Once we got off the boat, we jumped in the car with our driver and headed north for our five day tour of inland and rural Vietnam. If you read Debs post called “Dan!” it was just shy of a miracle that we connected and actually had a driver and a car to our next destination…Ninh Binh.
We drove along the crazy highways of Vietnam for three hours before we reached Ninh Binh. We passed right through the city of Ninh Binh and into Trang An, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Ninh Binh.
We arrived at An Phu Homestay where our host, Luong, and his family were very excited and happy to see us along with his family. Before we get too far into this leg of the adventure, we simply cannot recommend it highly enough. The homestay had four bedrooms, but we were the only people that we’re staying there on our first night there, so Luong gave us the choice of any of the rooms to pick from. We decided, well actually the kids decided, to pick a cottage that was set away from the actual house which was absolutely lovely. When we asked them why they picked that one, the kids said that they wanted the hammocks that were in the porch in front of the cottage.
So, since we have been sitting on our butts for three hours during the transfer, we set out to explore the village a little bit to stretch our legs out. I thought that Luong had welcomed us with excitement but it seemed like the whole village was equally excited to have us there.
All of the kids that were riding around on their bikes after school tried out their best English with “hello! How are you? Where are you from? “And if we tried to push the conversation any further they laughed and they peddled off on their bikes as fast as they could. The adults and elders were equally happy and welcoming.
Walking around the village everybody had a small lake around their house which was used as a source of freshwater, but is well served as a place to keep fish fresh and let their ducks and geese have a place to swim. It was also a source of water for their gardens that they all kept around their house.
All around us were banana trees, starfruit trees, lemon trees, a cute little garden, and the sound of a busy bustling village. There was a group of men sitting around the communal lake at the centre of town (even though every house, pretty much, had its own pond for water and use in their gardens). School was out, but a group of girls looked like they were doing interpretive dance, glee club, or cheerleading. Not sure which. And the boys were sitting at the fence watching them giggling to themselves. Ahhhhh, high school…
The big source of excitement in town seemed to be the installation of a septic pipe (or fresh water pipe…not sure which) underneath the main road and they were digging up the road and slowly putting it together. This brought many people out to their front porches to watch the workers make their way down the street.
Quickly assessing the situation, there really wasn’t much in the way of places to eat other than at the homestay so we decided to stay in and eat at home. Luong and his wife could not have prepared a better meal for us and it was absolutely lovely.
I have said it before during this leg of the trip but I cannot understand how these people stay so skinny given the amount of food that they put in front of us. Either that or they look at us and see that we are significantly bigger than they are and they think that we need more nutrition than they do so they just give us a whole pile of food.
At least dessert wasn’t some sugary treat that we are used to, rather it was a plate of fruit. That might need to be the new dessert for when we get home as equally delicious as having a bowl of ice cream. Well maybe not the same but pretty close in a heck of a lot more nutritious.
The next morning we got up and had a delicious breakfast of Vietnamese banana pancakes, which are more like panfried funnel cakes that you would get at Canada’s Wonderland and fresh bananas pile on top. Super good, but the kids could not finish theirs so dad “the trash compactor“ swung into full effect. I think this is where I am gaining my weight from. I have a hard time resisting good food.
Luong had arranged for a caravan of motorcycles to take us out to see the sights over the next couple of days during our stay here as this area is rich with temples nestled into the mountain side, traditional rowboat excursions down the rivers as they pass through the valleys and into the caves under the mountains to secret temple locations, and a very large Buddhist temple complex in the Trang An area that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We are on a bit of a theme for this trip right now…hit as many UNESCO sites as we can!
Ok, a bit of history now. I bet you thought that you were going to get off easy with just a nice story with some nice photos. Those are Deb’s posts. Mine are very verbose and I tend to put more history and sciencey kind of stuff in them.
Anyways, the history of the area dates back to the stone age and archeologists have found cave paintings dated back 30,000 years ago, and they have found ancient pottery around 11,000 years ago and more “modern” necessities of life dating 9000 years ago. I always try to put in perspective thinking that Canada is only 150 years old and who knows how long the aboriginals occupied our area before the Europeans showed up. During the era from the 900s to 1100ish, Ninh Binh was a economic centre, as well as an area that had a strong military presence.
After this, the capital was moved from here to Hanoi when the king at the time had a spiritual vision during a visit to Hanoi, where he saw a dragon rise out of a lake and fly into the sky. I guess that would be enough for someone to say, “Lets move the capital!”.
The reason that Ninh Binh is a UNESCO World Heritage site is for two reasons. First off, this is a historically significant place on the earth that represents a significant geologic change in our planet, due to the formation of the large monolithic pitons (small mountains that are peaked) that demonstrates significant geologic movements that happened as the tectonic plates moved. Unlike most mountains that are formed by two land masses getting pushed into one another (like the Rockies for example), these towering monolithic pitons (I will just call them that for now) were created when the earths crust was pulled apart. So, there was one larger mountain or mountain range that got pulled apart as Gondwonaland (the large continent that existed when the earth had just one continent) fragmenting the mountain into many pitons. On top of this, significant climate change back then caused the sea to rise and fall several times, eroding the bases of these mountains and forming many caves that penetrated into and through the mountains.
