Ninh Binh was another place we marked on our map at the suggestion of other travelers. It was described as the poor man’s Halong Bay by some but the same and others said it had many of its own unique sights worth seeing even if Halong Bay was on the travel itinerary. It had also more recently gained fame as one of the on site locations for filming the movie Kong: Skull Island.
Like any other bus ride we arrived at an ungodly hour in the morning, probably about 4 AM in this case. Unlike any other bus ride Ross had placed the GPS near the window in order to allow it a better connection, but subsequently forgot about it in the sleepy stupor he exited the bus in. Only a few minutes after we got off the bus Ross remembered but by that time the bus was already around the corner and probably on the freeway to the next town. We quickly spoke the guy in charge of the hotel in front of where we were dropped off who was awake to receive a number of the backpackers. He seemed to have a special deal with the bus company to make his hotel the stopping point for the town, because there seemed to be no other reason to stop on that exact street at that exact point. He also managed to have the individual numbers of the bus employees from the bus we were on saved to his phone. The man was nice enough to call the bus and ask them to look for our errant GPS unit, but our description of its location was lost in translation as they did not find it. For some reason the man got really angry at us and tried to tell us off, calling us liars. We insisted he call again and tried more carefully explain where Ross had left the GPS and included the possibility that it might have fallen to a different place during the careening bus drive. This time it was found, but the man we were speaking to continued to hold his mysterious grudge and spoke angrily at us growling that they would drop the GPS unit off at the office in the next town and we should call them tomorrow.
Fortunately Ross had left the GPS running and leaving it by the window meant it should have had nearly a full charge still. He would be able to check later if the GPS was really at the office when we called. Having done everything we could at that point we made our way through the dark streets to our hostel. Other than a stray dog that paid too much attention to us the walk was uneventful. The hostel was a large property with a large lobby area in the first and second floor for us to sleep the rest of the night away until the sun was up along with the main staff.
After the minimal nap we had we ate our breakfast and began talking with the staff to contact the bus company regarding our Nokia phone. We should explain even from the beginning talking with the rude hotel owner we referred to it as our phone. We could count on two hands the number of times we saw a smart phone in Vietnam. Most people carried older flip-phones and even old school brick type Nokias. We figured we would run with this idea and try and make our device seem as cheap as possible. We wanted to make sure getting the device back seemed more lucrative than pawning it. Checking the GPS data we knew the device was actually at the office of the bus company in Hanoi, the next town on our list. We would be there in 48 hours so we were fine to leave it there and pick it up on our own time, but the bus company was insistent it bring the device to us in Ninh Binh. We figured the faster it got back to us the less time someone had to rethink returning it at all. We acquiesced to the plan and the bus company said we would need to pay them ten US dollars value for the trouble. We agreed and after the phone call was over the hostel staff told us ten US dollars was very expensive for the task they were performing and we could have haggled them down. We explained it was not in fact a phone they were bringing back and its true market values was over $400 so ten dollars was not a lot to ensure its safe return.
After settling the plan for the GPS we began deciding on the plan for the day. A few other people had come in on the late night bus to sleep in the public space of the hostel with us. We ended up befriending them and had hung out at breakfast. We included them in our plan. We wanted to rent motorbikes and see as much as we could during the day. Half of the rest of the group had not ridden a scooter but were confident they could pick it up or just ride as a passenger.
After renting the scooters and getting everyone situated we filled up on gas and headed off to the first major sight of Ninh Binh. Trang An was the location for the filming of Kong: Skull Island and the place that looked most like Halong Bay. As we approached the area we parked our bikes in an open spot and were about to leave until someone was yelling at us and making shoo motions with their hands. Guessing the content of the shouts we moved the bikes to an area where other bikes were located. A man came up to us and asked us for money for parking there. He honestly appeared to have come out of nowhere and we were not even sure he was the caretaker of this area. He could have easily just been capitalizing on some foreign ignorance. We actually tried ignoring him, but he got in our way. He then produced little receipts for the parking fee transaction. Now he at least seemed a prepared conman. We ended up paying him the few cents worth he asked for and made sure he properly marked the receipts as paid for the scooters.
After all that was taken care of we walked over to the area to purchase the ticket for our boat ride through the large but narrow lake through the mountains. In Vietnam you can bargain just about anything down, but certain things have a set price that is adhered to. This was one of those fixed price things. After about 20 minutes of unsuccessful negotiations we paid the listed price which was actually meant as a protection for tourists to make sure the price was fixed and only approved people could take you boating through the lake. We decided for some reason we needed the classic Vietnamese full brim farming hat, or “nón lá,” before going on the boats. This time we were able to successfully utilize our bargaining skills to actually rent a couple hats from a nearby shop. After donning the hats we realized the reason we needed them was because they are awesome. Beginning our little tour we got a cute old lady who was in her 70s and still doing two to three trips a day most days of the week. Even more amazing, or perhaps just practicable at that point, she would lean back in her chair and row with her feet most the time. She rowed us through the narrow lake this way for almost an hour in total. We were treated to amazing views of rock faces rising vertical in the sky from gorgeous rows of local and farmed plant life in the waters and several grottoes.
