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