It was the fourth weekend of my two-and-a-half month summer research stint in Viet Nam, where I was interning at a microbiology laboratory located in the country’s capital, Ha Noi. After a long week at work in the laboratory’s headquarters at the National Hospital for Tropical Diseases, I hoped to travel somewhere not too far, but somewhere that was distinctively Vietnamese and that could also provide some much needed relaxation.
For this particular weekend, I had decided on a whim to embark on a journey to the city of Ninh Bình, located in the Red River Delta of northern Viet Nam. Accessible by mini-bus from Ha Noi’s southern bus terminal, Ninh Bình is roughly 90km away from the country’s capital. All in all, this was roughly a three-hour bus ride, taking into account Ha Noi’s back-to-back, bumper-to-bumper traffic.
After a taxing journey packed like sardines next to other foreigners and Vietnamese locals, I finally got to the city center of Ninh Bình. I was then verbally accosted by a troupe of taxi drivers all asking where I was going. Familiar with the similar exclaims of taxi drivers in Ha Noi, I simply got in the closest cab and pointed to the B&B—where I would be staying in a room prearranged by one of my travel companions, a fellow colleague at the clinic—on a map of Ninh Bình province.
Following about 20 minutes of constantly bouncing up and down and shifting back and forth in our seats due to the windy and gravel-paved road, I had arrived at Chez Loan (pronounced Loh-Ahn), a quaint B&B located along the Ngô Đồng River. It was dark out and I could barely see where I was going. Before I set foot outside of the car, a flamboyantly dressed Vietnamese woman came running from the entrance of the hotel. She immediately started speaking in French.
«Bienvenue! J'espère que votre voyage a été agréable. S'il vous plaît venez à l'intérieur et poser vos valises sur le côté. Ne vous inquiétez pas! Nous sommes très heureux que vous êtes tous ici!»
In other words, she seemed very excited to see us all and wanted us to be comfortable. I assumed this woman was the famous Loan, head manager of the hotel. Her French was a bit overwhelming at first and sort of caught me off guard, but I tried to play along with it and attempted to remember the two summers’ worth of French I had learned in Paris during high school.
After we had gone up to our rooms to freshen up and come back downstairs, Loan had warm towels prepared for us and guided us to a nice table overlooking the rice paddies that surrounded the perimeter of the hotel. The rice paddies had floating lanterns, lit up just off of the terrace from the hotel’s restaurant. I honestly could not wait to see what this majestic river—already gleaming and scintillating in the moonlight of the night—would look like with the sun fully above our heads.
As I eventually learned from Loan that night, if there’s one thing you should manage to do while in Ninh Binh, it’s travel down and back up the Ngô Đồng River on a small wooden boat. Local Vietnamese women use their feet to propel the oars of these miniscule boats. Seeing as my Lonely Planet had devoted an entire page to this tourist excursion, I definitely felt somewhat obligated to try it out.
We left Chez Loan close to sunset the next day and rode our antique 1960s bicycles to the head of the river, which was located just in the village of Van Lam. This excursion along the Ngô Đồng River is referred to as Tam Cốc-Bích Động. In Vietnamese, Tam Cốc denotes the three natural caves that the river flows through, with the largest being 125m long and having a ceiling two meters above the river. Similarly, Bích Động is a pagoda located on the nearby Ngu Nhac Mountain, which surrounds the meandering river.
After we had traversed through the first cave and rowed to the heart of the river, we saw just how wondrous the sights around us were. We were surrounded by miles and miles of rice paddies and colossal karst towers, which dominated the skies over our heads. Since dusk was just approaching, the views coupled with the brilliantly lit backdrop made for a one of a kind travel experience.
As we approached the second and third caves, I reached my hand up and touched the dripping wet limestone and began to recline in my seat in the small wooden boat. I closed my eyes and realized the true beauty that Viet Nam has to offer, while also indulging in some mental repose after a grueling week at work.
~Alex Jafari '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler