Sunday, June 24, 2007

Ninh Binh

I had a strong desire to get out of the city and see some of the Vietnamese countryside, so I spent part of this week looking for weekend trips. I found a great day trip to Ninh Binh province, complete with an air conditioned car, guide, lunch and entrance fees—all for $17—and I convinced most of our group to go.

The two hour drive south took us through the heart of the Red River Plain, aptly described as one of Vietnam’s two major “Rice Bowls”. The farmland was as flat as a pool table and covered in lush rice paddies. Harvest has begun and huge numbers of peasants stood hunched over the fields, yanking out the shoots. Exotic-looking brown cows grazed on the high ground and with great excitement I water buffaloes for the first time.

The countryside was very dusty in some areas, but as far as I could tell, not destitute, at least not by the historical standards of Vietnam, whose people used to always be on the brink of famine. The farms are still largely un-mechanized and labor intensive but small shops and business now line the roads, providing extra income.

We took a right, toward the foot of an impossibly-shaped limestone mountain range. I’d always thought that Chinese and Japanese nature paintings were fanciful, but now I understand that the painters weren’t exaggerating the dramatic shapes of the local mountains. I’ve head that local legends posit that these mountains are formed from the spine of dragons. If I believed in dragons, I’d believe that legend.

The landscape by the Hao Lu complex

Our first stop was at the Hao Lu palace complex, which 10th Century Vietnamese kings built here because the severe mountains made it easy to defend against competing warlords or Chinese invaders. It was used as recently as the 18th Century and has been well preserved. The complex is a twin set of Buddhist temples, one for the King and the other for his Chief General. Before visiting the elaborate, incense-filled temples, we passed through a series of gates that were each blocked by an inconvenient step which deliberately forces visitors to bow their heads toward the temples. Inside the gates, there were a progression of gardens, dragon sculptures and elegant pools filled with lotus flowers.

The first temple, capped with dragons, the symbol of royalty

Statue of 19th Century king behind buddhist offerings

On our way between the two twin temple complexes, we ran into a peasant who entreated us to ride his water buffalo. The buffaloes are truly amazing creatures, something like a mix between cow and rhinoceros. We’d resisted all types of pestering by local peddlers but this was too much to pass up. Tim hopped on and complained that the beast was tired, because, he guessed, it was old. I think it was tired because it was carrying Tim.

We drove a few miles and came to the head of a small river, which bustled with steel rowboats. We split up into twos and got rowed several miles down the marshy river, which cut through the limestone hills, each one more impressive than the last. The river had long ago eaten its way beneath a few of the hills, so at three points, we floated beneath dripping stalactites to emerge on the other side of the hill.

Clelia and I rode together and our little ocean liner was staffed with two crew members. In back, a small man pumped the oars, and when he grew tired he used his feet to row. Next to me sat a middle aged woman wearing a Vietnamese peasant hat. She helped the boat along by paddling with a small oar made of bamboo and a piece of tin. After about 20 minutes, I felt bad, so I pointed to the oar and said “toi” (me), and I took over for about half the trip, fancying myself an intrepid explorer.

The woman ran a real racket with us. When we got to the end of the river, she pulled the boat alongside her friend’s boat which was full of refreshments. I asked to buy water and was about to offer the crew a bottle when the merchant pointed at them and said “you buy for them”. Before I knew it I had bought them three drinks and some food which they didn’t even eat. I was charged what amounted to a princely sum for Vietnam and the merchant asked if she could keep my change as a “souvenir”, to which I replied that she already had enough “souvenirs” from me.

On the way back I was smarting from the incident when the woman tried to sell me embroidery…
“You buy this?”
“Oh, no thank you.”
“You buy table cloth?”
“No thanks”
“You buy. Very cheap”
“You buy bag”
“NO I don’t want the bag”

As we approached the end I was planning to give the crew a decent tip but the woman pressing her fingers together and asked “Cheep? Cheep? Cheep?” I was tired of all the pestering, which would have embarrassed a Covered Bazaar shopkeeper, and I ended up giving a very small tip.

It was an incredible day of sightseeing, but the nonstop harassment by the locals soured the afternoon, because it put me on the defensive and made me feel miserly.

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