By LARRY ANTHONY PANNELL
The 15th century Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Trãi once described Ha Long Bay as “a rock wonder in the sky.” Anyone who has ever seen the place can easily understand why.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994 and the most-visited tourist destination in the Southeast Asian nation, Ha Long Bay is a spectacular cluster of more than 1,600 limestone islands and islets jutting out of a sea of rippled emerald green waters that evoke a sense of eternal ataraxia.
The peaceful serenity of Ha Long Bay — situated in Vietnam’s northern Quang Ninh Province, just 165 kilometers northeast of Hanoi — is echoed in the tranquil lifestyle of those who live and work here, creating a hauntingly beautiful otherworldliness that mesmerizes all that witness the place.
The islands, called karsts, are perforated with hundreds of winding caves and grottoes — the result of millions of years of weathering and natural erosion — that can be explored on junks and kayaks.
If you have the time and budget for it, you can also book a helicopter tour to be able to appreciate the grandeur of the towering verdant jade-green limestone islands from above, or you can opt for an overnight cruise to watch the shimmering waters of the bay as they change colors with the sunset and sunrise.
To the Vietnamese people, Ha Long has great historic and mythical significance. According to an ancient legend, it was here that the Jade Emperor — the ruler of all people — sent down the Mother Dragon and her children to help the Vietnamese ward off foreign invaders from the north. Not only did the dragons spit fire upon the aggressors, but also filled the bay’s waters with giant emeralds that acted as a barrier against enemy ships.
In the end, the Vietnamese people were victorious, and the emeralds were transformed into the lush, verde islands we see today. So great was the love of the Mother Dragon for the Vietnamese, she allowed her offspring to stay on Earth and to live and intermarry with the local people, thus helping them to gain celestial knowledge of agriculture and warfare.
The name Ha Long means “Descending Dragon,” and even today, the Vietnamese people consider themselves to be descendants of the dragon.
Ha Long Bay was also the home of several of Vietnam’s earliest cultures, including the Soi Nhu (18000 to 7000 B.C.), the Cai Beo (7000 to 5000 B.C.) and the Ha Long (5000 to 3500 B.C.).
Over the centuries, the bay was a pivotal point in Vietnam’s wars and power struggles, and as late as the 19th century, Ha Long was still being used as a hub by Chinese and Vietnamese pirates.
But today, Ha Long is a peaceful fishing and farming region, disturbed only by the influx of tourists.
To get to Ha Long Bay, you can either take a four-hour bus ride (which may be overcrowded and include a barrage of local scents, often not very desirable), or hire a car and arrive in about three hours.
Once in Ha Long Bay, take a two-hour ferry ride to Cat Ba Island and use it as your home base. Cat Ba City is a small waterfront community with many hotels, ranging from very basic hostels averaging $9 per night to the four-star Cat Ba Island Resort and Spa for a mere $85 per night. Another high end option the Van Boi Ecolux Island Resort on a private beach and cove at $107 per night. Remember, you are in Vietnam and the dollar goes a very long way.
Yet another option is to spend the night or several on a junk or a luxury boat that cruises the bay. Spending a night or two at sea away from the sights, sounds and light pollution of shore is relaxing. Now, combine that with the calm waters of the bay and the surrounding karsts with a bright full moon or with a dark sky under the stars, and you have a near-magical experience.
If you are an adventurous soul, you could take the path that I chose. I spent the first night in Cat Ba City, relaxing, enjoying a great meal and making arrangements for the next days transportation.
I hired a small boat that was no more than four feet wide and 20 feet long to take me to Cat Hai Island in the the Haiphong Province. The two-hour journey from Cat Ba City took me through a maze of limestones islands and several communities of houseboats scattered through the bay like hidden gems. I witnessed those living in the floating villages doing daily chores, fishing or just relaxing after a hard day’s work.
I had reserved a bungalow at the Whisper of Nature Resort, located in the small village of Viet Hai. Once my boat arrived, I could either walk about an hour to the village or take an official taxi, a scooter. I opted for the later. I joined my driver with my backpack strapped on and off we went for the one-mile drive.
The small farming village is located in the heart of Cat Ba National Park in a wide valley surrounded by mountains. The village is very safe and virtually crime-free, a fact that the villagers take great pride in. Known as a “eco” village, the people of Viet Hai are very friendly and willing to share their lives with anyone they meet. It was easy to make friends.
At the end of the concrete road, I arrived at my destination, the Whisper of Nature. There were a handful of small cinder block bungalows, all adorned inside with beautiful wood paneling, a bath, a comfortable bed a small patio.
There was a central kitchen, serving wonderful food in a large comfortable dining room. To my surprise, there was the best Wifi I had experienced since I had left the United States. Remember, I was three hours offshore in the middle of the mountains and jungle.
The manager also told me of a remote abandoned village down a dirt trail about 45 minutes away. The entire scene was surreal, with the abandoned structures, the mist hovering over the jungle and the sight of a lone villager walking through the fields, dressed in military fatigues and leading a solitary horse.
I spent four days in Viet Hai, walking through the village, the surrounding fields, visiting with locals and observing a day in the life of a “real” Vietnamese village.
Away from the cities and all their trappings, the serene village of Viet Hai left me feeling calm, relaxed and with a new outlook and sense of purpose in life.
There are many ways to explore Halong Bay. Viet Hai is just one of them. ´But whether you follow my path or find your own, you will never forget your visit to this magical place, Vietnam’s mystical Land of the Dragons.
Larry Anthony Pannell is a professional photojournalist originally from southern California who is also a licensed acupuncture physician with a degree in traditional Chinese medicine. Since 2010, he has served as an “acupuncturist at sea,” offering his services on several international cruise lines while traveling the Seven Seas. He specializes in landscape, travel, nature and wildlife photography, and more samples of his work can be seen on his webpage. He can be reached at email@example.com.