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This piece, about a water buffalo fighting tournament in Vietnam, won the Daily Telegraph Just Back travel writing competition.

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A Raging Buffalo Battle

A track leads away from the highway into the jungle where a pit of bare earth gapes like a fresh wound. Several thousand people stand on terraces 70 feet high carved into the clay by excavators. All eyes on the arena, which lies empty, waiting.

The air clings with the smell of popcorn and barbecued pork. Families gather with their boisterous broods, buying drinks and snacks from vendors who have set up shop on low plastic tables. It’s Saturday in the Bac Quang district of northern Vietnam and the water buffalo tournament is in town.

Men slide heavy wooden poles aside and two magnificent buffalo bulls are led into the public gaze, the numbers 18 and 32 chalked on their backs. I brace myself for the inevitable violence but…nothing. Officials, tiny from our distant perch, look foolish whacking the half ton slabs of muscle on their backsides, cajoling them to rage. Then…18 nuzzles up to 32 and licks his neck.

A roar goes upfrom the crowd. The announcer’s voice rings from the PA system, shrill with excitement. This brotherly love is unprecedented. Five long minutes later something snaps and they lock horns. Thirty-two drives forward and, after a few seconds of resistance, 18 swivels to flee.

The next contest is pure fury. Number 31 bulldozes straight at number 48, closing the 20 metre gap in seconds. Forty-eight is oblivious to the snorting thunder bearing down on him. Just in time he lifts his head and two horn bosses collide sending a shudder down the flanks of both animals.

Now their thick necks are bent into the battle, the tops of their heads brushing the dirt. Hooves grind the earth as the initiative switches from beast to beast. Testosterone flows in the deadly struggle and the fleshy red tubes of their penises are exposed.

Thirty-one forces 48 backwards across the arena. An imperceptible shift of weight and 48 is on the offensive, regaining lost ground. Until, suddenly, 48 knows his opponent’s superiority and surrenders. He makes for the corner of the arena and hurls himself against the wooden gate but there is no escape. Thirty-one smashes into his side and knocks him to the ground, legs flailing. A flash of horns driving into exposed chest. Men hurry to intervene, wary of being crushed, dancing to drape flags over the rampager’s head – taking the target from view, damping the murderous flames.

Thirty-one will fight again in a bid to win the 45,000,000 Vietnamese Dong (£1,400) prize. But ultimately all competitors share the same fate: skilful dissection with a butcher’s knife, flesh hacked into profit. Outside the arena, yellow chits litter the floor. The iron tang of blood claws from stalls where hunks of fresh meat glisten.

Delicious, I’m told, and expensive at 280,000 Dong (£9) per kilo. Down by the river; a freshly stripped buffalo rib cage, massive, the white bones in stark contrast to the dark figures working on it, the muddy bank and the churning chocolate river.

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