All fans on deck

It’s tempt­ing to chan­nel the mood of In­do­chine on a cruise of Viet­nam’s Ha­long Bay, writes Chris­tine McCabe

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat -

WE are do­ing our best to chan­nel Cather­ine Deneuve on the up­per deck of the Emer­aude, sip­ping cham­pagne while cruis­ing the calm wa­ters of Viet­nam’s Ha­long Bay aboard a replica of a 1910 pad­dle steamer. The nos­tal­gic mood (one is imag­in­ing ad­just­ing a cart­wheel-sized sun­hat while smooth­ing crushed linen) is bro­ken some­what when the cap­tain an­nounces in a husky French ac­cent that swim­mers should watch for sea­soned jerry fish’’, but not to worry, we will rub cream’’.

Sud­denly Cather­ine’s gone and Her­cule Poirot has popped on deck aboard a set per­fect for a re­make of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile . Death on Ha­long Bay has a cer­tain ring to it and se­lect­ing a pos­si­ble vic­tim will help while away the hours as we thread through some of the 3000 as­ton­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful lime­stone is­lands that dot the Gulf of Bac Bo (or Tonkin).

This karst seascape, World Her­itage listed in 1994, has a sur­real beauty as cap­ti­vat­ing as it was a cen­tury ago when the orig­i­nal Emer­aude fer­ried French sight­seers about the bay (their graf­fiti can still be found in some of the caves and grot­toes hon­ey­comb­ing th­ese is­lands).

It looks rather as if the Whit­sun­day Is­lands were re­flected in one of those fair­ground mir­rors — the type that stretches the im­age ver­ti­cally — to pro­vide a land­scape that, though static, is in­trin­si­cally dra­matic.

Ha­long is where the dragon de­scends into the sea and there are count­less sto­ries ex­plain­ing the bay’s for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing dragons spew­ing forth cas­cades of pearls that be­came is­lands; ru­mours per­sist of a lo­cal ver­sion of the Loch Ness mon­ster. The pas­sen­gers on board the Emer­aude, how­ever, are giv­ing lit­tle thought to sea mon­sters and sea­sonal jelly fish; we are more con­cerned with what’s for din­ner. At 6pm, ap­petites are sharp­ened by an on-deck demon­stra­tion of the art of the Viet­namese spring roll.

Some guests have cho­sen a pre-pran­dial spa treat­ment in­stead; yet oth­ers are tak­ing a turn on the Pont Prom­e­nade when a small float­ing vil­lage comes into view, a mini Venice of tiny tim­ber houses perched aboard barges, all teth­ered in a line to a shel­ter­ing lime­stone cliff.

This is­land fortress, ris­ing straight from the sea, pro­vides ad­mirable pro­tec­tion, but not a square inch of flat land on which to claim a foothold, so the res­i­dents of Cua Van have taken to the wa­ter. Their float­ing life pos­sesses a sur­pris­ingly sub­ur­ban mien: houses with tiled rooftops are neatly main­tained (some even have tele­vi­sion aeri­als), herbs grow in pots and fish­er­men snooze in ham­mocks while their chil­dren mess about in boats, pulling up to the Emer­aude with a stash of abalone shells to hock.

A scene vir­tu­ally un­changed, one imag­ines, since the Roque broth­ers (who left Bor­deaux in the 19th cen­tury to find fame and for­tune) launched a fleet of four flat­bot­tomed pad­dle steam­ers — Emer­aude, Ru­bis, Perle and Saphir — to ferry freight and pas­sen­gers through the wa­ters of French In­dochina.

Fel­low coun­try­man (and Viet­nam-based travel en­tre­pre­neur) Eric Mer­lin was cap­ti­vated by the im­age of this colo­nial idyll when he stum­bled upon an old post­card of the Emer­aude in a Paris flea mar­ket in 1999. Af­ter tracking down the de­scen­dants of the Roque broth­ers, who pro­vided ac­cess to the fam­ily archives, and us­ing the post­card as a model, Mer­lin over­saw the build­ing of a like­ness of the ves­sel, launch­ing the 38-cabin, 55m-long replica on the bay five years ago.

Mer­lin’s Emer­aude is charm­ing in ev­ery way, from the cosy cabins — kit­ted out with dark tim­ber wain­scot­ing, wall-mounted brass fans and grainy black-and-white pho­to­graphs of Tonkin femmes in full tribal kit — to the at­mo­spheric din­ing room where tim­ber floors, Per­sian rugs and hefty ma­hogany fur­ni­ture form the per­fect back­drop for a Poirot de­noue­ment when the cast is as­sem­bled and the mur­derer re­vealed.

Like­wise the decks have an old-world charm, with rat­tan chairs po­si­tioned out­side each cabin, and a long bar on the top deck fringed with pot­ted palms and enough steamer chairs to ac­com­mo­date a full cast of cock­tail-quaffing Christie char­ac­ters.

