh Bình Province, 93 kilometres south of Hanoi.
Standing with our backpacks fastened and sweat dripping off our brows, we looked around desperately trying to orientate ourselves; Ninh Bình City, the capital of Ninh Bình Province, was unassuming and didn’t appear to have anything mind-blowing about it. Then, to our surprise, two men on motorbikes (clearly locals trying to make a quick buck) offered us a ride to the hotel we were looking for. We settled, breathed another sigh of relief to be alive, and decided to find out what there was to do in Ninh Bình.
The manager of the hotel was full of information and suggested we hire a motorbike and head to a couple of areas just outside of town; he assured us that we would not be disappointed. Having to pay only $5 for a motorbike, we agreed to hire one the next day.
We woke early on day two, ready for our first Southeast Asian motorbike experience, but, after seeing the motorbike mayhem in Hanoi, we were also a little apprehensive. However, after a few instructions and a brief list of do’s and don’ts, Oliver and I were soon on our way – first stop, Tam Cốc.
The motorbike journey itself was amazing; after turning off the highway, we were greeted by endless rice paddies, giant water buffalo and limestone mountains. The scenery was breathtaking and the freshness of the air welcome after the smog that choked Hanoi.
Expecting a well-oiled tourist attraction, we were a little lost and confused when it felt like we were in the middle of a rural Vietnamese town. Eventually we figured out how to buy tickets and were ushered on to a small, wooden boat that barely looked big enough to carry us. The tiny vessel swayed once or twice, and then we were pleasantly gliding on the water as the noise on the pier became increasingly distant.
The man responsible for getting the boat moving decided that using his feet to row was more efficient than using his hands. He sat back with his arms folded and allowed his legs to lunge the boat forward, and soon we were moving at a steady rhythm. It quickly became obvious that the foot-rowing method was preferred by most boat men and women, as they could use their hands to do other things, such as smoke and wave at passers-by.
As we headed further down the river, the beauty of Tam Cốc became ever more apparent. It was as if we were in a lost world characterised by massive limestone karsts that jutted out of the water and towered over us, making us feel insignificant as they dwarfed our tiny boat. The karsts had dramatic jagged edges from which trees seemed to grow out of every possible groove. Adding to the beauty, bright, green rice paddies stretched from the river bank to the foot of the casts, and the slight breeze made the paddies dance for us in a display of natural beauty. The elements jointly added to the drama of the scene while mist hugged the top of the mountains, making them increasingly theatrical. Interestingly, the other-worldly landscape was not devoid of life, as surefooted mountain goats climbed, played, and ate on the giant stone formations.
 

Ninh Binh karst landscape.
Photos: Oliver Hirtenfelder

As we neared the end of the river, our boat was surrounded by women selling merchandise from their boats. One woman approached our boat, held on to it, and pleaded with us to buy some of her merchandise. We politely declined and were stunned when she turned sour and became abrasive. Unfortunately this kind of attitude had been common amongst Vietnamese merchants, and we cursed under our breath that she was able to taint our experience. Not wanting the saleslady to deter us from more adventures in Ninh Bình, we decided it was time to leave and climb back on our bike. With no set plan, we sporadically stopped at temples and other attractions, and as we rode along the narrow road, with acres of rice paddies on the right and tiny villages on the left, the sun gently baked down on our exposed thighs and arms. While travelling on the bike, the breeze saved us from the sweltering heat but not from our hunger, and it was well past lunchtime when we stopped at a restaurant.
 

At the Cúc Phương National
Park primate-rehabilitation centre.
Photos: Oliver Hirtenfelder

Not sure what they sold or if anyone would be able to speak English, we approached with caution. We were nicely surprised when a young teenager seemed jubilant that we were there and that she could practise her English. We asked her what was good, and she readily informed us that Ninh Binh was famous for its goat meat. Having only ever heard that goat meat was very tough, I eyeballed her closely. But not wanting to miss out on my Vietnamese experience, I agreed to the goat, a little uncertain of what to expect.
A plate of meat covered in an array of spices and fresh herbs arrived at our table and tempted my nostrils, causing my mouth to water. The meat was accompanied by a basket of fresh mint and other leaves, as well as some rice paper and a home-made peanut sauce. Noticing our confusion, our teenage friend eagerly gave us a demonstration. She quickly picked up rice paper and one of the freshly picked leaves, and with each deft movement of her hands she added yet another ingredient to what soon we saw was our first goat-and-leaf sandwich. Flavours burst to life in my mouth, as the sweet mint and peanut sauce greatly complimented the perfectly spiced (and surprisingly tender) goat meat. Absolutely delectable!
With tummies full and just a little bit of time left before we need to return the bike, we opted for some driving. The wind whipped through our hair, the breeze cooled our burnt skin, and the occasional whack of the bike (as a result of shot suspension) kept us awake. It’s the perfect way to end the day. Feeling tired and with our butts aching from the hard bike seat, we had a beer in the hotel’s courtyard and decided another day in Ninh Binh was a must.
On day three, we knew exactly where we wanted to go, Cúc Phương National Park. With directions in hand, we got back on the bike and were soon on our way. A journey that should have taken only an hour turned into two, as one wrong turn left us zipping up and down tiny alleyways and makeshift roads. Realising we were lost, we plucked up enough courage to ask some locals where we needed to go. This involved a series of awkward hand gestures, blank stares and smiles, before we were on the right track again. Once at the park, we were delighted to see it was not busy.
Cúc Phương National Park was well known for its primate rehabilitation centre, which was our first stop. A knowledgeable guide walked us between the primates’ cages, and we got a glimpse of some rare animals like the gibbon. It was fascinating how different Asian primates were to African ones, with their lighter colours and gentle faces. He told us stories of how these animals had been hunted or orphaned and how they were slowly being rehabilitated at Cúc Phương. Unfortunately the tour was very short, but it was informative and fascinating nonetheless.
After that, we headed to the turtle-rehabilitation centre where we learnt about the demise of reptiles in Asia as the demand for them in China increased. Many species were nearing extinction, but the trade in terrapins and turtles was lucrative, giving often destitute people a means of providing for their families. It was a complex problem and the centre had a wealth of information, not to mention how cool it was to see all the different turtles that Cúc Phương was rehabilitating and breeding to help the conservation effort.
After an informative morning, it was back on the bike, and we rode half-an-hour through the park to get to our desired hiking trail. The thick vegetation of the rainforest clinched to the side of the road, which was made up of a series of up hills and down hills. The motorbike’s engine lightly grumbled and added to the ever-growing noise coming from within the forest. Riding, seemingly alone, through a rainforest was an exhilarating feeling.
Then it was time to man up and hike. It was a novice hike through the thick rainforest, and in the heat of the day we were drenched from head to toe, before we even started. Insects seemed to have an insatiable attraction to us, and they were bizarre to look at with their vibrant colours and odd shapes. After walking for an hour, we reached an old tree, which was massive and rose above the rest of the forest. Its majesty was simply awesome, despite being littered with people’s carved names. Exhausted from the hike and a full day of sightseeing, we headed back to town (which thankfully took only an hour this time), to get ready for our departure the next day.
Whilst waiting for the bus to leave, we flicked through our photos and were yet again amazed at how Ninh Bình was adorned with natural gems. It was the kind of place where you just wanted to get a bike and ride, while the rest of the world slipped away, and where you could feel, smell, taste and see so much of what Vietnam had to offer. Finally, the bus pulled up and we prayed we would be more comfortable than we had been on the previous bus ride.