Hanoi: Picturesque Ninh Binh

From Halong Bay, it was another full day of driving - approximately 5 hours to Ninh Binh, which is south of Hanoi. Ninh Binh, nicknamed "The Halong Bay of Land", is a picturesque valley filled with lush greenery and limestone hills. For this leg of the trip, we have a tour guide to accompany us - Duc. 

By the time we arrived in Ninh Binh, it was already close to 4pm - sun sets at around 6:20pm. Only enough time for a quick walkabout and take some pretty shots of sunset if I'm lucky. Parents decided to take it easy and enjoy the pool and more qigong. 

From the hotel, I could see some pretty momuments erected by the limestone hills. I had to walk around swathes of paddy fields to get to them... only to discover that those pretty monuments are really tombs, gulp. Then on the way back, I spied a man who was walking on a raised dirt bank across the flooded rice plains. Hey, I thought, this will save me from going around the paddy fields to return to the hotel! So I followed him.

As I gingerly side-stepped cow dung and avoided muddy banks, I could see the man ahead of me has already reached the other side of the field and was sitting on a platform to chat with his buddy. They both turned around to watch me and my balancing act. Spurned by my new spectators, I balanced on slippery rocks and neatly jumped across to dry land.  

What? You think I was going to fall flat on my face? Not with my catlike reflexes, no. Sorry to disappoint.

One of my admiring spectators. He even tried to help me by instructing where to place my footing, but in his language.... At least, that's what I thought. He could be making fun of my touristy looks for all I know.

So the entire village is almost filled with water everywhere I go. Around houses, fields, tanks etc and etc.  I saw a man fishing from these ponds too!

Anyhoo, we were told that we could have our dinner at the hotel. But as far as I am concerned, if there is a way I can get out of eating in an eatery adjusted for foreign tastebuds, I will take that way out. So I asked, begged, pleaded Duc to bring us out for dinner and spare us the bland hotel meals. We met Duc and our driver after shower and we drove into town for an authentic Vietnamese dinner experience.

Duc tells us that one of Ninh Binh's specialties is the goat meat. 

Two types of goat meat dishes were ordered: Goat meat with lemongrass (second from top right) and a goat meat wrap (bottom first and third dish) - a rice paper, laden with slices of goat meat, cucumber, some herbs, slice of starfruit, generous dollop of misc sauces, roll up and consume. We also ordered stir fried morning glory vegetables, tofu cooked with tomatoes, young papaya salad and steamed rice. It was heavenly. That tomato soup thingy was for the last few mouthfuls of rice. You scoop some soup and tomatoes into your bowl, mix them all up and finish the meal.

Washed down with a bottle of Hanoi beer, of course.

Duc and a goat meat spring roll he made.

This will be bookmarked for the next time I visit!

We left early the next morning to go on a boat ride around the grottoes of Trang An Eco tourism complex. What a beautiful place!

The boat ride is really pleasant. Very pretty, with tall limestone hills surrounding us and lily flowers dotting the lake. We even spotted koi fishes, frogs and little ducks!

A lady rowed us around the lake, and under caves. Some of the caves have really low roofs - we had to bend forwards or lie down on the boat to pass through! Definitely exciting to see Mum and Dad's acrobatic skills... or the lack of.

Docked at a temple built on the lake, took 10 minutes' hike to reach the temple.

Just as we reached the temple, it started to drizzle, just a touch, along with the sound of a gong reverberating. I just stood there, entranced, taking it all in.

Magnificent, no? :)

It was more than a 2-hour boat ride - came to about 3 hours actually! By then I was starved (only a small breakfast at the hotel - a really nice and spacious Legend Hotel, btw), also it was almost noon and we asked Duc to bring us for lunch first before moving on to the next destination.

1. More goat meat- this one tastes much better than the night before. Meat is really tender, aromatic with lemongrass. Can't get enough of it!   2. Crispy spring roll.   3. Deep fried crispy corn (Duc initially ordered French fries for us but I adamantly told him no!!! Goodness me, what a close faux pas!).   4. A type of crispy rice flakes, it's nice as a snack, maybe. But not so much with rice. Taken dipped in soup.

There were also the tofu cooked with tomatoes and stir fried morning glory veg again. I suppose Duc thinks we enjoyed the previous night's meal and carbon copied onto today's orders, thinking we'd appreciate it, lol. Very nice, but not spot on...

Moving on, we entered the Ancient Capital Hoa Lu, which used to be the capital of Vietnam. 

Duc brought us to King Dinh's memorial temple. I took off my shoes, stepped into the temple and tiptoed past a small group of women chanting prayers. And just there, right in front of me, a shaft of light from an opening in the roof shined onto the incense sticks.

This is easily my favourite shot of the trip. I only had about 30 seconds to twiddle with the camera, took a few shots and after that, that light was gone.

It was getting more humid by then and we still had to hike some 15-20 minutes up a hill to visit King Dinh's tomb! Mum did not come with us because of her knees, but it wasn't really that spectacular a view from the top. I was just glad to have a chance to do a bit of hiking. Me and dad got harassed by a couple of old, haggard women on our hike, almost forcing us to take some drinks and pay for them. Oh my, we couldn't get out of there fast enough.

Having had enough of temples for the day, we got back into the van and drove for two hours back to Hanoi for some last minute shopping and to wind down. We must have bought at least 10 large packets of coffee - strong, aromatic Vietnamese coffee.

Dinner at an eatery Duc recommended - very popular! Packed with locals and tourists alike.

Mango salad, stir fried morning glory vegetables (again), chilli clams and ginger with spring onion frog meat. The chilli clams were recommended by our waiter - it was spot on! And I'm not even a big fan of clams but these were really delicious.

Dad had a hankering for frog meat so...... They were quite tasty, actually. Everything we ordered turned out yummy, no wonder it's a hit among the locals.

Our flights were in the afternoon, so Duc suggested we take a one-hour trishaw ride around the Old Quarter before we check out and I thought that's a pretty cool idea. Each of us got a trishaw each, no squabbling and elbowing for space!

And that, wraps up our Hanoi adventure!

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