Dragons, Sea Snakes and Poetry in Halong Bay
“So, this myth”, I asked the tour guide, “about the dragons. Where does it come from? Did anyone ever write it down?”
He smiled and looked at me with raised eyebrows, the way you’d look at a small child who asks something cute, like are the sun and the moon brother and sister, and said, “it is legend. No writing.”
I have scoured the internet, by which I mean I’ve google searched three times, and came up blank when it comes to any kind of historical documentation referring to the origins of the legend of Halong Bay and I’m frustrated. No books, no paper ephemera, no sources, no quotes. It might seem a bit ironic, this attempt to find the concrete paper evidence I desire via the internet but I am a techo-utopian, I have faith that if the information is out there the internet will show me the way.
So the myth of Halong Bay is in the hands of the internet scribes, which is pretty much all of us now, to do with what we wish. Here I’ve taken a version of the myth from the most unlikely source of a Halong Bay cruise company’s website.
“Long ago, in the first founding days, the Viet people were attacked by foreign aggressors. The Jade Emperor sent the Mother Dragon and her band of Child Dragons to help the Viet people fight the invaders. While the enemy vessels were launching massive attacks against the mainland, the dragons descended in flocks from the sky. They spat out innumerable pearls which changed into jade stone islands the moment they touched the water. These islands linked together to form firm citadels that checked the enemy’s advance and smashed their vessels to pieces.
After the invaders were driven out, Mother Dragon and her Child Dragons did not return to Heaven but stayed on earth, right at the place where the battle occurred. The spot where the Mother Dragon landed was Ha Long, and where the Child Dragons came down was Bai Tu Long. The place where their tails violently wagged was called Long Vi, the present-day Tra Co Peninsula with its soft sandy beach stretching many kilometers.”
via Legend of Halong bay
Another story that pops up on the internet with no source to speak of is that of Lt Lagredin and the crew aboard the French naval vessel, the Avalanse. This story suggests that the name Halong Bay first appeared in the late 19th century in a newspaper called the Hai Phong News. In 1898, so the story goes, a French sub-lieutenant and his crew reported seeing a giant sea snake while sailing in the lime stone karst peppered waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Thousands of years of oral history are no match for words printed in a newspaper, it seems.
But what about a poem etched in stone?
In 2012 Vietnam Heritage magazine published a beautiful little story about the opening of the first Asia-Pacific Poetry Festival which took place at the foot of Bai Tho Mountain or Poem Mountain at Halong Bay. Poem Mountain came into being when, in 1468, Vietnamese Emperor Le Thanh Tong passed through during an inspection of the eastern coast. Inspired by the beauty of the place the emperor wrote a poem comprised of fifty-six ancient Vietnamese words which he then had etched into the side of the mountain in one continuous flow of prose. Over time the words have faded away but for the purposes of the festival the poem was translated into the following verse:
Hundreds of tidal currents rise into vast waves
Countless mountains blend their green into the blue sky
The sound of night-drums beat strong in my heart
Calling me to build our nation with toil and tenacity
The North protected by our mighty army
Signals warning about enemies are vanquished and quiet in the Eastern Sea
Through history Vietnamese rivers and mountains stand
With martial arts and letters, we lay the foundations of our land.*
*Translated from the Vietnamese by Nguyen Phan Que Mai and David McKirdy.
Floating on the surface of the alarmingly quiet and still waters of Halong Bay in spring you’re enveloped in a smoky fog that is so substantial that the towering limestone karsts the area is so famous for almost sneak up on you. First a vague outline that grows bigger by the second, then a sense of the size of the beast that towers over you, then the close-up detail of green vegetation and treacherous sharp rock filling your vision as you pass it by.
Allied dragons descending from heaven, French naval officers confronted by strange sea beasts and an Emperor etching a poem into a mountain; these are not the myths of Halong Bay, this strange place that both entices and intimidates, they are its history.