There are many beautiful caves to explore throughout Halong Bay, but perhaps the most interesting and legend-filled is the unique winding pathway through the “Heavenly Palace,” Thien Cung Cave. Located just 4km from the harbor, north of Dau Go Island, and a popular stop for the best cruises, Thien Cung offers a special insight into the magical story-telling past of Vietnamese culture.
Thien Cung has an interesting history. It was the ancient residence of the Dragon King and his beautiful bride, May. According to legend, they had a spectacular wedding at the heart of the cave, attended by gods, genies, fairies and dragons. Images of these guests are still found among the stalactites and stalagmites that fill the cavernous halls. May and the Dragon King raised 100 children, and all the while they called the cave home. During this time, the Dragon King would fly out among the islands in the bay, helping local fishermen and farmers with their work and defending them from invaders. When their 100 children were grown, May took half to explore new areas of Vietnam, forging pathways and creating new villages. The Dragon King and the other half of the children stayed in Halong Bay and continued to be its guardians and rulers.
With the passage of time, the location of the Dragon King’s Heavenly Palace was forgotten. The jungle grew over the cave entrance, and it was only remembered through often-retold stories. Then in 1993, fishermen chanced upon the cave as they sought shelter from a bad storm that had blown into the bay. They were amazed to discover the ancient caverns of myth.
Now you can wander the winding tunnels of the Dragon King yourself. It’s a bit of a climb up a set of slippery stairs, and the jungle ever threatens to grow back over the stairway and once again obscure the way to Thien Cung – but make the effort and you’ll be rewarded with a beautifully unique cave, lit up in mystical lights and colors that give it an otherworldly glow. There are 10,000 square meters to explore, four colossal pillars that hold up the ‘roof of heaven’, bubbling streams and ever-growing stalactites and stalagmites.
Quiz your guide and they’ll be able to point out where to spot the images of the magical wedding guests hidden among the ancient stones, and tell you a few of the traditional legends that have long left their mark on these echoing halls. As you wander along, listen closely and you’ll hear the Dragon King’s beating drums, signaling his golden reign– in truth, the way the bay’s wind flows through the cavern creates the sound, but it’s no stretch of the imagination to understand how the stories first began.
As you exit the cave you’ll be at a impressive vantage point that overlooks the whole of the bay, and then a short trek will take you back down a set of stairs to return to your cruise. If you haven’t yet gotten your fill of cave grottoes, you still have Dau Go, Sung Sot, and Thien Canh Son to explore. Each cave has something different to offer, from unique formations to their own bits of culture.
While you’re here, take your time in Thien Cung. Let the myths sink in, and allow yourself a moment to appreciate that, legends or no, Mother Nature has done some special work here in Halong both inside and out.