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...two travellers in search of the world's wildlife

7 December 2018

Ninh Binh expeditions

View from our room

View from our room

30 November 2018

This is kindof a round-up of two days in the area, paired with tomorrow’s post.

So we’re staying in a village just outside Ninh Binh city at a homestay. It’s an interesting mixture. The family have used a plot in the village to build a five storey mini-hotel with nine rooms that towers over the rest of the village (probably with no bad feelings, as apparently most of the villagers are cousins or otherwise related). So the rooms are really nice and hotel-like but the experience is absolutely of a homestay. Like this:

  • Mum and dad speak no English, though son Tan does, but he isn’t always around (daughter does too, but is at Uni in Hanoi)
  • No-one else is staying at the moment, and I get the feeling that in spite of nine rooms they mainly have only 1 guest at a time so far; they’ve only been open a year
  • Mum Hien will often engage us in fairly long Google Translate conversations, and she is a lovely woman and a maternity doctor
  • Grandmother occasionally emerges from the back room to speak to us in Vietnamese with no(?) expectation of being understood. We smile and reply with whatever comes into our heads
  • Dad serves the food for dinner upstairs, along with generous top-ups of homemade rice wine. He also chooses what plays on the big flat-screen TV
  • We were invited next door to grandfather’s house (a trad village house) to see preparations for his death-day celebrations and meet various relatives

It is a sometimes awkward experience, but they are such a nice family that I really hope they get more and more guests before they get in trouble with the bank!

Mystic views in Trang An

Mystic views in Trang An

The nearest place to visit from our homestay is Trang An, where they take you in small boats through a labyrinth of waterways and caves surrounded by sheer jungle-clad karst mountains. It’s like a scene out of King Kong. Literally, because this is where King Kong was filmed. It’s very beautiful and great fun. Our boat lady was endearingly abrupt and commanding, giving a brisk thump on the shoulder when we needed to bend down to avoid bashing our heads on the low ceilings of the flooded caves that she paddled us through with great skill. The nice Vietnamese couple who shared the boat with us were helpful in translating.

Down the road a few miles is a place called Tam Coc with a similar boat-through-caves experience, and apparently Trang An is more popular with Vietnamese while Tam Coc is more popular with other tourists. Having driven along the long street of neon-covered backpacker hostels, bars, tat shops and tour organisers outside Tam Coc I’m really glad we chose Trang An!

Yellow-throated martens

Yellow-throated martens

Less nice than the Trang An boat lady was the boat lady at Van Long, where we had gone looking for more langurs – the also extremely rare Delacour Langur. Explaining to us that she was 63 and had 8 kids and 21 grandkids exhausted her store of English. But luckily (for her) we were caught up by another boat containing two Vietnamese blokes. So she let them past and held a conversation with them at shrieking volume for the rest of the ride, spoiling our view and the tranquility. An hour of “BWA BWA GWA HWA WAAAA, GWA WA BWA BWA BWAAAA” followed. Amazingly, a pair of yellow-throated martens appeared on the rocks near us, and we watched them a while until finally our boat lady saw them too and shrieked at us something that presumably translated as “Look, foreigners! Monkeys!” …before they scampered off and she resumed her loud conversation with the locals.

Starting the 500 steps

Starting the 500 steps

When we got to shore she smiled up at us and said “tiptiptip?” in a meek little voice. I gave her a modest tip and she looked at it wryly before calling across to the other boat ladies something that very clearly translated as “would you believe what these two cheap-ass foreigners have given me for a tip?” Well lady, screw you.

Oh, and the langurs weren’t around. We learned later that 7-9am and 4-6pm are the most likely times to see them.

For exercise we climbed the 500 steps above Mau Cave to an awesome viewpoint over the Ninh Binh landscape. I almost went pop with the exertion. That was a lotta steps, and a very sunny day. The views are absolutely amazing though. We have nothing in Europe or America similar to the karst limestone landscapes of SE Asia, and I’m sure it’s partly the sheer unfamiliarity that makes them so astonishing to look at.

View of Ninh Binh

View of Ninh Binh

At Mau Cave we found the parking scam in effect; just before the ticket office we were directed to “Parking for Mau Cave” (15,000 dong). But… it looks like there’s plenty of free space to park just beyond the ticket office? Yet when you try, an official looking chap in a shirt emerges from behind the ticket office and blows a whistle at you, halting entry and directing you to the 15,000 dong parking place. Official looking, mind you. And emerges from behind the ticket office, you’ll note. Some other tourists had already been pre-warned and continued into the free parking regardless. Ruefully, I had already parked. We are talking 50p, of course. But still! Grrrr!

Our final visit was the Bird Garden, a bizarre place where they’re turning a tract of wild karstic forest into a sort of cheesy resort/botanical gardens/nature reserve combination. The real attraction is the lake where many water birds gather to roost every night in great flocks; egrets, storks, herons, etc in their hundreds. Very cool.

Bird garden

Bird garden


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