Halong bayThe bay’s tranquil beauty encompasses 1.500 square miles (3880 km2) dotted with well over 100 limestone island and islets, many of them named. Bizarre rock sculptures jutting dramatically from the sea and numerous grottoes have created an enchanted, timeless world. The sails of junks and sampans gliding on the bay add further to the timeless beauty of the scene.

To visit the Bay, we board ~ boat for a cruise on the emerald waters, home to thousands of islets and delve in to the scenic treasures of this limestone archipelago. A boat trip on the bay includes stop at some of the grottoes: The Bo Nau (Pelican) cave, the 1.2 mile long Hang Hanh tunnel and the Trinh Nu (virgin) cave.

The most spectacular of all the bay’s grottoes is the beautiful Dau Go cave with its stalactites and stalagmites resembling beasts, bird and human forms. It was christened the Grotte des Merveilles (Wonder Grotto) by the first French tourists who visited it in the late l9th century.

Halong Bay has been the setting of many historic battles against invasions from the north in the past. It is believes that the sharp bamboo stakes General Tran Hung Dao planted in the Bach Dang river to destroy Kublai Khan’s fleet were stored here in these caves. The name Halong means the landing Dragon, evoking some ancient dragon, which in the mist of time is said to have descended in the bay.

Magnificent Halong Bay, with its 3000-plus islands rising from the clear, emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, is one of the natural marvels of Vietnam.

The bay and its numerous islands sprawl over an area of 1500 sq km. In 1994 the bay was designated as Vietnam’s second UNESCO World Heritage site. These tiny islands are dotted with innumerable beaches and grottoes created by the wind and the waves.

Ha long means “where the dragon descends into the sea”. Legend has it that the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon who lived in the mountains. As it ran towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses; as it plunged into the sea, the areas dug up by the tail became filled with water, leaving only bits of high land visible.

The dragon may be legend, but sailors in the Halong Bay region have often reported sightings of a mysterious marine creature of gargantuan proportions known as the Tarasque. More paranoid elements of the military suspect it’s an imperialist spy submarine, while eccentric foreigners believe they have discovered Vietnam’s own version of the Loch Ness monster.

Dragon aside, the biggest threat to the bay may be from souvenir-hunting tourists. Rare corals and seashells are rapidly being stripped from the sea floor, while stalactites and stalagmites are being broken off from the caves. These items get turned into key rings, paperweights and ashtrays which are on sale in the local souvenir shops. You might consider the virtue of not buying these items and spending your cash instead on postcards and silk paintings.

Due to the rock type of Halong Bay’s islands, the area is dotted with thousands of caves of all sizes and shapes.

Hang Dau Go (Grotto of Wooden Stakes), known to the Frenchas the Grotto des Merveilles (Cave of Marvels), is a huge cave consisting of three chambers which you reach via 90 steps. Among the stalactites of the first hall, scores of gnomes appear to be holding a meeting. The walls of the second chamber sparkle if bright light is shone on them.

The cave derives its Vietnamese name from the third of the chambers, said to have been used during the 13th century to store the sharp bamboo stakes which Tran Hung Dao planted in the bed of the Bach Dang River to impale Kublai Khan’s invasion fleet.

Drum Grotto is so named because when the wind blows through its many stalactites and stalagmites, visitors think they hear the sound of distant drumbeats. Other well known caves in Halong Bay include the Grotto of Bo Nau and the 2km-long Hang Hanh Cave.

Some tourist boats stop at Reu Dat island, which supports an unusual species of monkeys which are distinguished by their red buttocks.

A few travellers also visit Ngoc Vung Island. It is easily identified by its redbrick lighthouse.

Tuan Chau Island (5km west of Bai Chay) is one of the few islands in Halong Bay which has seen any development. In early 1999 it was connected to the mainland by a bridge.

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