The temperatures went up and so did the hustling when I started to make my way south from Hanoi, to my first stop in Ninh Binh. I took the local bus, which was scheduled, as much as things are, to leave in 15 minutes. The catch here was 15 minutes or when the bus is full – whichever comes first. There was only one other person on board when I got on, and a few others trickled in slowly as we crept towards the station exit. I had been holding on to the idea that once we left the station (after a good half hour) we would be on our way, but began to realise that if there's still one empty seat, no one is going anywhere, except possibly around the block. This is why it's necessary to have a bus hustler. Our man, who had steered me from the ticket desk to the bus, was constantly on the look-out, leaning out the side of the bus and shouting at people walking down the sidewalk, who suddenly seemed to realise they needed to take a 2hr drive to another town, and jumped on board, no baggage in hand. I couldn't tell if he was making a sales pitch – 'Ninh Binh is a great place to avoid Hanoi's Friday afternoon traffic' but some people seemed to take a little convincing.
We finally made the 2hr drive in about 3 hrs, and I arrived just in time to get to Tam Coc for the last boat ride of the day down the Ngo Dong River, to see what's billed as 'Halong Bay on land' – the same giant karst limestone cliffs, this time erupting out of rice fields rather than water. The Lonely Planet warns of the sales pitches to be expected on the river, so I thought I knew what was in store, but I wasn't anticipating the level of calculation I encountered. While waiting for my boat I wandered round the market, looking at a man holding out a poisonous snake to a gathering crowd, but there wasn't much else to see. A beautiful older Vietnamese woman signalled me from under an awning area to come sit with them, out of the sun. We sat until it was time to take my boat, both agreeing that it was hot, and she was so warm and friendly I was glad to find she would be my rower. She did her best to make friends – she kept taking my photo, about 20 of them, and picked rice to give me. After we floated through the first two river caves one of her cohorts sidled up in a rowboat, with drinks for me to buy – buy one for her, the woman urged. I was prepared for this one, I'd heard all they do is sell the drinks back to each other, and I wasn't falling for it.
We rowed on, and she had me take over so I could try rowing with my feet, the way they all row on the river. That was the warm up for the hard sell. In less time than expected we had turned around and were heading back, first stopping next to a bed of rice, where my rower got down to business. She pulled out a bag of cheap embroidered wallets and assorted souvenirs – you buy? She tried it a second time further down the river after the first time didn't work, and after that she said she was tired. Not tired of trying to ask for money, because she asked for a tip soon after, but apparently over-exerted from having to row at the same time. In memory of the first half of the trip I gave her one when we got to the dock – it wasn't big enough for her, and she asked for more.
Hustle and hassle number three was arranging my tour to Cuc Phuong National Park. It's supposed to be a birdwatcher's paradise and I wanted to make sure I got a guide who really knew the park birds, so I opted to arrange a motorbike taxi from Ninh Binh and get my own guide in the park instead of going with one of the hotel's pricey-sounding tours. It was a scorching hot day as we drove past the limestone cliffs – those in Halong Bay are believed to have been formed by a giant dragon charging down the mountains to the coast and I felt like there could still be dragons breathing fire underground – the air was so hot I was choking trying to catch my breath on the back of the motorbike. Against the heat I struggled up one of the cliffs to get a view of the river passing through the landscape, this time more busy with boats than my visit the afternoon before.
By the time I got to the park it was late afternoon, rivers of sweat were running down my body, and the next round of negotiations around getting a park guide for the birds had me feeling dragon-like. It's better to be in the park centre to see the birds, they told me, but it's more money for a guide to get there – petrol, have to get up earlier. Too late I realised my bargaining error – there were no other options to choose from for a guide in the park. And the accommodation in the park centre only had air conditioning for about 4hrs in the evening, because they run on a generator. I just rode through an inferno to get there, so the prospect of spending a night without air conditioning was almost more than I could bear. But I didn't make the trip to miss out on the birds, so in the end I paid more to be met in the centre. The next day my guide told me it would probably be better to go to the park entrance because it's more open and easier to see the birds. And March is really the best time for birding in the park – you can easily see a hundred species in a day, rather than the 22 that we saw. I also found out that I needed a guide to see the primate and turtle conservation centres, another extra.
On the way back to Ninh Binh I stopped at the Van Long Nature Reserve, where I took a beautiful and peaceful rowboat ride through some marshlands and past large forested cliffs, where we heard growling sounds, likely from some langurs, if not a lurking dragon. The rower held out her hand for a tip at the end, and refused my first offering, which I suppose was too small to take seriously. My motorbike driver had parked next to one of the few stalls on the road, whose owner offered that I only needed to buy a 'petit souvenir, petit souvenir madam'. I don't think he understood me when I asked him, why I would I need to buy something to remind me of being constantly hassled for money? Reminders are the only things that come for free.