The Emeraude, a replica of a 1906 paddle-wheel steamer, cruises Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. // © David Swanson
Curiosity about the roots of America’s disastrous entanglement with Vietnam brought me to the land of Ho Chi Minh. It was a movie, Catherine Deneuve’s epic “Indochine,” that lured me to Ha Long Bay, a waterlogged scene of abrupt outcrops protruding from the Gulf of Tonkin, close to the Chinese border.
The bay is the world’s most extensive example of marine-invaded karst formations, visually and geologically akin to the areas of Guilin in China and Phang Nga Bay in Thailand. But the monolithic limestone islands also weave through Vietnamese folklore, where Ha Long translates to “Bay of Descending Dragons.” It is said that the mother dragon and her children live here and will awaken if foreign aggressors imperil the Vietnamese.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, Ha Long Bay receives 3 million visitors annually and a burgeoning industry of more than 300 wooden junks navigates the bay amid nearly 2,000 islands on overnight tours.
Regulation of Ha Long Bay has increased over the last decade, largely with prodding from UNESCO, which has expressed concern about the site’s tourism capacity and management. In 1997, jet skis were banned and planned resort projects were cancelled. Yet, during my visit, trash floating around the islands revealed insufficient or unenforced environmental regulations (the 1,600 people living in small floating villages in the bay have no trash pick-up services).
Ha Long Bay is one of the nominees for the Seven Natural Wonders project and the government is actively promoting the site for one of the top slots. But can Ha Long Bay handle increased prominence? It is uncertain that such recognition will spur Vietnam to protect the bay more assiduously.
Following a 3½-hour drive from Hanoi to Ha Long City, I boarded the Emeraude, a 180-foot replica of a 1906-era paddle-wheel steamer that had sunk in 1937. In 1999, entrepreneur Eric Merlin encountered an old postcard of the Emeraude and eventually rebuilt the vessel as a 39-cabin cruiser, trading paddle-wheel power for a pair of 540-horsepower diesel engines. The $2.8 million Emeraude launched in 2003, becoming Ha Long’s first “five-star” cruise option.
The retro cabins, though compact, are well-appointed, with air conditioning and hot showers. A trio of suites are each much larger, with the Paul Roque Suite the top pick, especially for honeymooners who can take advantage of a private deck below.
“Emeraude is the only steel-hulled and expat-owned ship operating in Ha Long,” explained Thomas Koessler, the chief purser. “The junks offer a quality experience, but their public areas are more constrained.”
Quite a few junks were following our path, all destined for Sung Sot Cave, or the Surprise Grotto. But we arrived ahead of most of the fleet, and a brief climb up cement steps took us to a path through the cave, illuminated by colored florescent lights. The voluminous caverns, undulating with stalagmites, draped by stalactites, are indeed a surprise — the slender islands hardly appear large enough for such grottos.
By the time we departed Sung Sot an hour later, 44 junks had filled the tiny bay, but we left them behind, cruising briskly in the afternoon sun, eventually reaching one of Ha Long’s anchorages designated for overnight visitors.
Following dinner, we headed to the Sun Deck. The sky was pitch-black, the island off the starboard deck all but invisible. The bay’s dragons, I thought, have descended. But perhaps, I later imagined, they lie just underneath the surface, still guarding against the day when beautiful Ha Long Bay may be imperiled again, whether by foreigners or residents — or both.
The Emeraude operates daily year-round, priced from $330 per person, based on double occupancy.