Ninh Bình – a must visit paradise in Northern Vietnam

Ninh Bình is a small city in the Red River Delta, about 100km from Hanoi. Ever since we started charting out our Vietnam itinerary, Ninh Binh was on our mind. Buses from Hanoi leave every hour that drop you either in the main city near the Phat Diem Cathedral or at The Long Hotel near the Tam Coc boating site. For $6 these buses are comfortable and efficient. On the way they even stop at an egg shell craft shop for you to pick up any knick-knacks of interest.

Ninh Binh is popularly known as Ha Long on land. Majestic limestone karsts surround this quaint little country side town. The people are friendly and the food humble. New Year’s Eve was approaching and we decided to spend the turning of the year in a quiet little home stay surrounded by rice fields and limestone karsts and away from all the hustle bustle of the city.

By the time our bus dropped us in the small town, it was time for lunch at the famous Father’s Cooking, while we waited for our hosts from the homestay to pick us up. Copious amounts of hot ginger tea and some Ban Xios later we could finally feel our fingers again. Now, let me add here, by this time we had made peace with the constant bad weather that had been following us since Ha Long Bay. Incessant showers, strong cold winds and mostly cloudy skies. Ninh Binh was no different. We hadn’t seen the sun in over two days!
Only problem was, we were not prepared for this.

Our hosts, Lan and her family drew out a small map of how to navigate the landscape around. For the next three days we were going to cover the Trang An Grottoes, Hao Lu Ancient city, Bich Dong Pagoda, Bai Dinh Pagoda and the Hang Mua caves. There was a lot to see for a not-so-touristy place.

Bich Dong, we found out was just right around the corner. The Bich Dong Pagoda is a 3-tiered pagoda built atop a small mountain. The first level, Ha pagoda consists of a Buddhist shrine. The second one, Trung is a little bit of a climb and in a cave. Thuong, the top most tier can be reached by climbing further up. The climb was all worth it. Spectacular panoramic views of the valley below, lush greenery around and a meditative tranquility. We were so taken by the beauty, we decided to spend some time near the shrine before climbing down.

… And that is when we spotted another set of makeshift stairs going up the mountain on the opposite side. A few skips and jumps later we were over looking a cute little village, nestled between the limestone mountains. Armed with our sense of adventure and whatever little day light, we walked around in the village, stopping several times to take in the scenery.

Just like any countryside, Ninh Binh calls it a day pretty early. By 6PM most shops are shut and you’d find a handful of eateries open. We had been invited to dine with our hosts. This was by far the most honest and most authentic food we were to have. We sat around a round table with hot soup boiling in the centre while we passed around various greens, meats, dipping sauce and noodles. 2018 was ending on a pretty great note!

The last day of the year 2018, and we decided to get a bike to the Trang An Grottoes. About 8kms away from our homestay, Tràng An was a scenic area renowned for its boat cave tours. On June 23, 2014, at the 38th session of the World Heritage Committee in Doha, the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are 3 different routes one can take while at Trang An. After much reading, we decided to take the one with the 9 caves and 3 pagodas. (There was also a route with a kilometer long cave and honestly at the end of the boat tour I did contemplate that route :))

I was excited! A max of 4 people could sit on the boat which was to be rowed by a very sweet Vietnamese lady who had nothing but a smile for the entire 3 hours that we were on the boat. Occasionally we chipped in with our pretend rowing (not sure how much we were able to assist her though) while she skillfully navigated us through the low caves, beautiful serene waters and lotus vegetation. We exchanged smiles and a few words about our countries and stories about her son. This place was heaven ….

It was on our boat lady’s recommendation that we biked our way further north into the ancient city of Hoa Lu. Hoa Lư used to be the economic and political center of Dai Co Viet, a kingdom that extended from what is now northern Vietnam to the center during the 10th and 11th centuries. The city was founded by Dinh Tien Hoang, the first Emperor of Vietnam and it remained the capital until 968 A.D. What remains of the city now are ruins of what used to be a thriving capital.

Since we’d spent most of our morning without any physical activity we decided to head towards Hang Múa caves. It is a hard trek up with many of its steps in uneven limestone but totally worth the climb, 500 steps but what beautiful views! Impressive panoramic landscapes of Tam Coc, Trang An & Ninh Binh city when you reach the top point of Mua mountains. We were lucky enough to catch just a bit of the sun while we relaxed atop the mountain .

