The day after we visit Cua Van’s Floating Village we ease up next to a rocky set of steps that lead us to Me Cung. The Aphrodite assure us that is not the usual limestone cave for tourists but one for “special guests”. Aren’t we all ‘special’ to these tours?
Anyway, the stone-hewn staircase takes Isla and I about eighty steps to a set of water-eroded caves where stalagmites and stalactites are glistening and touchable. Just before we enter we are shown a single orchid clinging, limpet-like, to the stone walls. A three-petal, yellow flower sits atop four green banana-shaped leaves. Our guide solemnly assures us it only flowers once every six months, that we are truly blessed to see it.
Before we duck low to enter the caves this party of seven people pauses to admire a bed of the remains of freshwater shells – Melania. Given Ha Long Bay was once a land mass fractured by rivers some ten millennia ago it was a natural habitat for many freshwater molluscs such as snails, oysters, mussels, and arcas. Our ancestors collected these as part of their staple diet and the shells in the caves give the proof.
It’s time to enter….immediately, it is cooler. A paltry 25C compared to the humid 35C+ outside. The sound of water dripping is the backdrop to the large, dark colours of the stalactites. I am carefully guiding Isla. It’s slippy for sure as we climb upwards through a narrow passage into a wide bowl shaped cavern. Daylight penetrates from a wide hole to my left, streaming through branches, vines, and creepers. It isn’t allowed to illuminate much of the cave, a flashlight is turned on to show the ‘room’. I think it could have housed a neolithic family of ten or more back in ‘their day’.
It is time to leave the cave so we climb upwards: twist and turn a scant thirty metres but climb about twenty. A thick rope allows me to move along. I’d like to say as sure-footed as a mountain goat but that would be a blatant lie. Still, carrying Isla in one arm, I managed well enough. It’s not a place for flip flops. Even in that five minute “hike” the humidity was pushing 95%. I truly felt like I was in a steaming jungle, my shirt sodden. Isla’s hair was wet through.
But we emerged to look at Karsk lake, a lagoon in the middle of this limestone mountain. It was volcanic and I felt like Professor Challenger when he crested the plateau of the “Lost World” for the very first time in 1912. It brought to mind his description of the lake they found…
it was different out upon the rose-tinted waters of the central lake. It boiled and heaved with strange life. Great slate-colored backs and high serrated dorsal fins shot up with a fringe of silver, and then rolled down into the depths again. The sand-banks far out were spotted with uncouth crawling forms, huge turtles, strange saurians, and one great flat creature like a writhing, palpitating mat of black greasy leather, which flopped its way slowly to the lake.
This place is equally bio-diverse, equally alien for a long, long moment in my life. Around me are unique Ha Long Ginger, Fan Palms, Ficus. Flowering vines give a dense palette of clematis, lacy clerodendron, fragrant bauhinias. I snap a photo of Isla against a Dragon’s Blood tree. The cliff below us is home to endemic bands of Violet Chirita, at its base are Balsam trees. A single hawk soars across the span of the lagoon.
Technically, it is a closed lake basin, but why let science get in the way of boyish imagination, eh? I have finally found my Lost World and in this place there is nothing but dinosaurs and pterodactyls soaring. Dark, dangerous, exciting. Everything you could possibly want for a few long, precious moments.
We go back via an even more torturous route, nod our thanks to our guide, ruffle the fur of his indolent dogs, step back onto the cruise ship.
Ha Long…Me Cung….magnificent, quiet, untouched. Go….you can see from the photos below that Isla likes it a lot…
Is this what diplomacy is all about?