The end of the Vietnam war, and the advent of "Doi moi", Vietnam's policy of opening its economy to foreign trade, means that Westerners and South Vietnamese now have a chance to visit Ha long. Vinh Ha Long or Bay of the Descending Dragon is often touted by proud Vietnamese as the world's Eighth wonder. One of the main attractions of Ha long is the bay's calm water and the thousands of limestone mountains dotting the seascape. The Bay's water is clear during the spring and early summer. Some of the islands are quite large and there are small alcoves with sandy beaches where swimming is possible. Ha Long bay lies in the northeastern part of Vietnam and is 165 Km from Hanoi.
Ha Long literally means descending dragon(s) and according to local myth, the story goes as follows:
Long ago when their forefathers were fighting foreign invaders from the north, the gods from heaven sent a family of dragons to help defend their land. This family of dragons descended upon what is now Ha Long bay and began spitting out jewels and jade. Upon hitting the sea, these jewels turned into the various islands and islets dotting the seascape and formed a formidable fortress against the invaders. The locals were able to keep their land safe and formed what is now the country of Vietnam. The Dragon family fell so much in love with this area for its calm water and for the reverence of the people of Vietnam that they decided to remain on earth. Mother dragon lies on what is now Ha Long and where her children lie is Bai Tu Long. The dragon tails formed the area of Bach Long Vi known for the miles of white sandy beaches of Tra Co peninsula
This myth is in line with the Vietnamese myth of their origin Con Rong Chau Tien. This myth describes the union between a king (representing the dragon) and his bride (representing a goddess) giving birth to 100 children which are the ancestors of the Vietnamese people. The Ha Long myth illustrates the Vietnamese belief of their origin and the fact that throughout their history, they are aided by their ancestors, the dragon and the gods, in the defense of their land.
Scorched Beach (Bai Chay).
Upon arriving in Ha Long city, the visitor will be driving along 'Bai Chay' or scorched beach. The sand on this stretch of beach is dark. And judging by the name the visitors may mistakenly think that this is due to the dry climate or lack of wind in this area. However, contrary to this interpretation, the area is quite pleasant during the summer and fall months and the temperature here is around 70 deg F. According to the locals, Bai Chay got its name long ago, based on another historical event. Bai Chay was once a forest. In 1287, the Mongols led by the great Truong Van Ho,(a Vietnamese name for this Mongolian general) attacked Vietnam and was driven back by general Tran Khanh Du. Many Mongolian ships were set afire and drifted to shore aided by high wind setting the forest on fire. Since then this stretch of beach became known as Bai Chay or scorched beach.
From Bai Chay, visitors can hire a boat and go out to the bay. It is here that visitors will be find some of Southeast Asias most fascinating sites. Visitors to the bay speak highly of its almost mystical qualities and the surrealistic scenery that defines this bay. The limestone formations are both bizarre and awesome. Over thousands of years the base of many of the formation has corroded to a point where many seem to be balancing on thin air. The shapes and the positioning of these formations often resemble people, animals etc., hence, most are given a name by the locals. Some of the more famous are: Hang Dau Go ( Wooden Stakes cave), Hang Bo Nau (Pelican cave), Hang Trinh Nu (the Virgin), Hang Sung Sot (Cave of Awe), Dong Hang Hanh, Dao Tuan Chau (Sentinel Chau Island), Qua Chuong (the bell), Con Voi (the elephant) etc.. Now, about one thousand formations have names. One can't possibly see all of Ha Long grandeur in one day or even a month since depending on the time of the year, the weather, or the condition of the bay the visitor may see only one small aspect of Ha Long's beauty
Hang Dau Go is one of the most beautiful caves at Ha Long. The name, Dau Go or Giau Go, has direct ties to the history of Vietnam. According to the locals, while preparing for the Mongolian attacks in 1288, general Tran Hung Dao, sent a convoy to this area to cut wood from this region. Wooden stakes were then fashioned from the wood and hidden in Dau Go cave. The stakes were embedded in Bach Dang river to form a barrier against the attacking Mongols. According to legend, general Tran Hung Dao dealt a great blow to the Kublai Khan when he tricked the Mongolian army into chasing him deep up Bach Dang's channel. When the tide were down the enemies were stuck in these wooden stakes driven into the river bed. Dau Go was also the site where general Tran Khan Du hid his force while waiting for the Mongols led by Truong Van Ho in 1287.
