On the winding road leading north from Cat Ba town to Cat Ba National Park lie the remnants of a hospital unlike any other in the world. The hospital can not be seen from either the ground or the air and could well be mistaken for the set of a James Bond movie. But this hospital was very much real and reaching this very hospital in the right time was what separated life from death during the American War.
Whilst today the hospital does not remain, the remnants of the labyrinth of the once functioning secret military cave are enough to transport you back to the 1960’s when American bomber planes were pounding the region.
History of the Hospital Cave
At that time (between 1963 and 1965), the Military Hospital Cave – known locally as the Quan Y Cave – was built to serve as both a secret, bomb-proof hospital as well as a safe house for Viet Cong leaders. The incredibly well-constructed three-storey feat of engineering was in constant use until 1975 when it was disbanded and handed over to the tourism authorities such that today it presents a completely unique looking glass to a distant, much more tumultuous, time.
Unlike yesteryear when the whereabouts of this hospital remained a secret to anybody foreign, today after a 30min ride across the 13kms from Cat Ba town you will find the Hospital Cave adequately signposted. But that is where modern time ends and your journey into the past begins.
What should you expect at the Hospital Cave?
The entrance to the cave is still relatively concealed and as you take your first step on the creaking wooden steps that lead to the cave door, you will be struck by both awe and surprise at how such a massive cave could be built in such a mysterious location.
The inside of the Hospital Cave is an extraordinary structure of pathways and labyrinths leading straight into the mountain across different floors. From bedrooms to an operating theatre, from a cinema (yes, you read that correct, a cinema!) to a swimming pool, the cave spans 17 rooms; each offering its own unique perspective on how life went on in this hidden gem whilst American planes dropped bombs on the outside world.
Whilst remaining a master piece of war time, the Hospital Cave still manages to serve a practical purpose today. Not only does it offer tourists a unique perspective on war time living, but the cave also serves as a shelter for locals in and around the Cat Ba National Park during severe typhoons given that that the cave is about 120m above sea level.
What does Cat Ba National Park Offer?
Once you’ve had your fare fill of all that the cave has to offer, you can then venture out a little further on the road to ultimately reach the heart of Cat Ba Island. Established in 1986 and spanning a mammoth 15,200 hectares, Cat Ba National Park is the ideal place to become one with nature. With a plethora of plant life and animals to choose from, the national park is surely one of those places where you can lose yourself to the natural world.
Wildlife in Cat Ba National Park
Mammals in the park include langurs and macaques, wild boar, deer, civets and several species of squirrel, including the giant black squirrel. Cat Ba National Park remains one of the only places in the world where one can chance upon the golden-headed langur – now officially the world’s most endangered primate with only about 65 left across the globe.
Meanwhile, if birds are your thing then Cat Ba National Park plays to your tune as well in the way of hawks, hornbills and cuckoos. What’s more, Cat Ba also serves as a main migration route for waterfowl that live on the beaches in the mangrove forests. Whilst taking on the services on a tour guide is not mandatory, it is highly recommended to enlist professional help to allow you to fully appreciate the intricacies of all the canopy of trees.
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Hiking in Cat Ba National Park
If you have an adventurous spirit and consider yourself reasonably physically fit, the challenge before you would be an18km hike through the park and up to one of the mountain summits. Again, it is highly recommended to enlist a guide for this six-odd hour trek and book relevant transport (i.e. a bus or boat) to the trailhead and back. But rest assured that going through all that trouble will be well worth it when you reach the summit for the views from above are breathtaking to say the least.
Be sure to have the proper hiking gear that befits such a six-hour trek (think hiking shoes, a raincoat and lots of water) albeit you will have the opportunity to replenish supplies at the kiosks in Viet Hai which normally serve as lunching spots for hiking groups. If it’s rained before your hike, know that the hike will be a lot tougher than originally thought as the ground can get quite slippery.
All in all, know that there are easier hiking options in the world but the options in Cat Ba National Park offer something so different in the way of being visceral and untouched that if you do manage to finish the hike, you’ll feel a lot more fulfilled than by your ordinary hike.
Getting Out of Cat Ba National Park: Ha Long Bay
So by the time you’ve seen Hospital Cave and completed the hike in Cat Ba National Park and are heading back to your hometown, you’ll feel you’ve left a part of your soul in Vietnam. And before you go, you can easily drop in at the wider Ha Long Bay area to experience a lot more of this mysterious land.
Tags: travel tours Vietnam