"And now he want to sing a song, for you.
And he sing, he said, in the wartime, soldier, he, because in the very hot conditions,
even that they still have a lot of entertainment, they sing a lot in wartime.
And now he sing, you can clap your hand."
The translation of our host's speech, delivered by our tour guide
Cat Ba Island is the largest island in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Hospital Cave (Quan Y) is listed in many tour brochures, normally in a single sentence, something along the lines of 'we will visit the old cave used as a hospital by the NVA during the American War'.
Simply a short stop off before going to see something more worthwhile and spectacular, and you get the feeling that if this place weren't just off the main road, the effort wouldn't be taken.
What these brochures fail to mention, is that if you're not moved to tears, if you don't feel a shiver down your spine at some stage, if you don't leave smiling a huge smile, and if this doesn't turn into one of the highlights of your visit to Vietnam, you might just need to check that you're still actually alive and breathing. This place is far more than a simple side trip.
Ha Long Bay, and Cat Ba Island, are made up of towering limestone mountains, and are home to a multitude of limestone caves. Ever resourceful, and facing the constant danger of aerial bombing, a hospital was constructed in one of these caves, used for treating injured North Vietnamese Army soldiers. Although descriptions of this cave seem to always note that it was used during the American war, it dates to the Franco Viet-minh war - it was used extensively during the American war however. The hospital has only 3 entrances - two steel doors, plus an opening high in the cave - inaccessable now, as the bridges used to scale the heights to this entrance have now collapsed.
The hospital is built over three levels, constructed of concrete within the cave, to build recovery rooms, surgeries, kitchens, staff quarters, and so on. Most of the electrical lighting has been long since stripped, so apart from the occasional dim bulb, you're seeing everything by torch light.
"This room was the surgery" - a room no different to the others, apart from the area set aside for scrubbing up. It's an eerie feeling, stepping into a room where you know soldiers lives hung in the balance, a bare concrete cube that now echoes with the sounds of Vietnamese, haltingly translated into English, knowing that in the past the sounds would have been the noise of a battle surgery, wondering whether the echo was as severe then.
The hospital not only catered to the treatment of injuries, but to the recovery process, aiming to get the patients back to full health - presumably so they were ready to leave, and rejoin the war effort immediately. The complex not only included surgeries and recovery rooms, but a small concrete swimming pool, and open areas where recovering patients could exercise, including a large area where movies were screened. Sitting on the concrete roofs of the rooms below, and covered by the natural roof of the cave - at least 20 metres high - is a large open area, at one end closing off to a small alcove, used by the high ranking officers to sleep - it was the coolest part of the cave, and rank has its privilidges. To keep morale up, and combat boredom, the hospital also had an entertainer. This man, who is showing us through the caves, our host today, brings these caves to life.
Vú Dinh Khôi is his name. From the moment he greeted us (after some time of knocking on the steel entrance door by our guide) in the manner of a Vietnamese officer - a formal and intimidating experience - he stood apart as someone special. Possessing a quiet dignity, and a sense of immense pride, this man was genuinely proud to show us around the hospital, and explain what life was like in this place. Mostly though, he wanted to sing to us. And if you've never heard someone possessing a rich, powerful voice, sing in the acoustic environment of a limestone cave, it's something you should try to do at least once in your lifetime. Words cannot properly describe it, except to say that it was difficult to believe that there was only the one man's voice creating that sound. Rich and full, echoing from concrete and limestone, any instrumentation would have lessened that sound. It was truly one of the purest, most soulful sounds I have ever heard, and I didn't ever want it to end. If it was announded that the rest of the days activities were cancelled, so that this man could sing to us more, I would have gladly stayed.
We were lucky enough to hear three songs. The first, sung below the limestone roof of the excercise area, was a stirring song delivered with us clapping the beat - revolutionary in sound, a battle cry to lift the spirits, and I know that if I were a soldier hearing this song the idea of defeat would seem to be impossible. The second, a traditional Vietnamese song, sung in what was a recovery room - in the past packed with bunk beds.
The third and last song, sung to us in the same recovery room, was truly one of the most emotional songs I've heard. A song about the love of the land that is Vietnam, it was explained to us that this song was often sung when far away from home, speaking of the fields and rice paddies, the mountains and oceans, a song of longing and love for a country unlike any I've heard before. It left barely a dry eye in this room, full of foreign tourists far away from homes of their own. The fact that none of us could understand a word didn't matter - when a man stands before you, and in the words echoing from the walls is a sense of deep an abiding love of that place you call home, language is no longer a barrier.
Eventually, our tour over, it came time to leave. Vú was keen to get photos with all of us, posing with each of us individually, the smile never leaving his face, the tears barely dry on ours, handing out his business card to each of us - handwritten contact details on a scrap of paper, allowing us to mail him if we wanted to. Climbing down the bamboo ladder that lead to the path below, I could only wonder that a place such as this wasn't crawling with tourists, as so many other areas of Vietnam are these days. All I can say to you is that if you travel to Vietnam, make the effort to see this place. Vú - while healthy and active - is growing old. Once he is gone, much of the magic of this place will disappear forever.