Ninh Binh is an area in Northern Vietnam full of rice fields and limestone mountains. We spent an hour and a half driving from Hanoi into Ninh Binh. Here we got into a boat and a woman, probably weighing around 90 pounds, rowed us up and down the river, through three caves (the Tam Coc). She did all of this with her feet. It was quite stunning and is often referred to as the inland Halong Bay, which I’ll discuss later. It was quite a peaceful day and what surprised me the most was the rice fields. I expected perfectly rectangular fields, lush and full of green rice stalks. Instead, they were often lopsided and had muddy water pooling in them, all of this part of the farming process.
During this tour, we made a stop at a shop with products – paintings, embroideries, jewelry – all made by the disabled citizens of Vietnam. They were there working in front of us and I felt that it was such a great cause, knowing how little opportunity they had elsewhere.
When we got back into Hanoi, we went to the Ho Loa Prison, where prisoners of war were held for six years. This is the location that Senator John McCain was held captive and he often refers to it as the Hilton Hanoi. I won’t elaborate on this much other than to comment that there is again a different perspective and view on who the ‘bad guy’ was than what I would have expected. I know I need to educate myself more on this topic. Having been there, I have a bigger interest in knowing about the entire war.
We stopped by to test out our bespoke clothing so final alterations could be made and then headed to the night market. Vietnam is one of the biggest exporters of coffee in the world, and having become a bit of a coffee snob, I was super curious about their coffee. The night market had several shops with several varieties of coffee. Yes, their coffee is fabulous! They have a ‘Weasel’ coffee, which is made by weasels eating coffee beans before the fruit is removed from it. They digest the soft part of the plant, and excrete out the coffee bean. The coffee bean is collected and roasted. I haven’t yet tried it but I have a bag in my suitcase, ready for trial. Their ‘poop coffee’ is supposed to be some of the best in the world.
The next morning, we woke early for a long bus ride to Halong Bay. Halong Bay is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. In fact, it was recently added as one of the 7 Man-Made Travel Wonders of the World and became a UNESCO World Heritage site. The bay is full of limestone mountains protruding here and there. We had an overnight cruise scheduled, with about 20 rooms on the entire boat. It was luxurious and we were most definitely spoiled. That afternoon, we did some kayaking. Tony and Amelia also did a hike to the top of one of the mountains. We had breakfast as the sun rose and we sailed back to land. I can’t really explain how beautiful and surreal this place was, but it was a perfect break from the chaos that the cities held. We opted for a private driver to take us back since we were on a tight frame to catch a flight out of Hanoi that night. We made a quick stop to pick up our custom made clothing before the airport. I am happy to report that all of the airport experiences for the remainder of the trip were completely flawless and the people were incredibly helpful. Perhaps it wasn’t a cultural difference after all, but a lack of knowledge by a few individuals.