Travel-ogue: Reel Vietnam – Ninh Binh Family Homestay “Home From Home”

Travel-ogue: Reel Vietnam

Ninh Binh Family Homestay 

“Home From Home”

SO YOU’RE TRAVELING in Vietnam: You’ve been to the South and navigated the dizzying traffic of Ho Chi Minh City (still referred to by its original name Saigon), visited the amazing Cu Chi Tunnels, and took some selfies in front of the magnificent Notre-Dame Cathedral. Perhaps you worked on your tan on the pristinely white sand of Phu Quoc. You certainly explored the luminous and magical Ancient Town in Hoi An, and definitely visited the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, walking through the bustling Old Quarter, strolling around the beautiful West Lake, and stopping by some historical temples where you can even view Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body at his mausoleum (which amusingly was named the world’s sixth ugliest building in 2012). And of course, no Vietnam trip is complete without a boat cruise through the hauntingly beautiful Halong Bay. But, perhaps towards the end of your trip, you’re ready for some peace and quiet away form the hustle and bustle and all the tourists… That’s when you open your Lonely Planet and discover the small city of Ninh Binh. Located in northern Vietnam, and the capital of Ninh Binh Province, the area is best known for its largest nature reserve, Cuc Phuong National Park. “But why travel to Ninh Binh?”, you ask. To stay at the Ninh Binh Family Homestay, of course!

Run by a young, lovely Vietnamese couple, Mr. Nguyen Thanh – or Scott as his guests call him – and his wife Mrs. Tran Hang, along with their two adorable children Bo and Min, the Ninh Binh Family Homestay really is, as their motto says, “Home From Home” (mind the endearing grammatical error). And I should know; I’ve been here for one week! I discovered the NBFH on the Southeast Asia Backpacker Facebook page, advertising that they were looking for a “volunteer English teacher,” and that they provided free accommodation, food, as well as a motorbike! I was traveling through Southeast Asia at the time and couldn’t resist; a chance to do what I love – teaching children, a profession I’ve been working in for the past five years in Taiwan – and explore a remote and authentic region of Vietnam.

I was welcomed graciously by Scott and his family, and on the first evening we enjoyed a delicious traditional dinner on a rug shared by other homestay guests from Australia, and the States, with a hearty chicken and vegetable soup, crispy spring rolls Vietnamese style (both Family Homestay specialties), and homemade “happy water” – you’ll find out what makes it “happy” once you try it So far I’ve taken my motorbike out on day-long excursions, exploring the countryside, and generally getting lost – the best way to figure out your bearings! It’s not unusual to encounter a herd cows blocking the road, free range chickens frantically scurrying about, and “goat traffic” which, instead of being gridlocked behind a line of cars, you’ll find yourself stuck behind a traffic jam of goats! We also take morning bike riding excursions with the guests – and there are plenty of guests to keep me company during my stay as the the Homestay is always at 75% occupancy – through the peaceful rice fields, admiring the local farmers as they plant all the rice seeds by hand, and the abundant livestock as you’re sure see some intimidating but friendly oxen lazing along the dirt roads, gaggles of garrulous geese (sorry for the cheesy use of alliteration), as well as a wide array of other farm animals grazing in the grasslands.

There are of course some excellent local tourist destinations you can visit just a bike-ride away: Ninh Binh City contains the impressive Bai Dinh Pagoda, the largest pagoda in Vietnam, as well as the biggest bronze Buddha statue in Southeast Asia! For a unique excursion, you can take the Trang An boat tour, winding through the Song Sao River and breathtaking mountains made entirely of limestone, and even passing through natural cave – but just a “heads up,” you’ll have to duck your head! Cool fact: Trang An is the site where they filmed the new King Kong film “Kong: Skull Island!” Scott also offers his own unique tours, scenic bike rides through the countryside, and his “special tour” designed only for the bravest guests with a sense of adventure, and danger… I have posted some photos, but pictures cannot do justice to what you’ll see when you explore Ninh Binh yourself. I’ll be updating you again soon, and posting photos daily on their Instagram account “Ninhbinhadventure.”

So stay tuned, and when visit the Ninh Binh Family Homestay, remember to say, “Mot hai ba zho!” as you down your first, but certainly not last, shot of happy water. Cheers!

-Cameron
Ninh Binh, January 26, 2017

Cameron is a freelance writer and blogger, and currently works as a tour guide in Hanoi, Vietnam. He now enjoys happy water on a weekly basis

Travelogue: Penghu – Taiwan’s Beautiful and Boring Island

Penghu

Penghu

Taiwan’s Beautiful and Boring Island

by Cameron Brtnik

Penghu, September 8, 2014 – My thirty-third birthday. I’m currently sitting seaside at a port in a small city on a tiny island off the coast of Taiwan, enjoying a glass of “The distinctive flavor lager beer,” also known as Taiwan Beer, and gorging on delicious freshly caught oysters and imported salmon. I feel at peace.

