Ha Long Bay

Ha Long, Vietnam

Island and fishing boat

Limestone island and small boat

Quang Ninh Province, Vietnam

We had almost reached the boat when the French girl screamed and seemed to rise half out of the water. When she kept screaming, I turned and started swimming back towards her, but her boyfriend came off the boat in a racing dive and covered the distance to her in a few seconds.

The cave was not, properly speaking, a cave, nor was it yet a sea arch. The roof, slightly curved, was little more than two meters above the water at the highest point. The underside was knotty with limestone outcrops, the stumps of stalactites broken off by wave action. Beyond the low entrance, it widened out into a broad circular basin where the core of the island had collapsed to form a deep pool surrounded on all sides by steeply-rising walls of rock.

The tour boat had dropped anchor a couple of hundred meters from the opening, and we climbed over the side and followed the bobbing black head of the guide towards the interior of the island. The greenish water was warm and salty, the bottom invisible. The guide trod water in the tunnel, waiting for his charges to catch up. Someone hooted, and the sound re-echoed between the rock roof and the water.

Once inside, the guide swam to the left and began to climb carefully out of the water. The reason for his caution became evident as soon as I tried to follow him; the sharp-edged rocks were encrusted with razor sharp shells that cut my feet as I climbed out. We squatted on the narrow rock shelf and contemplated the interior of the island.

The guide pointed to something white in the water close to the tunnel entrance. “Dangerous animal.” he said. He gestured at his arm. “Makes your skin red.”. The French girl, who was pretty and half-Vietnamese, followed his gaze. “C'est un meduse.” she said. The guide made a face and picked up a couple of rocks. I was on the point of telling him that throwing rocks at the jellyfish probably wouldn't do much good, maybe even the opposite, but after a moment he abandoned the idea and moodily tossed the rocks into the water. The creature slipped silently below the surface and vanished.

The interior basin was fully enclosed, the rock walls steepest by the entrance, more gently sloping and dense with vegetation on the opposite side. A bird shaped something like a cormorant but with white-patched wings flew overhead and vanished into the trees near the summit. We made a slow circuit of the interior, luxuriating in the warm water. The guide trod water patiently, waiting for his charges to tire of playing in the water and turn back to the boat. Somewhat reluctantly, we followed him.

When the girl started screaming, my first thought was that she had touched bottom unexpectedly and been startled by the feel of slimy mud or sharp rock. But she went on screaming, a series of sharp, sobbing cries, punctuated by gasps as she fought for breath. She flailed at the water in panic, her face screwed-up in pain and shock.

Her boyfriend reached her just before I did, and, not wasting any time on questions, dragged her quickly towards the ladder hung over the side of the boat, pushed her up it rung after rung. She was trembling, her muscles slack as if her flesh had lost consistency. Even her brown skin seemed to have taken on a grayish tinge.

On the boat, the guide assessed the situation. “We have something for that,” he said, and sent one of the crew to look for the cook, who emerged from the galley carrying ice. “Ma peau, ma peau,” the girl moaned. Her boyfriend murmured something to her. She tossed her head despairingly. “Arrête de me dire que ça brule,” she told him, “Je sais que ça brule.” While the cook pressed the icepack against her back and side, her boyfriend soaked a towel in Coca-Cola, began to dab gently at the welts. The girl gritted her teeth, clinging to the gunwale for support. “Je sens plus mes bras,” she said, a note of real desperation in her voice.

Even after she had been led to her cabin and her cries had died away into an exhausted silence, the hurt girl was a palpable presence on the boat. At dinner, the other tourists had an air of polite embarassment, like guests at one of Agatha Christie's house parties all-too-aware that a murder was in the course of being committed in an adjoining room but uncertain quite what response the situation demanded. The girl's boyfriend came and went on solicitous minor missions, fetching an aspirin, coming back later for a bowl of rice that was subsequently returned untouched. The crew shrugged and went back to their shipboard tasks.

When she emerged from her cabin the next morning, she looked drained and there were dark circles under her eyes. She felt better, she said, but the red welts on her arm were still raised and livid.