For me, the decision to tour Ninh Binh was one of the best we took …
Words cannot describe how beautiful the town is. And I was glad we were spending our New Years cooped up next to a fire with our hosts while we drank some Vietnamese local beer.
I guess this is what New Years in the 30s feel like

Advertisements

Ha Long Bay Cruise

Ha Long Bay or Vịnh Hạ Long as it is called in Vietnamese, is about 170 km north-east of Hanoi. For most part of our week that we were to spend in Hanoi, we used it as a pitstop while we moved around Hanoi. Our first such trip was to Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay is best experienced on a cruise. The good people at Hanoi Brothers Inn had booked us on a luxury two days one night on Apricot Cruise and we absolutely loved it!

Unfortunately, luck was not on our side and on the day of the tour, Hanoi experienced torrential rains, overcast skies and temperatures as low as 4°C. We were freezing by the time the bus came to pick us up at our hostel. All our plans on sunbathing on the deck of the boat had to be shelved.

After about 4 hours of driving in the rain, we caught the first glimpse of the limestone rocks. The term Ha Long means ‘land of the descending dragons’. The scenery could very well have been right off a movie set. Vast expanse of emerald waters dotted with limestone karsts in various shapes and heights. We were told the bay has more than 1600 limestone islands and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

Standing atop the deck while we cruised deep into the waters I had a surreal feeling. The exodus of ships from the marina in a way had transported me back in time, I could have been a sea pirate heading towards a conquest (or maybe I watched Game of Thrones too many times). The settings were all there, we were just missing an eyepatch and a wooden leg and a bottle of rum perhaps. The itinerary for two days included a visit to the pearl farm, kayaking on the pristine waters, a detailed tour of the Thien Cung caves, a Tai Chi class up on the deck and my favorite, rolling our own Vietnamese spring rolls for lunch. The food was delicious and the entertainment on board more than made up for the bad weather outside.

We’d made new friends, exchanged Instagram handles, kayaked till our arms were soar and weathered freezing winds in our rainwear. Too bad we did not have the sunshine to enjoy the landscape in all its glory or climb the Ti Top Island but we thoroughly enjoyed cruising along the majestic landscape.

… And before we knew it, it was time for Divya to say goodbye and for us to head to Ninh Binh.

Passing through Hội An

High on the success of our few days in Saigon, and armed with new found love for Nem rán (Vietnamese fried spring rolls), we set off northwards. Our first stop, more like a stopover, was Hội An.
Hội An, located on the central coast of Vietnam is a quaint little well-preserved Ancient Town with criss-crossing canals, beautiful lanterns and the best vegan food (we were to find out; more on that later). The city is quiet, laid back and is a living museum almost! The rightful UNESCO World Heritage site.

Hội An doesn’t have an airport. So, we took a flight to Da Nang and drove down to Hội An. Rachana had booked us at this amazing hostel Tribee Cotu which had the best pancake breakfast and fun activities for the residents everyday. Call it bad planning or lack of research, the town had won my heart and I wanted to stay here for longer. Alas, as luck would have it, our stay in Hội An was going to be short.
Like in Saigon, Hội An brews its own beer. Light, refreshing and makes for a great drink in the late afternoon as we sat by the canals of the Old Town looking at swarms of tourists passing by.

The town reflects a fusion of Chinese and Japanese culture with European influences. The Cau Chua Pagoda, a 18th-century wooden bridge featuring elaborate carvings is the pedestrian passageway between the Chinese and the Japanese sides of town.

The entire town is dotted with ancient houses that you can easily walk into. We were ushered into one such wooden house, preserved from the ages. It was interesting to see the owners still using the house as their living quarters. They only open up the house for viewing during certain periods in the day. The woodwork, the architecture and the play of light and shadow to maintain temperature in the house was very interesting.

The folks at our hostel had recommended a bike ride to the Cua Dai beach. Now, from where I come, casual biking is usually reserved for a few kilometers; say one or two. Anything beyond that, you take a motorbike or a car. I didn’t think I had to pedal 12kms (some of which was uphill) on the highway to reach this heritage beach, when I said yes to this adventure!

The beach in itself was beautiful and serene. But we were blessed with a cold, cloudy and windy day which meant we could not get into the water. Instead we decided to spend out afternoon, loading up on carbs by the seaside.

