October 28 – November 12, 2015
By Jennifer & Steve
It’s time to say goodbye to Vietnam already. The time here has flown by – it seems surreal that almost a month has passed since we first arrived in Hanoi. Time flies by when you are traveling! We truly are lucky to have so much time to be able to explore.
For our last two weeks in Vietnam we stayed at a brand new (not even open to the public yet) guesthouse outside of Ninh Binh, about 100km south of Hanoi. The guesthouse is called Dragon Boat Rock, named from the limestone karsts on the property that make the shape of a boat with a dragon on the stern. The property is run by three women: 1 German (Sabine) and 2 Vietnamese (Lien & Dung). We got hooked up with these lovely women through the Wwoofing Vietnam site, and had an arrangement where Steve and I would do ~3-5 hours of work each day in exchange for food and accommodation. It turned out to be a great woofing experience, all-around I believe.
The guesthouse features recently constructed bungalows surrounded by ponds, fruit trees, vegetable beds, and wild gardens. We worked on a variety of projects, from cleaning up garbage, to building a three stage compost bin, to starting a garden, and transplanting countless plants all around the property. It was really satisfying to be able to play in the gardens and work on small projects and see something productive at the end of it. Jenn also spent ~1 hour each day teaching English to Lien (the cook) and Quinn (a nearby neighbor), which was a lot of fun, and a great chance to meet some local Vietnamese women on a more personal level.
So, woofing was a great win-win experience for both us and the Dragon Boat Rock family. We got a great way to travel on the super cheap while getting first hand experience with local living and culture, while they got some needed help with things around their property. The only money we spent was on side trips to nearby tourist attractions: Cat Ba Island, a local bird sanctuary, and the Trang An caves.
We decided to go to Cat Ba Island because we wanted to see the world-famous scenery of Halong Bay, without masses of tourists. Getting to Cat Ba Island and back was an adventure in itself. We had the option to take either 2 busses via Hanoi (~250km), or rent a Vietnamese motorbike and follow the direct highway (~170km). Both ways take about 8 hours, so we opted for the motorbike as we wanted to be able to stop and go as we liked. So, we both learned to drive a bike – Vietnamese traffic style – which means constantly weaving in and out of obstacles, including people, semis, busses, dogs, children, giant potholes, vehicles driving the wrong direction on your side of the road, construction, to name a few.
There is a bit of a system. For example,
- When going through an intersection, do not stop, slow down, or speed up; instead simply keep a constant speed and dodge/weave through crossing traffic (and hope they will dodge you as well), and
- If you are making a right hand turn (regardless of whether you are turning onto a country lane or a national highway), do not waste your time stopping or looking to your left for oncoming traffic; instead, simply make the right hand turn with the expectation that oncoming traffic will slow down for you or dodge you.
So by the end (16 hours return through constant traffic) we were both fairly comfortable in Vietnamese traffic chaos. Though we’re sure that even after a year of experience a death grip on the handlebars would still be required. You definitely need stay aware of the madness around you! Being inexperienced riders we seriously underestimated how sore our butts would be after 16 hours on a bike. We learned that lesson the hard way, and got a reminder each time we sat down for days afterward.
Back to our destination: Cat Ba Island. It was a beautiful and magical place, not too touristy or developed, but at the same time had lots of travel facilities and things to do. We spent our day on the Island hiking in Cat Ba National Park, walking almost the full distance across the Island. It was thick jungle scenery, and for most of the hike, all Jenn could think about was: “Please, don’t let there be a snake. Please, don’t let there be a snake…”. These pleas seemed to work, and we did not run into any crazy or poisonous jungle snakes (whew), but instead had encounters with a couple crazy big spiders, waterbuffalo, some giant birds, and lots and lots of vibrantly coloured butterflies. The trail was very overgrown with bamboo and tall grass in some parts, and we had to use long sticks to poke ahead and try to ward off small animals and insects. On the plus side, we had the entire trail all to ourselves.
We finished the 18km hike at a riverside/inlet village with no roads connecting it to other towns. The only way to get in or out is by hiking the 18km trail we had just completed or the more popular and easier method, by basket boat. We caught a ride back through the giant limestone “mushroom” islands just as the sun was setting for the day – an amazing way to end a day of hiking! As we came closer to Cat Ba city we got to go through some floating villages – entire moving villages that have no permanent address and go from place to place though the Islands depending on where the food and other people are. With the Vietnamese government trying to reduce the number of floating villages (apparently, children in these villages are not receiving adequate education), it may be an entire way of life that does not exist in the not so distant future, so was definitely neat to see.
Our other side trips from Dragon Boat Rock were to the Trang An Caves and a nearby bird sanctuary. Both were within 10km and so didn’t require the long and butt-tiring ride we needed to get to Cat Ba. Everything was really scenic, but the Trang An Caves really blew us away. To see the caves you hire a boat (4 tourists + 1 rower per boat), and for about two hours they row you (no motors) around a circuit through caves from 50 to 350m in length. The caves take you underneath mountains, connecting the lakes and ponds in between. The caves are very long but narrow and low to the water inside, so low that often we had to crouch in the bottom of the row boat to avoid hitting our heads on rocks and stalactites. It was creepy, peaceful and unique scenery all at the same time.
So, with laid-back sightseeing and wwoofing, our time in Vietnam was running out. We had a lovely trip and felt recharged after our time traveling here. There are lots of things to do and see, plenty of tourist facilities, as well and many English-speakers, which made traveling much easier and less stressful than some of the previous countries we have traveled. At the same time, it is illegal for foreigners to camp (the officials want you ‘registered’ at a hotel each night), so we didn’t do much hiking or wandering off of the beaten track. We left a bit antsy to get back to roughing it, and definitely looking forward to doing more of that at our next destination: Nepal!