Halong Bay is a mystical destination, a wonderland of mystery and intrigue with a history that goes back thousands of years. It is not only one of the most well-known and eagerly visited destinations in Vietnam but one that holds tremendous cultural significance as one of the earliest strongholds against foreign invaders when Vietnam was a small nation isolated in what is now the northern part of a country that stretches all along the eastern coastline of Mainland Southeast Asia.
Most travelers may have heard of Halong Bay because of its natural beauty, its relatively recent recognition as a UNESCO heritage site, or it’s popularised title as one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.” It’s conveniently located roughly 2 and a half hours due east of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city and its well-established tourist infrastructure makes it one of the most accessible tourist destinations in Southeast Asia. Among Vietnam’s many beautiful attractions, Halong Bay is a popular favorite for visitors of all ages from many different backgrounds.
Unsurprisingly, its existence in Vietnamese folklore spans many myths and legends about the formation of the bay, as well as many of the geological wonders that can be found within.
Curious travelers might wonder how the iconic limestone karsts that attract visitors from near and far were formed. In modern times, we understand that these formations came about as a result of millions of years of geological and meteorological forces acting upon this unique terrain. However, before we had this knowledge, Vietnamese folklore had a far more supernatural explanation for the formation of Halong Bay.
It is said that thousands of years ago, the newly established Vietnam was under constant threat of invasion from powerful forces to the north, the Chinese and the Mongols. Though mountainous terrain protected Vietnam’s northern border, the eastern shoreline remained vulnerable to attack. The Jade Emperor who ruled heaven, Ngoc Hoang Thuong De, saw the plight of the Vietnamese people and sent a family of dragons—the Mother Dragon and her children—to aid the Vietnamese and protect their burgeoning civilization.
There came a day when the Vietnamese army gathered along the shore to the mainland, with a naval fleet in the Eastern Sea weathering the front lines of an invasion. It was at this moment that the dragons came down from the heavens to assist the Vietnamese navy. They incinerated the invading forces with holy fire and spat giant pieces of jade and emerald that crashed into the sea and rose up into giant mountainous formations, which would stand for thousands of years and act as a protective barrier from future enemies.
After this battle, the Vietnamese were victorious and could once again live in safety and peace. The Mother Dragon and her children decided to stay in the mortal world to protect Vietnam’s national sovereignty and even assist the early Vietnamese with the agricultural infrastructure and animal husbandry necessary to sustain a growing nation. They would eventually settle on individual islands named for them in Halong Bay.
There is another story of how the Vietnamese people first came about, as the offspring of two ancient deities: a dragon named Lac Long Quan and a fairy named Au Co. It is because of these tales that the Vietnamese people are said to have descended from dragons and fairies, and indeed, if the legends are believed, their continued existence is owed in no small part to the benevolent aid of the ancient and powerful dragons of Halong Bay.
According to Sino-Vietnamese (an old form of Vietnamese using words borrowed from Chinese), “Ha” means descending and “Long” means dragon. Therefore, Halong Bay is literally the Bay of the Descending Dragon. This ancient legend is a fascinating and fun cultural insight into what makes Halong Bay so special in Vietnamese culture, and though the story of dragons might not be true in a literal sense, the majestic and awe and wonder felt by all who travel to Halong Bay is surely akin to the spirit of the dragons who are said to have formed these bay thousands of years ago.
Perhaps one of the most tragic and romanticized legends of Halong Bay is the tale of Trinh Nhu Cave and Trong Cave, located opposite each other, about 15 kilometers south of Bai Chay Beach. Trinh Nhu Cave contains within it the appearance of a female statue, lying down with her searching eyes gazing out at the sea. In Trong Cave, the statue of a boy with his face turned to the female figure in Trinh Nhu Cave almost seems as though it is calling out to her, echoed in the whistling winds blowing through the rock formations.
This mysterious couple is said to have met long ago. The woman was a fisherman’s daughter in a poor family, living in a fishing zone that was owned by a rich local official. He saw the girl and fell in love, and subsequently forced the family to give her away as his concubine. She was devastated, however, as she already had a lover who was out to sea at the time, catching enough fish to sell in the market so that he could pay for their wedding.
Angered by her reluctance, the rich official banished the poor girl to the island containing Trinh Nhu cave, where she waited and looked out to see longingly for her lover to return. Unfortunately, she waited there until she turned to stone in a night of heavy rain and howling winds.
That same night, her lover learned of her fate and set out to find her, only to be caught up in the terrible storm that destroyed his boat and forced him to take refuge in a nearby cave, opposite Trinh Nhu cave. It was there that he saw his lover, though she had already turned to stone. He cried out to her, but the wind carried his voice away. He even tried hammering on the mountain cliffs nearby with a stone to get her attention, to no avail. Eventually he, too, turned to stone.
This tragic tale is said to be the origin of these two strikingly humanoid statues. Though not often visited by tourists, these two caves can be seen if you know where to look. Today, the caves symbolize true love that endures even after death, inscribed in stone as a monument through the ages. Perhaps, on a windy night near these caves, one can still hear the voice of the young boy calling out to his doomed lover.
Thien Cung Grotto, though heavily protected, difficult to access, and seldom visited by tourists, is considered one of the most beautiful works of natural architecture in Halong Bay. Lucky visitors will notice intricate and delicate carvings upon the cave walls that take on many shapes, many of them resembling all kinds of animals like birds, flowers, humans, fish, snakes, elephants, and lions.
As the legend goes, there was once a lonely Dragon Prince looking for a bride. One day he saw a woman whose beauty was beyond compare named Mây (cloud), and he asked her to marry him. She agreed, and they threw a lavish wedding in the center of the grotto that lasted seven days and seven nights. All kinds of animals came from all over the animal kingdom to celebrate with them, dancing and reveling deep into the night with music and pounding drums, with small dragons flitting about between the stalactites and stalagmites. A smartly dressed elephant officiated the wedding, and even the spirits of the North and South stars were invited to attend the lavish wedding banquet.
At the center of the grotto, there are four large pillars said to be supporting the roof of heaven. These, and the heavenly, supernatural nature of the wedding itself, are what give Thien Cung Grotto’s name its meaning: Heavenly Cave.
Today, the inscriptions along the walls of this stunning cave are said to be fossilized remnants of this legendary wedding that took place thousands of years ago. When you visit this cave, you can almost feel the presence of the animals carved into the walls, the jolly festivities that must have taken place during that special wedding, and the sound of the wind passing intermittently through the cave’s narrow openings is reminiscent of the beating drums that must have played while the animals danced merrily together.
Through the ages, numerous stories have been told about the mysterious origins of Halong Bay and it’s awe-inspiring rock formations. To be sure, there is surely no end to the possibilities for how so many of these magical rock formations came to be, with tales of heroes, lovers, gods, and mythical creatures. For many inquisitive travelers and wanderlusts, to become acquainted with local folklore is as fascinating, curious, and indescribably beautiful as the magical experience of Halong Bay itself.
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