Without a doubt, Ha Long Bay is famous for its timeless karst landscape, towering limestone pillars, islands and islets, and spectacular caves and grottoes. But what is also of interest to visitors, particularly those who have a love of history, is the culture of Halong, which is steeped in ancient traditions, mythology and legend.

Even the legend of how Halong came to be is fascinating because - like so many legends - the myth is grounded in fact and the birth of Vietnam as a nation.

Ha Long Bay: legend has it

When Vietnam was still in its infancy and forming its identity as a country - somewhere between 900 and 1,300AD - Halong was the battleground for territory conflicts with coastal neighbours, primarily the Chinese and Mongols.

Legend has it that the Gods wanted to protect Vietnam against warfare so they sent dragons to shield the country from invaders. These dragons showered precious gems onto the area - including jade and emeralds - which were transformed into the islands and islets of Halong Bay. These islands and islets offered natural protection against trespassers and attackers, and provided the perfect setting for protective ambushes by the Vietnamese warriors.

And often, like magic, mountains of rock would rise protectively from the ocean, and sink the ships of invaders.

Once Vietnam was secure as a nation, the dragons toured the world in peace. When the tour was complete, the mother dragon descended to Ha Long - the name literally means descending dragons - and settled there, while her dragon children found sanctuary on Bai Tu Long Bay and Bach Long Vi Islands.

The residents of Ha Long could live without fear, knowing they were safe from invaders.

While the legend of how Ha Long came to be has been passed down through generations, references to “Ha Long” did not appear in Vietnamese literature until the early 19th century; instead the area was referred to as the seas of Giao Chau, Luc Chau, Luc Thuy, Van Don, Hai Dong or An Bang. And it was only toward the later part of the 19th century that Ha Long Bay appeared on French navigation maps of the Gulf of Tonkin.

Ha Long may not have appeared on maps, but it is home to a rich tradition of ancient Viet culture, the Soi Nhu culture being the oldest culture, followed by Cai Beo, then Ha Long.

Soi Nhu people: the first culture discovered

The Soi Nhu culture was first detected by Swedish archaeologist, geologist and paleontologist Johan Gunner Andersson in 1938. On digs in the area, he found evidence of ancient Vietnamese in Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long area.

In 1967, Vietnamese archaeologists uncovered stone tools, ceramic fragments as well as human and animal fossils in Soi Nhu cave. Piecing together the archaeological evidence, it was clear that the Soi Nhu people subsisted on shellfish, supplemented by local fruits and vegetables.

Subsequent geological studies have revealed that Soi Nhu culture existed between 6,000 to 18,000 years ago, and were scattered across the Gulf of Tonkin in Ha Long, Bai Tu Long and Lan Ha.

Cai Beo people: advancing the culture

Around the same time as Johann Andersson’s uncovered the existence of the Soi Nhu people in 1938, French archaeologist Madeline Colani discovered the Cai Beo culture. These peoples lived in the Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay areas some 4,000 to 7,000 years ago, and were a continuation of the Soi Nhu culture.

Excavations in these areas have yielded a rich supply of over 500 artifacts used by the Cai Beo: pestles and mortars, grinding tables, axes, nets, statues and unfired pottery, as well as human and animal bones. Bronze implements and decorated pottery have also been uncovered that indicate that the Cai Beo culture was quite advanced.

Ha Long Culture

In the late Neolithic Age to the Early Metal Age - between 3,000 to 4,500 years ago - the Gulf of Tonkin was home to the Ha Long culture. Also known as the sea culture, the Ha Long people occupied Ha Long, Bai Tu Long and Lan Ha.

The Ha Long people were essentially fisherman, and many artifacts associated with their way of life - including nets, implements and boats - have been discovered on the islands and in the caves of the Bay.

The Ha Long of today

Today, Ha Long Bay supports more than 1,500 people who are mainly concentrated in fishing villages on around 40 islands. They live on boats, or floating houses built on plastic barrels, and earn their living by fishing and aquaculture, or by tourism and trade.

Cruising Ha Long Bay will allow you to get up close and personal with Halong locals, who are friendly and sociable, and always keen to share their lifestyle and culture with tourists.

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