Now, in the valleys, there is rich fertile land that is used for farming with rivers coursing through them, and through the mountains. These rivers take you around to secluded lakes where there are many temples nestled into the mountainsides.
The other reason for this area being a UNESCO World Heritage site is that there is extensive evidence that this area was inhabited by humans over 30,000 years ago in a lot of the caves that the sea dug out at the base of these mountains. Especially in the areas where the temples were established.
Our first stop of the day was at Trang An Grottoes which is where we would be hopping into a canoe with a guide to take us down the network of rivers to the secret temple locations in the area. Many people call this area the Ha Long bay of the land, and it is not hard to see why given the massive peaks that rise out of the land the same way that they did out of the water up in Ha Long Bay.
In the last couple of years, the local government made it illegal for the boat guides to row with their feet. Good thing. They probably were texting otherwise, and you never want to text and row.
We coursed down rivers that wound through dense forests, while the beautiful water lilies were in full bloom around us. It was early on in the day, so there weren’t the usual hoards of tourists and tour buses hadn’t arrived either. The boat guides were ready for them however. There were easily 150-200 boats lined up on the shores of the main reception area where you took off from.
After we got off the boats, we head back up on the motorcycles and headed to to Mua Caves and Lying Dragon Mountain. We decided to skip the caves part, since we saw a lot of caves on our boat ride and we knew that there were more caves to come. As such, we started climbing the 500 or so steps up the side of the mountain to two mountaintop temples.
It was a bit humid, so it made it even harder to climb because of the heat. Ok, maybe because we are incredibly out of shape now. Haha!
Because these mountains rise sharply from the lands that surround them, the view from the vantage point on top is amazing. Unfortunately the weather here has been very humid and the sky has been hazy rather than sunny and clear. However given the lush tropical forests here I think that this is the norm for them.
Wilson and I scrambled along the top of the cliff edge where the lying dragon was perched, and we were able to yell over to Deb who had climbed to the other peak where the other temple was.
Wilson is certainly becoming more confident in his abilities to do things, and is branching out with his adventuresome endeavours as he readily scrambled and bouldered along the thin edge of the top of the piton, which fell off really quickly to either side, ensuring sudden death to anyone that fell. Ok, that is a bit dramatic…maybe you would hurt yourself.
Hot, and sweaty, we climbed down the stairs as there was a crazy bunch of women climbing up the stairs in full army gear. I don’t know if this was a sorority initiation thing, or if they were actually in the army, but they were crazy for climbing up in the heat nonetheless.
To top them off, some man who was bound and determined to secure his place in the doghouse right from day one, was climbing up the stairs with his either new wife or soon to be new wife to the top of this peak to have photos done. Bad move dude.
We had a chuckle and then jumped back on the scooters where our guides took us to a fantastic family run restaurant, again in the middle of nowhere. This would not have been anywhere near on the list for us to stop if we had not been taken there. We indulged in some of fantastic homemade food and hopped back on the bikes to go discover some more areas.
During the afternoon we went from temple to temple, the names of which I really cannot remember and we’re just amazed at how beautiful the area was. Our drivers took us down back streets where we had to duck under fallen trees, and they had to walk their bikes with us still on them along single track dirt paths between the rice fields, which we would have never gone on our own had we rented scooters or bikes like a lot of other people did.
A bonus find was that we even stumbled upon a kung fu movie being shot, however no active filming was being done at the time. That’s too bad. That is one movie I did not want to be an extra in! Ha ha.
We made our way over to Bai Dinh Temple Complex which is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, Buddhist temple complexes in the world. It spans 540 hectares so we weren’t going to see it all in one day.
Larry and Evelynn had told us to walk through the long hall that had 500 statues if Buddha’s each with their own pose. It is considered to be good luck if you rub each statue as you walk through the hall. Not to be outdone and to have as much luck as possible, Wilson rubbed each statue twice.
As you can imagine, the rubbed areas were very smooth and shiny, which included the hands, knees, belly buttons, and other parts.
The original temple was built into a hill in a series of caves that lead to one another. But then the new temple complex that has been built around it, which sticks to traditional cultural design, is simply overwhelming. There are a series of temples that try to one-up each other with the size of the Buddha’s in them.
They start off human size, but by the end, the golden Buddha’s are super massive. Like four stories tall massive. And golden Buddha’s at it too. So you have massive Buddha’s that have lights shining on them and you have to squint a bit to look at them as they are so bright.
We finally ended up at an even bigger chubby Buddha that wasn’t in a temple but was standing on his own, with a big smile on his face and a travel sack slung over his shoulder. That was the best one of them all. He looked out over the land below him since he was on the top of a hill, and I (and I think Deb did too) felt like this symbolizes our journey.