Dau Go is located on a limestone islet 8 km south of Bai Chay. The islet itself stands 187 m above sea level. Upon arriving visitors must hike the 90 rocky steps that lead to the cave's entrance. There are three chambers with the outer one having the most spectacular stalagmites and stalactites. Some are as tall as 20 m in height. The locals claim that these giant formations resemble human forms and are the keepers or guardians of Dau Go cave. The outer chamber is also the largest with capacity for three to four thousand people. The cave's floor is approximately 6 m lower than the entrance and the distance from floor to ceiling is approximately 25 m.
The middle chamber is accessible through a narrow passage approximately 1.4 m wide. There is a round crystal like structure on the path. When struck by light, this structure emits a kaleidoscope of light that is both breathtaking and unique. The inner chamber is famous for the colorful stalagmites and stalactites.
The inner chamber is much smaller by comparison. It is here that visitors will find stone wells filled with fresh water. According to the locals these wells are filled year round.
Dau Go is probably the most famous of all grottoes in Ha Long. Since its discovery, many Vietnamese dignitaries have visited Dau Go cave. In 1929, King Khai Dinh (Nguyen dynasty) visited Dau Go cave and was awed by its beauty. His praise in writing is carved on a stone stele at the entrance of the cave.
Pelican Cave (Hang Bo Nau)
Unlike Dau Go cave, Bo Nau cave is not as deep and large. Looking out from the cave the visitor can enjoy the scenic beauty of Ha Long. The clear blue water with rocky formations rising forms a picturesque setting. Bo Nau is a compound word derived from two words, bo cau meaning pigeon and nau meaning brown. Bo Nau literally means brown pigeon. For some reason, many foreign translations refer to this cave as Pelican cave.
According to the fishermen in this region, long ago, when there were still few visitors, Bo Nau cave was home to thousands of pigeons. Today as more visitors and people begin to inhabit the surrounding islands, the pigeons have left until only the name Bo Nau remains out of habit of the local fishermen.
Hang Trinh Nu (Virgin Cave)
Hang Trinh Nu or the Virgin is also known as Mid Gate cave. According to local lore, an old couple lived here long ago. The husband made a living fishing around the bay. They were very poor. They had only one daughter. She grew up to be a beautiful young woman, so beautiful that people from all around knew of her. There were many suitors and her reputation reached the local mandarin. The mandarin immediately sent his soldier to her home to capture her. She was forced to marry the old mandarin.
After much cajoling and threats the fair maiden still steadfastly refused. One day, she escaped from the mandarins home, however she was afraid to return home for fear of retaliation. After much thought, the maiden decided to go to Mid Gate cave to commit suicide. Her body turned into the stone statue lying atop a flat surface. Since then, Mid Gate cave became known as Virgin cave.
Virgin cave tunnels through the middle of an island approximately 2 km long. Along the tunnel, there are many chambers. Each is famous for a different reason. All are unique in their beauty. Many visitors to the cave are awed by its beauty and so the name Hang Sung Sot was given to the outer chamber of the Virgin cave. Sung Sot literally means astonishment or awe.
Cave of Awe (Hang Sung Sot)
Sung Sot cave is on the same island with Trinh Nu cave. The path to Sung Sot is quite steep and is lined with shady trees. The cave has 2 chambers. The outer chamber is square and is often referred to as the waiting room. The cave's ceiling is approximately 30 m high. The walls are almost perfectly smooth as if it was built by man. The walls generate a variety of colors that blend with the setting of the area.
The path to the inner chamber is approximately 3m wide. The inner chamber is known as the serene castle. The formations in the chamber take the form of sentries conversing with one another, animals in varying poses etc. In the middle of the chamber stands a formation which resembles a general surveying his troops.
There is a side entrance which is approximately 6m in height. The light reflected from the moving water outside causes the formations inside the chamber to seemingly come alive. According to the locals, this was the reason the cave was named Sung Sot, from the awe-stricken reaction of the visitors to the cave
Other attractions in Ha Long Bay
Dong Hang Hanh tunnels through mount Quang Hanh 9 km from the township of Cam Pha. The tunnel and cave is approximately 2 km in length.
