Wish You Were Here: Hạ Long Bay, Vietnam

by Carolyn Sotka


“A rock wonder in the sky” is how 14th century poet and Confuscian scholar Nguyễn Trãi described the over 2000 islands sprinkled throughout Vietnam’s Hạ Long Bay. With mist cloaking the majestic limestone mountains, you can feel the ancient history of the Bay and its 500 million years of geological transformations. Located in northeast Vietnam close to the border with China, Hạ Long Bay has served as a shelter against not only enemy combatants but also shelter from the elements, storm surges and tsunamis.

According to legend, the Jade Emperor sent the mother dragon and her band of child dragons to defend the local villages and Vietnamese people from foreign invasions. The dragons descended in flocks, incinerated the enemy and spit out jewels that sunk the enemy fleet and turned into stone islands to form a wall against invaders.


Illustration of the dragon of Hạ Long Bay by  Samuel Guerrero Jr

Hạ Long Bay is named ‘descending dragon’, for the mother along with her children, who wanted peace and chose to remain in the Bay. In some legends, the dragons turned into human form to help the Bay recover and prosper. In a land where for thousands of years war was fought on its shores and waters, the dragon is a revered symbol throughout Asia, and in origin myth, the Vietnamese believe humankind descended from a dragon and a fairy.

Archaeological findings date early occupation to 18,000 B.C. The precipitous peaks have made the islands mostly uninhabitable and create a pristine ecological zone despite the ten of thousands of years of human use.


Today, 1600 people live throughout four main fishing villages, and one has evidence of over 6,000 years of occupation.
Photo by Carolyn Sotka.


Fishing boats use lanterns to fish for squid at night.
Photo by Carolyn Sotka. 

Here, the sea fades into sky split only by the karst towers, considered to be the most unique in the world. Karst topography is formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks like limestone. The highly alkaline seawater of the Bay promotes breakdown of calcium carbonate and creates erosional caves, arches and nooks along the base of the mountains.


Hạ Long Bay has 14 endemic floral species and 60 endemic faunal species including the world’s most endangered primate, the golden-headed langur, with only 65 remaining in Cat Ba National Park. In 1994, Ha Long Bay was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. There are over 1,000 sites around the world designated to protect cultural and natural diversity of outstanding universal value.

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Greetings from Cat Ba Island, the best jump off point for Hạ Long Bay and an outdoor adventure mecca where you can rock climb, hike, mountain bike, kayak, cliff dive, or sail.

If you’re looking for a slower pace, find yourself a secluded beach like the Monkey Island Resort, where you can check in to check out. The resort has about ten seaside bungalows tucked into a cove on a private island. While it does take a long time to get here, you will be rewarded with breathtaking views, savory seafood, wonderful staff and time to let it all sink in.

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The beautiful Monkey Island Resort. Photo by Carolyn Sotka:

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