Ha Long (Descending Dragon) Bay is one of Mother Earth’s most amazing natural wonders and one of Vietnam’s most prized treasures. It is in Northeastern Vietnam on the shores of the Gulf of Tonkin, just 3 hour drive from Hanoi. The bay is dominated by more than 1,600 limestone karsts and islets which rise out of the waters of the bay to heights of up to 100 meters (330 feet) and the numerous caves and grottos spread throughout the bay. Abundant scenic beauty, archeological and geological significance, cultural and historical connections, fresh seafood and proximity to international gateways make Ha Long Bay one of Vietnam’s most popular places to visit.
Such is the significance of Ha Long Bay that in 1994, UNESCO recognized the heart of Ha Long Bay as being a site of Natural World Heritage and stated that “Apart from Ha Long Bay there are no equivalent sites on the World Heritage List…”. In 2012, Ha Long Bay is officially recognized as one of the new Wonders of Nature.
Ha Long Bay is located on the Western side of the Gulf of Tonkin in Northeastern Vietnam. The bay is approximately 35 km (21 miles) Northeast of the port city of Hai Phong and approximately 170 km (105 miles) by road from the capital Hanoi. The town of Ha Long is situated on the coast to the North of the bay. The journey from Hanoi to Ha Long takes approximately 3.5 hours.
Ha Long Bay is formed by Cat Ba island to the South, Ngoc Hung and Van Canh islands to the East and the Vietnamese coastline to the North and West. The bay covers a total area of 1,553 square kilometers (600 square miles). Occupying the heart of the bay between Ha Long town and Cat Ba island, the central World Heritage area stretches for 434 square kilometers (167 square miles).
Islands and Karsts
The most outstanding feature of Ha Long Bay and undoubtedly its greatest attraction are the 1,696 islands, islets and rocky karst outcrops. 989 of these islets and rocky outcrops have been given imaginative names by the locals over the years. These have been derived from their perceived shapes and include names such as Man’s Head, Fighting Cocks, Wading Ox and Wallowing Buffalo.
With heights ranging from 50-100 meters (160-330 feet) and a height-to-width ratio of about 6:1, the majority of these karst pinnacles and islets have sheer, vertical cliffs. They are uninhabited and unaffected by human activities. The pure size and numbers of these outcrops provide a stunning contrast and backdrop to the turquoise waters of the bay when viewed from sea level.
Caves and Grottos
Another exceptional geological feature of Ha Long Bay is the number of limestone islands which have caves and grottoes within them. The total number of caves has never been determined and there are almost certainly more which are yet to be discovered. In order to preserve the natural state and integrity of the large number of caves and grottos in the World Heritage Area, only some are open to visitors. The most commonly visited are Thien Cung (Heavenly Palace) cave, Dau Go (Wood Tip) grotto, Sung Sot (Surprise) cave and Trinh Nu (Virgin) grotto.
The shapes and formations on the sides and roofs of the caves, many now being part of local folklore and legends, bear witness to the different stages of formation over the ages. Some cave features, such as calcified shell-beds, are the direct result of ancient human activity.
Magic Light – Photo by lightninghand – Xomnhiepanh.com
Sea and Lakes
The lower chambers of some caves and grottos are below sea level. Due to the porous nature of limestone, these chambers are often partially filled to form tidal lakes and pools. Although most of these are shallow, the depths of some have never been determined. The geomorphology of Ha Long Bay indicates that it is almost certain that there are undiscovered and fully entombed lakes within many of the islands. Dau Be (Goat’s Head island) alone has 6 different tidal lakes.
The sea in Ha Long Bay is generally less than 10 meters (33 feet) deep and boasts a rich biodiversity of about 1,000 species of marine animals. Over 160 species of coral have been identified. Coral reefs make up 30% of the seabed and in some areas as much as 80% of the seabed is covered in coral reefs. Most coral reefs are at a depth of 4-6 meters.
The majority smaller islets and karsts are capped with a low shrubby ’crown’. The larger islands are home to dense tropical forests featuring abundant bird life. The island of Cat Ba on the Southern flank of Ha Long Bay is a rich treasure trove for nature lovers. The National Park which occupies much of the islands, and some of the surrounding water, ranges in diversity from double-tiered primeval tropical rainforest on the slopes of the hills, down to tidal mangrove forests and inshore coral reefs. The island is home to several plant and tree species highly prized for their medicinal properties, and one of the rarest primate species on earth, the Cat Ba (Golden-headed) Langur. There may be as few as 50 of these animals between here and extinction.
Ha Long Sunset – Photo by D900 – Xomnhiepanh.com
Archeological evidence suggests humans may have inhabited the area in and around Ha Long Bay for as long as 18,000 years. Some of these are distinctly different enough to have been given their own names, such as the Soi Nhu from the Mesolithic age and the Ha Long culture from the Neolithic age. Van Don in the Southeast of the bay was once one of the most important trading ports in Vietnamese ancient history.
There is perhaps a greater number of myths, legends and folklore surrounding Ha Long Bay than any other area in Vietnam. The current name of the bay (Descending Dragon) is itself a mystery. Some say it can be attributed to the French in the late 1890’s, others say it comes from a famous Vietnamese folk tale.
Myths and folklore surround many of the caves and grottos. Tales of life’s love lost; of forbidden love forever together cast in stone; wedding celebrations of truly celestial splendor; of poverty and power, and more.
Dau Bo (Cow Head) Grotto – Photo by D900 – Xomnhiepanh.com
Other legends have at least some bases in fact. Some of the famous exploits of Vietnamese warriors from history, such as national heroes Ngo Quyen and Tran Hung Dao have become legends involving Ha Long Bay and the surrounding areas. Ngo Quyen is most famous for finally defeating the Chinese after 1,000 years of occupation. Tran Hung Dao is remembered for bringing those same guerilla tactics back to life 300 years later.
Attractions and Activities
Ha Long Beautiful Scene – Photo by Dukutu – Xomnhiepanh.com
Undoubtedly Ha Long Bay’s greatest attraction is its natural scenery. The towering limestone outcrops jutting skywards from the emerald-blue waters. The sheer numbers and size of the islands, islets and karsts within the bay serve to humble even the most jaded traveler.
Swimming, kayaking, hiking and of course photography are favorite pastimes for visitors to Ha Long Bay – one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Vietnam. Abundant fresh local seafood is another delight.
Floating fishing villages are the most popular human attraction. Entire village populations live, work and die on these ’floating islands’ in Ha Long Bay. The villagers are mainly fisherfolk and ply the waters around their villages selling their fresh produce to the passing tourist trade.
Ha Long floating village – Photo by aladin123 – Xomnhiepanh.com