Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas Holidays in Ninh Vinh

It has been an eventful few days over the Christmas holidays here in Ninh Binh, Vietnam. I arrived on Christmas Eve, settled in for a bit, and then decided to walk around the town. So I just wandered for several hours, and got back to the hotel a little after dark. The USB port on my bike has quit working. For a while, it was sporadic, but on the way here from Hanoi, it just didn't work at all. The little light on it was on, so it was getting electricity, but the slot was not putting anything out. So I figured I would try to see if I could find a motorcycle mechanic who could fix it. But that could wait until later. I have a couple of serious power bricks, but I haven't much kept them charged up. That will probably be more important now that I will be trekking through remote areas of Vietnam and Laos to keep my phone charged. I really only need it on the road for a map function; maybe to occasionally put up status updates and blog posts. But I do have some backup if my phone dies.

On Christmas Day, I took off riding on my motorbike. I meandered around for a while, then I ended up in the little village of Tam Coc, which has some spectacular boat rides through incredible scenery, including three water caves that the boats pass through. Whenever you go to one of these attractions, there is always someone right outside who flags you down to park in their area, and they charge you a small amount of money. So I pulled over to park, and paid about seventy-five cents so my bike could be safe. I also left my helmet in the office there. After I parked, I watched a bunch of foreigners just blow the lady in the booth off when she tried to wave them down to park their bikes there. I guess that you don't really have to park there, but I don't mind.

I got on the boat at Tam Coc, and it was being rowed by a vivacious young woman who rowed with her feet. Most of the guides were rowing with their feet, but I saw some rowing with their hands. The areas we passed through were just amazing, and the water caves were out of this world. The boat ride was about two hours long, and the terrain was just magnificent the whole way. I gave her a nice tip when we got back to the dock, and also bought her some fruit and beverages. She asked me during the trip if I had ever eaten snake, cat or dog. I told her I hadn't ever eaten any of those animals. A couple of guys on a boat next to us asked if they could take my picture, and offered to sell me a picture for 20,000 dong, which is a little less than a buck. I told them OK, even though I really didn't want any pictures to take with me, but I figured it was not much, so I went along. Then when I got back to the dock, some woman had a photo album with a bunch of picture they had taken of me, and wanted 250,000 dong for it. I told her that the men who took the pictures told me it would be 20,000, and I tried to explain that I really didn't want physical photos, because I was traveling and they would get messed up, but I would be OK with digital pics on a flash drive or something, but there was just not enough language ability for me to communicate that concept. Finally I just started to walk away, and she offered to sell the pics for 100,000, and I accepted mostly just to get the whole thing over with.

My next stop on Christmas was at the Thai Vi Temple.near Van Lam village. This temple seemed like it was under heavy construction, and there was some sort of ceremony going on there with some musicians and a lot of people attending. I watched for a little bit, and then stepped back to video part of the ceremony.

Then my final stop was the Bai Dinh Pagoda. This 15th century structure meandered up a steep mountain, with very craggy steps leading in and out of caves up the side of the cliff, and intricate designs all the way up. At the top there was an amazing view of the surrounding countryside. That was my last real stop, though I rode my motorcycle around for quite a while after that. I ended up at Mua Caves, and was at first intending to check that out, but it was late in the day and almost getting dark, so after pulling into the parking lot and getting out to check out the caves, I decided to blow it off, as I didn't know how much longer it would be open, and I didn't feel like rushing it. So maybe I'll check it out in the next few days, maybe not.

I headed back to the hotel, and decided to see if I could get the USB port on my bike fixed. Nothing in town seemed to be closed for Christmas; it was just business as usual. I guess that might be expected in a country that is mostly Buddhist. So I asked one of the hotel clerks if he knew a place where I could get it fixed. He told me he would take me to a place to get it taken care of. So I had him get on the back of my bike while he directed me to a mechanic. This was the first time I had taken a passenger on my bike, and was a little hesitant, but it was pretty easy and not that bad. The extra weight was not much more than what I was carrying (well, actually, it was quite a bit more, but didn't seem so), and I had no problems maneuvering the bike with him on the back. We went to one place, and they didn't have the part, and then another place, and they didn't either. I was kind of tired, so I told him I'd try again tomorrow rather than check out some other places. So I dropped him off at the hotel, went off in search of dinner, and then headed back.

On the next day, the day after Christmas, I took off early in the day to explore some more stuff in the area. The clerk asked me if I wanted to try another mechanic, but I told him that I would ride around first, and when I got back, we could give it a shot. He asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from the US, but he asked where in the US. I told him I was from Texas, and his face lit up. “Oh,” he said, “You are cowboy! You ride around on your motorcycle like cowboy!” I don't really identify much with the cowboy thing, but, sure, I went with it, because talking about it seemed to make him happy. He was asking me all about cowboys; I told him I didn't really hang out much with cowboys in the city, but there were probably a lot in the country.

