Finding Ha Long’s ’Dragon Eye’

May 03, 2016 | 10:04
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Ha Long Bay is considered one of northern Vietnam’s most famous tourist attractions. One can leisurely cruise through the thousands of islands here, big and small, feast on the fantastic scenery or take a dip in the crystal clear cool water. Most of the islands in the bay are already well-known among local and foreign tourists.
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Hidden gem: Mat Rong Island, with its white sandy beach, spreads across hundreds of metres. Photo:

However, those seeking adventure always manage to find new spots in the bay and have recently discovered an island called Bai Dong (also known as Mat Rong or Dragon Eye Island), which is located on the southern edge of Ha Long Bay. The island, untouched by humans, is far away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Although we were just a group of inexperienced backpackers, we were, however, as curious and excited on hearing about a new place. Having had a great time on the Bai Chay beach, without any hesitation, we picked up our bags and set off to explore Mat Rong Island.

Mat Rong is a small island, shaped like an octopus with a big head and long tentacles that twist and turn. There is a lake, round like an eyeball, in the middle of the island that resembles an octopus head. The island is named Mat Rong because of its location in Ha Long Bay (which means Descending Dragon in Vietnamese).

From Cam Pha, we headed to the Vung Duc harbor, asking locals who had travelled to every corner of Ha Long Bay, such as Bai Tu Long and Lan Ha Bay, about Mat Rong, but no one had heard of this island.

I then recalled the description of Mat Rong on the Internet and burst into laughter; although they had never heard the name, the place I was referring to was just 20km from the harbor and about an hour on a wooden boat.

After a 30 minute high-speed boat ride, we finally arrived at the crescent-shaped area. Except for a 30m sandy shore during low tide, we were surrounded by rocky mountains. This paradise island with its 300-400m natural white sand beach impressed and excited us with its pristine magnificent beauty.

Since there was no fresh water, tourist services nor even cellphone signal on the island, we decided to spend the day bathing and enjoying the island, and later return to the mainland instead of camping overnight on Mat Rong. We pitched a small tent on the beach to rest.

“Why don’t we hang our three hammocks?” my brother Nguyen Tuan Son suggested.

After we had settled, we set off to explore the island through the bushy mountain pass, behind which was a whole new world. In the middle of the island, as we had expected, was a round lake that looked like a giant well, about 100m in diameter and surrounded by rocky hills. Surrounding the water was the foliage hanging from the rocky cliffs. The landscape was absolutely stunning, not to mention the mystical blue shade of the water. This was salt water despite its paler shade, probably because the lake is connected to the sea through a deep cave system. Around the edge of the lake, I noticed peculiar varieties of kelp and seaweed that I hadn’t seen in the sea or in any fresh water marsh.

“If only we had some kayaks to sail, that would have been fantastic!” I thought to myself.

Millions of years ago, this island was probably a lush limestone mountain. Time, rain, wind and the waves had eroded it completely, and now, there was no soil left on the island. The limestone inside the rocks had also worn away, leaving behind the core that consisted of slates of black rocks with sharp edges stacked on top of each other.

The trees were hard as steel with their strong roots going deep through the cracks of the rocks. Along the foothills was a small sandy shore, only visible when the tide was low.

We lay on our hammocks hung between the huge tree trunks, instead of resting inside the tent. The sun was shining bright and the breeze from the water cooled us. The water was unusually still. It was an amazing experience to lie down under the lustrous forest cover and enjoy the beautiful orchestra of the birds of different species here. Crows and hawks hovered above our heads.

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Bird’s eye view: Mat Rong Island seen from above with a huge lake in the middle. - Photo

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Crystal clear: The ecosystem on the island is diverse, pristine and untouched by humans. - Photo

We enjoyed the food we had prepared on the mainland -- boiled chicken, sticky rice, cucumber, fresh herbs and 3 cans of beer. It had been a long time since I last felt so disconnected from the hustle and bustle of urban life and ate such a basic meal. This was a feeling only an adventurous backpacker would experience and understand.

“As long as the pristine beauty of the island is kept intact, I wish there were more recreational services for tourists visiting the island, such as food catering and kayak rental,” my companion Nguyen Hoang Thang said.

“You’re crazy. You would get bored in a wild place like this. Now you wish there were services for the sake of your convenience,” I teased him.

After finishing our meal, we took just one more dip because the water was getting cold and the boat was waiting to take us back to the mainland.

I will definitely return soon to Mat Rong once there are more services here; one can then even camp overnight. I was not brave enough yet to spend a night on a wild island like this. Who knows what mystery it may hold?

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