The beauty of Halong Bay cosists in its mountains, water, clouds, caves and grottoes. Many, however, do not realise that Halong was also the cradle of an ancient people who helped create the present Halong culture.
At the end of 1937, a Swedish archaeologist named Anderson, together with two French archaeologist sisters named Conani, journeyed for months through Halong sea. They climbed mountains, visited caves and explored the coastline, finding many stone artefacts: axes, grinding tables, sewing needles and jewellery. They called the culture that formed these remnants “Ngoc Vung”. In the months and years following, Vietnamese archaeologists continued their research and made many excavations; discovering more archaeological sites, such as Dong Mang, Xich Tho and Soi Nhu. Through an area of some hundreads of square kilometers, they discovered many stone artefacts and pieces of broken designed pottery.
Historical research surveys have shown the presence of prehistorical human beings in this area tens of thousands years ago. The successive ancient cultures are the Soi Nhụ culture around 18,000–7000 BC, the Cái Bèo culture 7000–5000 BC and the Hạ Long culture 5,000–3,500 years ago.
Soi Nhụ Culture
Soi Nhụ culture (about 18,000 to 7,000 years ago): concentrated in limestone islands of Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. The typical archeological remains of this culture can be found at Mê Cung, Thiên Long, Tiên Ông…
The main living method of Soi Nhu people was catching shellfish, picking fruit… This cave-culture is illustrated by traces of mountain snail (Cyclophorus) and stream snail (Melania) and some other fresh-water mollusks. These findings have shown that in comparison with Hòa Bình – Bắc Sơn culture of the same period, the cultural model of the Soi Nhụ people was more developed. This is evident in their adaptation to the marine environment.
Cái Bèo Culture
Cái Bèo culture (from 7,000 to 5,000 years ago): is a link between Soi Nhụ culture and Hạ Long culture. The typical archeological relics of this culture have been found at sheltered areas in Ha Long Bay, such as: Cái Bèo, Hà Giát, Giáp Khẩu…
Cái Bèo people made their livelihood not only by the traditional methods of hunting and picking but also by marine exploitation. Archeological relics of Cái Bèo culture have proved that our ancestors adapted to the marine environment sooner than believed, developing a great culture with its own identity.
Hạ Long Culture
Hạ Long culture (from 4,500 to 3,500 years ago) is divided into 2 stages: earlier and later.
Ha Long culture in the earlier stage: was the result of middle-Holocene marine transgression in the period of 6,000 to 5,000 years ago. This caused the loss of a habitable environment for the Cái Bèo people and resulted in most people moving to the northeast region where the earlier Ha Long Culture was created. The main living styles of people in this culture were hunting, picking, cultivating. Technical knowledge such as pottery and stone tool making had been well-developed.
Ha Long culture in the later stage: came about as the result of the period of maximum marine transgression. This culture developed with the migration of Ha Long people into the plains, midlands and mountainous areas. The Ha Long people’s habitats were relatively diverse and included caves, mountain peaks and sand bars. The typical archeological relics of this culture are: Bái Tử Long cave, Soi Nhụ cave, and Ngọc Vừng island….
In this stage, living methods of Ha Long people basically linked to marine environment. Techniques for making labor tools in this stage became more skilful. Soft pottery had become the distinctive ‘Ha Long Pottery’. Specifically, they created typical stepped and shouldered axes and adzes to enhance the capacity of the earning living method Ha Long culture in the later stage plays an important role in the ancient Viet civilization.
Yen Tu Festival
Place: The mountainous region of Yen Tu, Thuong Yen Cong Commune, Uong Bi Town
Time: Yen tu festivities begin on the ninth day of the first lunar month and last until the end of the third lunar month.
Significance: Yen Tu has been a centre of Buddhism for many centuries, and is the starting point of the Buddhist sect of Truc Lam. Travellers to Yen Tu Festival to stay away from the mundane and go on a religion pilgrimage in the midst of the mighty nature.
There is a popular saying about Yen Tu:”Even after 100 years of virtuous religious life, if you don’t come to Yên Tử you cannot be called a true religious person”.
In the wide ensemble of vestiges in Yen Tu, there are 11 pagodas and hundreds of shrines and towers. One form of entertainment is to climb the peak to where the Ðông Pagoda was built (1,068m above the sea).
On the way, you’ll see pagodas, a tower, a stream and a forest. At the top, after having burned joss-sticks, you seem to be lost in nature somewhere between the sky and the earth. When clear, you can perceive almost all of the northeast area from here.
Quan Lan Festival
Place: Ðình Wharf in Quan Lạn Commune, Vân Ðồn District Time: The festivities are organized yearly on the 18th day of the sixth lunar month, but the celebration lasts from the 10th to the 20th days of month.
Significance: The festival is organized to commemorate the victory against the Mongol invaders in 1288, as well as the feats of Trần Khánh Dư, a famous Trân general. They also pray for good “harvest” from the sea.
Quan Lạn Communal House Festival is the village-wide celebration for the inhabitants of the island community of Quan Lạn: located the central area of the ancient Vân Ðồn Harbour. The 10th day of the sixth lunar month features the ritual of “closing the village”: the inhabitants cannot leave, but those who have moved away and other guests from any corner of the country are welcome. The festivities of Quan Lạn Communal House are comprised of a traditional rowing competition: villagers are divided into two sides. They establish their particular training grounds on the 13th day of the month in order to prepare themselves. The boats used are ordinary 5 to 6-tonne fishing boats, with lowered sails and dragon-heads carved on the fronts.
