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Halong bay Emeraude cruise in style



 
Emeraude Classic 2 day cruise  

Plying Ha Long waters on the bayís only 5-star boat

Toasted: Guests can enjoy panoramic views of Ha Long Bay while sipping cocktails on the sundeck. ó VNS Photos Alyssa Worsham

Fight the flab: Early risers can join the free tai chi class on the Emeraudeís sundeck.

(19-06-2005)

There are many ways to visit Ha Long Bay, but only one way to do it in style. Alyssa Worsham climbs aboard the Emeraude, a gorgeous replica of a colonial steamer.

As a resident of Ha Noi, it is inevitable that you will have to make at least two, if not more, trips to Ha Long Bay to accommodate the swarms of visitors that descend upon you when you land in an interesting and beautiful Southeast Asian locale. Fortunately, or with any luck, some of these visitors (like your parents, for example), or you, will have a little extra cash and can spring for a cruise on the only five-star boat in Ha Long Bay, the Emeraude. Modelled after a colonial single-wheeled paddle steamer, the gleaming white boat certainly stands out among the throngs of wooden junks that now litter Ha Long Bay, and not just from the outside.

Two weeks ago, I decided to let my mother treat my boyfriend, my brother and me to a two-day, one-night stay on the Emeraude (currently the only option, but large, private parties can book the whole boat for extended or custom cruises), and for her sake really, as the last vessel I took in Ha Long Bay was teeming with roaches. For those who havenít been yet, the area is an official UNESCO World Heritage Site, with thousands of limestone islands staggered about an immense, but surprisingly calm, bay, located about three hours by car from Ha Noi.

On the morning of our departure, a private car picked us up promptly at 8.30am and deposited us at the pier just in time to hop on the Emeraudeís little ferry out to the anchored ship. Once aboard, we were escorted to the sun deck, by far the boatís best feature, where fruity welcome cocktails (virgin) awaited. The sun deck, three stories above the water, is completely open, save the canopy, and features a full bar surrounded by rattan tables and chairs that offer a panoramic view of the bay. The boat was recreated by French architects using old photos from the Paris Maritime Museum, and it is truly elegant. Polished brass, rich woods, and crisp white paint abound, as do the delightful staff, who are more than willing to please. Even the captain, Dominique, gave my boyfriend a pack of cigarettes from his carton, as we arrived before the vesselís little shop opened.

Once Bertrand, our cruise director, had given us our keys and addressed any additional wants or needs, we ducked below to check out our cabins. The Emeraude has 39 cabins that can accomodate 78 passengers. While the rooms certainly werenít large (there is one suite on board), the clean white sheets and light fluffy blankets, beautiful bathroom fixtures, and air conditioning immediately won us over, though my boyfriend and I were a little disappointed by the two twin beds pushed together, instead of a double. But, by then, lunch was served.

Aside from admiring the picturesque scenery as you cruise, there isnít much else to do on a boat but eat and drink. The Emeraude immediately outclasses all the other boats by offering a full bar (and knowledgeable bartenders) and a grand buffet for lunch and dinner. Though I prefer a la carte dining, I will concede that sometimes buffets can be good, and in this case, most of the food was excellent. Calamari in curry sauce, beer-steamed crab claws and giant steamed prawns, stir-fried beef, all kinds of nem (spring rolls), fried rice, Vietnamese and western salads, cold cuts, a cheese plate, fresh fruit, bananas flambe, bread pudding, and chocolate cake were beautifully arranged along the side of the Emeraudeís dining room.

Though the view isnít as impressive as the sundeckís, the restaurant is casually elegant, with cushy banquettes along the sides and more formal tables spread throughout. Even though our cruise was full, there was never a line or rush for food, and we never had to wait for a table. The buffet was also well tended, and none of the food seemed old or messy. Our criticisms were small; by dinner the crackers for the delicious cheese were stale (although we admit it would be hard to keep them crisp at sea), and we found the cereal in the morning was also chewy, though the omelettes and hashbrowns were perfect. However, as seafood is the speciality of Ha Long Bay, those are the dishes to try. Skillfully prepared by Chinese Chef Lien, some of the dishes are seasonal, and vegetarian options can be made upon request.

Between lunch and dinner, the Emeraude meanders among Ha Long Bayís limestone islands, and then stops at the Surprise Cave. As the ship is too big to join the mass of junks outside the caveís entrance, it brings along the little ferry to tote passengers back and forth. My boyfriend and I decided to stay on board, having been there, done that, and spent the afternoon sipping cocktails on the sundeck and lounging on the reclining sun chairs available toward the front of the ship. After cruising to a new location, we anchored for the night, and this time guests were allowed to rent kayaks or take the ferry to a nearby beach with about a thousand steps leading to a scenic overlook.

While these activities are the standard Ha Long Bay package for most any boat, the Emeraude also offers massages, a cooking demonstration (how to make fresh spring rolls), high tea (must be booked ahead) and a tai chi class at sunrise. Eric Merlin, who owns the Press Club, the Warehouse wine store, and the new La Residence Hotel and Spa in Hue, is the man behind the Emeraude, so it is no surprise that its appeal lies in the details. But Merlin has only just begun, as the original ship was part of the Roque familyís five-vessel flotilla, and he plans to rebuild the entire fleet. Work on the second ship should begin in 2006, and with its completion, a wider variety of cruises and services will be offered.

After a leisurely and satisfying dinner, we retired once again to the sundeck to have a before-bed cocktail and play a game of scrabble, one the shipís other amenities. And as we climbed back down to our cabins, we watched several of the shipís staff fishing for squid with a spotlight and net, which might explain why all the seafood tasted so fresh.

Some of us were awake for the sunrise tai chi, which Iím told was quite energizing, while the rest of us chose to sleep in, and wake up just in time for breakfast and then departure. Part of what makes the Emeraude stand out is having the choice of what you want to enjoy, particularly if you are with a large group or with family members with different agendas. While there is a loose itinerary, there is no tour guide ushering you about, and no set schedule to follow. If you want something, itís there, and if you donít, you are free to spend your time how you want. And that is what I call luxury.

Emeraude Classic 2 day cruise    

 

63A Cuabac str., Badinh, Hanoi- Vietnam

Tel: (+844) 716 4132 - Fax: (+844) 716 4133

E-mail:info@halongjunk.net