Discovering Halong Bay's Cultural and Historical Riches
The stunning limestone structures that tower over the radiating, emerald green waters of Halong Bay are the most obvious visual representation of one of the world’s most treasured natural wonders. A feeling of serenity and quiet stillness is palpable here, with these large formations seeming to act as a physical barrier to the outside world. Perhaps this is why some of mankind’s earliest civilizations took refuge in and near these rocky limestone island formations. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it is only in the last century that we have learned about the ancient Vietnamese settlers who first called Halong Bay home. But for thousands of years, legend and mystery have shrouded Halong Bay’s origins, culminating in the myth of the descending dragon.
MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF HALONG BAY
It is said that early in Vietnam’s history, the young nation was under threat from foreign invaders, namely the Chinese and the Mongols. The gods wanted to protect the Vietnamese people, so they sent a family of dragons to help. These dragons spat out precious stones into the bay, including jade and emeralds, which then expanded and rose up out of the bay to form the massive rocks that would act as natural barriers against invaders.
After forming Halong Bay as we now know it, the dragons flew all around the world in peace, eventually returning to Halong with their mother, who descended from the heavens (Halong actually means “descending dragon”) and settled with her children on the islands of Bach Long Vi and Bai Tu Long Bay. Though its modern namesake comes from this legend, Halong Bay has also been called Giao Chau, Luc Chau, Luc Thuy, Can Don, Hai Dong, and An Bang. The name Halong first appeared on French maps of the region in the late 19th century.
Beyond the tale of the dragons, Halong is also the scene of one of Vietnam’s greatest military victories against invading Chinese led by Kublai Khan during the Yuan Dynasty. A giant among Vietnamese legends, General Tran Hung Dao used the unique Halong Bay landscape to set traps with wooden stakes that would puncture the invading fleet of ships. These defenses proved effective, and the invaders were defeated before they could even approach the mainland.
These legends and myths are part of the essence and character of Halong Bay. Indeed, when drifting gently through the bay on a Paradise Cruise among these tall, majestic limestone formations, it’s hard not to feel a sense of wonder and awe at the seemingly magical nature of this incredible place. Perhaps this is what drew the very first settlers to Halong Bay, thousands of years ago.
HALONG BAY’S EARLIEST INHABITANTS
The earliest signs of human activity in the bay were discovered in 1938 by a Swedish paleontologist, geologist, and archeologist named Johan Gunner Andersson. Though inconclusive, he found evidence of an ancient civilization. Later in 1967, Vietnamese archeologists discovered human fossils, stone tools, and ceramic fragments dating back to between 6,000 and 18,000 years ago. Upon further excavation, these tools and fragments were found all throughout the Bay of Tonkin, indicating that this region had been thoroughly explored and settled for thousands of years. These first settlers of Halong Bay are known as the Soi Nhu people.
Around the same time that Andersson found signs of the Soi Nhu people, French archeologist Madeleine Colani uncovered the civilization that would follow them, the Cai Beo people. They are estimated to have lived between 4,000 and 7,000 years ago and used more sophisticated tools. Over 500 artifacts used during this time have been discovered, including mortar and pestles, grinding tables, axes, nets, statues, and pottery, as well as human and animal remains. The patterns and decorations, as well as materials used, in many of these artifacts, suggest that the Cai Beo civilization was significantly more advanced than its relatively primitive predecessor.
The direct ancestors of the residents of Halong’s well-known floating villagers belonged to the Halong culture, which existed between 3,000 and 4,500 years ago during the Late Neolithic Age, up to the Early Metal Age. They were known as the sea culture, occupying not only Halong Bay but Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay as well. Nets, implements, and boats are key characteristics of this civilization, as they primarily subsisted on fishing.
EXPERIENCE HALONG CULTURE WITH PARADISE CRUISES
Today, the descendants of the Halong culture remain, though most of them have been relocated to the main islands of the Gulf of Tonkin as well as the mainland, in an effort by local authorities to preserve the fragile ecology of the bay for future generations of visitors and inhabitants to enjoy. Still, much of the old culture remains, and its spirit lives on both in the natural wonders that have existed here for thousands of years, as well as the kind hospitality of the local people that can be experienced by anyone visiting the bay. Paradise Cruises takes its guests on excursions to a local floating village, as well as a pearl farm, for an authentic and firsthand experience of the local way of life that truly sets Halong Bay apart.
In addition to their lifestyle, the cuisine of Halong Bay is an old tradition that has been passed down through generations. Fresh, delicious seafood are hallmarks of the local cuisine, and there’s no better way to experience this particularly delicious cultural element of Halong than on a Paradise Cruise. Each of these cruises employs professional, knowledgeable chefs to prepare the most authentic dishes using recipes that have been handed down through the generations. Only the freshest, finest locally-sourced ingredients are used, so you are guaranteed to get the absolute best “taste of Halong Bay” imaginable. Not only is the food fresh, authentic and delicious, but the dining experience aboard Paradise Cruises is truly worlds apart from any other cruise on Halong Bay, ranging from international buffets to full service a la carte menus that can be enjoyed in the sumptuous dining room, or in the privacy of your own comfortable cabin with convenient room service.
Whether you’re interested in the history, the culture, or the cuisine of Halong Bay, you’ll get the fullest experience of all of them, as well as an appreciation of the ancient heritage of this magical and mysterious place, aboard any Paradise Cruise.