Cruising Vietnam’s Halong Bay in style

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The Emeraude cruise ship in Vietnam's Halong Bay. (Photo courtesy of Emeraude Cruises)

The foundation myth of Vietnam’s Halong Bay is one of blood and war, the countless limestone islets rising out of the water seeded by dragons sent from heaven to help the Vietnamese fight off an invading fleet from the north. Now, the bay embodies the very opposite of conflict, imparting to the visitor a supreme serenity.

In the early 1990s, the only tours of Halong Bay were in outboard motor-driven craft seating just a handful of visitors, amenities consisting of a barbecued lunch and a cooler full of beer — and the chance of a swim. Hardly a bad time, you might say, but a far cry from the luxury on offer in 2011, in the form of full-service overnight cruises aboard the replica French paddle steamer Emeraude.

When first glimpsed at the end of its dedicated pier, the Emeraude looks like it’s just arrived out of a time warp. Indeed, the original Emeraude and its sister ships were laid down around the turn of the last century, commissioned by an entrepreneurial French family to carry freight and pleasure cruisers around the bay. That vessel sank without loss of life in 1937, but its namesake — commissioned in 2003 — is a period masterpiece.

Painted white with deep green accents, the Emeraude forms a sharp counterpoint to the fake Chinese junks that make up the vast majority of the local tour boats. The illusion of French colonial splendor is maintained once on board, with period deck chairs, deeply polished wooden decks, brass fittings in all the interiors, and a crew turned out in perfect sailor white.

The Emeraude cruises past some of Halong Bay's innumerable islands. (Photo courtesy of Emeraude Cruises)

There is no doubt from the moment you step on board that the primary focus of an Emeraude cruise is comfort. No sooner have passengers made their way to the top deck to get their cabin keys than they find themselves with a fruit juice cocktail in hand — a small but welcome gesture after the two-hour ride from Hanoi. Luggage is whisked away to the small but immaculate cabins, each with a private washroom and beds so comfortable they’re hard to get out of.

Luckily, there are plenty of incentives to do just that. First of all, there’s the food. The cruise, which starts at about lunchtime and goes to late morning the following day, lays on three sumptuous meals in the second-deck dining room. Anyone expecting a private waiter and plates brought to tables under silver domes will be disappointed; this is not the White Star Line. What there is, however, is a buffet of magnificent proportions.

Often the image that comes to mind with the words “all you can eat buffet” is platters of greasy, lukewarm and heavily picked-over instant food. Emeraude meals are something else completely. The food is delicious, diverse and of gourmet caliber. Diners can go through several courses, mixing and matching Asian and Western foods every time without ever eating the same thing twice. And if the Chicken Cordon Bleu or giant prawns in tamarind sauce you were eyeing are gone by your second pass, have no fear; the stream of food from the kitchen is relentless.

If you’re looking for a little oomph in your mealtime drinks, the restaurant and two bars on board also offer a moderate selection of beers, wines and cocktails, though the prices are positively coma-inducing for anyone used to drinking out in Vietnam.

Of course, no-one gets on the Emeraude just to eat. This is a cruise of UNESCO World Heritage Site Halong Bay, and it does not disappoint.

The original Emeraude and one of its sister ships in the port of Haiphong. (Photo courtesy of Emeraude Cruises)

The ship makes its way out of Bai Chay and traces a slow course for a network of caves called Sung Sot, or the Surprise Grotto, in one of the towering islands. “Discovered” by the French during the colonial period, the voluminous grotto covers some 10,000 square meters. One of the Emeraude’s crew gives a short explanation of the cave’s history before visitors are left to explore at their own pace. The cave interior is truly striking, though the effect is marred somewhat by the garish coloured lights, which “destroy the natural and historic feel to the caves,” as German visitor Philipp Imbusch put it.

However, the cave remains impressive, and the trip ashore via one of the Emeraude’s tenders is worth it even if just for the views afforded by the path up to the cave mouth.

From the caves, the ship will then move on to its evening mooring, where it drifts gently about its anchorage. For anyone who wants a swim, this is the time to do it. Kayak lessons can also be had, though this unfortunately entails a hefty extra charge.

However, set aside the kayaks, the caves, the food and the period detail, these long hours at anchor make the real reason to burn two precious vacation days on an Emeraude cruise fully apparent.

That reason is comfort combined with time; time to lose yourself completely in the silent beauty of Halong Bay, time that belongs just to you. Other than the sound of swimmers’ laughs and splashes bouncing off the nearby cliffs, there is nothing to disturb a reverie, a good book, or simple appreciation of this unique place. The minutes go by, the water turns from late afternoon gold to sunset pink, and nothing more is needed.

Once the sun has found its own moorings below the horizon, passengers head back to the dining room. After the meal, you can choose a screening of Catherine Deneuve’s “Indochine” about a French woman in colonial Vietnam (this is a replica French steamer, after all), a place at the bar, or more private moments in your cabin or staring out over the dark water.

The next morning, after a big breakfast and, for the early risers among us, tai chi at dawn, it is almost with regret that you step back on to dry land. Looking back at the Emeraude, already poised to prepare for its next group of guests, you think: “That was something special. I have to come back here again.” (By Robert Irvine, Staff Writer)

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IF YOU GO:

The best time of year to go just about anywhere in Vietnam is December through April, and prices reflect the better conditions.

Late afternoon at the Emeraude's overnight anchorage in Halong Bay. (Mainichi)

Bookings can be made though travel agents or directly through Emeraude Cruises. Cabin prices listed on the Emeraude Cruises website range from U.S. $265 for a superior twin, to $490 for one of three suites. However, better deals may be available if you call or e-mail the office directly. Staff are fluent in English. Furthermore, if the suites are still vacant once you’re on board, you can get a bottle of champagne and an upgrade for $50 per person. All major credit cards accepted both at the office and on board.

Emeraude Cruises offers a very pricey shuttle service from Hanoi to Bai Chay. However, transport to Halong Bay can be booked at just about any travel agent, and cheaper options are plentiful.

CONTACT:

Emeraude Cruises: 46 Le Thai To Street, Hanoi; Tel: (84-4) 3935-1888, Fax: (84-4) 3825-5342

E-mail: sales@emeraude-cruises.com

Homepage: http://www.emeraude-cruises.com/

(Mainichi Japan) June 13, 2011