Ha Long Bay is a beautiful natural wonder in northern Vietnam near the Chinese border. Towering limestone pillars and tiny islets topped by forest rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, Ha Long Bay’s scatter of some 1,600 islands, topped with wind and wave-eroded caves and grottoes is an almost surreal landscape and, unsurprisingly, one of Vietnam’s top tourist attractions.
Ethereal and Mythical
Approaching the Bay from the north in a junk, there appears in the distance what seems to be a jagged wall of emerald green. As you get nearer the wall suddenly swallows you up and you find yourself in a fairyland of otherworldly limestone peaks jutting from the water at sheer angles. You have arrived in Ha Long Bay, one of the most spectacular places in the whole of Vietnam.
Local legend relates that when the Vietnamese were threatened by invading Chinese armies, the Gods sent a family of dragons which spat out pearls to form islands and razor sharp mountain chains in the path of the enemy fleet. After the victory the dragons decided to remain, giving rise to the name Ha Long (“dragon descending”).
How on earth did it get here?
It’s the first question that goes through people’s minds when they lay eyes on this extraordinary landscape. Many assume it was created by volcanic activity, but in fact the bay was sculpted by tectonic movement of a thick limestone layer over the last 20 million years.
Islands… caves… beaches… and floating villages
A cruise around Ha Long Bay lets you discover an amazing variety of islets, beaches, villages and grottoes at a relaxed pace. Most of the islands are uninhabited apart from the two largest, Tuan Chau and Cat Ba, which have permanent residents and numerous hotels, restaurants and bars. Other highlights include Dau Be Island for the swimming and diving in its rich coral, and Hang Dau Go (“Wooden Stakes Cave”) Island with its enormous cave and huge stalactites and stalagmites. And while most of the islands are uninhabitable, a community of around 1,600 people live in four Floating Villages, continuing a long tradition of fishing the waters for 200 species of fish. Cruise boats often stop by for their chef to shop for fresh seafood. The Kissing Rocks islets are an iconic feature of Ha Long Bay, the two rocks resembling a rooster and a hen facing each other and symbolising eternal love.
Like something out of the movies
The fact is the surreal scenery of Ha Long Bay has proved irresistible to countless movie-makers and has featured in many famous films. Most recently (2017) it appeared as the home of the giant Kong in ‘Kong: Skull Island’. Before that it doubled a Neverland in ‘Pan’ (2015); as an exotic location for James Bond in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997); and as a setting in the award-winning French movie ‘Indochine’ (1992).