Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts surveys the landscape. Photo courtesy of Instagram @voteroberts.
In an era where CGI reigns supreme in Hollywood, there are few places left in the world that are able to jar the senses the way computer generated imagery does. Which is why, when Warner Bros. first released the trailer for the long-awaited Kong: Skull Island, viewers marveled at the use of real world locales to bring to life the mythical lair of the mighty and terrifying Kong. The second installment of Legendary’s MonsterVerse franchise is a departure from the classic caricature of Kong scaling the Empire State Building, and instead returns to the uncharted island inhabited by the king of the apes. The fictional Skull Island is a composite of sublime filming locations featuring the pristine shorelines of Australia, Hawaii’s rugged rain forests, and one of the last explored frontiers in the world: Vietnam. Vietnam’s visual tone easily evinces the possibility of a fearful, fantastical world dominated by primeval creatures. If the spirit of adventure is calling, look no further. Here’s a map to plan your own monster-sized expedition of Vietnam.
Ha Long, meaning “where the dragon descends into the sea,” is a mystical destination entrenched in its own folklore. Legend has it that long ago, the Jade Emperor called forth a family of dragons from the heavens to drive off an impending invasion. The dragons rained down thousands of emerald gemstones onto the bay, giving birth to over 1,900 majestic limestone outcrops rising spectacularly from the tranquil calm of the Gulf of Tonkin. Cast off in a charming junkboat and weave through the towering monoliths that whisper secrets of a time long forgotten, to the far reaches of the inlet where hidden coves and lagoons await. A full-day venture will give you just enough time to breathe in the mysticism of Ha Long, however an overnight stay or two is required to conduct a proper survey of the numerous coves, grottoes and caves nestled in the archipelago. When the mist rolls in, the ragged jungle-infested crags and bluffs are said to play tricks on the mind. Who knows what, or who, could be lurking in the haze…
Kong-spotting: You’ll instantly recognize the fabled karsts of Ha Long in the film’s official movie poster. On the big screen, as the helicopter armada carrying Monarch expedition team—consisting of tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), William “Bill” Randa, the Monarch senior official charged with the expedition (John Goodman), and Lt. Colonel Preston Packard as head of security (Samuel L. Jackson)— descends upon Skull Island, it is among the jagged rock formations of Ha Long Bay that King Kong first greets his doomed guests.
One approach to convincing an audience that a fictional destination does indeed exist is to film in a place never before seen on the big screen. Quang Binh, a province in Northern Vietnam bordered flanked by Laos to its west and The East Sea, slipped under the radar for years before the accidental discovery of Han Son Doong, the world’s largest cave system in volume, back in 1991. Since then, Quang Binh has seen a steady rise of adventurists looking to experience this largely concealed territory for themselves. Han Son Doong is a relative newcomer in the public sphere, having only been opened to tourists since 2013. Bad news: Han Son Doong has a two-year waiting list but luckily our destination guide to Phong Nha nominates other worthy candidates for you to unearth. While Han Son Doong may have put Quanh Binh on the map, the caves of this UNESCO World Heritage site are just one of the countless opportunities to behold the most stunning displays of Mother Nature’s handiwork. The richness in landscape above ground rivals that of the subterranean biospheres hiding below. Karst mounts shrouded in mist and covered in tangles of tropical of rainforest are home to many varieties of flora and fauna, with new species being identified each year. It was, in fact, the lay of the land, that first enamoured Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts to film in Quan Binh. Because of the growing excitement for the film, the Quanh Binh tourism officials have created an organized tour of the filming sites featured in the film. For more details, click here.
Kong-spotting: Kong exacts his reckoning in the most spectacularly cinematic fashion. After a hostile reception from the Monarch gang, Kong goes bananas—excuse us for the bad pun— and starts his rampage against the crew. The plane crashes to the ground, and Larson and Hiddeston's characters are seen escaping from the wreckage, trampling through the surroundings of Yen Phu Lake. The bewitching interiors of Mouse Cave with a mosaic of stalactites cascading from its ceiling will also be making its filmic debut in Kong.
The serrated landscape of Ninh Binh is a character in itself. Often referred to as “Ha Long among the rice paddies,” this cinematic sweep of verdant countryside is the home to a pocket of limestone formations, that spring out of the earth like some divine fortress. Ninh Binh is home to the popular Tam Coc, a flooded cave karst system that is part of the larger Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex. The inconstant rhythm of rolling hills and mountains is evened off by the graceful bends of the Ngo Dong River, which glistens a brilliant ochre hue when basking in the sunlight. You’ll be able to appreciate the colourbending ways of the Ngo Dong from the inside of a bamboo sampan, ferrying you through the shadows of these limestone giants. The uncorrupted, terrifying beauty of the terrain lends itself to the primordial world of Kong.
Kong-spotting: After the maelstrom of the first Kong encounter, the remaining survivors of the team make their way to find refuge. It is during their trek that they encounter one of Ninh Binh's soaring limestone karsts stamped with a monstrous, bloody paw print, foreshadowing the terror to come.