Named after dragons, Halong Bay is a tourist delight: All that you need to know before you visit it
— By Prof Parthankar Choudhury
Although the Bay of Bengal is widely known, Halong Bay is a relatively unfamiliar name to many of us. This bay is renowned for its natural beauty, earning it a place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and again in 2000. In total, there are 1,154 such sites across 167 countries, with 897 designated as cultural heritage sites, 218 for natural beauty, and the remaining 39 designated as mixed (i.e., natural and cultural heritage).
The name ‘Halong’ means ‘descending dragon’ in Vietnamese. These dragons are an integral part of Vietnam’s art, culture, history, and civilization. According to local folklore, a massive dragon family descended from the sky to protect the locals from outsiders. The dragon then decided to stay in the bay, and the place was named ‘Halong Bay’ after him. The locals claim that, despite suffering from foreign invasions in the past, by the grace of dragon, Vietnam has managed to progress in the right direction.
Located about 170 kilometers from the capital city of Hanoi, Halong Bay is easily accessible via several tour operators that provide large and small buses that depart early in the morning and return in the evening. The journey from Hanoi takes approximately 2.5 to 3 hours. Once you arrive at the bay, you can enjoy a day-long sea cruise and indulge in various seafood dishes served on board, costing approximately 1,02,000.00 VND (less than 3,500 INR). There are also several good hotels and lodges available for overnight stays at nominal charges.
Halong Bay’s natural scenery is charming and breathtaking, featuring thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various shapes and sizes. The bay is the center of a larger zone that includes ‘Bai-Tu-Long Bay’ to the northeast and ‘Cat-Ba Island’ to the southwest, which share similar geological, geographical, geomorphological, climatic, and cultural characteristics.
The bay covers an area of approximately 1,553 km2, including around 2,000 small to large islands, most of which are limestone. The core of the bay covers an area of 334 km2 with a high density of 775 islets. The limestone in this bay has undergone 500 million years of formation under different conditions and environments. There are thousands of limestone islands of different sizes, some of which have caves that can be explored by entering through one end, walking 2-3 kilometers inside, and exiting at the other end. The cave interiors are well decorated and illuminated with a variety of electric lamps.
The karst formation in this bay has evolved over 20 million years under the influence of the tropical wet climate. The geo-diversity of the environment in the area has created a diverse range of flora and fauna, including a tropical evergreen biome, an oceanic and seashore ecosystem, and various endemic species. Historical studies have discovered traces of prehistoric human beings in this area tens of thousands of years ago. Halong Bay holds significant landmarks in Vietnamese history.
Five hundred years ago, Vietnamese author Nguyen Trai praised the beauty of Halong Bay in his verse and called it ‘Rock wonder in the sky’. In 1962, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of North Vietnam listed Halong Bay in the National Relics and Landscapes publication. In 1994, the core zone of Halong Bay was listed as a World Heritage Site under Criterion VII and was listed for a second time under Criterion VIII.
If you have a plan to visit Vietnam as a tourist or on any office assignment, you can easily take a day off to visit the site. Vietnam is a relatively inexpensive country to visit. While a suite room in a decent hotel may cost 5 lakh VND, this is equivalent to just sixteen or seventeen hundred Indian rupees.
In fine, the Halong Bay is a place of natural wonder, rich in history and culture, and a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to Vietnam. The stunning landscapes and fascinating stories will leave you mesmerized, and the warm hospitality of the locals will make your trip even more memorable. So, pack your bags and set off to explore the descending dragon’s abode, the Halong Bay.
(Author of this article is Prof. Parthankar Choudhury. He is Professor and Dean, Department of Ecology and Environmental Science, Assam University, Silchar. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)