Problematic proximity

Gia Vien district, Ninh Binh province (as it should be)

More than a thousand years ago, Ninh Binh province was the first imperial capital of Vietnam. Before that, these vast plains punctuated with limestone karsts were just another distant outpost of China. This land is ancient and criss-crossed with history; monuments and shrines. 

On the bus my companion described Ninh Binh as like Ha Long Bay (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), but instead, floating on land. And she was right. Soaring plinths of limestone rocks and mountain ranges covered with thick green vegetation makes for pretty viewing out a speeding window. In fact, this landscape so inspired the Vietnamese that part of it became, in 1962, the country’s first national park (near where this picture was taken). You can understand why the Chinese wanted to hang on to it. Yet there is another companion in this scene, side-by-side nearly every other mountain you see. A cement factory hunkers, belching smoke and trying to minimize its appearance by situating lavish cement “gardens” out front replete with cement water buffaloes and elephants, and concrete-ivy trellises covering walkways and “labyrinths” (for employees on breaks?).
If you crane your neck just a bit more as you zoom by, risking breaking your nose on the bus window pane, you’ll also see the digging of the back hoes and excavators, relentlessly removing the karsts and hills from the bottom leaving behind such mushroom-shaped grotesques that you’d be forgiven for thinking they will collapse upon themselves. Approximately 1.6 billion tons of cement is produced globally every year and, says the IFC (part of the World Bank Group), is second only to water as the most consumed substance on the entire planet. 

The effluent from the factories mixes with the fog rolling off the mountain tops and produces a low hanging grey veil among the tangle of bright green trees and jungle shrub. In forcing yourself to look past the ruin of the landscape, you squint a bit out your window. Acid green slides, smudges and streaks into hulking navy blue rock. Here there be dinosaurs you whisper under your breath. And then you catch site of another concrete giraffe and the spell is broken.    

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