Halong Bay - Bay Of Descending Dragons

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We’re on the fourth boat in a flotilla of eight and heading directly into a morning sun of such intensity that even the vessels in front assume a ghostly appearance and shimmer on the ocean’s surface. Shortly after, Halong Bay’s famous monoliths appear as vague outlines against the heat haze and it’s not until we sail into the first cluster of islands that its full scale and grandeur is revealed. Cast in brilliant sunshine, which has now risen further overhead, the limestone monoliths rise straight out of the turquoise water and the water world of Halong Bay is uncovered with floating villages housing fishing families. Small boats ferrying market produce criss-cross between the homes against the magnificent backdrop, and as our fleet of tour boats approaches the village, some of the traders spot the opportunity to make some tourist dollars and they paddle alongside and hop on board offering fresh fruit.

Vietnamese poets have been inspired by Halong Bay’s overwhelming beauty for centuries, and as many visitors discover, best way to experience its monoliths is to simply sit back on a junk and let it all drift by. But cruising this fascinating slice of Vietnam is more than just a series of fantastic landscapes that challenge the imagination. It also offers a snapshot of an ancient culture which reveres its natural elements, and relies on it for its existence. Made up of a dense cluster of 2,000 islands topped with lush vegetation, it’s no wonder Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist attractions, for both locals and overseas visitors. Located in the Gulf of Tonkin, about three hours east of Hanoi in the north-east of the country, each of the thousands of the monoliths are unique in shape and form and locals have colourful names for many of the formations. “See that one. That’s Turtle Island because it looks like a turtle shell. And that’s Dragon Rock, you can see the dragon’s head as we sail past,” our guide Vinh explains. It helps to have a vivid imagination in this part of the world, and a sense of humour, as clearly very few us can see the resemblance. To the people of the area, the monoliths are not simply inanimate objects, they are living beings created by their gods and the Halong Bay locals each have their own personal “favourites”. 

Vietnamese culture and history is heavily influenced by ancient mythology and the local legend of how the monoliths were created goes something like this: a long time ago, the Vietnamese people were at war with Chinese invaders and the gods sent a family of dragons to help them defend their land. The dragons spat out jewels which turned into the islands and formed a natural barrier against the attacks. The area’s name, Ha Long, literally translates as The Bay of the Descending Dragons. The best way to cruise around the Halong Bay among the monoliths is on one of the four hundred or so traditional junks, all with a dragon’s head sculpture on the bow, which jostle for attention on the Bai Chay side of Halong City. Most of them are former fishing boats which have been renovated to cater for tourists and the better ones have viewing platforms on top, a comfortable sitting area under cover where cold drinks and meals can be served from the kitchen. Around 10 percent of them can also accommodate visitors on board for overnight and multi-night cruises in the area. 

Out on the water and the sheer number and diversity of the islands creates a surreal landscape and some of the limestone formations are so corroded at the base the seem to be floating above the water and each of them possesses a unique shape which could be interpreted as individual works of art. The steep cliffs of the islands prevents most of them from being inhabited but scattered throughout the monoliths are small floating fishing villages of around seven to 10 homes made of bamboo and other wood, and separated by 20 to 30 metres of water. Many of them resemble small floating cottages and as we cruise past, we can see children inside watching television while the parents fix their fishing lines and wander back inside with a dog following close behind. If they’ve been successful, they hold the fish up and wave to the tourist junks who buy off them to cook meals on board.

Sampans laden with fruit, vegetables, oil, water and other daily items stop in at each home, and it’s obvious these people have no real need to go to the mainland. Two of the bigger islands, Tuần Châu and Cat Ba, have permanent residents and tourist facilities, including hotels and beaches, but there are also lovely beaches on many of the smaller islands, and dozens of caves and lakes inside the limestone islands. It’s impossible to take in the full grandeur of Halong Bay in a day tour, or even on the multitude of overnight options, and our boat captain drops anchor just outside the monoliths on the way back. The limestone formations change hue as the sun drops and as darkness closes in on them, Vinh tells us the monoliths look like sleeping dragons in the night. And this time, we can see the resemblance.

Ben Hall


  • 3
    Choose Your Tour Company

    Posted by Felicity on 17th Dec 2018

    We did a tour here while on holiday, just a day tour, and it pays to really check out the companies and their offerings. The tour was substandard, but the area was quite stunning. I would love to go back again and do it with a more reputable company and on a nicer, more comfortable boat!

  • 4
    Stopped On A Cruise

    Posted by Shane on 17th Dec 2018

    We stopped here a few years on a cruise and it was an amazing place, although horribly hot and we were bugged by people at the quay getting on and off the tour boat. But the monoliths are amazing.