Two features define the landscape around Ninh Binh: rice paddies and karsts. Eroded limestone pinnacles, the karsts jutted out like sliced-off mountain tops covered in trees, reflected in the perfect green mirrors of the paddies. Bright colourful washing hung beside the houses like prayer flags; bullocks rolled in mud, dogs and chickens roamed; children kicked a ball in the crumbling forecourt of a temple.
Our destination was the ‘floating village’ of Kenh Ga, which is rather like calling Sydney a floating city because there are a few boats; there were more houses built along the banks than houseboats on the river. I was the sole passenger on a little wooden motorboat with a sheet metal roof and four plastic chairs on the deck, which took me up the river.
Outside the village the landscape altered: the karsts had turned to gentle grassy slopes, upon which goats and water buffalo grazed, tended by women in conical hats. By the water were rows of neat trees and the crosses of Christian gravestones. A large European church was visible in the distance, painted cream and orange. I was back in Catholic country: the white statues of the goddess Quan Âm had turned into the white statues of the Virgin. In the orange afternoon light the whole scene took on the air of a Grecian pastoral scene – apart from the conical hats.
In the middle of the river was a tiny island with two rows of stone pews, behind which stood a cross, an altar and another statue of the Virgin. The little sacred island was empty but for three Vietnamese school children, tending the altar and washing their hair in the river. It was a strange little place, this European religious pastoral with buffalo and conical hats. The children with their vibrant brown skin were so unlike the stark white concrete of the Virgin. It was like a choice between the living and the dead. The boat turned around and we left them.
On the ride home in that final orange light the rice shoots shook and shimmered like duck’s feathers as the landscape rolled along. I drank in the view like cool water in the desert. The farmers in their conical hats bent over, submerged in mud, their endless, unforgiving labour supplying not only rice, the ‘staff of life,’ but romantic, photographic moments for the passing traveler. I had a brief vision of conical hats pointing a camera into my workplace: ‘how ugly this man’s classroom is, but how comfortable the chair. And his legs are never wet!’ I didn’t envy them, but if the road and sun and paddies had been as endless as their labour, I could have stayed on the back of that motorbike and drank in the scenery for ever.