Fancy a trip back on time on an imperial junk or a colonial steamboat?
Visitors can now tour Ha Long Bay on boats that mix history with comfort.
A crowded deck, the overpowering smell of gasoline, heat noise – for me, boat cruise in Ha Long Bay had lost their charm. White the blue sea and soaring islands are the perfect setting for romance, I was tired of being jostled other visitors and taken to the same. Busy tourist sites.
Hind and cruise
With the growth of Vietnam’s tourism industry, the fragile junks that once traversed Ha Long Bay gave way to noisy motorboats catering to day-trippers from Hanoi. Then, three year ago, the bay’s residents were shocked by the appearance of luxury yachts.
Huong Hai, one of several companies the operate high-end yachts in the bay, invited me for a cruise on one its newly renovated boats, which was modeled after the 18th century craft used by Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty. The upper deck was designed to look like an ancient Chinese palace, complete which circular doors and pillars.
Staring u the craft’s three red sails I was reminded of the romantic short story “Red Sails” by the Russian writer Alexander Grin, in which a poor young woman dreams of a prince whisking her away in a boat with red sails.
With its three masts and creamy sails, the Dragon Pearl - a top –end yacht that set sail last summer – brings to mind the British East India Company vessels that once carried silk between London, Calcutta and Danang. Rather than Cung and Dau Go Caves or Ga Choi Islet, this luxury craft headed for Ba Trai Dao, a distant and little visited part of the bay named for three islets said to resemble peaches.
I went for a moonlit swim, spent hours exploring unnamed island by kayak, glided into mysterious sea caves, and spent many blissful hours lying in a deck chair sipping cocktails. This was more like it – the perfect blend of nature and comfort.
This level of luxury took some major investment; the Dragon Pearl cost about VND4bn (US$255,000) to build. Every detail is perfect, from the gleaming wood floors to the fluffy, embroidered duvet covers.
Ha Long jewels
This summer saw launch of a new boat in Ha Long By, the 55 meter – long Emeraude, a luxurious craft modeled after the steamships that operated between Hai Phong and Quang Ninh from 1910 to WWII
The original Emeraude, owned by a French family by the name of Roque, was one of five stemmers operating in Ha long Bay: Emeraude Perle, Saphir, Onyx and Rubis, Originally from Bordeaux, Victor, Hanry, and Xavier Roque first came to Vietnam in 1858, when they were in their 20s. Over the years they ran timber, sugar and trading businesses with mixed success. In 1905, Xavier’ son Paul moved to Hai Phong to establish s cruise business. Built in Hong Kong, the steamboats were outfitted with the latest comforts available, including electric light to France in the 1940s.
Almost a century after the Roque Brothers’ boats started traversing Ha Long Bay a group of investors decided to revive the brothers’ vision. The firm’s slogan says is all: “Sail back in time”. A replica of the old steamboat, the new Emerraue offers all the comforts of a five-star hotel with 38 luxurious cabins, a salon, and the nightly buffet in the Emeraude’s dining room would satisfy an American millionaire.
When night fell, the sky sparkled with stars. It was lovely to lie in a rattan chair on the Dragon Pearl’s deck and sip a cocktail prepares by a young, uniformed barman. I shut my eyes and enjoyed the sea air on my face, only to fall asleep dreaming of stars.