Chasing the Dragon – a day trip to Ha Long Bay

“Could you do this trip twenty times a month?”

This was what our tour guide told me when I asked him how often he came to Ha Long Bay in the course of his job. As a guide from the Spanish Holiday Resort School of Guiding, he was friendly and informative. He waved a flag to assemble us and said a few corny words (“my name’s Cui but just call me Handsome”).

Still, he knew his stuff and the day ran smoothly, notwithstanding the obligatory stops at ceramic and craft centres.

Ha Long Bay is impressive, an oasis of calm after the hubbub of Hanoi, with huge limestone rocks and islands rising out of the turquoise water. Legend has it that a family of dragons created the islands to protect the Vietnamese from invaders, then decided to live there and descended into the water, hence the name, which means ‘descending dragon’. It is certainly deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

We enjoyed a cruise round the islands and a seafood lunch, with a vegetarian option. Unfortunately, I don’t think our token vegetarian was much taken with the gelatinous soup or the non-meat, non-fish prawns that looked like prawns and had the texture of prawns but most definitely were not prawns. Still, it’s the thought that counts.

By the time lunch was over, we had arrived at Thien Cung (Heaven) cave, a vast grotto covered with stalactites and stalagmites and dating back about 700,000 years. This also was a place of legend, with a beautiful woman marrying the dragon prince here and bearing him one hundred children. The guides pointed out the shapes of various animals who attended the wedding depicted in the rock formations, as well as a rock’s shadow that cleverly forms an outline resembling the woman herself.

The cave was only discovered in 1993 by a fisherman seeking shelter from an approaching storm, which was undoubtedly fortuitous. Having seen the magnificent terracotta army in Xian a couple of years ago, which was itself only discovered in 1971 by a farmer digging a well, I reflected on how many other wonders there are out there waiting to be uncovered, by a Spanish shepherd searching for a stray sheep or a Bedouin seeking shelter from a Saharan storm. Only time will tell.

Kayaking round the bay was the last activity before we cruised back to the harbour and boarded the bus for the journey back to Hanoi. So, could I do this trip twenty times a month? Probably not, Handsome, but I will definitely come back at least once, and next time I’m going to spend a night or two there so I can watch the sun setting over the horizon, illuminating the limestone, as it has done for hundreds of thousands of years. 

Natalie Shasin (VOV)