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Friday, October 30, 2015

10/27 Ninh Binh: Cathedral, Foot Rowing & Climbing Dragon Mountain

We arrived in Ninh Binh, located about 2.5 hours south of Hanoi near the Gulf of Tonkin, last night using it as a hub to visit the many sights scattered outside it. Months ago, I had made detailed plans with Toan, a guide in Ninh Binh (NB from now on) for 3 day trips. He normally takes clients on his motorcycle so he had arranged a car and driver for our trips. After our many emails back and forth, it was great to finally meet him when he and the driver picked us up at 8:30.

Our 1st stop today is the celebrated cathedral at Phat Diem, remarkable for its Sino-Vietnamese cum European architecture. As the site is about 25kms south of NB, we had time to chat with Toan en route. He mentioned that NB had only become a city 4 years ago as before that, it was just a town. Now its population is 400,000 and there are more than 1 million in the area. With the immense building boom going on in NB, I'm sure the city would be all but unrecognizable for us if we were to return in 10 years.
On the way to Phat Diem, we passed through lush lowland rice fields and many combined Christian and Buddhist burial sites and lesser cathedrals like the ones above and below. 25% of Vietnam's people are Catholic and Buddhism is followed by about 65% of the populace.
Ton Dao Church
The small town of Phat Diem should be nicknamed the 'city of bridges' 
as there are so many bridges across its canal.

Photos of Phat Diem:
Approaching the cathedral, we saw a large courtyard; in its center is a pond with a large statue of Jesus and, beyond that, our first glimpse of Phat Diem through the trees. The cathedral was built about 140 years ago and the grounds also include many smaller chapels and even small Chinese pagodas.

Above, the Chinese style entrance to the cathedral BUT everyone entering the cathedral complex must use a side entrance which leads initially to the Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus below. The chapel is made of honey iron wood and its 3 altars from stone.

Side entrance to the Cathedral of St. Joseph, i.e Phat Diem itself.
The 2 icons on both ends were martyrs slaughtered by Emperor Tu Duc during the anti Catholic purges of the 1850's. Our eyes were immediately drawn to the center image of Jesus and Mary.
Toan explained that the honey iron wood used to build the cathedral came from Ho Chi Minh's homeland in central Vietnam. The cathedral was dark and mysterious and unlike any other I've seen. The main altar was cut from stone block and was consecrated on 10/6/91, on the 100th anniversary of its being built.

Intricate wood carvings adorned the cathedral.

St Peter's Chapel only visible through the gated entrance.
The Stone Chapel, above and below, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It too was closed but I managed to get some photos of its intriguing interior through the iron gates.

Out front, in 4 languages, is an engraving that reads 'Immaculate Heart of Mary, Pray for Us.' 
One of the more ancient bikes I've seen.
The gravestone of Father Six, the cathedral's architect.
The Bell Tower: When the bells are rung at 5am and 5pm for Mass, thay can be heard up to 10kms away! Guess no one sleeps in.
The stone columns were carved to look like bamboo.
We were surprised that there were only half a dozen or so worshipers or tourists in the entire, quite stunning Phat Diem complex.

Our next destination was Tam Coc or the Three Grottoes located near the village of Van Lam.
The massive entrance to Tam Coc although the grottoes were actually a distance away from here.
A common sight in Vietnam is seeing rice drying on the sides of roads. It's the winter season here in northern Vietnam now so the rice takes 2 days to dry. Vietnam is the 2nd largest producer of rice in the world trailing only Thailand.
Toan, our guide, explained that rice farmers still need to remove the husks by machine that they rent. He has a small rice paddy, he said, large enough for his family's needs.
Before heading to the grottoes, we stopped in Van Lam to walk around some of the village's many embroidery shops.

We have seen SO many embroidered pictures since viewing the first ones in Da Nang, I can't begin to tell you!

I am a sucker for table runners and bought this beautiful handmade one which took the woman above about 10 days to make. People greeted us in Van Lam in French which had not happened anywhere else. My brief conversation with the woman was entirely therefore in French.
Toan and the driver had left us to walk through a few shops but then we couldn't find either one of them as they hadn't stayed where we last saw them! We ended up walking down to the wharf thinking they might be there but no luck. Found them a bit later parked by a restaurant enjoying their endless 'cancer vitamins' as Toan called them.

Lunches each day of our tour were included in our fees but we were overwhelmed with the amount of food that kept appearing. We could not believe that was food for 2 as it should have been enough to feed 6 people.
The very cheerful cook tried to stuff this rice paper roll she had just prepared in front of us, in his mouth but Steven said no way! 
He ate it himself only to discover a moment later that it contained the hottest chili pepper he'd ever had. Poor Steven said that even his eyelids burned. The cook meanwhile looked on with great glee at his predicament!
After lunch, we drove out to Bich Dong which was built 700 years ago under the Ly Dynasty. Also known as Jade Grotto, Bich Dong is a stunning cave temple complex at the base of high cliffs comprised of pagodas on 3 levels.

