Some journeys have the ability to make you question everything you are doing. I was in a good mood, actually a great mood – it was Sunday and I had started my morning with 50 laps in the swimming pool followed by a breakfast of mammoth proportions (I swim to eat).
But then it was time to travel again. So I followed my almost daily ritual of squeezing all my belongings back into my groaning rucksack, did the “sweep” to ensure nothing was left behind (after losing 50% of my clothes to date in various dormitories across central asia) and swung it over my shoulder before buckling the beast up around my waist. Time to hit the road again.
This time I was travelling from Halong Bay to Ninh Binh in Vietnam. It is, it would appear, a route less travelled and so after being surrounded by Australian accents ever since I stepped off the train in Hanoi, I suddenly found myself the only English speaking gal on the bus.
It was refreshing. I practised my Vietnamese numbers as I paid for my ticket and decided that on the whole, I would actually be very proud of myself if I got to Ninh Binh – because this really was my first travelling solo experience. Since the boys headed down south to let me focus on work, I’ve kept myself busy with luxury cruises and being pampered in Hanoi.
But now it was just me and there was no one to ask where the bus was. The First Big Trip Without Matty and the Mongoose. A man nodded at me in the corner and stood up. I obviously did what any sensible lone female traveller would do and followed him. And sure enough he led me to a bus that said “Ninh Binh” and voila, I was aboard.
It was actually quite nice, spacious and had air conditioning.
“Things have improved in seven years,” I muttered to myself, recalling the cramped, sweaty buses Carly and I had taken when I was last here. I smartly opted for a single chair so I would not be forced to sit next to someone who would spend the next five hours inching their way onto my seat and settled down to do a spot of work as we pulled out of the bus station.
But I thought too soon and the bus started filling up. Men, women and children of all sizes kept streaming onto the little mini-bus and unlike in England when the bus has reached its maximum capacity, the drivers here do not just drive past wannabe passengers holding up their hands and shrugging their shoulders. No, no, in Vietnam no bus is too small and no passengers too many.
So they piled on and they piled on. Every little square meter of floor was soon filled with men and women, chattering away and sharing their stories. A women to the right of me settled back, put her head against my legs, nestled her hair right into my lap and got ready to have a snooze. Meanwhile, the man to her left nodded appreciatively at my day bag, which was squashed against my legs, before putting his entire body weight on it by using it as an arm rest. I am trying to get better at sharing after my experience in Hanoi, so I just smiled and told myself that my legs were improving the quality of the journey for them. And after all, I had a seat.
But then the air conditioning started dripping all over me. Dripping is not the right word. It started with a drip here, a drop there, and then it turned more into a tap that was unfortunately placed over my lap. I tried to turn it off but that didn’t best please the use-my-bag-as-an-arm-rest-why-don’t-you-man, so it was turned on again.
And so it was some four hours later that I emerged off the bus somewhat dishevelled, looking like I had had a bit of an accident after being deprived of toilet stops. But the journey was not over yet. I had to take about an hour’s motorbike journey to Cuc Phuong National Park where I was staying for the night.
There was Truong, smiling and waiting for me with a motorbike helmet. Within seconds he had shoved my beast of a rucksack between his legs at the front of the bike and I hopped on behind him. The wind was in my hair and slowly the urban sprawl of Ninh Binh dissipated away, replaced by fields of rice paddies and looming karsts on the horizon.
“Relax, let go of the bike, and take some pictures,” Truong suggested.
I unpeeled one hand from the bar at the back of the bike that I had been furiously clenching and attempted to remove the second. But it didn’t quite feel natural. So I put my free hand on my left hip and tried to look a bit cooler.
As the sun began to set, roadworks diverted us off the main road and through the backstreets of rural life where local villagers were frantically harvesting the rice, as if they might wake up tomorrow and find it all gone.
“The typhoon is coming,” Truong warned. “They must harvest their rice before the rain ruins it all.”
And it was a site to behold. Without even realising I had done it, both hands left the comfort of the bike, my day pack came swiftly off, the camera was promptly removed and the lens cap was shoved down my bra.
With no other tourist in sight, it was all mine to gawp at. And I did. I gawped and I snapped as we watched the sun sink behind the huge towering karsts and iluminate everything in its path.
To be honest I don’t know how Truong managed to keep his eyes on the road. But whenever I started squealing and snapping he would stop so I could hop off and take pictures of buffalos walking out of the water and other such delights. And then he would sit on his bike and soak it all up too.
And then we were off again, for the final act of the Great Sun and his Sinking Ways.
And in the sun’s final minutes of the day a smokey haze filled the horizon as villagers burned the leftover rice straw.
And then finally we reached my destination but suddenly I was not quite so ready to be there.
“We’re here already?” I whined like a five year-old who had just been told she wouldn’t have another birthday for 364 days.
“I’ll be back for you tomorrow at 8.30am,” said Truong as he hauled my bag off the bike and carried it into the hotel reception for me.
And I grinned like a 30 year-old who had just been told her journey’s not over yet.
The lovely Truong offers motorbike tours all around beautiful Ninh Binh and its surrounding areas. To book him email: firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise to update you on the next chapter!