The 16th day is reserved for receiving the genies. There is a procession for the funeral tablets of Trân Khánh Dư from the temple to the village’s communal house. On the 18th day at about 3:00 PM (every year at this time the tide reaches the temple’s wharf), the boats start. The “soldiers” on one side wear a white jacket and blue pants, while the other group wears gray or black clothing. When the opposing generals meet each other at the communal house, the “soldiers” and spectators shout resoundingly; the noise echoes throughout the region. The two generals make sword-tracings in the air, and the two troops meet each other three times: symbolizing the three victories during the Trân Dynasty. Following the third meeting, they assemble before the shrine, and the rowing contest begins.
The Quan Lạn Communal House Festival bears characteristics of traditional village festivals, but is particularly grandiose, expressing the military spirit of the Vietnamese in the struggle against foreign invaders.
Tra Co Festival
Place: Trà Cổ Village, Móng Cái Town.
Time: Festivities in Trà Cổ take place yearly from the 30th day of the fifth lunar month until the sixth day of the sixth lunar month.
Significance: Nearly 600 years ago, Trà Cổ people built a communal house dedicated to the tutelary genies of the village. The festival is took place to memorize the merit of the tutelary genies of the village and pray good lucks for villagers.
Trà Cổ the site where one first places the pen on the map to draw the S-shaped character of Vietnam. The inhabitants of Trà Cổ originate from Đồ Sơn.
Quận He (Nguyễn Hữu Cầu), a leader of the peasants who rose up during the Lê – Trịnh period is also worshipped here. Representative of village communal house architecture of Vietnam, the building is still well preserved.
On the 25th day of the fifth lunar month, a procession of boats sails from Trà Cổ to the ancestors’ native land of Ðồ Sơn. On the 30th day of the fifth lunar month, the boats return to Trà Cổ.
The next day, festivities begin with the procession of the King to the sea (also named the procession of the King to the shrine). It is accompanied by an armed troop, an orchestra, a strong and handsome young man chosen by the village population holding the flag and people carrying palanquin.
After the ritual procession, there are agricultural contests, such as a pig-breeding competition. The animals receive intensive care many months in advance from their masters in hopes of getting the first prize. There is also a cooking contest, with the best cooks acquiring fame throughout the village.
On the sixth day, the festivities conclude with a flower dance. In this ritual, the population pray to the genies to allow them to catch many fish, have good luck in their trading activities and to have a prosperous lives.
Thap Cuu Tien Cong Festival
Place: At Thập Cửu Tiên Công Temple (Temple of the 19 Founding Fathers) in Cẩm La Commune on Hà Nam Island, Yên Hưng District.
Time: Every year, the village starts the festivities on the seventh day of the first lunar month.
Significance: In commemorating the 19 founding fathers who built dykes, created the populated island of today.
Legend has it: the festival opening day was the day founding fathers discovered an underground fresh water on the island, more than 500 years ago.
At Tiên Công Temple, dignitaries present themselves to the founding fathers, then choose four elderly men to assist them in the ritual of ground-breaking.
On the seventh day, the senior men of the village (all older than 70 years old), along with their children and grandchildren, arrive at the temple. The young people carry offerings (include betel and areca, wine, steamed glutinous rice, chicken or the head of a pig) on their heads to the decorative cult tables. The elderly men follow them, if need be, aided by their offspring. Every family makes its own procession. All processions join together near the temple make a jubilant and animated atmosphere but still sacred. The old men present offerings and worship Tiên Công, the ceremony generally ends at noon.
Then, comes the ground-breaking ritual: the four chosen men pick four balls of earth and build a mock dyke in front of the incense table of the founding fathers. They then perform acts of wrestling to represent the “struggle against nature”. This is to continue the cause of those who built dykes on the sea to protect the villages and hamlets of the island.
Bach Dang Festival
Place: Yên Giang Commune, Yên Hưng District.
Time: The festival is organized on the eight day of the fourth lunar month, some years last 4 days and nights.
Significance: It celebrates the Bạch Ðằng Victories of national heroes struggled against foreign aggression: Ngô Quyền (938); Lê Hoàn (981); and Trần Hưng Đạo and the famous generals of the Trần Dynasty (1288).
Bạch Đằng River has been etched into locals’ memories as a site where national heroes struggled against foreign aggression. These included: Ngô Quyền who planted sharp wooden stakes into the riverbed to defeat a Chinese invasion force (938); Lê Hoàn (981); and Trần Hưng Đạo and the famous generals of the Trân Dynasty (1288).
The ceremonies are comprised of the usual incense burning and offerings in Trần Hưng Đạo Temple and Vua Bà Temple. The populations of the village stage a procession along the banks of the river, and also have a boat race. Bamboo leaf-shaped kayaks gliding across the water surface with the shouting of spectators celebrate the victories of days gone by.
Along with the boat races, other entertainment is organized for the festival, such as wrestling, human chess playing, and cock-fighting.