I don’t know much about Buddhism, but it seems very peaceful and happy. When I looked into a bit more, even though it is thought to be a religion, it is believed to be (according to the places that I looked) more of a philosophy. A way of life. Live life morally. Be mindful and aware of your thoughts and actions. And continue to learn, develop wisdom, and understanding.
Deb went to a retreat in New Mexico last year and really enjoys the premise of it and the underlying principles of kindness to yourself and others, mindfulness and living in the moment, and gratitude towards yourself and others.
The kids were done for the day (“Not another temple dad…”), so they went back to the scooters with Deb to hook up with the guides, while I went up the very tall pagoda which was had an amazing Buddha domed shrine (not sure what else to call it) at the top.
I took some pictures at the top of the surrounding area from the top of the pagoda, but it was getting dark pretty quickly so I thought I shouldn’t dilly dally at the top since the rest of the gang was waiting for me down at the bottom.
It was dark by the time that I got back to the scooters, and Deb and the kids were happy to see me and I wasn’t lost somewhere on the sprawling grounds of the temples. The kids certainly deserved their ice cream that they were patiently waiting for at the end of the day and we found a “corner store” to buy some along with some other snacks.
One last photo stop for the night was on the far side of a lake where you could see the whole temple complex lit up in lights and it was reflected off of the surface of the water. Super beautiful…
We got back to the homestay, and we dinner and bed quickly followed as we had another big day of scooting around the countryside ahead the next day.
We ate a quick breakfast and had a couple of cups of the typical Vietnamese jet fuel coffee they brew…it is soooo good, and we were on the road again with the scooters. We had a new guy who spoke better english, which was good, especially for Mr. Chitty Chat (me). The kids just wanted me to stop asking questions. I like to think that I am inquisitive, not annoying….
We went down several single track paths between the rice fields where rice harvesting was in full tilt. It was great as we were able to see the stages of rice harvesting from beginning to end.
It has only been in the last 10 years that they stopped harvesting by hand and started using more machines to help them along. Prior to this, which is still done in smaller fields and in villages, rice from field to fork is in the done in the following manner:
We stopped off at another local joint that looked as much as a family restaurant as it was a truck stop. Regardless the food was really good as per usual.
Our last stop of the day was another boat ride along a waterway that curved around the limestone mountains but it was also a place where we could see monkeys from a distance. But we were told that sometimes you don’t see any monkeys at all.
We were lucky to see four. Well, at least the girls did. I only saw one. It was a dark and drab day and the black monkeys blended into the shadows of the trees and rocks. Oh well, it was a nice boat ride.
We made it back to An Phu for our last night there. Luong met us once again with his cheerful personality and got our dinner ready.
After dinner, as he did each of the evenings with us, he sat down with us to talk about the day and our trip in general. He was genuinely interested and his English was very good.
An Phu Homestay is only 5 years old and was the first homestay in his village. Despite it being young, this was hands down the one of the best places that we have stayed on our trip. Luong and his wife have two boys, 5 and 9, who were a little shy to play with our kids.
The place felt like home as the fridge was stocked, there were new toothbrushes and toothpaste waiting for us in the room when we arrived, and he had some local treats waiting for the kids when we got home from the scooter trip one day. He treated us like gold. Like we were family.
The first night we were there, I asked if I could watch them make supper as I wanted to learn more about Vietnamese food and how to make it. They did more than that, they got me in there cooking with them and I found that trying to flip chicken in a pan with chopsticks is remarkably hard. The next morning, Luong let me tag along with him to the village market where there was everything out in the open for sale. Including the meat. No fridges here!
We walked back to the home, saying good morning to the construction crew that was getting ready to work on the road again…and the villagers were already setting up shop to watch for the day.
As I mentioned before, we really enjoyed the Vietnamese coffee, and I went off about our tour of the plantation in Africa and all the things we learned. With a lot of enthusiasm too. Luong just listened politely and agreed is also very good and he had coffee from a friend in southern Vietnam who had his own plantation.
He and I shared some happy juice that he made…rice wine seasoned with lychees (not snakes). Deb had one shot of it on the night we arrived and she didn’t want any more. It was pretty good I thought.
We packed up our stuff and got ready for the drive to Mai Chau the next day. We were sad to be leaving Ninh Binh, An Phu, Lhong and his family and the little village that was home for a couple of days.
Don’t worry. We will be back.
Here is a smattering of some of my favorite recipes so far…
These are super crisp, almost deep fried, but the Banana pancakes are really good. We had it at another place where it was like the bananas were sautéed in butter, cinnamon and brown sugar, and then folded into small packages rather than laid on top, was really good too.
Luong made us a traditional breakfast of Bún Chà, however this time his was with a cold broth rather than a warm one like we had in Hanoi. Who cares, it was Bún Chà. It was amazing.
This is a favorite of Wilson’s and mine. Not sure if I can get banana flowers back home, but who cares. I can find something to substitute…Banana flower salad
Deep fried spring rolls. These are super easy to make. Dampen both sides of a rice paper sheet, stuff it with whatever veggies and meat you want that is cut up fine. Wrap it up like a burrito and pan fry it in peanut oil. Yum yum.