The silent stillness and calm of Halong Bay adds to its majesty and mystery. This stunning place of natural beauty, carved out by millions of years of erosion, now stands as a monument to the distant past; a mountain range drowning in the sea. It’s a place that has stood for longer than humans have been around to inhabit it, and as you cruise around this magical destination in Vietnam, you can’t help but wonder what this bay might have looked like thousands of years ago, before the first humans ever set sail in its pristine emerald blue waters.
Halong Bay has served as a natural fortress in centuries past, when foreign invaders came by sea to what is now called Vietnam, only to be foiled by these massive limestone walls. A legendary, monolithic figure in Vietnamese legends, the great warrior Tran Hung Dao famously set spiked traps throughout the limestone karsts of Halong Bay, which activated at high tide and punctured and sank the fleet of Chinese invaders under the notoriously brutal Yuan Dynasty led by Kublai Khan. This is considered one of the greatest military feats in Vietnamese history - and one that surely spared and protected the local people from being assimilated into a foreign culture or worse, wiped out completely.
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Before Tran Hung Dao, there are myths and legends surrounding the formation of Halong Bay. It is said that long ago, to protect the Vietnamese people from northern invaders, a family of dragons were sent down from the heavens by the gods, descending upon the bay and spitting out jewels and jade, which then formed into a chain of impregnable rock formations. The name “Hạ Long” actually means “descending dragon,” thus linking the name of the bay to this wondrous mystical legend of its origins. Whether by dragon’s magic or the natural forces of erosion over millions of years, the solemn beauty of Halong Bay is marvelous to behold.
Its instrumental role in the defense of a nation has benefited land dwellers in the north of Vietnam, but Halong Bay has also been called home by inhabitants of floating villages for thousands of years. This ancient way of life can still be seen and experienced in Halong Bay to this day. For visitors, a visit to these floating villages is a fascinating education on a rare cultural phenomenon, and a glimpse into the storied past of this culturally rich province of Vietnam.
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Ecological Concerns and Modern Solutions
Though fishing villages used to be a common feature throughout Halong Bay, there are presently only four that remain. This is largely due to government mandates in the last few years that villagers relocate to the mainland, with various payouts and incentives like subsidised education and housing. With the rise of tourism in this region, environmental concerns are at the forefront as local authorities seek to preserve the natural ecosystem for generations of visitors and inhabitants of Halong Bay to come.
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Considering what’s best for the environment, many formerly popular tourism spots in Halong have been temporarily or indefinitely banned for visitation from Halong Bay cruises. Changing environmental conditions, as well as the increasing effects of climate change, present new challenges for local authorities as they seek to encourage the thriving tourism industry that brings tremendous economic benefits to the region, while preserving and protecting the pristine environment of Halong Bay upon that visitors from all over the world come to marvel at.
Thankfully, allowing a few villages to remain has made it possible for local authorities to strike a balance between ecological and cultural preservation. Paradise Cruises has taken a leading stance on eliminating single-use plastic from all of its cruises in order to protect and preserve the pristine beauty of Halong Bay. This policy is beneficial not only to the environment and the marine life in this region, but to the human beings who rely on this healthy ecosystem to earn a living and maintain their unique, offshore way of life.
A Visit to Cua Van Floating Village
Experiencing these floating villages is a must-do for anyone who wants a complete experience of Halong Bay. Paradise Luxury, Elegance, and Peak 2-night itineraries all include a visit to the historic Cua Van floating village. What you’ll experience there is a blend of wonder, curiosity, and education about a way of life you might not have ever known existed.
Upon disembarking from your Paradise cruise, you’ll be greeted warmly by a tour guide who will escort you to the Cua Van floating village museum. On the way, you might stop and look at some of the fascinating aquatic wildlife that are kept in underwater “pens” for breeding purposes. These are among the types of fish the villagers catch and breed in order to eat themselves and sell to their customers on the mainland. The Paradise Cruise crew always bring leftovers from lunch to feed the fish, who almost instantly spring to life in a short burst of feeding frenzy. Stand back if you don’t want to get splashed!
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Your local guide will then share with you some historical insights on the development of the area, how it operated in years past, and how it’s changed to what it is today. You’ll see all kinds of interesting artifacts--fishing tools, household items, remnants of shrines, and other everyday items used by the villagers, some dating back hundreds of years. As you explore this museum, you can read the plaques to get more insight into the significance of these everyday items, including how and why they were used. There’s also a village map, showing you all the essential facilities in the village. There’s even a primary school for young children to learn and live at home before they move to the mainland for higher education.
Almost immediately, you’ll start to feel a connection to this place, as you begin piecing a picture together in your mind of what day-to-day life must be like in these floating villages.
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As you wander back outside, depending on the type of day, you may see a small cargo boat cruising through the water. Once a day, a boat from the mainland delivers vegetables, snacks, and fresh water for the villagers, and transports their seafood back to the mainland to be sold. It’s the daily rhythm of life here in Cua Van. Your tour guide will also mention that the villagers here have no electricity. They subsist only on their communication with the mainland via day cargo ships, as well as generators to light their boats for night fishing (mainly to catch squid).
Can you imagine, living on the water most of your life, with no electricity? No internet? No television? It’s difficult for most people to imagine such an isolated way of life, yet you’ll see that the people in these villages are as friendly and sociable as anyone else you might meet. Their strong sense of camaraderie and community is evident here. You’ll most likely encounter a group of men and women enjoying some fresh seafood and beer, sitting in plastic chairs on the deck after a long day of work, chatting and enjoying each other’s company. It’s a similar picture to what you’d see anywhere else in Vietnam--a communal meal, good friends and family cracking jokes and catching up with each other, and of course a hearty round of Vietnamese cheers (một, hai, ba, DZÔ!)
A Glimpse into the World of the Floating Village
It’s now time to hop into a wooden paddle boat to take a tour of the actual village. This is when a local guide actually takes you out into the village, which is a series of tin-roof homes tied together with rope and kept afloat by large plastic kegs and rubber tires. This slow-paced drift through the village really gives you a chance to get a glimpse at daily life. In one home, an older couple prepare their nets for the evening and night of fishing ahead. In another, a mother tends to her young children. There are even pet dogs jumping nimbly to and fro from platform to platform, looking down at the fish in the harvesting wells with playful curiosity.
You can see shrines, makeshift living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. All the components for a comfortable life are there, in the midst of what most outsiders would consider to be an extreme environment. But for the villagers of Cua Van, this is just another day. Villagers here endure backbreaking labour and essentially work non-stop to make a living, however the selling price for seafood on the mainland is actually quite lucrative, and land dwellers generally consider these floating villagers to be better off.
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Beyond the floating buildings, the school, the police station, and the visitors’ welcome center, a stunning massive backdrop of lush, verdant limestone karst formations envelop this small fishing village of only a few hundred residents, acting as protection from the elements, and perhaps protection from invaders long ago. All things considered, the breathtaking views and vivid turquoise waters are surely part of what makes the floating village lifestyle worth waking up to every morning.