My first trip to Vietnam's magnificent Halong Bay was
Still, cruising Halong's azure waters and weaving between stunning limestone
islets, it would be hard to complain, no matter how rudimentary the boat
was, right? Actually, wrong. Some people found a way. A group of English
backpackers ignored the views, sat inside the boat and whined incessantly
about the price of the Chinese beer.
They weren't the only problem. An American traveler paced the boat half the
night, petrified of pirate attacks; a young woman suffered dreadful
jellyfish stings, and, I have to admit, the backpackers weren't wrong about
the Chinese beer: awful, warm and overpriced.
I thought about that ill-fated trip recently when I boarded the Emeraude, a
cruiser built recently to resemble a turn-of-the-century paddle steamer -
with century-old charm and modern amenities - and made my way to the
top-deck lounge bar to watch Halong City recede into the background.
The boat is the passion of the French travel agent Eric Merlin, an avid
collector of objects and postcards from Vietnam's French colonial era.
In a flea market on the outskirts of Paris a few years ago, he happened upon
a set of cards from 1906 depicting Halong Bay and the nearby port at Hai
Phong. Intrigued, he visited the Musée de la Marine in Paris, where he found
another set of cards picturing the paddle steamers that plied the Halong Bay
waters in the early 20th century. Under a magnifying glass, the boats gave
up their names: the Emeraude, Perle, Saphir and Rubis.
When he found the boats had belonged to the Paul Roque family, he wrote to
all 1,220 Roques in the phone book, eventually meeting 87-year-old Xavier,
Paul Roque's son, at Xavier's Paris apartment, filled with Indochinese art
and memorabilia. Xavier had been a boy when the family returned to France,
but he was able to provide Merlin with a 20-page account of their history.
In the 1850s his grandfather, along with two brothers, left Bordeaux for
Cochinchina, where the French had a toehold at the port city of Danang. The
brothers were looking for adventure, and their timing was perfect. France
went on to annex more and more territory and to eventually create French
By the time Xavier's father, Paul, arrived to start the passenger and
freight ferry business in 1895, Paul's father and uncles had already made,
lost and remade fortunes in supplying the military and in trading sugar and
A bit more than a century later, not much has changed on Halong Bay. Paul's
original 30-page tour brochure likens the 3,000 islets to a "prehistoric
architecture." It says that to journey on the bay's unrippled water with
"paddles turning with the slowness of a mill" is to have the "heart invaded
by an untranslatable anguish and a fever to traverse this bay with the name
that sounds like a blow on a gong."
According to legend, the "bay of the descending dragon," as Halong literally
translates, was created when a family of dragons, sent by the gods, spat
jewels and jade into the sea to form a fortress against invaders from the
The fortress they created is stunningly beautiful. Halong Bay is flecked
with limestone islets. Some rise sheer out of the sea, creating shaded
corridors in the water, while others have large grottoes or small beaches.
It is a jewel of Vietnamese tourism that Merlin wanted to capture. When he
found a report from the Indochinese police on the sinking of the Emeraude in
1937, he resolved to raise it from its watery grave - in spirit at least -
and commissioned a 38-cabin boat reminiscent of the original but with an
inboard motor and air-conditioned cabins. It was launched at the end of
The result combines luxury with period style. And as a way to see the bay,
it beats warm Chinese beer and mosquitoes any day.
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