Ha Long means Descending Dragon and the silhouettes of some of the larger rock formations in the Bay can appear to resemble sleeping dragons… from the right angle.
The karst limestone that I first saw in Guilin continues from Southern China through Northern Vietnam and having seen the inland areas – Trang An – I was now viewing it at sea.
There are 1,969 islands in the bay and it would not be difficult to lose your way back to your ship among the rock islets.
It is one of the most stunning places I have ever visited and I came here as a result of James Bond.
‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ featured Ha Long Bay and watching it, back in the 1990s, I thought: “I’ve GOT to go THERE.”
It’s incredible what has influenced and shaped my travel plans.
Legend has it that Ha Long Bay was created as a result of a dragon sent to prevent an invasion.
She either spat out or laid (depending on who tells you the story) pearls which formed islands or razor-sharp mountain chains in the path of the enemy’s ships so that they couldn’t pass and reach the mainland.
After this victory, the dragon stayed and she laid a final egg which hatched, leaving the area with two bays: Mother Dragon Bay and Baby Dragon Bay or Children of the Dragon Bay (Bai Tu Long).
The latter receives greater government environmental protections with fewer boats allowed into the area. It was created as a National Park in 2001.
It is quieter than the main part of the Bay though there were still around twelve boats moored alongside us each night, which gives an indication of how busy the main bay is.
Ha Long Bay is a very industrial region, despite the romantic story of its origins – we saw several tankers and a major shipping line cuts across the Bay.
The air pollution, not only from tankers but from the influx of tourism, clouds the view of the distant islets and, kayaking, several is us fished litter (polystyrene, plastic bottles and plastic straws) out of the water.
The way of life (as well as limiting tourism) is being changed here – to preserve the islands. Our guide told us that there had been six floating fishing villages and now there are only two.
The two that remain are essentially there for the benefit of tourists, to see what life would have been like. We saw little actual fishing taking place.
After paddling through one of the villages, we were taken to a pearl farm.
The farm’s area was netted, to keep put sizeable predators that might prey on the baskets of oysters tied below the surface of the sea.
A pearl is created as a result of the oysters’s reaction to an impurity, a piece of grit. The oyster exudes a substance that seals the grit – this is what creates the pearl.
The oyster is the only living creature that creates a gem.
At the farm, three types of oysters are seeded with a piece of rounded rice as the impurity. The rice is the size of the pearl that is sought.
Along with the rice, nutrients are inserted to support the oyster and ensure it remains as healthy as possible.
The three types of oysters produce different coloured and sized pearls:
- Akoya: rainbow coloured pearls
- Tahiti: only one colour and usually very bright
- South Sea: the biggest pearls – gold, white, grey and yellow.
Oysters are seeded when they are one year old and can be harvested between two or three to eight years dependent on the type of oyster.
The only way to harvest the pearl is to kill the oyster.
What will happen to pearl farming and the demand for pearls in the future is uncertain – veganism and the demand for cruelty free products is rising.
Cruelty-free is not something I have any objections to but I do wonder about the future of some communities that depend upon this type of production for their livelihood.