It was time for me to leave the ancient imperial city of Hue. I had done my touring of the Citadel and pagoda after pagoda after pagoda. I was especially pleased to visit the one where Thich Nhat Hanh lived and studied. But I could tell that I needed a break from sight-seeing. My eyes and spirit were getting tired. I couldn’t take in any more sights. I felt myself coming down with a cold. So I spent my last day in Hue resting at the hotel, feeling looked after by the incredible staff of the Huenino with snacks and smoothies and hot ginger tea. Later that early evening, I would board my first sleeper bus, ready to make my way to the countryside of Ninh Binh, which is known primarily for its stunning and mammoth limestone formations that jut across the rice paddies and nearby rivers. I was excited at the prospect of enveloping myself in the natural beauty of the area.
I enjoyed spending some of my time in Hue with a sweet young couple from San Francisco, Trang & Greg. They were on their first big trip together and had been traveling in Southeast Asia for about 8 months. I encouraged them in every way I could to keep on adventuring and feeding their wanderlust spirits – they were toying with the idea of moving to Hawaii and they were way off the upwardly mobile, career-obsessed path of many in their generation, especially those trying to survive in the Bay Area. This was Trang’s first return to her mother country of Vietnam, after leaving when she was 6½; and I was riveted to hear of her family’s story – her father’s escape from Vietnam to San Francisco and how he worked there for years before being able to send for the rest of them. We shared several meals, good conversation together and a boat trip on the Perfume River. I was glad for their company.
Then the time came to board the bus – I hadn’t been on one of these sleeper buses yet and hadn’t planned on taking one – but the only trains into Ninh Binh arrived in the middle of the night, and I decided I didn’t want to do that. So the sleeper bus it was!
I didn’t get to take any photos of the bus, but it was laid out in three rows, with two aisles – there were vinyl-covered lounge kind of chairs, fully cushioned, which reclined completely. They came with head cushions and blankets were provided. There was a place to stretch out your legs, but mine were a bit too long for the space provided – I really am a bit of a giant around here! We were expected to take off our shoes upon entering the bus and it was in the best shape of any I had ridden so far on my trip. Besides that, it was the first bus I was on which actually didn’t have more people on board than what would be ‘normal’ occupancy!
There were two levels of seats/beds with five to a level, so with three rows; there were about 30 places, along with several in the back. It’s a good system for long-distance bus travel and it even had a (squat) toilet in the back. I was glad to find a seat on the bottom level as I didn’t want to have to get up and down several times during the trip. It was noisy, of course, what with the horn being incessantly blown, the loud engine bucking and starting and the bumpety-bump-bump as we careened down the less than smooth roads that are Vietnam. I wondered if I would really get any sleep at all!
The bus was a mixture of travelers and Vietnamese people, with all of them except me headed to the capitol city of Hanoi. As we completed paperwork and I wrote that I was headed to Ninh Binh, the bus driver told me, “5:00 am, we arrive in Ninh Binh at 5:00 am.” Okay, I thought, hopefully I’ll get a few hours of sleep before we get there. I made a mental note to myself to be ready to get off the bus just before daybreak. I had a reservation at a hotel and had the address readily accessible for my arrival. I had no idea where they would drop me off, but I trusted what has come to be my skillful and calm navigation of arriving in new places.
Just a few hours into our trip we stopped for dinner and shortly thereafter, the lights were turned out and it was time for sleep – ha! Everyone was pretty quiet and although I tossed and turned, I was able to get a bit of a nap here and a few hours of sleep there. I’m not sure how much I slept, but I know that I jerked awake and noticed that dawn had arrived. I could barely see my watch, but after a few minutes of groggy, determined squinting, I saw that it was 5:45 am – Hhmmm, I wondered, were we late or had he forgotten to stop for me? I gathered up my things and headed to the front of the bus to find out.
“What about Ninh Binh?” I asked. He looked at me and his face dropped. Yep, he had forgotten! Immediately he pulled over, stopped the bus and encouraged me to get off. We then proceeded to rummage through the luggage section for my backpack. I knew there was no way he was going to turn the bus around only for me, but I didn’t quite know what his plan was. We were on a busy divided highway and he pulled me across to the other side as we darted through the incessant whir of early morning traffic and there he flagged down a local shuttle van, paid the man, waved me into it, and took off. Breathing, breathing, I was too sleepy to be anything more than relieved that I had woken early enough not to end up in Hanoi! As we traveled down the road, I saw the kilometer sign showing Ninh Binh – 40 kilometers away! Then suddenly, the van turned around and started heading back in the direction the bus was going. I was confused, but too sleepy to have the energy to be terribly concerned. Of course, I was the only westerner on the bus, with five Vietnamese people who looked pretty sleepy, too. I decided I would wait a bit and see what happened.
Sure enough, he had turned around to pick up another waiting passenger and then we headed back in the right direction – going back to Ninh Binh! Of course, reading the signs is a big challenge, but I kept my eyes glued to the kilometer signs; and as we got closer, I could see we were approaching the town. I showed one of the guys the name and address of my hotel – he just smiled. Who knows if anything registered! Shortly thereafter, I noticed we drove right by the street I recognized as the one of my hotel’s address – “stop, stop, that’s where I want to get off!” The van went a little further, but I continued to insist he stop and finally, he did, I climbed off, saddled up my backpack and went-a-walking back in the direction I hoped was correct. I took thie scene in as if I was observing from some distant place – imagine this, here I am, early morning, dropped off in a completely unknown town, in a foreign country, far, far away from my homeland – what the hell am I doing here exactly?! I smiled and walked on and sure enough, there was my hotel just a half a block away. It was 7:30 in the morning, 13+ hours after we had left Hue.
I was exhausted, achy and so glad I had had the sense to book a room! The man checking me in started talking about the wonderful nature surrounding Ninh Binh – yes, I told him, I had come to Ninh Binh to see the beautiful nature I had heard about. But right now, all I want to see was my bed! He smiled and handed me my key. Sure enough, that’s all I did – I went directly to bed, set an alarm to wake up in a few hours, and then promptly turned that very same alarm off – what was I thinking? What do I need an alarm for? I’ll wake up whenever I wake up and that will be soon enough!
And so now it’s late at night on my first night in Ninh Binh – I spent the day resting some more and still fighting off this cold that’s trying to take hold. I took a several hour walk around town with another woman staying here at the hotel and then spent the evening having dinner and reviewing the day trips I can do from here. But they will have to wait for another day. Today was one of much-needed rest for this wayward traveler.
Goodnight Ninh Binh – we’ve got a date with a bicycle tomorrow!