Because we kicked off our summer with boxes and suitcases and all of the chaos of moving from one country to another, we decided to end it with a quiet vacation to Ninh Binh, a rural area about two hours from Hanoi. We have grown accustomed to cities having lived in Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore and now in Hanoi, but sometimes we all begin to feel a bit shut in by the concrete and noise.
Since I'm the vacation planner in our house, I decided to experiment with a "home stay" instead of a more traditional hotel or resort. Getting to the place was a bit of an adventure as the last 2km of road was little more than a rocky and pitted two-track through rice fields and poultry farms. In hindsight, we should have requested that the hotel provide transportation from Ninh Binh city, but these are the things one has to live to learn.
We spent our first two nights in a private, open-air bamboo bungalow on the shore of a fish farm. It was like camping without all the fuss of packing and hauling and cooking over a fire. The view from our "shack" was unbelievably beautiful. Even the boys were happy to just sit and soak it in (for a few minutes anyway).
After recovering from our hair-raising car ride through the rice fields, we decided to explore the "resort" property. The owners loaned us rubber boots and a lantern and pointed us in the direction of a nearby cave.
Did I mention that it rained that first afternoon? The rubber boots were helpful but even so, Nathan came back looking like this...
I went equipped with plenty of bug spray but there were surprisingly few mosquitoes. Maybe the fish take care of that. In any case, we were thankful for mosquito nets if only to keep the bats and geckos at a comfortable distance.
We were awakened by the sound of goats outside our hut in the morning and the scent of "fresh farm air." As much as I love being outdoors, I haven't really learned to appreciate goat droppings before breakfast.
The view more than made up for the neighbors.
Our early-riser enjoying hot chocolate and the sunrise at 5:45am.
Our not-so-early-riser still in bed around seven.
Once we were all finally awake and ready for the day, we borrowed bicycles and made our way back down the muddy, bumpy two-track. Nathan took a tumble along the way, but a row of shrubs kept him out of the wet rice paddy. He was good-natured about it and kept on going.
Eventually, we made it to Trang An. A waterway that flows around and under the granite mountains. We hired a boat rowed by a local guide and went exploring.
This first cave was the longest (320m) and the lowest (we had to duck in several places). Phrases like "the bowels of the earth" and images from Tolkein's Moria came to mind. I was glad the rest of the caves were a little less "thrilling" than this one.
Taking a break from the boat.
Then back on the bikes...
And we made it safely to our shack for one more night.
The next day we packed up and the "home stay" owners arranged a vehicle to take us to our next destination. On the way we stopped at Hang Mua, a famous cave and a place to climb to the top of a peak. After several hours on the water and in the sun the day before, we were all dragging a bit. We didn't make it quite to the top, but we went most of the way.
What goes up must come down. I think Nathan was glad to be back at the bottom.
After Hang Mua, we stopped off at Hoa Lu, an ancient capital of Vietnam.
I love the constant juxtaposition of "something old, something new" that we find in Vietnam.
Because I wasn't sure how our stay in the shack would go, I booked a room at Cuc Phuong Resort for the next three nights. Each of the villas (pictured below) had three rooms for guests, but we were the only visitors staying in ours, so it was almost like having our own house (and sharing a bedroom). After our hut on the fish farm, the resort was actually a little disappointing. The location was beautiful and the grounds were well-kept, but the resort felt a bit post-apocalyptic. A whole neighborhood of similar villas had been framed in and then left standing without roofs. Trees and grasses had grown up inside them. There was a soccer field that hadn't been mowed and a run-down playground covered in mildew. The restaurant was usually empty and they didn't have most of the items on the menu. The pool, which was what drew us to the resort, was mirky and grimy.
Thankfully, the boys were oblivious to most of these things. They enjoyed the pool in spite of my hesitation and later joined some kids playing a pick-up game of soccer. Our boys are not flexible or laid-back or easy-going by temperament (it isn't in the genes), but every now and then they take things in stride and I end up being the only sulky one. In the end it all worked out, just not as I expected.
The next day we went to explore Cuc Phuong National Park, starting with the primate rescue center and the turtle rescue center.
We rented a motorbike for what we thought was a short ride through the park to hiking trails. It turned out to be a 20km, uphill trail with four of us on a scooter. By the time we got to the trail head, the boys were too tired and cranky to hike. We ate fried noodles, drank cold Coca-Cola (which somehow always tastes better overseas), and got back on the bike for the 20km downhill return trip.
The park was filled with butterflies of all shapes and sizes and colors. They gathered in puddles along the trail and flew up in clouds when we passed by.
On the way down, we stopped to explore another cave. We rented flashlights and, of course, the boys instantly transformed into Jedi.
On the road again...
And back to the resort, which was looking much better after a long day on a motorbike.
We spent the last day and the following morning just relaxing. The boys enjoyed the pool and didn't contract any strange diseases proving once again that I worry too much.
There are certainly some challenges to living and working outside of our own country, but one of the perks is being able to visit such amazing places. Now I just need to tackle a huge pile of muddy, smelly laundry before school starts tomorrow.