The legend of Hạ Long has it that, “Once upon a time, soon after the Việt people established their country, invaders came. The Jade Emperor sent Mother Dragon and her Child Dragons down to earth to help the Việt people fight against their enemy. Right at the time invaders’ boats were rushing to the shore, the dragons landed down on earth. The dragons immediately sent out from their mouths a lot of pearls, which then turned into thousands of stone islands emerging in the sea like great walls challenging the invaders’ boats. The fast boats couldn’t manage to stop and crashed into the islands and into each other and broke into pieces.
After the victory, Mother Dragon and Child Dragons didn’t return Heaven but stayed on earth at the place where the battle had occurred. The location Mother Dragon landed is nowadays Hạ Long Bay and where Child Dragons descended is now Bái Tử Long. The dragons’ tails waving the water created Long Vĩ (present Trà Cổ peninsula) and formed a fine sand beach over ten kilometers long”.
Hạ Long Bay is located in the northeastern part of Vietnam and constitutes part of the western bank of Bắc Bộ Gulf, including the sea area of Hạ Long City and Cẩm Phả Town and part of Vân Đồn island district. It abuts Cát Bà Island in the southwest. Toward the west is the shore with a 120 km-long coastline. It is located within 106o58’-107o22’ east longitude and within 20o45’- 20o50’ north latitude. The site is 1553 sq. km with 1969 islands of various sizes, of which 989 have been named.
The islands in Hạ Long Bay are mainly limestone and schist islands most lying in the two main areas: the southeastern part of Bái Tử Long Bay and southwestern part of Hạ Long Bay. These islands represent the most ancient images of a geographical site having a tectonic age of from 250 million to 280 million years. They are the result of many times of rising and lowering processes of the continent to form a karst. The process of nearly full erosion and weathering of the karst created the unique Hạ Long Bay in the world. In a not very large area, thousands of islands with different forms look like glittering emeralds attached to the blue scarf of a virgin. The area where many stone islands concentrate has spectacular scenes and world-famous caves and is the center of Hạ Long Bay Natural Heritage, including Ha Long Bay and a part of Bái Tu Long Bay.
The area is recognized as the World Natural Heritage that is the area of 434 sq. km with 775 islands. It looks like a giant triangle with Đầu Gỗ Island (in the west), Ba Hầm Lake (in the south) and Cống Tây Island (in the east) as its three angle points. The nearby area is the buffer area and areas classified as national beauty spots in 1962 by the Ministry of Culture and Information.
Viewed from above, Hạ Long Bay looks like an extremely vivid huge drawing. This is a wonderful and skilful masterpiece of the Creation and of nature that turns thousands of dumb soulless stone islands into fantastic sculptural and artistic works of various graceful shapes, both familiar and strange to human beings. Thousands of islands emerging uneven in the fanciful waves look strong and magnificent but also mild and vivid. Amidst these islands we feel as if we were astray in a petrified legendary world. There are many names given to islands according to their shapes and forms. This one looks like somebody heading toward the shore: Ḥn Đầu Người (Human Head Island); that one looks like a dragon hovering above the sea surface: Ḥn Rông (Dragon Island); another looks like an old man sitting fishing: Ḥn Lă Vọng; some look like big sails struggling amidst the wind to set off for the sea: Ḥn Cánh Buồm (Sail Island); then two islands look like a pair of chicken lovingly playing with each other above the sea: Ḥn Trống Mái (Male and Female Chicken Island); and amid the vast sea stands an island like a big incense burner like a ritual offering to Heaven: Ḥn Lư Hương (Incense Burner Island). All are so real that people are taken aback by them. Those stone islands have experienced unpredictable changes over time and they take different shapes from different angles of view. Here, we come to realize that they are not dumb inanimate things but are vivid and soulful.
Inside the stone islands are various breath-taking caves, such as Thiên Cung, Đầu Gỗ, Sửng Sốt, Trinh Nữ, Tam Cung and others. These are really magnificent palaces of the Creation on earth. Long ago, Hạ Long Bay has been called by the great national poet Nguyễn Trăi:“a wonder of the earth erected towards the high sky”. Many men of letters from all over the world have been taken aback at the grandiose scenery of Hạ Long. They seem to get puzzled and incompetent as their treasure of vocabulary is not rich enough to depict the splendor of this place.
Hạ Long is also home to great biodiversity with typical eco-systems like mangrove forest, coral and tropical forest. It is also home to thousands of plants and animals of numerous species, for example shrimp, fish and squid. Some species are particularly rare and can be found no where else.
With such special values, at the 18th Session of UNESCO’s Council of World Heritage held on 17 December 1994 in Thailand, Hạ Long Bay was officially placed on the list of the World Natural Heritage. In 2000, UNESCO recognized it as the World Heritage for the second time for its geographical and geomorphologic values. This confirms the global premier value of Hạ Long Bay.
Wherever you come from, whosoever you are and however old you are, you will certainly experience the same emotion and feeling when admiring this wonder of stone and water. And great experiences will always remain even when you leave the place. The legend of Mother Dragon and Child Dragons sending out pearls to form thousands of stone islands to stop invaders still serve as the soul of this invaluable heritage of the world.
Hang Dau Go (Wooden Stakes Cave)
Dau Go Cave is one of the most beautiful cave 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.
Ao Tien or Pond of the Nymphs
Ao Tien was named by the locals because it was rumored this is where the nymphs gathered to take a bath. The limestone walls surrounds 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.
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.