Last Saturday nine volunteers from the VPV Peace House one spent one perfect day on the outskirts of Ninh Binh, a stunning provincial community at the southern extreme of the red river delta.
We left Hanoi at 7:30am, finding it easy (and cheap at 70,000 Vietnamese Dong) to purchase a bus ticket that would take us there. After a crowded two hours on the bus we were in the main hub of Ninh Binh, where we had yet to evade the incessant hum and horns of the motorbike-ruled roads.
After an hour spent at the hotel where two of our friends had spent the night, we saddled up and were greeted outside by nine of the sweetest motorbike tour guides any of us had ever met. Ranging from my Nike-clad, Aviator-wearing young gun to Shannon's cheeky smiling older gentlemen and back to modest middle aged women, these locals would have our lives in their capable hands in the hours to come.
We wobbled through our first few minutes on the bikes as we made our way out of the central Ninh Binh district, certain our Caucasian bottoms were going to tip the precarious vehicles as we turned every corner. Within minutes though, we were assured of our guides' expertise as we dodged scooters and pedestrians with ease, and learnt to relax our bodies into the rhythm of the driving.
Once we had left the cringe-inducing maze of the smaller residential area in Ninh Binh we set off into what seemed like another era. Our rocky dirt road gave way to sprawling emerald rice paddies nestled between majestic limestone karsts, reminding us all of our trip to Ha Long Bay. We passed quaint, communistic-style farms of ducks and pigs, and watched for a few moments road-side as men from the village trawled through the mud to fish.
Winding through villages and through mountains, you couldn't help but feel beautifully small in comparison to the world.
To close my eyes, to breathe in the smell of fresh air, of mud and smoke, of barbecued meats and the dust of the motorbike in front of me - this is what I will take away from Ninh Binh as my favourite memory.
We passed hard working old women stooped in their rice paddies or tending to their animals and waved to local children who were excited to see such a large convoy of motorbikes pass through their neighbourhood.
Within forty minutes of pure biker freedom we had reached the check point where we were able to purchase tickets to the various sight seeing attractions we would discover in the day. Our guides relaxed and after a short break we were off again, this time roaring up inclines and swerving around corners through the thickening rainforest of The Cuc Phuong National Park. Though this time we were on an actual road, this next part of the ride was a little more exhilarating. We were combining freshly rained-on roads and wild acceleration around corners with the added challenge of buses and cars that would sometimes appear without warning.
At a few points during this leg of the journey I mentally praised myself for taking out a good travel insurance policy..
My doubts were solidified when, not five minutes from our destination, my driver pulled to the side of the road and gently tapped the engine with his shoe. "Is broken" he muttered.
As we had been in the lead it was a simple matter of me jumping on the back of another motorbike for the next few minutes. I waved goodbye to my driver who smiled apologetically as he stayed with the bike.
I felt very much Hanoi-worthy as I rode on the back of the bike with two other people, loosely gripping the back handle and with my feet sometimes dragging along the road.
We arrived at the point where we would start our hike into the the rainforest in search of the Thousand year old tree. After a quick break to visit the "Happy Room," we set off.
We made our way up primitive stairs and through muddy trails surrounded by lush rainforest. Our guide Truong, the brilliant and charismatic owner of the Xuan Hoa Hotel in Minh Khai Street (Which we would all very much recommend) joked with us about the tiger who was living close by in the jungle. Maybe an hour later, and after slipping and scrambling over a well-worn and mud covered trail, we were finally at the tree.
Being an Australian with more than ample access to impressive rainforest I was decidedly underwhelmed with the size of the tree, however it is still a beautiful sight and a very special place to have hiked to.
We sat and had time to take photos and share some snacks and then within twenty minutes we were off again. The path became even more treacherous on the downhill and more than once I thought I was going to slip and fall. partly due to my poor shoe choice and partly due to the mud.
Sweaty and deservedly chuffed with our efforts, we arrived back at the meeting point and I was delighted to see that my driver had fixed the bike and was smiling in wait!
The trip down the hills we had just come from was a little more treacherous than I had hoped, we seemed to be picking up speed to avoid being stuck in the rain that had been threatening us all day.
Outside the National Park, we were taken to an Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, a beautiful not for profit organisation dedicated to the rehabilitation, research and conservation of critically endangered primates.
Today the EPRC is home to more than 140 primates including six species which are kept in no other facility in the world. These include the grey-shanked douc langur, Cat Ba langur and the endangered Hatinh langur, black langur and Laos langur.
Other than the captively bred primates, all of the animals at the centre are victims of poaching and the illegal animal trade. The animals are confiscated, with staff members having to travel 1000 to 2000 km to pick up these beautiful primates in remote areas in central or south Vietnam.
Walking through the well maintained enclosures it was difficult not to feel totally mesmerised by just how captivating these creatures were.
The grey-shanked langur, with its stunning orange facial markings and the baby Delacour's Langur were personal favourites. We could have sat for hours watching these tiny orange creatures learning how to climb and eat at just fourteen and twenty days old. Another special moment was when I noticed a staff member who seemed to be singing to the monkeys, such a beautiful thing to see in an animal care facility.
It was time to go, and we chatted on our way back up the dirt path to meet our drivers for the journey back. Tired, we were thankful to be sitting idly on the back of the motorbikes as we road to our next stop, although I was a little disappointed when my guide was only joking when he asked if I wanted a turn at driving.
Eight kilometres from home, we stopped at a local restaurant suggested by the Vietnamese guides, where we shared a well earned meal of pho and spring rolls.
One of the best meals I have eaten was here, nestled between the karsts silhouetted by the setting sun.
We were also offered to share a shot of rice vodka with our drivers -(Mot, Hai, Ba, YO!).
When we left it was night time and we were tired with full bellies. We were all sad to be leaving such a beautiful place behind. Arriving at the hotel we farewelled our drivers. Although hugging is not a practised custom in Vietnam I still gave one to Han, my driver, who seemed like he hadn't had a strange Caucasian girl hug him in a long while.
Exhausted but happy from my reflection of the day, I leapt aboard my still-moving bus back to Hanoi, which the wonderful Thuong was kind enough to wait with me for and flag down.
There's a special place in Vietnam where the rice paddies stretch for miles between mountainous ranges and precious wildlife is kept safe in vibrant rainforests. Ninh Binh is such a beautiful place, and decidedly not tourist-polluted like other places I have visited. I will remember the playful motorbike ride in, the slippery slope of the Cuc Phuong National Park and the gentle smiling faces of our guides and the locals we passed.
Such a perfect day, and I can't wait to return to where I've - wait for it - NinhBeen.
(Sorry that this last part is so lame but I laughed at my cheesiness for a good minute so I'm keeping it)