Many generations ago, Ha Long Bay was virtually deserted, a few traders or fishermen sailing their brown-sailed junks through its misty waters. The mysterious islands were full of legends but free of footprints, only a few artists or poets taking the trouble to hire a fishing boat and explore the bay, drinking chrysanthemum wine and composing verses about its beauty.
When the French colonized Indochina in the mid 19th century, the stillness of Ha Long’ was torn by metal-hulled steamships owned by French business- men. The first merchant ships traveled between Mong Cai and Ha Long or Ha Long and Hai Phong. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the bay’s spectacular beauty became known to the wider world through postcard’s, many of which now lie in private collections and libraries, or rest in old book shops along the Seine. At the start of the 20th century, only a few merchant ships cruised through Ha Long’s clear waters.
Change came quickly. Willie Ha Long Bay’s caves still contain traces of pre-historical residents, and the sea is as blue, as it was when the continents were formed millions of years ago, the bay is now crisscrossed by all sorts of vessels. The old junks with their faded brown sails, the steamships and the narrow, blue-painted boats have been replaced by hundreds of tour boats. Some of-them resemble four-star hotels, their crews dressed in crisp white uniforms, and their captain’s jackets trimmed with gold. Their names conjure up images of beauty and luxury – Lagoon, Princess, Emeraude -or refer-to the legendary dragon said to have created Ha Long-Red Dragon, Hai Long (Sea Dragon)…
Dragon decorations abound, many wooden junks adorned with dragon-shaped figureheads, their bodies stretching down the-handrails. Inside, these luxurious boats typically feature, antique flourishes such as carved wooden ceilings or old-style furniture. Wooden panels are carved with dragons and clouds, traditional symbols of aristocratic; beauty Guests can lie on the decks and gaze up at the colorful sails, although the Lagoon Explorer is the only boat that can actually operate under wind-power.
Some of the tour boats are built to resemble vessels from days gone by. The recently launched Red Dragon, a joint venture between Indochina Junk and Footprint Travel, was modeled after a junk that once sailed between Singapore and northern China. With its bronze and crystal decorations, intricate woodcarvings and antique-style furnishings, no expense has been spared. Guests on the Emeraude, a recreation of a metal-hulled early 20th century French steamship, can experience another chapter in the bay’s history
No’ doubt, those who made the then rare journey through Ha Long Bay many centuries ago would be amazed by the luxurious craft now plying its waters. What hasn’t changed is the bay’s beauty.