There is a legend about Vịnh Hạ Long. It involves an epic battle between the Vietnamese people and invaders from the north in a bay (vịnh) just off the coast. At the crucial moment, a dragon (long) descended (hạ) from the sky hurling giant emeralds at the attacking ships. When the dragon’s fury subsided and the battle was won, what remained was a scattering of lush green islands rising up from the surface of the water. Thus the dragon is revered as a protector of Vietnamese society. The creation of islands for national defense, it seems, is not a new phenomenon when it comes to Việt Nam’s relations with its northern neighbors!
After a few days in the hustle and bustle of Hà Nội, Dad and I joined a tour out to this ancient battlefield. As we pulled up to the pier in the rapidly-developing resort area outside Hạ Long City, the “emerald” islands came into view. Disappointingly, they are not actually made of emerald, but of limestone, as is much of northern Việt Nam. Limestone is easily dissolved by the action of rain and seawater, creating a formation known as karst. In Việt Nam, this has resulted in a dramatic landscape of narrow, jagged mountains that start on land and spill out into the Gulf of Tonkin. We boarded our cruise boat and set out to explore the vibrant green islands along with a small group of other travelers and our guide Đức.
The first stop was a cave – karst formations are often characterized by extensive cave and subterranean water systems. As we entered this particular cave through an opening on the side of the island, we could not help but be amazed by the size of the cavern. One large room connected to an even larger room, which connected to a still larger room. Stalactites and stalagmites were plentiful, as were little ponds and other strange rock formations. But the most interesting feature of the cave was the ceiling; it was smooth and scalloped like the sand just below the water’s surface at the beach. The reason for both is the same – at one time, seawater filled the cave, and years of waves lapping the ceiling gave it its present form.
Hạ Long Bay is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the entire country, and for a reason. The downside of its popularity is that it is filled with hundreds of tour boats. But, Hạ Long Bay is only one part of the karst formation. After spending the night in Hạ Long Bay, we crossed over into the neighboring Lan Hạ Bay. The beauty of the landscape remained unchanged, but the fleets of tour boats were left behind. In their place, the space between the islands was dotted with floating houses equipped with an assortment of fishing equipment and fish enclosures. Entire families live in these small shacks and make their living catching and raising fish to sell at the markets on land.
I addition to caves, many of the islands enclose lakes or lagoons. At one island, we kayaked up to the mouth of a small cave. After walking through the opening, we emerged in an open area with a small lake in the center of the island. Though the entire lake is surrounded by high cliffs, and there is no visible connection to the sea, the lake is salty and rises and falls with the tide outside; small pores and openings in the lakebed allow the seawater to come in. At another island, we kayaked through a low opening in the cliff face and found ourselves in a lagoon entirely surrounded by the island. In fact, at high tide, even the opening we entered through is blocked.
On our second night in the bay, we got off the boat to stay on Cát Bà Island. This mountainous island is the largest in the region, and has the same karstic terrain. Here, we cycled along the coast and through the small farming village of Việt Hải, and hiked through the jungle to reach a viewpoint overlooking a valley in the center of the island. While hiking on the mountains, we were able to see the unique texture of the exposed limestone up close; it is just as jagged and rough as the island landscape it is part of. Though this terrain is very interesting to look at, it makes the hiking difficult!
After two days surrounded by the spectacular landscapes of Hạ Long and Lan Hạ Bays, we enjoyed a pleasant morning cruise back through the islands to the boat harbor in Hạ Long City. From there, it was a four-hour bus ride through the farms and rice paddies of the Red River delta to arrive back in Hà Nội. Only temporarily disoriented by the rush of motorbikes, we quickly replaced our sea legs with our city legs and were ready to start making our way south down the long coast of Việt Nam.