To visit this cave the visitors must take a small row boat to access the entrance. On the way the rower must maneuver through a variety of rock formation often so narrow that only one boat can fit through at a time.
The air in the tunnel is several degrees cooler than the air outside. As one proceed deeper into the cave, the surroundings become more mystifying as the rocky walls take different shapes, sizes, and hues. Hang Hanh contains many formations. One formation takes the form of a drum (for water)
called Ang gao. One looks like a temple with millions of diamond-like crystals as its outer layer. There are several columns of rocks that look like remnants of buildings from some ancient world. These monoliths are several stories high. Theres also a formation of a natural amphitheater in the middle of the water with smaller formations in place as the audience.
Ao Tien or Pond of the Nymphs, was named by the locals because it was rumored this is where the nymphs gathered to take a bath. The limestone walls surround this part of the ocean creating a natural pond in the middle of the bay. Ao Tien is located in an island with a lagoon-like setting, surrounded by limestone walls, accessible only by small row boats and only in low tides. During high tide, the water rise to cover the opening and keep the water here clean. The water in Ao Tien is only chest deep and very warm. During low tide visitors can disembark from the bigger boat and use a row boat to enter Ao Tien. Some visitors even swim through the opening without using a boat. Many tourists use Ao Tien as a place to sunbathe and wade.
Like Ao tien, Hang Luon is in the middle of rock formations the center of which is an open area where the water is clear and calm. There is also a sandy beach. However, Hang luon's opening is substantially bigger than the opening of Ao Tien. Depending on the tide, a large boat can go through the tunnel.
Tuan Chau island or Sentinel Chau Island is 3 km west of Dau Go cave. The island is approximately 3 km2. This island is inhabited by people. The nurturing hands of humans have turned this island into a fertile farm producing vegetables and fruits for the outlying mining and fishing villages of Ha Long Bay.
According to the inhabitants, Tuan Chau is a derivative of two words. Before the revolutionary war, each island was under the surveillance of an officer. Each was in charge of a group of sentinels assigned to keep security for one island in the bay. There were several of such officers assigned to Ha Long. The Vietnamese words, linh tuan means sentinel(s) and tri Chau means mandarin (officer) Chau, hence the combination of the two words means Tuan Chau or Sentinel Chau.
There is a bamboo hut on the island that has became a shrine, since it was rumored that this place was favored by Ho Chi Minh when he visited Ha Long. The hut is maintained and kept by the people of the island. Today visitors to the island can visit the hut as if it was a historical monument.
Poem Mountain stands over the city of Hon Gai. On his visit to Ha Long, King Le Thanh Tong (15th century) wrote a poem glorifying Ha Long's beauty. This poem is carved on a stele on Nui Truyen Dang which was later renamed Nui Bai Tho or Poem Mountain. The King was a poet and the person responsible for forming the group of intellectuals, Tao Dan Nhi Thap Bat Tu, or Tao Dan twenty-eight scholars.
Cua Ong Temple is located on a hill over looking Bai Tu Long Bay. The temple was built as a shrine to mandarin Tran Quoc Tang, the son of Vietnams most famous general Tran Hung Dao.
In 1283, during the height of the war against Mongolia, Tran Quoc Tang was sent here to build a fort to defend this frontier. This area was known for its rough and less than ideal conditions. Tran Quoc Tang created a government here and turned the area into a prosperous place. Tran Quoc Tang was made supreme commander and became one of Vietnams most successful general. During this period, there were many bands of outlaws and pirates harassing the people in this region. General Tang successfully wiped out many of these bandits and brought peace to this area. He was also successful in keeping the great Mongolian army at bay during their numerous attempts to invade Vietnam. The people revered him so much that he became a demigod to them. So much reverence was given to general Tang that he was dubbed King of the Sea while he was still alive!
General Tang died in 1313 at the age of 61. The people in the region mourned his passing and built a shrine in his honor. Today, the words Great Eastern Sea King are still imprinted on the placard at the entrance of the temple. Den Cua Ong was built in the Le dynasty (17th century), but was later remodeled in the Nguyen dynasty (17th - 19th century). Every year during Tet, Vietnamese new year, the people in this area have a festival to celebrate and honor General Tang.