Anyway, I took off and ended up at the floating village of Kenh Ga, which means “chicken canal”, and is named after a wild chicken that apparently is from that area. I drove across this flimsy bridge somewhere in the middle of the village, and an irate old woman wearing one of those cone hats came out of her hut demanding money for me crossing the bridge. OK, I told her, and turned off my motorbike to get my wallet out. But by the time I got it out, she was nowhere to be found. I was trying to pay her, but she disappeared. I waited for a minute or so, and then just took off. I figured I would pay her on the way back, but I never did end up going back that way.

After leaving the floating village, I ended up in the vicinity of Bai Dinh Pagoda, so I stopped to check that out. But I could not for the life of me figure out how to get in. I circled the perimeter several times, and there was just a high wall surrounding it everywhere, and all of the gates to get in were locked solid. I finally found a tiny opening in the back, and started to go in that way, but a guard shooed me away, so I left. After surrounding the whole area for a while, I finally found a little road that turned off in a different direction from the temple, so I took it. It ended up being the way to the entrance...I had to actually drive in a direction far away from the temple, park my bike, and then walk back toward it on a path that went through what looked like a sewer tunnel running under one of the streets bordering the perimeter. The pagoda and the surrounding complex were ornate and beautiful, and I climbed to the top of a mountain that had a giant Buddha statue at the summit.

Then I took off again, and ended up on this very winding scenic road that was just a joy to ride on with my motorcycle. I was thinking that this was the very definition of freedom, to be riding on this curvy mountain road in Vietnam through amazing scenery. I ended up at the ancient capital of Vietnam from the 10th and 11th centuries, an ancient city called Hoa Lu. A woman motioned to me to park my bike at her restaurant, but when I asked her how much it was to park there, she said “no money.” That was the first time that had happened, but I left her a tip anyway. Then I went in to check out Hoa Lu, which was spectacular, but almost anti-climactic compared to all the other stuff I had seen in the last few days. After a while, you just get inured to spectacular sights...even something that is wildly out of the ordinary just becomes another thing to see, and the sense of wonder starts to fade.

After checking out the ancient capital, I decided to see if I could try again to get my USB port fixed on my bike. So I went back to the hotel clerk, who wanted to try a place recommended by his boss. I took him there with me on my bike, and he talked to them for a while...they didn't have the part, but he thought he knew a place where we could get it, and then bring it back. He wanted to talk about cowboys again, so we had a discussion about cowboys in Texas. It seemed to make him really happy. We went to a couple of computer stores, and they had a USB cigarette lighter plug at the second one; I bought that and we took it to the other shop. They installed it, but I just could not get any electricity out of it to power my phone. So they tried to re-install the first one, and the light worked on it, but it still was not putting out power. So neither the old device nor the new one were working; I told them to just go ahead and re-install the old one even though it didn't work. But when they tried to do that, it started smoking heavily. Obviously it had somehow gotten burned out. So I told them to install neither and just tape up the wires, and they did that. Well, it sucks that I'll be riding through rural Vietnam and Laos with no charger on my bike, but I'll manage.

This morning I woke up and decided to work on my Vietnamese flash card deck for a little while before I got out of the room. So I worked on it for a couple of hours...now I am up to the letter “K”, with almost 1800 entries. Work on it will likely be proceeding slower now that I'm not stationary any more.

Today, a couple of days after Christmas, I rode to the Big C Hypermarket on the edge of town to get a few food things. The Big C is sort of like a Wal-Mart...it has a ton of groceries, and then also sells a lot more retail goods. Every one that I have been to is in a big shopping center with a bunch of other stores. On the way there, I saw a store that sold police uniforms. I briefly thought about buying a Vietnamese police uniform to ride across Vietnam with on my motorbike. But, then, I thought, nah, maybe not a good idea. I stopped at the post office to mail the photos from Tam Coc that I never wanted anyway to my kids back in the States; I had stopped at the post office earlier in the day, and it was closed for lunch. So I went again after the supermarket jaunt, and it was open. On the way back to the hotel, I totally lucked out that I didn't lose my room key. I had put my bike key and my room key together for convenience, but the room key fell off my bike while I was riding it, and it lodged between some wires connected to the frame. I parked my bike, and noticed the room key was not there, and briefly panicked, but then I saw it on the side of the bike.

Today I really haven't done much to get out and around, other than the trips to the store and the post office. There is still time, but I'm mostly just lethargic. If I don't get out and see some spectacular stuff, it is good to take a day off to just chill. And I still have another full day here, and probably the option to stay longer if I want. I have a bit of a headache anyway, so maybe I'll just rest, and catch up on administrative matters.

Well, tonight the staff of the hotel invited me to come down and have dinner. So, of course, I accepted, and they told me to come down in fifteen minutes. So I came down to join them for dinner, and I thought that there would be a big dinner with other guests and the staff and such. But, no, I was the only one there, and they served me a plate of noodles that I ate alone in the lobby. It was a nice gesture, but not quite what I thought it was going to be.

For most of tonight, the Internet has just been down, and now that I'm done with this post and ready to post it, it is still down. So I guess I'll post it tomorrow, or whenever I can get a connection again. Signing out now around midnight on the 27th (getting ready to move into the 28th), but this post will just go up whenever I have signal. It's time for me to crash anyway.

Looks like wi-fi is up again this morning, so I can post this now.

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