Wednesday 30th November 2016:
I woke up and was already feeling more relaxed thanks to the wonderful experience of the day before. I was just about getting the hang of it in Hanoi but unfortunately today, I had to leave this wonderful place. I had breakfast which was lovely and returned to the room to pack everything one last time.
I went to the reception to confirm that the taxi was indeed coming for 11.15am as the time for the bus departure to the city of Ninh Binh was at 12.25pm.
The manager of Cosiana Hotel saw me and came to speak to me about my experience at the hotel and wanted to know if everything went well. He was from Malaysia.
I returned to the room and felt a bit dehydrated so I drank as much water as I could. I Did a bit of Yoga (more like stretching haha) to relax and gradually my energy level went up. After all, I was on holiday.
I made my way down and waited in the hotel lobby for the taxi to come with my big backpack. I checked out and I was really excited to finally see what Vietnam had to offer from a nature point of view, even though Halong Bay filled my satisfaction. I gained a certain level of confidence. I guess it took me a while to adjust to this culture shock. I was now over my anxiety and my jet lag was wearing off slowly.
The taxi arrived quite promptly and on time (11.15am). There was no real rush for this trip as Ninh Binh was only two hours away from Hanoi. It was my first taxi in Vietnam and the receptionist said that it would cost no more than 90 000 VDG. I was nervously staring at the mileage on my way to Giap Bat (one of the main bus stations in Hanoi).
The traffic became mildly strong, admiring the beautiful sights of Hanoi that I didn’t get to visit. We arrived about 30 minutes later at Giap Bat. It was surreal and so fast. The taxi driver parked inside the bay and all of a sudden 3 or 4 guys opened the door from both sides of the car asking me where I was going.
I was slightly perturbed. I asked if they could close the door whilst I paid the driver who laughed at my inexperience of dealing with the situation. I realised I was alone in this! I paid the driver and I came out and a guy took my bag with him and directed me to a moving bus in direction to Ninh Binh. What a chaotic immersion into the South East Asian world.
It reminded me so much of Mauritius. I boarded the moving bus (health and safety?) and it was only two guys and myself on it. They placed my bag at the back of the bus and we had to wait for an hour for the station to clear out in order to start the journey. I took opportunity to pray and also eat a few things. Occasionally I was checking on my bag at the back of the bus and loaded my cameras with some films. I was so excited, laughing to myself about the madness I had just experienced.
The bus finally departed at 1.15pm and what was strange is that the driver stopped on the road randomly where there were people and asked who wanted to travel to Ninh Binh. For the local buses, it seems that there aren’t any bus stops on the main road.
The bus filled up quite quickly. I knew the trip was only 2 hours long so I didn’t mind much about the continuous stopping of the bus. One of the crew guys came to me and said that the ticket to Ninh Binh was 170 000 VDG (but cleverly prior to departure when the guy was carrying my bag I quickly ran to the kiosque and asked how much it was for the Ninh Binh and the lady behind the counter kindly shouted 70 000 VDG). I don’t know how but courage came over me and I said to the guy 70 000 VDG only, he smiled, gave up and took the money. It was a bit annoying that they scam people every time there is an opportunity. I didn’t dwell over it as I managed to handle the situation pretty well (Al hamdulillah).
We stopped on the way for 10 minutes for people to either leave, use the restroom or eat Pho. I didn’t go out just in case. A lady came into the bus and had a basket of bread buns she was selling.
I asked the guy who asked me for more money earlier on, how long left until arrival, I didn’t speak Vietnamese so he wrote on his phone 30 minutes. We laughed.
The more we got closer to Ninh Binh, the more rural the place got and it really looked like Mauritius (second time saying it). After 10 minutes, we finally arrived in Ninh Binh. The driver shouted Ninh Binh!
I rejoiced, came out with my bag and a taxi driver straight away asked me where I wanted to go. I told him that my hotel was in Tam Coc. He told that Tam Coc was located about 10-15 minutes drive from here.
I accepted the 100 000 VDG price after failing at bargaining and we jumped into his car. During the taxi ride and lovely conversations I was thinking that there was no way I could have walked the 15 minutes drive distance. I gladly paid the driver.
We made it to the hotel and Bigh (the manager) welcomed me. She was amazing and so helpful. I checked-in into my beautiful bamboo hotel room with wonderful sight on the mountains. I went to sit down in the cafe and Bigh spoke to me about everything. I asked her about mosquitoes regarding Malaria and she said that there were none and that this time of the year (December) was safe also.
