It’s an implausible landscape to Western eyes: classic limestone karst territory, where tectonic pressures coupled with groundwater erosion carve surrealist sculptures out of the land, and the monsoon climate clothes them in forests of deepest green.
Yesterday, we hired bikes to explore the island, winding south coast to north coast, then looping around the west coast. And it’s a moot point whether Z, having been driven by his dad, will ever get on a motorbike with me again.
It’s an incredible ride. Winding around and between these Dali-esque rock formations, which open out into dramatic bays where cormorants swoop low over the South China Sea to gulp down their invisible prey, tranquil plains, where farmers in what Graham Greene so memorably described as limpet hats cultivate rice, papaya, crabs and fish and long causeways extend dizzyingly over mangrove flats.
The nine-year-old, for some reason, didn’t fancy playing videographer, but here’s a little video of him riding pillion with his dad:
We stopped off at the Hospital Caves en route, like the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Ho Chi Minh Trail a tribute to Vietnamese engineering. They were built in 1965 when the first American bombs began to fall on Cat Ba island.
This is the view from the back door:
The complex is gobsmacking. It’s an entire, three-storey military hospital, built from concrete and proof against god knows what tonnage of TNT and napalm, created within natural limestone caves.
Here’s Z relaxing in one of the bathrooms:
Camouflaged entirely naturally, slotting seamlessly into the landscape, there are meeting rooms, wards, a swimming pool and a natural assault course to rehabilitate the long-term wounded, plus a propaganda cinema on the third floor.
Ah yes. The landscape.
Clearly, when it comes to landscape (in particular, the dazzling karst vistas of South-East Asia) our son has been thoroughly spoilt.
After long stretches of causeway, the northern road comes to a random full stop, some way out over the sea. Just, in fact, as it looks on the map, like the prelude to the “flying car” moment in countless movie car chases, except with a pier in place of a road bridge.
“What are we doing here?” Z asks.
“We came for the drive,” says his dad.
“You mean,” Z replies, slightly disbelieving. “You mean we came ALL THIS WAY from the beach just to look at a view? We drove ALL THE WAY around the WHOLE island, just for the fun of the drive?”
“Yep, son,” says his dad. “That’s about the size of it.”
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