Photos of Bich Dong Temple:

Steven was able to enter the pagoda on the 1st level luckily even though he was wearing shorts.

The temple's Stone Bell is made from a special stone found in this mountain as normal stones don't make the same sound.

Toan mentioned that the 3 Buddhas, above, represent the past, present and future. The female Buddha, below, guides the new ghosts and shows them the way.

Climbing up to the 2nd level required some stamina as well as pauses on the landings to 'enjoy the views'.

After having wandered around the pagoda on the 2nd level, we were game for a further climb up the mountain to see what the 3rd level had for us to see! 

The temple in the small cave didn't count as one of the 3 levels, Toan said, so on and up we climbed to the 3rd level at last!

The 3rd grotto at last!

A good vantage point over the rocky hillside here.
Fig tree.
The Land God.
The Mountain God.
Toan said that 'naughty children' removed the Do Not part of the sign!

Papaya Tree.

On our way back down now the mountain.

We were so thankful that we left just as a large group of Chinese tourists appeared because our time at Bich Dong had been so quiet.
Mixture of terracotta and concrete pillars.

Andrew: I thought of you right away when I took the photo of this man with such an amazing head of hair on the way to the car.
Back at Tam Coc Wharf again, where Toan left us to go on a 2.5 hour boat ride through 3 grottoes. I had forgotten my hat so the driver kindly lent me his to wear while out on the water.

Photos of Tam Coc Boat Ride:

I think the subtitle of our trip to Vietnam should be 'Boats Galore' as we've been on such a huge variety of water conveyances the last three weeks! I hope I shall never forget how fascinating it was seeing rowers using their feet in such seamless motion.

Remember this photo for later!
What a stunning location for wedding photos.

Our rower took us through 3 caves; this first one was more than 100m in length and was so shallow that we had to bend over at the waist to avoid being hit by the roof! If you're claustrophobic, Tam Coc is NOT for you.

What a welcome sight, seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

There were few other boats out on the water so it was generally very peaceful. 
                           Time to duck our heads again as we headed into another grotto 
                            and began the ride back to the wharf.

Steven commented that at times during the boat trip it was as if we were on Disney rides! Not unusual seeing men in this area of Vietnam wearing oith helmets like this rower did.
Our rower took turns rowing with his arms and his feet as did others too. He was noticeably faster when rowing with his feet. He caught up with these rowers and they were all laughing and joking back and forth. I was curious to know what they were chatting about but Steven wasn't in the slightest!

Watching her row with her feet looked like the same motions used when riding a bike.
Some of the rowers looked so totally relaxed and at ease. The rowers' arms and legs must be in superb shape.
I first saw this couple at our hotel just as we left for the day, then at Phat Diem, Bich Dong and again here - great minds must think alike!
A blurry photo but it gives you a sense of how low the grotto's roof was.
The only motorized boat we saw.
Almost back at the wharf after a really fun time on the water.

Freshly caught Grass Carp ready to be weighed, whacked, and scales removed for a crowd of local shoppers. Toan said that the grass eating fish often weigh 7-10 kgs but these ones were about half that size. It reminded me of my time working for a fish store while going to university in Ottawa.

I thought our last stop of the day was seeing Mua Cave but clearly Toan had something more exhilarating in mind for us at the end of the day. Toan told us about the fast growing bony fish in the pond and then said 'he'd hold down the fort' while we climbed the mountain in front of us! His English often was quite poor so it was amusing when he came out with such apropos idioms.

Walking down the road toward the mountain made us wonder what children's movie set we had entered as there were all sorts of animal statues and tiny figurines on the premises. See that climb up the mountain - well, that's where we headed. It was called the Lying Dragon Mountain.

I bet you're so glad you're sitting in the comfort of your home reading this now and know you didn't have to face climbing all those really high and often narrow steps!

I know I've said it before and, no doubt I will again, BUT what amazing, spectacular vistas we had and we weren't even at the summit yet. Those views did make the trek up AND down well worth it.

Ninh Binh stretched out below us. We could so clearly hear dogs barking and kids playing from here.

In parts the steps were so steep, tiny extra steps had been added.
Photos from the top at long last:

Part of the dragon we'd seen while on the boat earlier!

After taking in the breathtaking views, we began the long hike down the mountain 
even passing mountain goats on the way.

We were tired after being dropped off at the hotel and getting a bite to eat for dinner but enjoyed walking for a few blocks on one of Ninh Binh's main drags before calling it a night.

Posted on 10/31 from Hanoi, Vietnam.