Much of the af­ter­noon tends to be idled away in one of th­ese chairs drink­ing in the pass­ing scene of jagged is­lands and small, brightly coloured fish­ing boats chug­ging across the bay. The shim­mer­ing jade-green wa­ters de­scribed by the orig­i­nal Emer­aude pas­sen­gers are laced with magic and to­day, sadly, also with plas­tic bags, drink cans and the like. In the 21st cen­tury the bay has fallen vic­tim to its own pop­u­lar­ity, with about 400 plea­sure ves­sels ply­ing th­ese wa­ters. The lit­ter is­sue presents an aes­thetic chal­lenge for tourism op­er­a­tors, sev­eral of whom are con­sid­er­ing fi­nanc­ing a clean-up, al­though there’s lit­tle they can do re­gard­ing the im­pact of nearby coalmin­ing.

Mid-af­ter­noon the Emer­aude drops an­chor for a small ex­cur­sion to the Sung Sot Cave, also known as the Cave of Sur­prises or Sur­prise Grotto. This is ev­i­dently a ref­er­ence to the awed re­ac­tion of vis­i­tors to the mas­sive lime­stone cham­bers.

But the real sur­prise, if Lonely Planet is to be be­lieved, is a large, pink-lit pe­nis rock. I’ll have to take the guide’s word for it be­cause I stay on board (Poirot and phal­lic rock for­ma­tions should never fea­ture in the same story) to en­joy an in-room mas­sage, one of the many treat­ments avail­able as part of the ves­sel’s ex­tremely well-priced well­ness pro­gram; pedi­cures are $US10 ($15) and mas­sages $US20.

Af­ter cruis­ing for an­other cou­ple of hours, we drop an­chor again, this time at Hang Trong, where the ves­sel will re­main overnight in the lee of sev­eral shel­ter­ing is­lands. The Emer­aude’s faux stern wheel cas­ing con­ceals a swim­ming plat­form that al­lows en­er­getic pas­sen­gers to frolic with those sea­soned jerry fish’’ or take to the wa­ter in kayaks to ex­plore nearby is­lands and grot­toes. One of our party re­turns with as­ton­ish­ing tales of lo­cal fish­er­men div­ing mi­nus snorkels and catch­ing fish with their bare hands.

Af­ter an im­pos­si­bly in­do­lent af­ter­noon, and with the spring roll demo over, guests gather on the top deck to watch the set­ting sun. The Emer­aude is joined by a cou­ple of other tourist ves­sels, while a fish­ing fam­ily chugs into view to hawk their catch.

The last light casts deep shad­ows over the wa­ter and il­lu­mi­nates dis­tant is­lands to a golden-green lu­mi­nos­ity height­ened by a rapidly gath­er­ing thun­der­storm.

The fish­ing folk head home as we go down­stairs to dress for din­ner. Af­ter all, there is a mur­der to be an­nounced or, at the very least, a rather mean dessert trol­ley to be done over.

Meal­time aboard the Emer­aude is a buf­fet af­fair, a melange of Viet­namese and West­ern cui­sine, but there’s a quite good, and rea­son­ably priced, wine list and an amus­ing se­lec­tion of cock­tails. Af­ter din­ner, guests are in­vited on deck to view In­do­chine , filmed in Ha­long Bay and star­ring Deneuve (in a par­al­lel uni­verse there is whist and creme de men­the).

Fol­low­ing an ex­tremely good night’s sleep — the beds are very comfortable and there’s barely a rip­ple to rock the boat — most guests rise early for a cuppa and round of tai chi on the top deck. Then it’s back to base — in our case, through a tor­ren­tial sum­mer down­pour that damp­ens ev­ery cor­ner of the ves­sel — to Emer­aude’s shore­front cafe and a restora­tive cup of cof­fee.

This seam­less ser­vice, which in­cludes trans­fers from Hanoi, makes a jaunt around Ha­long Bay an easy side trip for vis­i­tors to the Viet­namese cap­i­tal.

And with any luck you’ll have a (fic­tional) mur­der to solve, a Loch Ness mon­ster to spy or, at the very least, sev­eral pesky jerry fish’’ to dis­pose of. Chris­tine McCabe was a guest of Jet­star.

Check­list

Jet­star flies from Syd­ney to Ho Chi Minh City via Dar­win five times a week, with JetSaver Light fares from $439 one way, all in­clu­sive. Jet­star Pa­cific in Viet­nam flies be­tween Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi seven times daily. More: www.jet­star.com. Emer­aude de­parts daily at about mid­day (in time for lunch) and re­turns the fol­low­ing day at about 9.30am. Overnight fares from $US375 ($562) a dou­ble, in­clud­ing meals, taxes and tour­ing. Spa treat­ments and drinks ex­tra. Pri­vate car or shut­tle bus trans­fers are avail­able from Hanoi. More: www.emer­aude-cruises.com.

A jour­ney into nos­tal­gia: The Emer­aude, a replica pad­dle steamer, makes overnight trips around Ha­long Bay, near Hanoi

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