Archeological evidence suggests humans may have inhabited the area in and around Halong Bay for as long as 18,000 years. Some of these are distinctly different enough to have been given their own names, such as the Soi Nhu from the Mesolithic age and the Halong culture from the Neolithic age. Van Don in the Southeast of the bay was once one of the most important trading ports in Vietnamese ancient history.
There is perhaps a greater number of myths, legends and folklore surrounding Halong Bay than any other area in Vietnam. The current name of the bay (Descending Dragon) is itself a mystery. Some say it can be attributed to the French in the late 1890’s, others say it comes from a famous Vietnamese folk tale.
Myths and folklore surround many of the caves and grottos. Tales of life’s love lost; of forbidden love forever together cast in stone; wedding celebrations of truly celestial splendor; of poverty and power, and more.
Other legends have at least some bases in fact. Some of the famous exploits of Vietnamese warriors from history, such as national heroes Ngo Quyen and Tran Hung Dao have become legends involving Ha Long Bay and the surrounding areas. Ngo Quyen is most famous for finally defeating the Chinese after 1,000 years of occupation. Tran Hung Dao is remembered for bringing those same guerilla tactics back to life 300 years later.
The following tale is recounted to serve as an illustration of the connections Halong Bay has to Vietnamese history and why the bay is so deeply entrenched in the Vietnamese national psyche.
Tran Hung Dao and his Battle of the Bach Dang River
After being driven out of Vietnam by Ngo Quyen in 938, the Chinese repeatedly attempted to regain their former serfdom for several hundred years more. In 1288 another Han fleet appeared off the coast to make invasion preparations. The Vietnamese fleet under the command of Generals Tran Hung Dao and Tran Khanh Du was vastly outsized, outnumbered and outgunned ... but not overawed. They made their own preparations.
Using Ngo Quyen’s example from 300 years earlier, Tran Hung Dao ordered that wooden stakes be cut and sharpened. It is said some of these were moved into a forward staging area in a cave on an island in Halong Bay . We know this cave today as Hang Dau Go (Wooden Stake Cave) on the island with the same name.
Under cover of darkness the Vietnamese drove the stakes into the bed of the upper reaches of the Bach Dang river mouth (near present day Hai Phong) until the tips of the stakes were hidden just below the surface of the water at low tide.
The shallow draft Vietnamese ships continued to move about, positioning themselves for battle, feinting attacks and creating diversions. When preparations were complete, Tran Hung Dao waited for favorable wind and tide conditions. Late in the year 1288, the conditions were right.
The Vietnamese forces assembled in battle formation and set out to engage the Han fleet. After ensuring the Chinese fleet was fully engaged, the Vietnamese ships turned against the ebbing tide and fled back into the Bach Dang river. The Chinese followed in hot pursuit, growing ever more certain of victory.
As the tide reached its full ebb, the deeper draught Chinese ships became impaled on the stakes. The smaller, nimbler Vietnamese fleet then picked off each impaled ship one-by-one, like lions might harass and harangue a much larger wounded elephant ... until the final demise.