What a delight Hoi An is when it comes to food! We found this amazing vegetarian restaurant Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant with the sweetest staff and the best food. We tried their mango coconut rice, banana flower salad, vegetarian white rose dumplings, smoked pot rice and coconut pancake.

For dessert, we wandered into the night market and boy, were we in for a treat! Rice cakes, pancakes with coconut and peanut fillings, Ban Xiao … heaven!

Hoi An had marked a special place in my heart and I was already making plans in my head for my next visit. It was time now to head to the biggest city in the north, Hanoi. We were going to spend a good week there …

En Việtnam

For long I’ve heard my father talk to me about Vietnam and its communist past. For a Bengalee, active interest in politics and all things Red is a way of life. And no one was happier than him, for his daughter was visiting this cultural, political, and history rich country.

“You’re going to Saigon!” he said, “Subhash Chandra Bose worked and died there. You must see!”

While that is a controversial subject, I did make it a point to write back to my father about my escapades in Saigon. The more I saw of Ho Chi Minh City the more I wanted to call it Saigon – a city heavy with history, spy stories and conspiracy theories.

Saigon

Now, there are two ways one can navigate Vietnam. Start south and travel up northwards or start North at Hanoi and travel down to Saigon. We started our trip from down south, since we were entering the country from Cambodia.
What better way to start the trip through Vietnam than getting a cold bottle of Bia Saigon?! We aimlessly walked around the famous Backpacker Street or Phạm Ngũ Lão in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City. Post 10PM, this street becomes the nightlife and party central of this district with people singing and dancing on the streets, street food stalls spilling over onto the road, vendors plying with all kinds of sweet and savory treats, music blasting from all the bars and cafes.
And in this bustling street, we found the famous Note Cafe and we had to but leave our mark behind.

Our second day in Saigon started with a walking tour of some of its finest architecture and shopping destinations. The Notre Dame square, the Saigon Central Post Office, Saigon Sky Deck, Bình Thạnh market and Diamond Plaza. The thing to note about shopping in Vietnam is that not only should know how to bargain but also gauge the quality of the goods. Bình Thạnh is good for cheap knock-offs, souvenirs, Vietnamese spices. Diamond Plaza is more for your duty-free shopping spree.

Bà Thiên Hậu Temple is a beautiful 18th-century pagoda honoring a sea goddess. The temple is slightly off the main city limits and you would have to take a bus to get there but it is absolutely worth all the trouble. Spiral incense sticks tower all over the ceiling in front of the main deity. Offerings can be made on your behalf. The strong incense smell, the chanting, the red pillars and the beautiful mid-morning sun made for a serene sight. This perhaps was my favorite part of this day.

Our third day in Saigon, we decided to take in some of the more controversial history of the place. If war history is your thing then visiting the War Museum, City Museum, Museum of Vietnamese History as well as Independence Palace would be highly recommended. Us girls had spent way too much time in the shopping streets and decided to take in some of the history. It was quite by accident that we chanced upon a small tour of 20 people leaving for the Cu Chi Tunnels in the afternoon in one of the lanes in Backpacker Street. For a small $15 per person, we had booked ourselves on a guided tour of the Cu Chi forests.

It was an interesting day trip to say the least! We did not take too many pictures around there. We were so engrossed by the experience, the history and the stories that our guide, Nam had to share. Ironically, there was a shooting range there where anyone could go in and shoot a few magazines. We went into one of the tunnels but the shear nature of it, made us exit it much before the tunnels became smaller (where you would need to crawl to navigate out). It was also rather interesting to watch the dichotomy of the American tourists who would gasp through the various enemy traps on display while our Vietnamese guide narrated a history that was perhaps different from the ones they are used to back home.

Saigon had delivered. I had a lot to report back to my father.
Let me leave you with this image of me devouring a mango in the middle of December! (Something unheard of, in India)

… Excuse all the tissues in the foreground. Eating a mango without a fork is a messy affair.

5 Days in Cambodia

Last year, I reconnected with a bunch of my school friends who I had lost touch with over the years. We’d all dispersed around the world for our college, for work. One of us got married. What had long been recorded in WhatsApp chat groups was about to be formalized. I’ve been friends with these women for more than 20 years but we realized we had never taken a trip together! We came from the era of schooling when the farthest you would have gone, is for a day camp.
Lo and behold!
Came December and all our procrastination was put into action. We were going to take a 15 day trip across Cambodia and Vietnam.
Rachana, Divya and I put together a quick itinerary which saw us in Siem Reap for 3 days and Phnom Pehn for 2, before we made our way into Vietnam.