I went to pray in my room and came back out. I asked Bigh how to go to Tam Coc, she dropped what she was doing and said: “come with me, I give you a lift to Tam Coc”. I was shocked. It was my first time on a motorbike and it was so cool. I took my Olympus XA to shoot some of the experience.
We arrived at the entrance and Bigh said that this trip should be only take about 2 hours. Before going, she asked me to pay attention to the way so I could remember how to come back to the Homestay.
I paid the full entrance fee which was 150 000 VDG and 120 000 VDG = 270 000 VDG) for the return journey.
A guy approached me with his Vietnamese Hat (Non La) and asked me to come with him. I followed. He took my ticket and ripped a part of it to validate the ride.
It was a solo ride, just me on the boat, which I was so happy about because it felt more intimate and powerful. I was already completely taken aback about the beauty of the place. It was incredible.
I asked him his name and he said: “Hai”. His English was good. We laughed so much and he was so easy going. He was navigating a lot and at times he was asking me if he could stop a little as he was getting tired. I was surprised that he would asked. I didn’t find any objection to him stopping so that he could rest. I took advantage of the situation to absorb this immense world around me. It looked like Jurassic Park.
We stopped at a pier after going through a few caves along the way and talked about life in Vietnam and he was interested to know about my life in London and Paris. He said “Paris?”, I said “yes”. He said: “Parlez-vous Francais?”, I replied “oui” thinking that it was an one liner but he kept on going. He could speak french!!!!!! I couldn’t believe that 6000 miles away from home, two souls from two different worlds and destinies could meet and speak one common language so naturally.
We ended up speaking french all the way.
He explained that he went to France when he was young before he got married.
I helped him row as there was an extra paddle on the side of the boat and it was a very cool experience. He was rowing with his feet (incredible skill – no lies!).
I shot 5 rolls in 1h30 minutes and the trip was not even finished yet. As we exited a grotte (cave), a boat approached us and a lady asked me if I wanted something to eat. I bought some stuff and some stuff for Hai too. He was touched. We took a break and I asked him if I could row for the last leg of the trip. He said: “When I get closer to the pier and you can take us back”. I agreed and grinned from excitement.
Hai offered me some pineapple confit (like in Mauritius – 3rd time) and it was extremely delicious and moist. On this trip, it really felt like time stopped every time there was a new experience or when something special had happened and this was one of them.
We observed the lovely wildlife (from the birds, to the heron taking off on the water, to the goats jumping on thin layers of rocks on the mountains trying to feed on the finest grass) on our little break. I was more than happy to relax, I mean Hai works so hard rowing everyday so it was a well deserved break. It was then coming to the end of the trip and Maghrib was approaching.
We stopped half way before the pier and we swapped places. Hai was allowing me to try rowing as promised. Unfortunately I completely failed and I was rowing backwards back towards the mountains. Hai laughed and so did I! But I was so happy about the whole experience and meeting Hai was lovely.
We arrived back at the pier and Hai said that he had a very good time. I thanked for the hard work and very good hosting. He got to his boat and he handed over to me his Non La (Vietnamese Hat) as a present. I was so touched. He gave me a hug and we departed.
I said bye to him and I walked back to the homestay. A few kids were playing volleyball with their feet (a sport there?) on the main square.
The night was approaching but I wanted to go home quickly so I could do my salah. I walked through the rice paddies observing the beauty of the sunset. I returned to my room and completed my salah and walked out to the cafe area and met Azrael a guy from Denmark, later on to be joined by Maddy and Marc, a lovely couple from UK who quit their job in Manchester to go travelling!
I quickly ran to the rice paddies to see the beautiful sunset. It was an intense and special moment. My heart filled up so much Imaan Al hamdulillah because of the sunset and stars in the sky. Being so far away from home and spending this time by myself, opened my heart to so much happiness.
I came back to the cafe area again as I could feel and hear mosquitoes in the air. I had my Non La with me on my head. Bigh asked me how my day went and I told how special it was. She was so happy for me.
We gathered later on for food. I chose Tofu from the meal menu. It was my first time having tofu (vietnamese) style.
Before going to bed and indulging in writing. I asked Da, a member of staff if I could book the motorbike tour guide for the day for tomorrow.
I went to bed after shower and looked at the ceiling smiling from having such an amazing day.
Thank you Allah!
End of the day.