The legend of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The battle had been going on for weeks. From the sea, the invaders’ ships kept rolling in, filled with fearsome bloodthirsty soldiers who slaughtered everyone in their path. The people on-land kept fighting back with all the strength left in their souls, but they were now weakened, wounded, exhausted. Their arms were weathered by the swords in their hands, their legs shivering, about to give in to the weight of their bodies.

But up above the Gods were watching, and they were touched by the people’s undying determination in protecting their land. So Mother Dragon gathered her children and riding the wind they plunged the heavens towards the sea, their mighty jaws unfolding a raging storm of fire. Just as the powerful invader was about to strike the winning blow, the Dragons drowned every ship in a mighty flaming blast, obliterating them all into sand. As the smoke cleared those suddenly peaceful waters, there were thousands of majestic fangs left behind by the Dragons to forever guard the bay.

houseboats on bay

This legend (or something close to it) gave the magnificent landscape of Ha Long Bay its name. And whether one believes in god-like monsters or not, once you see such a place there is no denying the ever-working forces of Nature that continuously shape the contours of our planet. The towering limestone rocks, scattered as islands and islets across the emerald waters, are picture proof of its sculpting gifts. The winds, the waves, the currents and the tides, they all act together to create that immense ethereal scenery.

And they had worked together that day to run our group’s junk boats aground. Were we seen as invaders too, struck down by Nature so we couldn’t reach that promised paradise? That thought ran through my head as we dragged our kayaks into the sand of a small islet. We had been instructed to paddle out there so the crew could work on getting the boat afloat again. We were at their mercy now – a pack of foreigners stranded on a lost tiny beach, with no other resources but kayaks and GoPros. If they decided to abandon us there, I imagine one of those horrific survival stories would unfold. The sweet Australian lady would probably try to keep us all grounded as we would start fighting for food, but the quiet German girl with the cat tattoo would surely turn into a hungry psychopath soon enough. There certainly is an unhealthy level of craziness in a person who willingly tattoos a huge cat on any part of their body. And then we’d be one of those stories in the news that people would share on Facebook and rage about for a day. That is, until something more outrageous or violent happened and we’d all be forgotten.

But I’m digressing. The beach actually felt quite peaceful, a salty smell of sea lingered in the air. There was a slight elevation where a small Buddhist temple sat. Fishermen paddle along there to pray when the currents let them. The temple’s red wooden doors were sealed and framed by two long-necked birds, followed by two armed guards. A pair of golden dragons was resting above on the roof, its serpent-like figures reaching towards the middle, tongues nearly kissing.

I stood by the three steps leading to the temple, listening to the gentle strokes of the ocean on the shore behind me. As I attempted to absorb that near-silent stillness, a small white and brown spotted cat strolled casually past me, brushing against the short stone wall.

There it was, a presage of the inevitable triumph of the cat girl. Or perhaps he was a reincarnated spirit of a lost fisherman, forever bound to that beach. More importantly – how had he landed there, and what did he eat? The cat leaped onto the third step and rolled around playfully on his back, clearly unconcerned by my puzzlement. He didn’t question why he was there on that islet, he was an intrinsic part of it, a living piece of that harmonious picture.

The same could not be said of our presence. We shape that landscape too, in a battle with Nature, wounding its essence. As much as we seemed to be close to paradise, it was a broken one. On the caves and grottoes we had kayaked through, a significant amount of waste floated on the waters, speckles of dirt that contaminated that once pure emerald taint. Whether we caught a plastic bag or bottle along the way, these signaled only the very tip of a monstrous pollution iceberg. The new invader grows and stretches, silently gathering a deadly destructive power–only there are no Dragons now, no mystic beings to come and save the day. Alone are the people, weak and weary, who need to wake up from their slumber and fight for the Bay once more.

“They’re calling us back”, my sister said. The sky was turning gold in the dusk light. Hurriedly we pushed our kayak towards the water, following the others to the boat, forgetting to wave the cat/lost fisherman goodbye. Maybe he’s there figuring this all out, perhaps praying to the gods for celestial intervention.

Probably not… He’s just a cat.

Want to learn some practical steps you can take toward conserving these beautiful seascapes? Read Alex Xanthoudakis’s piece on conserving Thailand’s Maya Bay, not too far from Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay.