You can’t look out at Ba Be Lake, watch it shimmer and glint in the distance, without wanting to get into it. So we arrange for a man with a boat to take us out for an hour not expecting much more than some fresh air and a glimpse of a few fish.
The deafening motor announces our arrival to the banks of the lake and the people who live there. Paying for the privilege of flying around the lake in the cold and rain, and it is cold in North Vietnam in February, must seem pretty ridiculous to the Tay villagers who live on the lakes edge and see this ancient beauty every day. Their houses are small and wooden, one room, maybe two and I can’t help noticing every one has a satellite dish. They’re probably nice and warm inside their houses watching TV right now.
The lake narrows to a river and that river flows through Puong Cave. It’s worth mentioning that I don’t think I’ve ever been in a cave before, not a proper one, not one like this. It’s so vast that when I clamber inside and walk towards the centre I can’t see the end of it, there’s no ceiling, it just goes on and on so that I’m forced to look up into a void instead of down. This gives me vertigo which is unnerving enough without the blood curdling screeching of the bats that live up there.
Inside that cave I’m an insect with a life span of one day, just scratching around on the floor of this formation of rock that’s been millions of years in the making. It’s one of the most awe-inspiring things I’ve ever seen. I can’t get any decent photographs and it does it no justice to try to describe it and yet here I go.
Columns of rock like swathes of silk billowing underwater, monstrous feather plumes, dripping wax cooled solid. A newly-discovered planet unfit for human inhabitation. A secret about the universe I’m being shown but can never tell. There’s silence except for the echoing slap of our feet and the dull double click of a camera shutter opening and closing and yet I feel like I’m being watched. Every step I take is being noted by someone, somewhere.
I emerge from the cave with relief and look forward to getting back to the habitat I belong in, one that’s temporary and manmade. Later that night I read that Puong cave is up to 50 metres high but it seemed so much more. I also read that up to 10,000 bats live in Puong Cave so I probably was being watched after all.