Now, Angkor Wat had long been on my bucket list not just for the architecture but also for the kind of troubled history it has with secularism. History has it, King Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the Supreme God of Vaishnavite Hinduism. He remained its patron deity until the Cambodian people consecrated Angkor Wat to Theravada Buddhism in the 15th Century. In 1431, after the Thai takeover, Buddhist monks continued to preserve and uphold the sacred status of Ankgor Wat, but they overturned the original dedication of the temple to Vishnu. The gods and concepts of Buddhism became the ruling principles of Angkor Wat.

The Angkor Wat temple complex is vast and could easily take up to a day to view properly. We started our day at 4AM at the ticket counter, which is a few kilometers away from the main temple complex. We had hired a tuk-tuk driver who would drive us through a pre-designated route that covered the temples of our interest. The thing to note here is that the main temple complex is huge and dotted with many temples. It’s best explored over a period of 2 to 3 days, but given our packed schedule we tried to make the most of it. And paid for it with over 30,000 steps in one day!

Watching the sun rise from behind the Angkor Wat is a sight to behold. The Khmer tradition of using water to capture the reflection of buildings, homes, temples, and monuments comes to light over the two lotus ponds in front of the temple. A well informed guide is a must for the visit inside the temple. The history, the architecture, the stories of past made this a wonderful experience. Almost 7 hours of absorbing the beauty of Angkor Wat later we found ourselves at Angkor Thom, the capital of the Khmer dynasty.

Bayon temple, stands in the heart of Angkor Thom with its 54 towers dedicated to smiling Avalokiteshwaras.
Soon afterwards, we made our way to Baphuon, a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The climb to the top is supposed to be rewarded with great views. Only one of us could manage to get there 🙂

We finally bowed down to blazing sun of late December and decided to take a long lunch break.
What followed post lunch was absolutely magical! Our guide took us to the famous Ta Prohm (popularly known as the Tomb Raider temple). The temple complex is in absolute ruins but what beautiful ruins! Built in the Bayon style this temple is dedicated to the king’s mother, Prajnaparamita, the personification of wisdom.

Interestingly, the last temple we visited on our temple tour is Preah Khan which is dedicated to the king’s father. Preah Khan means ‘Holy Sword’ and is a testament of the king winning against the Chams in the 12th century.
We rounded off our trip with a short stop at Ta Som, one of the smaller temples in the complex.

Truth be told, by this time we were ready for our tuk-tuk driver to literally carry us back to our beds. On his suggestion we did stop to catch the sunset atop Phnom Bakheng (caution: It’s a long and steep climb and gets rather crowded. It’s best to plan this into the itinerary of the day than ad hoc).

No dinner and lots of energy drinks later, the next day we decided not to move out of the hostel till after mid-day. The receptionist at the hostel had earlier recommended a relaxed trip to the Tonlé Sap lake and relaxed it was! A bus came to pick us up from our hostel and dropped us straight onto a boat which cruised across the floating fishing village, before sailing into the lake, as we watched the sunset. Bliss …

I have come to realize, traveling without a set itinerary and interacting with the locals sometimes unravel some gems in the city. One such gem was the set dinner and Khmer Apsara dance at the Koulen Restaurant. A pretty nifty deal at $12!

I grew quite fond of the Khmer cuisine. And since I was traveling with a vegetarian friend, we did try lots of non meat dishes. Special mention to Amok, Khmer Kitchen and Khmer Barbecue on Pub Street. Don’t forget to make the most of the 50p beers all over Pub Street!

Siem Reap and Phnom Pehn are pretty well connected with either Giant Ibis or other bus services plying every hour. We took the Giant Ibis service and it was great! Very comfortable sleeping arrangements, wi-fi and bottles of water to keep us hydrated.

Phnom Penh is the bustling capital of Cambodia and is a great mix between the old and new. Our hostel was very close to the National Museum and The Royal Palace. The museum hosts Apsara dance every evening at 6PM but since we’d already had a taste of it in Siem Reap we skipped it. The palace complex is pretty huge and has a strict dress code. Sleeveless blouses, shorts, skirts and any clothing exposing the shoulders or knees are best avoided (else you’d be refused entry or asked to purchase overpriced merchandise from their store to follow the mandate).

