The beauty of Halong Bay

Reader's Digest Editors

Generations of artists and photographers have attempted to capture the dreamlike quality of these exquisite limestone seascapes, we take a look at what makes this place so magical

Of all the extraordinary limestone landscapes in the world, many of which are to be found in the Far East, the most beguiling is the watery world of Vietnam’s Halong Bay. Restored junks drift in and out of the bay’s waterways, their distinctive sails, shaped like the wings of a moth, silhouetted against a surreal backdrop of jagged peaks. At dawn, clusters of conical hills emerge from wreaths of mist over the water, their tops appearing to float in midair. Kayaks bearing passengers set off from the junks to explore secret lagoons, secluded beaches, caves bristling with stalagmites and stalactites, and floating fishing villages. The television aerials that poke from the tin roofs of village houses bring a touch of the present to these timeless waters.

 

Formed by rain and sea

Halong Bay means the ‘Bay of the Descending Dragon’. At the dawn of Vietnam’s history, so the legend goes, the gods sent a family of dragons down to Earth. Out of their fiery mouths spewed forth a stream of jade and jewels that solidified into the almost 2,000 precipitous pillars and spectacularly sculpted islands in the bay, forming a barrier more than 100 miles (160km) long against invaders from China.

In fact, the rock that forms these gemlike islands was once part of the sea bed, a layer of sedimentary rock made up of the compacted fossilised shells and skeletons of countless tiny sea organisms. Over the course of hundreds of millions of years, forces deep within the Earth raised this layer of rock high above sea level and exposed it to the elements. torrential rains, which are such a feature of the region in summer, seeped into fissures in the limestone; and the acid in the rainwater etched channels in the easily eroded rock. These were then exploited by the incoming sea, eventually leaving towers, or islands, several hundred feet tall: all that remains of what was once a vast limestone plateau. The tropical climate and monsoon rains nurtured the vegetation on these islands, swathing them in a deep emerald green and endowing them with rich biodiversity.

 

Limestone landscapes

Like Halong Bay, the limestone landscape of Huanglong Valley in Sichuan province, China, is an UNESCO World Heritage site. And also like Halong Bay, it is named after a dragon: Huanglong means 'Yellow Dragon' in Chinese and the valley is said to resemble a golden dragon as it winds through dense forest on either side. For a stretch of 2.2 miles (3.6km), the Huanglong River cascades over a series of waterfalls between ponds formed by limestone deposits. The opal waters of ponds, framed by the golden tracery of limestone, evoke the scaly skin of a dragon.

Limestone landscapes are popular locations in James Bond films. Halong featured in Tomorrow Never Dies, while Phang Nga Bay was the setting for The Man with the Golden Gun, filmes on Khao Phing Kan off the south coast in thailand. The sheer limestone outcrops soar 300m (1,000ft) into the sky from the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea, and the brilliant white beaches are among the most beautiful in the world.