Ninh Binh

“That’s the bus station,” he said.  We paid the cabbie, and pulled our luggage from the trunk of the tiny green car.  He drove away, leaving us standing on a busy main street.  We looked around.  “Wait, where’s the station?” I asked.  “I’m not quite sure, is that it?” said James pointing to a parking lot behind us.  Just as we were about to turn around, a thin man across the street gestured towards us and yelled, “Ninh Binh!  Ninh Binh!”  Why yes, we are going to Ninh Binh.  How does he know?  Why is he yelling at us?

He ran across the street, giving us a curious look up and down.  “Ninh Binh?” he said again.  I nodded my head, and James and I made a silent agreement to take a chance and trust this man.  He grabbed one of our bags and pushed us across 4 or 5 lanes of traffic toward a minibus waiting on the other side.  Our bags were shoved under a row of seats in the back, and we entered the bus.  The windows were curtained to block the rising sun.  A TV above the driver was playing music videos and overhead speakers were blaring a dull drum beat topped by a passionate singer.  Each song sounded exactly the same.

We sat on the bus for 30 minutes before it began to move.  The driver backed up a few feet and stopped.  He moved forward and stopped again.  He turned around and pulled into the parking lot across the street and stopped.  He backed up, he pulled forward, he stopped.  1 hour later we were still in the parking lot.  The bus was only half full, and they didn’t want to leave until every seat was paid for.  Finally, they pulled out of the station and headed south for Ninh Binh.

Van Long Resort and Nature Reserve

Was I dreaming?  Had I been placed in a horror movie full of kitschy nostalgia, a quiet tribute to rundown theme parks?  Plaster statues of lions, tigers, bears, giraffes, and monkeys lined the once elaborate brick driveway, their sun-worn paint chipped away revealing gray innards.  I felt like I was looking at an old color photograph–everything was muted.  The restaurant was empty except for a few Korean tourists on their way out.  The food was set out on long buffet tables.  Sticky white bread covered in flies.  Dry buffet noodles unstuck with watered down soup broth.  Burned spring rolls with hard fried eggs.  Crunchy undercooked rice.  Sickness still fresh in our memories, we took a few cautious bites and did not go back for seconds.

What else could we do?  15 miles away from town, no car, no buses, no cabs.  No motorbikes.  The only time I would have considered hopping onto the back of a bike and clinging to a complete stranger.  Where were they? The power flickered on and off.  It stayed off.  Escaping the heat of our room, we left the compound style resort and walked a minute or two down the road to the Van Long Nature Reserve, a stretch of wetlands surrounding limestone cliffs.

Bamboo boats manned by women sat waiting at the entrance.  The size of a large dinner table, their woven bottoms were protected from leaks by a layer of mud.  Each woman had two canoe paddles and a long bamboo pole.  James and I sat on the perch-like seat with an umbrella to block the sun.  James was in full birdwatching mode.

The boat moved through the water lilies and swamp grass.  We saw blue kingfishers with red bellies, small brown birds with legs longer than their bodies, a bird that looked like a crow with red wings, and a flock of something white in the distance.

The boat turned a sharp corner and a cave appeared before us, etched into the face of a limestone cliff. The woman rowed closer. I hoped that we were just going for a quick look around, but she moved us into the cave. What a nice cave. I like the stalactites… they’re pointy. Can we turn around now? The ceiling lowered and she continued to row. It was almost completely dark. We could sense the ceiling and stalactites descending closer to the water and the tops of our heads. The woman put down her paddles and grabbed the cave roof with her hands, pulling us along. James and I slid off of our seat and sqautted, heads tucked, into the hull of the boat. Just when we thought our flat backs were going to be crushed by the weight of the cave, a stream of light showed the room expanding. We sat up again. The woman reached for her bamboo pole and pushed us through a tangle of grassy reads as we exited. She rowed in a circle around a small island buzzing with locusts, bringing us back through the cave one more time.

We spent the rest of the night in our room with the power flickering on and off. We couldn’t go anywhere. There were no other people around. A heavy rain began, followed by thunder and lightning. We stuffed towels under the door to keep the water from leaking in. A lizard had managed to sneak through a crack in the window and was eyeing our suitcases. I had wanted to escape from the intensity of Hanoi and the constant sales pitches of Sapa, but this solitude was too much. With no options, I felt trapped. We checked out the next morning, paying a guy to drive us to the bus station. One more night in Hanoi–just one more.

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