A trip to the Art Deco Central Market was fun but be weary of the timings. It is operational only between 9AM – 6PM. Most of our time in Phnom Penh was spent walking through the city and stumbling upon the amazing street food that it has to offer. One such evening we chanced upon the most amazing coconut ice cream served with coconut ‘malai’, peanuts and sweet corn, on the side of a road.

… and just like that we were done with our few days in Cambodia. Now it was time for us to fly over the Mekong Delta while we made our way to the erstwhile Saigon or as we know it now, Ho Chi Minh City.
Go Vietnam Airlines!

Weekender in Pune

This last weekend, a bunch of us decided to make a holiday out of the music festival very popularly known around here as the NH7 Weekender. A great lineup of musicians and the wonderful weather of Pune in tow, we set out to make the most of the 3 day festival. This weekend was anything but non-eventful! Not for the music but for all the goof ups that happened around it, this can be easily termed as my series of serious unfortunate events. Many hiccups later, we found ourselves on the festival grounds and boy was I in for a surprise! As Nirmika Singh of Festival Sherpa, rightly puts it
“… you couldn’t have missed noticing how the majority of attendees have suddenly got younger. Laxmi Lawns this year was filled with compulsive selfie-clicking, shorty shorts-wearing high-school girls and their cigarette-smoking, peck-planting, shoulder-surf-offering boyfriends…”

The festival did nothing but make me feel old and degenerated. While I clamoured around to find my fit of people, 16-somethings happily bumped into me spilling more than just love. Complaining aside, between hopping stages, guzzling rum and hogging on German sausages, I did manage to listen to some really great music. Saturday was dedicated to a bit of Soul Clap, Raghu Dixit in the afternoon. By evening, we were set for Mark Ronson, who I believe was keeping Indian times since he was more than an hour late for the show! A fun set and a few sing-alongs later, we pushed our way into Nucleya’s gig. Now, Nucleya aka Udyan, I’ve been a fan of since my college days. Way before he was Nucleya, he was the other half of Bandish Project who I enjoyed listening to. His Saturday sets at Kitty Su in Delhi had only reinforced my faith in his brand of music. And I have to say, of all the shows I saw at this festival his was the most flamboyant. In terms of production, visuals and of course the music. Albeit, the average age of his listeners have gone down but his music still never fails to entertain me. I found myself acting quite like the 16 year old next to me (perhaps on acid) when he blasted ‘Jungle Raja’.

Rehman at nh7

Sunday turned out to be a chill day in more ways than one. All of us, as a bunch decided to make the most of Pune’s famed breweries and found ourselves at the Independence Brewing Company near Koregaon Park. One too many Belgian Witbier (and a bunch of Jager Bombs and Vodka-chillies) later we stumbled into the festival venue with a vengeance! Having missed Raghav Sachchar by then, we waited for Swarathma to get on stage. A bit of walking around to shake off the drunkenness, we positioned ourselves for the highlight of the evening – A. R. Rehman! He is a legend, yes. He is an extraordinary musician, yes. Showman, he is not! Musically the show was brilliant but a bit lacklustre when it came to leaving the audience wanting more. While I waited for him to belt out his most famous numbers, he only occasionally pranced around the stage in what could be called a ill fitting disco ball. Major hate towards the irritating camera man who hogged more limelight than Rehman did himself! I wasn’t there to see you cover Rehman with your fancy equipment, I had paid money to see the man in flesh, singing, playing the piano and doing what he does best.

Since the folks at OML had been cheeky enough to have Flying Lotus play simultaneously, we made our way out of the crowd, only to have “Why would you leave Rehman and leave?” thrown our way. Well, excuse me while I get refills and some fresh air!

Quite the interesting weekend, this. A celebration of music and a consolidation of our brotherhood thanks to some misplaced bookings and utter lack of customer service by Agoda. Big ups to Uber for sorting us out on our never ending trip thanks to network jammers at the venue. Such an irony, OLA gave out voucher codes but forgot to mention to us that neither network nor cars were going to be available for us to redeem those coupons. The only people coming out rich were the auto-rickshaw guys with their exorbitant muh-boli-fares. Touche!