    I needed a vacation – Not from work overload, but because in the three years I’ve been living in Taiwan, I’ve never left the island (except for my trip back home to Canada). So I decided to take a trip, alone, to a pretty neighboring island to the west of Taiwan called Penghu (actually a cluster of islets). Warning: This is a couples’ trip, so only go alone if you want to experience cabin fever…without the cabin. Albeit a beautiful island, there’s not much to do besides visit the gorgeous local beaches – I suppose everything’s “local” in Penghu – to surf, dive, or (like me) finally get through that worn paperback you’ve been schlepping around everywhere. And that’s about it. “No matter, I’ll meet people!” I thought. Unfortunately, I came to this isle toward the end of the Moon Festival holiday when people were already returning home. Oh, not to mention the plane crash that killed 48 people (including two foreign exchange students from France) just two weeks prior to my arrival. That never helps an already flailing tourism industry.

    Undeterred (I had caught wind of this news the night before, but I was drunk enough at the time that I accepted my destined, likely watery fate), I took the first flight out of Taipei – which, by the way, I caught the same night of my birthday celebrations, or should I say following morning after leaving Halo, the club we were partying at, bottle service in tow – still inebriated, but somehow functional. I had smartly packed that evening and took my luggage straight to the nightclub. The plane ride was short, just an hour, and I felt safe (which I can’t say for those unfortunate souls who got caught in the typhoon), perhaps because I was passed out the whole way.

    I arrived at the small airport, where I passed out for another three hours on the uncomfortable, yet somehow comfortable seats. When I awoke it was only 10:30am, and I asked about cheap hostels. Soon a van arrived to escort me, and a lovely girl named Julia, whose family owned a local hostel called “Big Fish House,” drove me straight there. It was a very cute inn, more of a Bed and Breakfast, and wasn’t very cheap – $1500nt for the night. But it was well worth the stay, with a bright, spacious room to myself, breakfast, and a scooter (for an extra $300nt) included. I spent the next two hours sleeping (still working off that hangover, or tequila, or both) then hopped on my scooter and hit Shanshui aka “Mountain Water Beach.”

    The first thing I noticed along the way was that sea smell; the salty air hitting your nostrils like it was the first fresh breath of air you’ve taken in years. I was told there’d be “lots of foreigners there.” I was optimistic, as I wanted to meet some new friends to share my adventure with. There was one – he and his Taiwanese girlfriend – and he didn’t look the sort I was interested in meeting (or vice versa). So I kept to myself and got into my book – Freakonomics, a former yet still-popular bestseller I always intended to read, but never got around to till I found myself on a lonely island.

    At dusk, I jumped on my scooter and headed into town; if I were to find any action, it would be in the heart and centre of Penghu! I was wrong. I found one bar that I recognized from the Taiwan Lonely Planet called Freud. It was modelled after a fishing boat, with the same charm and décor as any Canadian seafood tavern, but it was missing that one asset I was looking for: people. I ate the mediocre “Thai-style shrimp” and enjoyed the choice Heineken beer. The mood was dark and depressing, so I left soon before it “got busy.” I went back to my commodious, Japanese-style room, and passed out for the fourth time that day..

    I woke up too late for breakfast, but it was still available: dried up bread loaf and two choices of spread: Nutella and peanut butter. If you know me, you know I enjoyed the shit out of it, more so because it was included (although not served in a bed). Julia, the friendly hotel manager – she and her mother manage two locations of Big Fish House, and she plans to leave in three weeks to study English in Australia for six months – drove me in her Big Fish van to the north end of the island to catch a ferry to a smaller islet fifteen minutes away. Exotically called Chikan (or “chicken island” as I preferred to call it), it’s a little paradise get-away, punctuated by stone weirs – oddly-shaped stone walls in the water originally built as fish traps – and small beaches. I visited Aimen Beach, famous for its jet skiing and banana boating. I did neither, and instead collected coral fragments that had washed ashore, and that’s what the sand was mostly composed of. A nice way to spend the day, but I was sunburnt and happy to catch the last boat back to “civilization.”

    Walking along the beach I noticed one thing: I love long walks on the beach (not a cheesy dating site description). This goes back to my cottage days of walking the shore of Georgian Bay all the way to Balm Beach, over an hour’s walk, and feeling happy as a sand boy (an expression my mother often used, but I never understood. I had to look up the etymology and discovered sand boys were actually “men who drove donkeys selling sand,” and were reportedly always happy). I also noticed something else: I felt utterly alone. It wasn’t a good feeling. I realized right there and then that life is better with friends, or family, or a significant other. That feeling faded though as I thought about how lucky I was, and started plotting world domination.

    I took the ferry back across the straight, caught a cab back into town, and checked into a shitty cheap hotel. I put a generous helping of aloe on that inexorable “Brtnik Burn,” grabbed my laptop, and headed down to the port where I’m currently sitting, two tall beers in, writing this diary entry. It’s my birthday, and I’m surrounded by drunken fishermen and the feeling of loneliness. I think I’ll try and bump my return ticket to tomorrow, as another day on this beautiful and boring island may make Jack a dull boy. As of right now, I feel content, but I wish my friends were here… My friends from Taiwan. My friends from China. My friends from Toronto. My brother and sister. A stranger. But all is well, and let’s all feel lucky we’re alive and not on a plane destined for doom (God bless their souls). I’ll see everyone soon. Oh, and happy Moon Festival!

-Written by Cameron Brtnik, September 8, 2014 on his 33rd birthday

taiwan-penghu

Cameron is a freelance writer living in Taiwan and part-time explorer cbrtnik.com