The Long Wander in Vietnam © Sahand Sedghi

Further Afield

Ninh Binh, Vietnam


Ninh Binh city © Sahand Images

We were wrong to think that border towns blend or that the line between two countries blurs with the green between them. The line is distinct and the change is palpable. Crossing from Laos to Vietnam we may as well have changed continents. The pace notched up along with the infrastructure and suddenly our relaxed senses were snapped awake. When the bus we were on pulled over in a rice paddy between towns, 30 km from Vinh, I was instantly aware of the struggle we were in for in Vietnam. The bus driver demands more cash. We refuse. He chucks our bags onto the asphalt and orders us off. Half an hour later we are hoarse, sweating, flushed and fuming but back on the way to Vinh for the original price.

One night in Vinh and the next day we agree: No more buses. We take the train to Ninh Binh. We are met at the train station by pushers flapping hotel brochures in our faces. We slug through them to wander the streets. Than Thuy's Guesthouse hides its charms behind an average hotel front; but just beyond the street and down a narrow hallway we find an open courtyard, quiet rooms and renewal after a bumpy beginning. We spend the night recovering and the next morning the owner, Mr. Tuc, rents us a motorbike and casually tells us not to stop if a cop waves us down.

We get lost for the next three hours. We putter along lazy back roads and through villages lulled by the heat, past the huge limestone formations rocketing out of rice paddies, giving water buffalo in the road a wide berth. We remain vaguely lost until noon, when a road sign materializes and points us directly towards Tam Coc Cave. The downpour starts just as we park the motorbike and lasts long enough for us to have lunch and play several games of cards.

The boatman rows funny, facing forward, and some of the boats we pass are rowed by foot and packed with snacks. The mediocrity of the ride is suspended every time we enter a cave where pure magic overtakes us as our boat cuts a line through the water-reflected cave roofs. The presence of a 'boat-lady' baffles us until she busts out her embroidery and tries to push it on us. The rest of the ride is refusing pillowcases.

Phat Diem Cathedral © Sahand ImagesAs the sun begins to set we decide to ride 30 km southeast to Phat Diem, the Sino-Vietnamese Cathedral with European influence built in 1891. After 15 km and several near misses with herds of school-kids on bicycles, the sun is kissing the horizon and sending pink ripples across the sky. Another 15 km and we've pulled over twice to check out huge cathedrals before we finally find the church we're looking for. The curling roof of Phat Diem cuts a magnificent black silhouette into a sky full of purple dusk and when we join worshippers in the wooden pews the hum of their chanting buzzes up our tailbones. After services finish, we mount the motorbike again for the thigh numbing ride back to Ninh Binh. In the dark, our eyes pinched against armies of bugs, we ride through an ocean of stars that swirl in our wake above the sleeping fields full of rice.


In the city center there are only a hand full of places to stay. We went from one to the other, until we came to Than Thuy's Guesthouse & Hotel. Mr. Tuc greeted us and asked if we spoke German, we said no and he was slightly disappointed (he used to live in Germany). His motto was, "It's not everything money, poor tourist are nicer." We loved him immediately. Email him if your going to visit.

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