An aged bus takes us inland from Cat Ba Town along a narrow road between steep banks. The bus pulls up outside Quan Y Cave. Our guide explains that during the war, this cave was converted, with Chinese aid, into a military ‘hospital’. The concrete rooms though do not follow the natural form of the cave, but sit inside box-like, connected by a series of rectangular passages. We enter through a small door at the side of the hill, and follow the guide down a staircase into a dark hallway. Several large rooms branch off on either side. The air is damp and musty, and beyond the light of our torches and the guide’s lamp (a car battery wired up to a headlamp bulb on the end of a cane) it is pitch black. The rooms in this level would have been reserved for high-ranking officers, our guide explains.
We continue to an iron ladder leading up to the space between the flat concrete roof of the complex and the cave roof. Backtracking across the roof, we come to a doorway in the rock sealed with concrete, where the second level of the complex begins. At the end of the war, much of the equipment from the lower level was moved into this second level. The contents of the second level have always been secret, and it is rumoured to have contained a weapons-testing facility. For now, with the door firmly sealed (and having resisted all break-in attempts to date), the contents remain a mystery.
We return to fresh air by a different route and drive on to the entrance of Cat Ba National Park. Our hike takes us quickly into the central forested-region of the island, along a path that would have been hard in places to pick out without a guide. There is a lot of climbing and descending, and some scrambling over rocks, and in the heat of the day we are quickly drenched with sweat. Our group of 15 covers a good range of nationalities, including Australian, Swiss, and American. The trees preclude any real chance of views across Ha Long Bay, but the real reason for visiting is much closer at hand. We do not get to see the endangered golden-headed langur, although a dark shape does jump fleetingly across the tree canopy above us at one point. But the variety of flora and fauna is impressive, and provides home to giant brightly-coloured spiders, angular and tense, guarding over their webs like wierd alien robot creatures from a sci-fi comic strip.
We finally emerge from the forest after passing Frog Lake, and reach a small village where we are served lunch. After the morning’s exertions, the bowl of noodles, egg, and vegetables is very welcome. The heat seems to have put James, Jay, and John off their food though, to the obvious disapproval of the proprietor. After a decent pause, we continue through fields where rice is being grown, and then along a path with banks either side that are alive with hundreds of butterflies—reds, blues, yellows, browns and blacks, some basking in the sun, others flying from flower to flower.
A boat waits in a small bay to take us back to Cat Ba Town. The weather is perfect—the haze of yesterday has cleared and the sky is a rich blue. We stop en-route at a beach, white with small pieces of washed-up coral, for a relaxing swim. On arrival back at Cat Ba Town, we are treated to the magnificent sunset that we did not quite get last night.
Our guide has recommended that we check out a live band playing in a bar a short distance up the hill this evening, so after dinner we venture out for an evening of entertainment. It is not entirely what we had expected. We spend a surreal twenty minutes sitting in small plastic chairs in a gravelled courtyard on Cat Ba Island listening to a slightly uncertain keyboard playing to a Casio auto-accompaniement, and a singer whose voice is almost drowned in the bathroom reverberation effect. Five songs is quite enough.