Few places anywhere rival the extreme natural beauty and serenity of Vietnam's Halong Bay.
Its name literally means Descending Dragon, a reflection of the ancient legend that describes fire-breathing beasts saving Vietnam from ocean invaders. It was their thrashing tails and the jewels and jade they used as missiles that are said to have combined to form the 1,960 islets.
The myths lie side by side with scientific evidence suggesting that prehistoric Soi Nhu people lived there as early as 18,000 BC. They were followed by the Cai Beo, till 5,000 BC. They left their marks, as did French tourists. While visiting in the 19th century, they decorated the grottoes with drawings and messages, some of which are still visible today. And, while half a millennium ago it was described by noted Vietnamese poet and scholar Nguyen Trai as a "rock wonder in the sky", it has also been a place of fierce sea battles.
Kublai Khan's Mongol boats were defeated alongside countless skirmishes with Chinese forces. More recently channels were mined by the US Navy during the American War. Since then it has been a backdrop for countless movies including the Oscar-winning French epic “Indochine”. Its sweeping panoramas contributed greatly to the movie's much-praised cinematography.
Now, in the 21st century, it is universally acknowledged as an unmissable corner of Vietnam. Indeed, the site ranks as the #1 tourist attraction in the country. The Vietnamese say if you haven't seen Halong Bay, then you haven't seen Vietnam.
In 1994, it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the bay has also been shortlisted as one of the world's new Seven Natural Wonders.
For visitors, each season presents a different Halong Bay: blue skies, sunshine and swimming in the summer, warm days with possible refreshing showers in the evenings; misty, atmospheric and mysterious in the winter. It continues to attract and inspire in the 21st century, with writers and photographers flocking to capture its natural beauty, but perhaps Ho Chi Minh was right after all. In truth, to truly grasp and appreciate its wonder, you really must see it with your own eyes.