Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Ninh Binh Province
What a great mission statement for this wonderful country! Maybe it just goes to show that a Marxist revolution is the way forward for us all? But as we explore this wonderful country and delve deeper, it gradually becomes more and more inconceivable that just forty years ago, American bombs rained down upon the ground where we stand, on the houses and townships we visit, and on the noble, elegant and proud people that we encounter. And why? Merely because the West feared the spread of communism? Or perhaps because of a deep-seated Xenophobia from the Uncle Sam who labelled the children of Uncle Ho with a word so hateful that I dare not even type it here.
We are slowly building our fluency in Vietnamese. Today Jon managed to converse merrily to ferry-boat rowers as they passed, whilst Simon got through ordering both supper and a large consigment of French-style confectionery without resorting to English. The local women love it when we make this type of effort! The letter ‘h’ at the end of words is a tricky one: think of Ho Chi Minh. It’s almost a ‘g’ but placed in the throat as you would in the middle and at the end of the word ‘singing’. So today we went to Ninh Binh. Can you say that quickly, each word short and sharp, ending in a gentle ‘g’? To make it slightly more complex, they put glottal stops everywhere. It’s jerky, that’s for sure.
So breakfast was on the hoof as we made the journey 180 Km south towards breathtaking scenery. We had Ca Phe Den: each cup of coffee has its own little filter, so you pour in the hot water and out comes the black, unctuous gunk. Then a steaming bowl of Pho Ga. (Pronunciation update: remember back in London we said that Pho should be pronounced ‘fair’? Well that’s not quite accurate. In local Hanoi dialect you must say ‘far’, with a long aaaah sound. Ok?) This Pho is a chicken soup, with lots of chicken meat floating on the top, plenty of rice noodles, lots of greenery (spring onions and herbs) all brough together with a sweet, intense chicken stock. If this wasn’t enough, we always add a fiery chilli sauce just to get things going. We also ordered the innocuous bread and eggs. But this was wonderful: pieces of sweet baguette, creamy butter and not one, but two wok-fried eggs.
We were suitably sustained for our day. And what a day this turned out to be! First a visit to the ancient citadel and temple of Hoa Lu. Did you realise this used to be the capital of the Dragon Kingdom until it was moved to Hanoi? The temple had an air of serenity and an aura of sanctity. Then a stimulating bike-ride, along rice paddies and through magical, sleepy villages until we reached Tam Coc. These villages took us on a step back through time, with their white-washed houses, fragrant cooking fires, dogs and chickens roaming freely.
It was time for lunch. This area of Ninh Binh has many goats, and sure enough, goat was on the menu. This took the form of skewers, sweetened with spices. Very tasty when dipped in chilli oil and soy sauce. There were more Nem to enjoy, plenty of rice, platters of stir-fried goodies such as cabbage, beef, onions: you name it!
The highlight of the day came after lunch: a two-hour rowing boat ride through some of the world’s most staggering limestone scenery. Think Halong Bay, but along a river beside the rice paddies. Think Guilin; think ‘James Bond Island’ (that stack in Thailand which features in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ which, incidentally, we’re not going to visit, as Tam Coc trumps them all!)
This boat ride was awesome. Rather than describing it, let us show you some of the pictures instead. This is rural Vietnam at its all-time best!