A visit to Vietnam’s captivating Bay of Descending Dragons

Legend has it that when Vietnam’s forefathers were fighting foreign invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to defend Ha Long Bay. In a fit of fury, the dragons began spitting jewels and jade. Upon hitting the sea, those jewels turned into islands, thus forming a barrier against the invaders. If you think about it, the real dragons are the wind and water, which have transformed these islands and caves into various shapes and sizes. They are why Ha Long Bay was named a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Ha Long Bay is not only famous for its emerald-green waters, but also the pristine natural beauty of its 3 000 islands scattered over 580 square miles, the most popular of which are Cat Ba and Hang Dau Go.

Getting to Ha Long Bay isn’t difficult, as it is located 165km east of Vietnam’s capital Hanoi. Tour buses are readily available, and if your schedule is tight, it is possible to tour the bay in a day. But, as many will tell you, you won’t do the islands justice if you don’t spend a few days enjoying the scenery.

Single-day excursions are frequently offered on traditional boats with brightly coloured sails. However, if you opt to stay for more than a day, you might want to stay overnight on one of the more luxurious crafts. These feature air-conditioned rooms, luxurious en-suite bathrooms, spas, massage parlours and dining rooms.

The locals still practise the art of sail-making and Ha Long Bay is one of the few places where sails are still made by hand. Handmade sails are vibrantly coloured and are made from coarse cotton panels sewn together with silk thread. To stop rot and mildew from affecting the sails, fishermen dip them in a natural liquid that comes from a plant from the beetroot family, which gives the sails a dark tinge.

A typical tour on one of the brightly coloured sailboats will take you to the largest islands in Ha Long Bay, including Cat Ba. Once there, you have the option of kayaking, swimming, rock climbing, or visiting its national park, known for its hot and cold springs, coral reefs and limestone mountains.

After touring Cat Ba, stop at the bay’s most popular cave, known as the Grotto of the Wooden Stakes, commonly called Hang Dau Go. The cave is named after the Vietnamese military hero Tran Hung Dao, who tricked the invading Mongols in 1228. He made wooden stakes and hid them in the cave and then planted them in the bed of the river to form a barrier against the Mongols. The invaders were swiftly defeated when their ships were impaled by the stakes.

In 1649, when King Le Thanh Tong visited Ha Long Bay, he was so deeply inspired by the scenery that he ended up writing a poem likening its islands and caves to pieces on a chess board.

Today, tourists have compared the islands to Tuscan cathedrals and locals see anything from chickens fighting to champagne corks in them.

What’s truly special about Ha Long Bay is its perpetual beauty. Whether you are there to navigate the quiet channels,  glide past bustling fishing boats, cruise on board one of the vibrantly coloured sailboats or swim beneath the overhanging cliffs, Ha Long Bay is sure to impress.

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