Since the beginning of recorded history, mystical dragons have been intertwined with East and Southeast Asian culture. Unlike their European counterpart, known to breathe fire and often associated with war and destruction, Asian dragons are benevolent beings whose water-related powers can shape rivers and oceans or control seasons and weather.
As the region’s most revered mythological creature, it’s no surprise that many of Vietnam’s most iconic sights are named after these legendary winged beasts (known as ‘Long’ in Sino-Vietnamese).
The Legend of Halong Bay – The Descending Dragon
Though geological evidence suggests Halong Bay was formed by tectonic movements over hundreds of millions of years, a fabled tale describes how the region’s 2,000 islands were created in a single day.
The legend tells of a fledgling Vietnamese nation, constantly defending itself from northern aggressors. Aware of a looming invasion from the sea, the Jade Emperor called forth a Mother Dragon and her children to protect the villagers. As they descended from the heavens, these divine creatures belched out clusters of jewels which formed an impenetrable barrier against the naval invaders. Many of the attackers’ ships smashed into these mountains, while the remaining forces were ultimately repulsed by the defenders.
These gemstones still remain to this day as the countless, stunning islets now scattered across the bay. The literal translation of Halong is ‘descending dragon’, and it is said that all Vietnamese today are descendants of the dragons who gave birth to Halong Bay thousands of years past.
The Nine Dragons of the Mekong Delta
Situated on the opposite side of the country from Halong Bay, the Mekong River in southern Vietnam is known locally as ‘Cuu Long’, or ‘River of Nine Dragons’ — which refers to the Mekong’s 9 tributaries which meet with the East Vietnam Sea (though, over time, it has changed to 7 river mouths).
Southeast Asia’s longest river begins in the Tibetan plateau and flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before branching off into several waterways in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Today, this agriculturally-rich basin is responsible for much of the country’s rice, fruits and vegetables and both offshore and inland fishing.
Hanoi and the Soaring Dragon
For over 800 years, the capital of Vietnam was known by a different name. After claiming to see a dragon soaring up the Red River, the ancient ruler of the Dai Viet kingdom, Emperor Ly Thai To, relocated the seat of his administration from Hoa Lu (90km south in Ninh Binh province) to the present-day location of Hanoi in 1010. The city retained its name, ‘Thang Long’ (or ‘Soaring Dragon’) until the 19th century when the newly established Nguyen dynasty relocated the capital to Hue.
Though the city was officially renamed to Hanoi (meaning ‘Between Rivers’) in 1831, its former name Thang Long is cited throughout classical literature as well as contemporary poetry. In 2010, Hanoi’s Imperial Citadel of Thang Long gained UNESCO World Heritage status, cementing it as one of country’s most popular cultural attractions.
Other Dragon Landmarks
In addition to Halong Bay, the Mekong Delta and Hanoi, countless other natural landmarks are aptly named after the dragons they resemble, such as Ham Rong Mountain in Sapa or Long Hai Beach in Vung Tau. Conversely, the Dragon Bridge in Danang or Nha Rong Harbour in Saigon are just a couple of the man-made structures named after these heavenly beings.
Discover the Land of Dragons with a Heritage Line Cruise
Explore two of Vietnam’s most captivating regions, both named after dragons, aboard a Heritage Line boutique luxury cruise. Our 7-, 4- and 3-night cruises along the Mekong River (River of Nine Dragons) combine enlightening world heritage sites, green landscapes and charming village life between Saigon (Vietnam) and Siem Reap (Cambodia).
Or discover the surreal beauty of Halong Bay (Bay of Descending Dragons) with our 2- and 1-night itineraries. Highlights include cave exploration, kayaking through dreamlike seascapes and breathtaking sunsets.