Photos cannot contain the 1,969 islands of Ha Long Bay and words can’t quite describe the fantastical limestone karst towers, the mist that enshroud them, and the floating villages that call them home. Ha Long translates to the “Descending Dragon” and when you imagine these islands as spikes from the serpent’s spine peeking out from the water, the mystical nature of this place takes hold. To experience this place properly, you simply have to take an overnight cruise…and if at all possible, with Emeraude Classic Cruises, a ship rebuilt in the spirit of its century-old paddle boat predecessor and an Indochine dream.
The wonderful history of Emeraude is worth reading in full but we’ll do our best to summarize. In 1999 a French entrepreneur obsessed with all things Indochina, Eric Merlin, found a postcard of a luxurious paddle boat in Ha Long Bay dated 1919 and when he looked with a magnifying glass, the bow read “Emeraude.” Eric felt compelled to find the ship, learn more about it, and bring this glamorous era of exploration back to life. This idea stayed with him for years and eventually he moved to Vietnam to recreate his dream boat. Since he couldn’t quite construct a boat from a photo alone–he needed to know its story. With much digging, he found the name of the ship’s former owner “Paul Roque” and mailed a letter to all 1,220 Roques in the French telephone directory explaining his mission. Many replied with great support and admiration but no information…until he got a call saying, “Look no further, I’m the grandson of Paul Roque.” Eric flew to Paris to meet him and he had loads of mementos from the boat, including the original china, silverware, photographs, even this model of the original Emeraude ship.
Eric took everything he learned of Emeraude and incorporated its finest details into ship that would make a granddaddy proud. Keeping true to its classic design and style this 37-cabin ship continues the tradition of Ha Long exploration with incredible overnight tours.
Since Emeraude invited us to review the boat, they pulled out the stops and upgraded us to the fabulous “Paul Roque” bow cabin. The wood floors, oriental rugs, Tiffany lamps, brass fittings all spoke to the ship’s heyday and the five windows provided nonstop scenery.
Adding to the fascination of Ha Long Bay is the people that live there. Several hundred people live in floating villages between the limestone karsts. Rarely touching land, they earn their living fishing, harvesting pearls, and selling souvenirs. Watching real life play out against this fairy tale backdrop made the place even more fascinating.
To get closer to the isles, we took out Emeraude’s kayaks. We paddled around the rocky outcroppings, peeking into caves and ducking under drip castle formations, and landed at a sandy beach.
The beach had a narrow winding path leading to the top of the karst and knockout views. The higher vantage point put hundreds of islands into sight and gave us a sense of the sheer magnitude of this place.
An unexpected treat on the cruise through the islands was the Sung Sot Grotto. This 10,000 square-meter cavern filled with thousands of stalactites and stalagmites was dubbed by the French as Grotto des Surprises. As the surreal space twists and turns, it never ceases to amaze.
We came back to the boat and the evening unfolded nicely with a spring roll cooking class, cocktails at sunset, a fabulous dinner, and screening of the ever-appropriate and nostalgic film Indochine, followed by late night squid fishing off the back of the boat.
I have always been a distant admirer of those who practice tai chi in the park. Making smooth ninja moves in public spaces without giving a darn what others think is something I always wanted to try and my day had finally come. Learning the ancient Asian art at sunrise with the misty islands moving past us trumped even the greatest session in Central Park.
Breakfast was served in the dining room but we brought it to our balcony, to not waste a moment of the views.
Going some place as iconic and exquisite as Ha Long Bay inevitably comes with crowds but staying aboard Emeraude made it feel like it was ours for the night. With only two dozen passengers on board, an incredible staff, and plenty of character, Emeraude made a tourist mecca into a one-of-a-kind experience.