At the end of the stretch of lake there were refreshment vendors on their own boats waiting to accost us for the sale. We were really impressed with our septuagenarian rower and asked if there was anything she wanted and we paid for it. She picked a couple things and once more we still had to haggle the price down. On the return trip she only drank the tea we got her and left the other things untouched. We suspected she would return the goods she didn’t touch and split the fee we paid with the vendor who was her friend or at least her acquaintance. We were doubly sure this was the case when we tried to tip our oh-so-kind lady and she stopped rowing before the end and demanded more. So much for the protections of price fixing.
After getting back on shore and returning our hats we learned our friends had run into similar problems with tipping and attrition. While it is a matter of a few dollars, when you are traveling on a budget a few dollars here and there can add up real quick. Add to that a feeling of defeat and being swindled every time you are nickel and dimed and you can begin to understand why we keep arguing for 10 or 20 minutes over a couple dollars or even cents.
You can also understand why we nearly lost our temper when we returned to the parking area where we left our bikes and the guy that had charged us was asking for more money before he would let us take the scooters. We just brushed him off and took the scooters while he lazily made a scene. We rode off in a hurry just in case we were actually breaking some kind of rule or in case the police were simply corrupt and would “fine” us. We rode around the backside of the rising cliffs because there was supposed to be a path to the top so we could get an aerial view of the waters below. Turns out there was a fee to use the steps which were equal to about seven flights. Knowing there were HD photos of the view we could get, being cheapskates, and not in the mood for a huge climb, we opted out and continued on our way.
The other big draw to Nim Binh besides the scenic lake is a national park nestled in the more hilly areas outside of town with a huge array of plant and wildlife. Having the bikes for only the day we continued with our group along the google suggested route towards the park. The views along the ride to the park were spectacular but were beset by many difficulties along this path. The two major difficulties were the thunderstorm rains and the fact google took us along the strangest path to get there. To be fair to google there seemed to be only two real paths to get to the park and both involved a lot of dirt path that bordered on off-roading. The initial path we took had us driving along these raised sections of concrete which created a path but never really felt like a proper road. It felt more like the concrete was meant to act as a damn or water barrier for flooding. It also didn’t feel like a road because the local people felt like drying their grains or other crops sometimes covering the entire width of the path.
The concrete eventually gave way to the dirt path around the same time it started to rain heavily and the thunder and lighting roared and cracked closer and closer. At some point around then the key from one of the scooters fell out of the ignition while the scooter was still on. Despite all this we made it to the entry point for the park and took a break as the rain had begun to pour even harder somehow. There was one little shop with cover from the rain and a crotchety lady attending it. She seemed really upset we wanted to buy food from her food store and angrily got to cooking. As we ate and waited for the rain to end we discussed among the group what we were going to do next. The rain was pounding down so hard it made it difficult to drive on the scooters even with rain slicks. Furthermore it was getting late, an extra fee for a late return was one concern but came second to the concern of potentially having to drive the scooters back in the rain while it was also dark, especially for the first timers among our group.
After some deliberation we decided to skip the park even though we were on its doorstep in favor of safety. We took the other route back home which was much better overall as it involved real roads with asphalt and lanes. We were also fortunate the rain cleared up. After that we only had to worry when a giant truck made a surprise left turn and the people in the back of the train of scooters disappeared and when another scooter ran out of gas. Everything ended up being fine and we made it back just before dark to return the scooters in time.
We then went out with the scooter group in search of the mythical bia hoi of northern Vietnam along with some dinner. Bia hoi translates to fresh beer, and is brewed individually. It has a super low alcohol percent but you can get a whole pint for a twenty five cents. We had to depart early from the dinner in order to be at the unmarked bus stop in order to get the GPS back. Watching how quickly the bus left the stop the first time we knew there would be no waiting for us if we weren’t there when it arrived.
The bus arrived and Ross approached the bus driver asking about the GPS. It was in the front of the bus against the window which allowed Ross to easily track the bus and know when it was arriving. The bus driver told Ross to wait while they finished getting all the new people on the bus that were joining that stop. Ross was fairly convinced after today that there was going to be a demand for more money before releasing the GPS and he was actually ready to grab it and run. In a defensive lawyer move he also began recording on his phone once they told him to wait. After all the business with the new passengers were settled they finally came to Ross. The wife of the angry owner from before began having a conversation in Vietnamese with the bus driver. If we had to guess we would say they were having a fake conversation to build drama because the lady finally said to Ross in english the man had gone out of his way to bring the device back and he should be compensated for his trouble. She said he deserved 200,000 Dong for his troubles. The ten US dollars previously agreed on was actually worth a bit more than that but Ross was ready with a note for the requested amount and quickly gave it to the man while grabbing the GPS device out of his hand.
Having secured the device we quickly left and resumed drinking to celebrate a full and mostly successful day exploring a beautiful area. Being extremely tired though from the long day we didn’t last long and retired to our beds in the dorm to rest up for our journey to Hanoi.