Upon arrival in Ninh Binh, my luck seemed to have turned from bad to worse. I was shaken awake at 4.20am by the driver of the sleeper bus (it was due to arrive at 6), and dumped on the side of the road in the dark, with absolutely no idea where I was. I walked for what seemed like miles in desperate search of my hotel, and eventually saw its flashing light in the distance - miracles do happen. However, there was still a minor problem to overcome - it was on the other side of a train track, which I could see no way of crossing. An hour later, after what seemed like an endless maze of alleyways (and a few encounters with stray dogs and rats), I somehow found it, all closed up for the night. A very sleepy man let me in and I collapsed in bed for a couple of hours.
However, my experience the following day more than made up for my middle of the night meanderings. I met an Australian man and his daughter and a guy from Switzerland in the lobby and joined them for a trip to some of the most incredible sights in the local area. We were blessed with beautiful sunshine and spent two hours being rowed through the Trang An grottoes, gasping at how stunning the scenery was at every turn. We went through several caves, ducking our heads but being left speechless by their tranquility - and, as we re-emerged outside, once again shaking our heads in disbelief at the natural beauty of the area, painstakingly maintained by the locals who waved at us as they weeded the crystal-clear waters (and only occasionally tried to take our photos and sell them to us, using printers on board their tiny row boats!).
We thought we'd been sufficiently wowed, but there were further gems to discover. These included the ruins of Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam, and a stunning new temple complex built in 2010, the scale of which is unbelievable - especially considering that it feels like it's located in the middle of nowhere.
We stopped for a lunch of the local speciality - goat, rolled (as always) with herbs in rice paper - then avoided numerous goat droppings as we climbed 500 steps up to the panoramic view from the peak above Mua Cave. Both the climb and the views took our breath away - we could see birds flying beneath us, and for miles beyond, a mix of farms, paddy fields, building sites and complexes of houses and high-rise buildings: a true reflection of this eclectic country.
We staggered back down to the bottom and after much-needed showers we wandered around the city of Ninh Binh, stopping at a neighbourhood eatery for a bowl of steaming pho ngan (another local speciality) - it was mostly duck fat, but probably just what we needed after the day's activities.
After a good night's sleep and another stodgy breakfast of banana pancakes, I was set up to board the bus to Hanoi the next morning. I'm even getting used to the delicate balancing act of sitting on the back of a motorbike zig-zagging in and out of traffic with my backpack on my back to get to the station. Wearing a seatbelt, driving on the correct side of the road, using horns sparingly and obeying traffic lights will all come as surprises to me when I get home!