With its vintage style and colonial glamour, this luxury paddle steamer was, and still is, the darling of Ha Long Bay.
It's been almost 10 years since I last visited Ha Long Bay. Back then I was a university student backpacking through Asia with a bunch of girlfriends and Vietnam, as a destination, was starting to gather interest from tourists around the world. This time I'm on an overnight cruise on a luxury paddle steamer, the Emeraude, a replica of the original 20th French steamer that struck a rock and sank in 1937. It's my first overnight cruise – ever – and I'm sharing it with Traveller's readers on a Traveller Tour of Cambodia and Vietnam with Wendy Wu Tours.
The Emeraude, with its vintage style and colonial glamour, is considered the darling of Ha Long Bay – back then and still now. The original three-deck vessel, which doubled as a cargo and cruise vessel, provided visitors a certain level of luxury that rivalled local cruise vessels of its time in the area. The ship had electric operating lights, a system of ventilation and refrigeration, and even featured darkrooms for the many photographers who came to Ha Long Bay to shoot its dramatic scenery.
The one I'm standing on, a rebuild of the original – a glowing white paddle steamer with wooden decks and a wraparound promenade – was the vision of French entrepreneur Eric Merlin, a collector of Indochina trinkets and ornaments.
Merlin often wandered Parisian flea markets for Indochina antiques and collectables. One day he came across some vintage postcards of the Emeraude steamer at Saint-Ouen flea market in Paris. Fascinated and delighted by its history and colonial connection, he hunted down the family of the original owner and rebuilt the Emeraude with all the trimmings of its glory days.
The steamer was the top choice for globe-trotting chef and TV presenter Anthony Bourdain, who rose to fame with his memoir Kitchen Confidential, when he visited in September 2016. According to one crew member, Bourdain, who died in June this year, walked up and down the pier observing and inspecting all the boats in dock and personally picked the Emeraude to cruise while filming the Ha Long Bay episode for his CNN show Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown (a travelogue that famously featured a dinner with US President Barack Obama at a side-street restaurant in Hanoi – buncha and beer for $6. Bourdain picked up the bill).
I pressed the crew member for more answers about Bourdain's ship inspections, "how do you know he did this?" The woman replied, "I was there. I served him when he was on this boat."
It turns out the Emeraude crew has a low turnover.
"We're the same crew. I've been here for 12 years," she says. During that trip, Bourdain booked the entire boat to himself. "A big freakin' boat. And it's all mine – along with friends and crew, of course," he exclaimed in the episode.
The crew member asked excitedly if I knew Bourdain. "This is the closest I've ever been to Anthony Bourdain," I tell her. In fact, I'm sleeping in the same bed he did while onboard just 14 months earlier. Bourdain stayed on the front upper deck in the Paul Roque Suite – named after the Emeraude's first owner, a second generation Frenchman living in Indochina – the same suite I've checked into.
The room is spacious and features a double bed, dark wood, colonial-style bed with matching desk, two armchairs, and five windows through which you can see into the horizon sitting in bed. Its standout feature, which I suspect is why Bourdain, and also US Senator John McCain, who also cruised on the Emeraude (and also died recently), chose over the other suites onboard, is that the suite sits on the upper level and comes with its own private deck.
Our time on the cruise is packed with activities – refreshments on deck followed by lunch, then first stop is Sung Sot Save, or Surprise Cave, on Bo Hon Island, followed by more refreshments before we head to another island. That night, after a movie screening of Kong: Skull Island, which was filmed around the bay, and some unsuccessful squid fishing, I head back to my private deck and lie down on the lounge chair. I take in the stillness and silence of the surroundings.
The light from the Emeraude fades into the bay and I can just make out the faint outline of giant limestone rocks towering over me in the darkness. Ha Long Bay is, as I remembered, beautiful and majestic. Locals say it hasn't changed for centuries – from the time of its creation, when breathing dragons flew over and created the mountainous rocks, when its caves became the homes for inhabitants who lived here during 4000BC, through the naval battles of General Tran Hung Dao and into modern times under French rule and then independence.
I head to bed; this is probably the closest I ever get to the ship's original owner, Paul Roque. He must have envisioned many great things when he launched the first Emeraude as a cruise vessel; the appeal, the attraction and spectacle. I don't think he could have fathomed that in another century, after 20 years of war, the bay would draw more than eight million tourists each year, nor would he have imagined his steamer to have carried the likes of Anthony Bourdain and John McCain, and more.
The writer was an expert guest on the Cambodia and Vietnam Traveller Tours and travelled courtesy of Wendy Wu Tours. This story has been edited following Anthony Bourdain's death.
Vietnam Airlines operates daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne. See vietnamairlines.com
Traveller Tours are an exclusive, expert-led tours curated by the editors of Traveller for readers of traveller.com.au, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald, The Age and The Sunday Age. See traveller.com.au/traveller-tours
The Cambodia and Vietnam Traveller Tours was curated in association with Wendy Wu Tours