Nestled into the Gulf of Tonkin in northeastern Vietnam, Halong Bay is one of the most amazing inlets in all of Asia. Heralded for its incredible landscapes and biodiversity, the cove contains an archipelago of almost 2000 different islands, and is also celebrated by cultural anthropologists for its unique and storied history which can be traced all the way back to the ancient Viet people as many as 20,000 years ago!
The fascinating cultural aspects of Halong Bay are not limited to the ancient times; in fact, Halong Bay (translated to mean Bay of Descending Dragons) is a popular tourist destination for those with a desire to experience a unique and different culture – a hyper-traditional society in modern times!
But the indigenous people aren’t the only allure to Halong Bay; as noted, some of the world’s most remarkable geology and landscapes are a major draw for visitors, as it was recently named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, by an online institute dedicated to celebrating the world’s most amazing natural majesties.
Most of the 2000 islands in the archipelago – which are incredibly diverse in their size and structure – are uninhabited and the majority of the islands are protected from any sort of development, though some are populated with small groups of tightly-knit community members. Island hopping is a popular thing-to-do for Halong tourists, but the real draw is the bay itself and those who live, literally, in the bay!
Aside from the startling geography, the most notable thing about Halong Bay is the housing structures. In this traditional fishing village, the people live on wooden houses that essentially float on the water. Others live in boats.
This unique cultural tradition dates back two centuries when inhabitants – who relied on fishing and other aquaculture harvests as their sole means of livelihood – began constructing boat-like homes directly on the water. This was done to deal with the rapid fluctuations in tides that occur in Halong Bay.
These original villages were later destroyed during the war with France between 1946 and 1954, and locals were forced to abandon their normal lives and seek refuge on nearby islands. But following the war, the people returned and rebuilt their floating community.
Today, the people of Halong Bay live in four villages, and while their lives are still built almost entirely around the fishing and aquaculture industries, they now have learned a thing or two about pleasing tourists as well!
Here are a three Halong destinations I was fortunate enough to tour during my recent trek to northeastern Vietnam:
It isn’t just the homes that float, the merchants also set up shop on wooden structures floating in the bay. The weekly market is comprised mostly of staple items such as vegetables and fruit and, as such, has a more local vibe than other Asian markets that cater more towards tourists.
Bai Chay Night Market
But for those that would rather go souvenir shopping, the Bai Chay night market offers a travelers a marketplace they might be more accustomed to, complete with trinkets, knick-knacks and the opportunity to dicker with shopkeepers.
Bai Chay Beach
Shop by night, stroll on the beach by day! This beautiful beach is a popular hangout spot during the summer months. In addition to the attractions you’d find on most beaches, Bai Chay boasts some picturesque scenery that you won’t find on any of the world’s beaches. The limestone outcrops that tower over and around this beach are some of the most bizarre, almost mystical, geographical formations I’ve ever seen. And I grew up in Colorado!
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