The legend goes that the people of Vietnam were born from the union of the dragon and the fairy.
The dragon rose up from the sea and onto the Earth to unite with the fairy of the mountains. Together they created one hundred sons.
When the dragon returned to the sea, fifty sons followed to live thousands of feet deep in the oceans.
Once Vietnam became threatened by Chinese invaders in the North, the Gods summoned these dragons to resurface.
They released jewels and jade from their mouths creating islands across the bay, forming a great wall of protection.
As the mother dragon made her way onto the Earth, she fell so heavily that deep valleys formed and filled with water when she plunged back into the sea.
The peaks left behind became the region known as Ha Long or “where the dragon descends to the sea.”
For thousands of years ancient civilizations lived in these jungle covered limestone islands surrounding the bay.
It is in this labyrinth of channels that the Vietnamese stopped invasions from its coastal neighbors.
Many years later it was through these same waters that hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees fled Communist rule en route to Saigon.
Today communities live on and from the sea in floating villages.
They farm fish below their buoyant dwellings selling black squid ink to China or offer candies, fruit, and knick-knacks to tourists.
The rest of the world sees Ha Long Bay on a cruise booked from nearby Hanoi.
A UNESCO world heritage site and one of the new Wonders of the World it has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in all of Southeast Asia.
Tourists cruise across the bay snapping photos, passively observing the surreal beauty and foreign way of life.
A few days ago I was one of those tourists.
In the months preceding my voyage to Asia I was lured by the dreamlike images of its emerald sea and massive karsts.
In fact it was my deep desire to explore the glowing channels of Ha Long Bay that caused me to begin this journey in Vietnam.
But overlooking the island studded green sea
watching locals sell fish to passing boats
and kayaking through caves in hollow karsts
I did not feel the exploratory bliss that often consumes me when traveling.
Instead I felt like I was standing in a forbidden room where I did not belong.
As if its beauty was too intense for my eyes to afford.
As if the motor of the boat
the words of the passengers
and each click of a camera violated the sanctity of the bay.
As if the dragon still dwelled below, reminding us, the invaders, of its powerful past.
As an outsider in this stunning, strange place I wonder
despite its awards
if perhaps the beauty of the bay
belongs not to the world
but only to the dragons
the people of Vietnam who followed their father to the sea.