Ha Long Bay:
Of Dragons and Jewels
Long ago, local legend goes, the gods sent a family of dragons to Vietnam to defend the land from Chinese invaders. When they arrived on earth, the dragons began to spit out jewels and jade, becoming the islands and islets that today fill Ha Long Bay.
Together, these islands formed a barrier that kept the Chinese out. With the crisis over and the land safe, the dragons decided to stay. The spot where the mother dragon settled became Ha Long and the place where her children attended to her was named Bái Tu Long (Bái: “attend upon”; Tu: “children”; and Long: “dragon”).
Ha Long Bay: 500 Million Years in the Making
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Ha Long Bay is located in Northeastern Vietnam, bordered on the south and southeast by the Gulf of Tonkin, on the north by China and on the west and southwest by Cát Bà Island. Famous worldwide for its stunning limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes, the bay has an area of around 1,500 square kilometres including 1,960 islets, most of which are limestone.
The bay’s limestone has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments; by comparison, its karst has developed over a mere 20 million years under the impact of the wet, tropical climate. The diversity of the environment, climate, geology, geography and geomorphology in the area has created a noted biodiversity, but its sheer beauty is what makes it recognized as one of the most beautiful bays of the world.
The bay consists of a dense cluster of limestone monolithic islands, each topped with thick jungle vegetation, which rise spectacularly from the ocean. Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves. Hang Đầu Gỗ, the Wooden Stakes Cave, is the largest grotto in the Ha Long area. Its three large chambers contain large numerous stalactites and stalagmites. Two large islands, Tu on Châu and Cat Ba, have permanent inhabitants, but most of the inhabitants in the bay reside in four floating villages. This population of roughly 1,600 people (a tiny fraction of Vietnam’s total population of nearly 88 million) lives on floating houses and sustains itself through fishing and marine aquaculture.
The Most Spectacular Sights on Earth
Ha Long Bay was first listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, and with the opening up of Vietnam during that decade, tourism became important to the livelihood of the locals here. However, with an increased number of tourists now visiting Hạ Long, the bay has suffered. The natural mangroves and seagrass beds have had to be cleared, and jetties and wharves have been built for tourist boats. Fuel and oil, along with tourist litter, have created pollution problems, which have had a negative impact on both the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem of the islands. Ha Long Bay remains one of the most spectacular sites on earth, but will have to find a way to preserve not only its natural beauty, but also the ecosystem that draws thousands to Vietnam each year and makes it one of the great tourist destinations in the world.
Did You Know?
History shows that Ha Long Bay was the setting for ancient naval battles against Vietnam’s coastal neighbours to the north. On three occasions, in the labyrinth of channels in Bach Dang river east of Cát Bà Island, the Vietnamese stopped the Chinese from landing. More famously, in 1288, General Tran Hung Dao stopped Mongol ships from sailing up the river by placing steel-tipped wooden stakes at high tide and sinking the Mongol Kublai Khan’s fleet, preventing the seemingly invincible Mongols from invading Vietnam.