6 December 2016

The sky is a wash of grey/blue, there's a slight gradient towards the post-dawn East and hints of diffuse cloud shapes but these are subtle, easily missed at first glance. Below, the lightly ruffled waters provide a soft-focus mirror, reflecting the same colours from all points of the compass, zenith to nadir. The horizon provides a thin, grey line dividing air from water, fine detail lost in mist & distance. Across this near-monochrome backdrop run thin lines of trees and fenceposts, the barely surfaced boundaries between the huge, flooded fields, each one a darker silhouette balanced on its refection. The air is dense with moisture, muffling the sounds and leaving each of us isolated in our small, near-silent worlds.

Some context for the scene:

I was about halfway through my grand adventure holiday to South-East Asia (you can read the full story here). Since arriving in Vietnam we'd seen the vibrant madness of Hanoi and the majestic beauty of Halong Bay and, after a boneshaking overnight train journey, had arrived at the old capital of Huế in the centre of the country. We spent a day touring the sights of the city and the next morning there was an optional cycling tour before setting off for our next destination. I was determined to make the most of my time in this exotic land and so after breakfast I joined the handful of us ready to set forth under our own steam.

Outside the hotel we were fitted with helmets and paired with sturdy looking mountain bikes before the leader motioned us to mount up at the kerbside. This came as a bit of a shock. Huế's traffic didn't present the seemingly anarchic mayhem we'd seen in Hanoi but the streets were filled with a huge variety of vehicles, each of which seemed to be treating the rules of the road more as guidelines than commandments, and the prospect of venturing out into their terrain looked like a quick recipe for disaster. But our smiling guide was unfazed, both by the traffic and our evident anxiety, and when a tiny break in the flow of cars came along he confidently waved us to follow him, gesturing at the drivers to give space for our wobbly crocodile to pass.

And, amazingly, they did. Once we were steadily moving the other road users flowed around us - although at times a little closer than felt totally comfortable - and after a couple of turns we found ourselves in quieter, more residential streets. A sudden, torrential downpour forced us to seek refuge in a roadside shop (much to the amusement of the local customers & staff) but within a few minutes it had diminished back to the almost-drizzle we'd started in and we saddled up and headed off into the rice fields.

As we left the city our surroundings became almost abstract in their emptiness & simplicity. The greens of the foliage faded into the blue/grey of sky & water and the horizon retreated far into the distance. We passed huge flocks of white ducks bobbing on the water, small groups of imposingly horned water buffalo shepherded by stick-wielding boys, and the occasional buzzing moped, but these grew increasingly rare as we headed further into the fields. Our small group slowly dispersed as we each found our own pace (or stopped to take photos) and with the humid atmosphere soaking up any sounds I soon found myself in my own, personal bubble, sole inhabitant of a soft, hazy world.

August 2020