The landscape soon turned as bleak and oppressive as the weather. The soil was sandy, good for growing little other than the ragged gravestones that populated the hills. Piles of weathered rocks lay like washed bones at the edges of the fields. Here and there stooped figures spread armfuls of slimy paddy weed over their gardens to bolster the flagging soil. The road was edged with unnaturally round depressions. Some had become fishponds. Others, fringed with grass and filled with sand, looked like sand traps on a well-kept golf course. They were bomb craters, and they were everywhere.
A bent old man appeared on the road's edge, barefoot and wrapped in a thin sheet of plastic. He held out an inverted reed hat and bobbed it gently up and down, his fingers entwined in prayer. He was the first in a long line of beggars that scraped a living from the road. The central provinces were the poorest in Vietnam, so desperate that even inter-province buses responded to the entreaties of its inhabitants.