Rice stalks — green at the moment — spread out before us with the evenly spaced rhythm in which they were planted. They unfold until they can’t anymore, to tickle the bases of the limestone giants that dominate the skyline, sleepy in the humidity. The bleating of goats rolls in and out of earshot. We follow the reflective surface of the river, a teetering path guarded by the rice swaying lazily in the water.
Ba, the woman rowing our sampan, isn’t a guide nor does she work in tourism. She’s one of Vietnam’s many seamstresses and she comes down to the Tam Coc National Park once a day, five days a week, to wait for her number to be called. The number gives her a turn to row tourists through the famous gem of the Ninh Binh province, and back again. Like all the rowing women, she’s leaning back on a folding metal rest whilst stretching her legs forwards, and down, in smooth arcs. Her feet rest on the worn wooden oars where hands would normally be and a frayed loop of rope attached to the stay keeps the oars turning in place.
Today, I’m her number and Ba’s taken to my stilted conversation with a charitable ease. She sprays her mimes with English words, and I do the same. She tells me of her children who’ve all left for the city, where the money is. Her fingers rub together in the international sign for currency. Her hands also tell me her name means three in Vietnamese, and that there will be three caves on the river. We’ve passed two so far. Smiling, she shouts “my.” Some people turn in their boats to look at her as she laughs.
Pedalling onwards, in a chorus of Vietnamese women chatting across the water, legs rising and falling with ease, we pass by herons picking at rice, and under birds of prey gliding above. The monumental rocks — sheer and brimming with trees — stand solidly dominating the skyline. Passing into the belly of one, we drift into Ba’s cave. At a point where the light doesn’t quite reach she gestures upwards and mimes stroking, and so I reach up to touch the ceiling. Porous and rippled, it catches on the palm of my hand.
The journey almost over, we drift back the length of the park to return to the quay. Ba pulls up short so that she can show me her cross stitch and other items for sale, laughing when I try to barter. As she’s packing up I take in the skeletal structures of a luxury resort that I’d somehow missed on the way out. Plastered, but with no windows, it has palm trees and a bare bridge spanning the water. It spreads out across the shoreline.
“New?” I ask.
“No,” she says, shaking her head and looking around with no smile.
She waves an arm. “Old,” she says. Ba recovers her smile, and pedals us to shore.
The winner of the National Geographic Traveller (UK) Travel Writing Competition 2017 will be announced on natgeotraveller.co.uk on Friday 18 August