I'm back on the South China Sea - first glimpsed four months ago - in Kota Kinabalu, wondering what to do next. In theory I am here to climb Mount Kinabalu. But a dodgy ankle, sustained in a pratfall off the pavement in Semporna, while embarrassingly sober, casts that into question. As the first post made clear, I haven't had a plan since arriving in Bangkok. While that affords complete flexibility, sometimes I would like to have a better idea of what I'm here for. There is a constant tension between the intensive and the extensive: should I stay in a place and try to understand it a little, or see as much as possible? At the moment the latter strategy is more attractive. Without a plan I'm also likely to criss-cross around more than I need to.
So where next? In Borneo I have been looking at animals and diving - nothing cultural at all. It has been very enjoyable. I feel like more of the same, which rules out Java for the moment. The Philippines have great diving, but it is very wet season now (most seasons are the very wet season in the Philippines). Bali and Lombok also offer good diving, but it is peak season. There is interesting diving in Sulawesi and in Timor, but I want a prescription mask first, and may not be able to get one outside of KL, Singapore and Bali. Peninsular Malaysia has KL, the Perhentians, Kota Bahru, Rendang, Rantau Abang, Tioman and Taman Negara National Park. But August is the school holidays and it's busy; and I know I'll want to go east again afterwards. And the Olympics and then Ramadan are approaching. There seem to be too many constraints. Grateful for ideas.
There were very few Italians in Vietnam, but Sabah is full of them. In Semporna I dined and dived with Italians. It was fun trying to speak Italian (it didn't work too well, but most of them spoke even worse English). There are also a surprising number of Nordics and Scandinavians.
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The short flight from Tawau to KK had plenty of interest. The area around Tawau is supposedly less logged than, say, Sandakan. But as we lifted off, oil palms stretched to the horizon. The only primary rainforest left in Sabah seems to be in protected zones, which cover only a fraction of Sabah. Around the Kinabatangan I had been wondering why they were planted square, when they could fit more in by planting hexagonally. Perhaps it's something to do with transporting the heavy palm nuts? Well, around Tawau they do plant hexagonally.
A very large proportion of the cumulus clouds on Borneo tower miles upwards, perhaps because the air at low level is so warm, which would create strong convection currents. There are a lot of thunderstorms too, of course.
I have seen the end of the rainbow, and it's just oil palms. From the plane I saw a double rainbow. One was the brightest sky-arc I have ever seen; I somehow expected to be able to see more than just the usual seven colours. The rainbows ran vertically from the ground to the clouds.
And as we came to KK, Mount Kinabalu appeared on the right. It rises sharply and majestically out of a sea of cloud. There are hills nearby, but no real mountains, so Kinabalu is a singleton, like Fuji or El Misti. It looks craggy and enormous - another reason to think twice about climbing it.
Anyway, I have a feeling that blogs about enjoying oneself are less interesting than the converse. (At the opening of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy famously claimed that happy families are all alike, unhappy families unhappy in their own way. It is an impressively portentous opening sentence, but I suspect it's false.) So let's go back three months to Vietnam.
In Ninh Bình I pedalled to Bich Ðọng and Tam Coc and was couriered to Vân Long, Ðông Vân Trình and Kênh Gà.
Bich Ðọng was a pleasant surprise. It is a pagoda built within a limestone cave. Actually there are three pagodas, each on a different level. There are hordes of tourists, 99% of them Vietnamese or Chinese. There must be a lot of French people in Ninh Bình because everyone calls me ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’.
Tam Coc is billed as ‘Hạ Long Bay on the rice paddies’, because the same limestone crags burst vertically out of the fields. Tourists come to Tam Coc to be rowed along the river admiring the landscape. The paddies start at the edge of the river and it is difficult to say where the river ends and the fields begin.
The river passes through three caves. The view is slightly spoiled by signs with slogans such as ‘the marvellously of mountains and rivers’ and ‘let’s protect our natural landscape’. Well, yes, you could start by not planting signs everywhere.
All tourists who visit Ninh Bình go to Tam Coc. The jetty is surrounded by tacky souvenir shops and you can’t walk a step without people shouting at you.
As such it is a good example of how to ruin a good spot. Ten years ago it would no doubt have been a lovely experience. In Vietnam many of the big tourist experiences leave a bitter taste. Those making a living from tourism at the sites cannot just give you a service, but do their best to leave you feeling shit at not setting them up for life. I thought I was lucky, at first. My rower, Hong, and I chatted a bit in Vietnofrench. I bought him a can of beer at the far end.
Like many Vietnamese men, he wore a pith helmet.
But on the way back, the hard sell began. In Tam Coc they push embroidery. Ancient women transfer from boat to boat selling to conscience-stricken tourists. Hong duly opened a box and handed me a pile of embroidery. I looked and did not like; it’s hardly my thing. I declined to buy, and then received the full story: you buy, I have family, babies, give me $10. Well, fuck off. As if it's my problem. As if no-one else in VN is in that situation. And then he asked for a tip. I gave him all the small change I had – 15,000 dong – and he paddled away looking sour.
While I walked around the paths over the paddies barking came from the water all around: frogs.
When I next parked my bike near a temple, the guy tried to charge me a dollar. I had just heard him say 5,000 dong to someone else in Vietnamese. I corrected him and paid him; then he tried to give me the wrong amount in change. This is sadly common.
After that I saw Thai Vị temple, a monument to the 14 Tran kings, beginning with the guy who defeated the Mongols at Bạch Ðâng. A nice temple beneath the outcrops, originally thirteenth century but much restored, with an old wooden bell-tower.
A Chinese-looking guy with a long wispy beard, looking like a caricature from a 1930s movie, gave me a limited explanation and received a limited donation.
The following day I visited Vân Long and Kênh Gà on the back of a motorbike driven by Cương. These are both better places to visit than Tam Coc because they have not yet been ruined. Before we set off Cương reassured me: I have been driving for two years. That’s OK then. I was worried for a second.
Vân Long is a beautiful wetland reserve with karst features. Again, the visitor is rowed around it. The boat is woven and tarred bamboo. It can be punted and rowed. The rowlocks are of rope.
Vân Long is much more peaceful than Tam Coc. The only sounds are birdsong, frogs and the splashing of oars. For the first half hour I saw one other boat.
My rower, Dung (pronounced like a psychoanalyst), is 30 and the mother of children aged 13, 8 and 4. She speaks three words of French, and tries to sell me nothing. We pass a man punting a little coracle; he is after crabs.
One border of the wetland is a main road on a dike. As I watched, a truck driver knocked a man off his overloaded bike, ran out, picked him up, got back in the truck and drove off. Presumably it happens a lot. Just down the road, an enormous belching cement factory, one of very many in Vietnam. Like its northern neighbour, Vietnam has an infinite appetite for cement.
Attached to every vertical object in the reserve are small pink lentil-like objects. They are snails’ eggs. They pop like caviar but the contents are much stickier.
The largest birds on view are white, with long beaks. They are called chim cò and are probably storks or egrets.
It began to drizzle steadily. We took refuge in a cave every bit as large as the largest at Tam Coc, and there came upon a sheltering group of Korean tourists in boats. One sang a Korean song, very loudly. He had a very good voice and we all applauded.
In the afternoon I went to Kênh Gà: chicken village. I was irritated to be asked to pay 80,000 dong for two tickets. But for that I chartered a whole boat, 25 or 30 feet long, powered by an engine, for three hours. Because of the engine, the trip was nowhere near as peaceful as Vân Long.
Despite its name, Kênh Gà is a fishing village that has turned into a town. Women occupy boats in pairs. One lounges back and rows slowly with her feet, one oar at a time. They even feather. The other repeatedly drops a basket to the riverbed and raises it again by rope. Each time a bucketful of sand and snails pours on to the floor. Again, there are snails’ eggs everywhere.
It’s productive fishing, and when they have done with that they harvest the leaves that grow in the river. Leaves play a big role in many Vietnamese dishes. They don’t cook with Thai basil very much, which is a shame, but they do use mint to great effect.
Naturally, the Hoang Long river (named after a dragon, of course) is the town’s aorta. People work in it and wash in it (it’s silty and unappetising). Children play in it, boys on one side, girls on the other.
There are also surprisingly big cargo boats on the river, eighty to hundred feet long and more. Families live on them. They can’t be transporting fish. My guess is that they’re transporting sand and aggregates in one direction and cement in another. It’s surprising that they can navigate the river when laden.
Many, if not most, villages in Vietnam specialise. One will make a certain kind of crockery, another fireworks, another paper, another silk, another ink, another embroidery. It is a demonstration of the advantages of clustering. There must be economies of scale, perhaps from spillovers of specialist skills and from distribution costs. Retailers in the cities also cluster. One street will sell only paint, another only DVDs. This is, of course, an ancient pattern: the streets in the Old Quarter of Hanoi are still called Silk Street, Paper Street, Coffin Street etc. If you want to find a pharmacy you have to travel.
At the far end of the trip I got out to walk a mile or so a cave, Ðông Vân Trình. A cave is a cave and I have seen a few, so I was unenthusiastic, but it turned out to be worth a walk. There are mites and tites by the score. The main cavern is perhaps 90 metres across and twenty metres high, like something dwarvish from Tolkien.
Everywhere are gothic organ pipes, fans, car radiators, melted wax, baleen. There are no guides, no railings and few lights; these long-exposure photographs exaggerate the available light.
The visit is marred (very slightly) only by the persistent attentions of a chainsmoking group of Vietnamese tourists. They don’t mean to harass, but one of them follows me around trying to communicate by repeating himself and speaking loudly –as so many Brits do when talking to Johnny Foreigner.
The bike ride back was great fun, too, as we travelled through dramatic landscape along a half-finished road. No ‘road closed’ signs, no cones, no contraflows. People just drive on the drivable bits past the workmen. And we finished with two litres of bia hơi for 20,000 dong at just about the only pleasant spot in Ninh Bình, by a lake.