written by Todd DePastino
Our morning excursion in Halong Bay was a welcome respite from the bustle and war stories of Hanoi.
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and visual wonder. Two-thousand islands (officially 1,969, the year of Ho Chi Minh’s death), each draped in thick foliage, stand like soldiers at attention throughout the bay.
These tall, narrow limestone towers are called “karsts,” a geological formation caused by eons of erosion (they are not remnants of volcanic eruptions). Sailing among the closely grouped towers is dizzying. Exhilarating, also.
This being Vietnam, the green karsts are not just beautiful limestone formations. They are dragon pearls sent as obstacles to confuse and defeat Vietnam’s enemies.
“Ha Long” means “descending dragon.” The Vietnamese people, according to mythology, are themselves dragon descendants. Back in time immemorial, so the story goes, the Viet Emperor called upon Mother Dragon to repel invaders in Halong Bay. Mother Dragon and her children answered the call and incinerated the enemy to the last.
To help keep the Vietnamese safe, Mother Dragon and her children spit teeth-pearls-emeralds into the bay, leaving behind what are today the karsts. They remain there as a curtain against future attack.
In fact, Halong Bay did play a key role in repelling Chinese invasions.
The first came in 938 CE, when the Han Dynasty invaded Vietnam up the Bạch Đăng River from Halong Bay. Vietnamese general Ngô Quyên was waiting for them with an ingenious plan.
First, he ordered telephone-pole-like spikes to be driven into the river bed, then tipped with iron points. Then, at high tide, when the spikes were deep under water, he lured the Chinese fleet upriver. He assembled a small attack armada, exposed it to the Chinese, and then had the armada flee upstream.
The Chinese gave pursuit. Then, the tide receded, and a strong outward current pushed the enemy’s ships downstream so they were impaled on the poles which were now close to the water surface.
The Han were sitting ducks. Flame-throwing archers emerged from the shoreline and ambushed the Chinese fleet.
Woodblock depiction of Ngô Quyền leading his troops against Southern Han forces on the Bạch Đằng River, 938 CE.
No one knows exactly how large these ancient forces were that clashed on the Bạch Đăng River, but estimates range from 50,000 on the Chinese side to 500,000. The Han forces lost half their army and navy that day and retreated to Halong Bay.
This was the great battle that won Vietnamese independence from more than 1,000 years of Chinese rule.
The Vietnamese would use this very same tactic 350 years later 1288 when the Mongol Empire, led by Kublai Khan, tried to conquer the Dai Viet (Great Viet), the Vietnamese empire established after independence. Once again, the enemy sailed up the Bạch Đằng River, and once again, the Vietnamese unveiled a masterpiece of guerilla tactics, saving the Dai Viet fom Chnese conquest.
Such sanguinary stuff was far from our minds as our travel group cruised Halong Bay. We looked for monkeys on the islands, waved at vendors and fishermen on the water, and spotted two karsts that, from the right angle, looked like kissing chickens.