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Busting a Few Moves on the Sundeck

Practising Tai Chi on the Emeraude's Sundeck

Practising Tai Chi on the Emeraude’s Sundeck

Sunrise on Halong Bay. Dawn is reddening the eastern horizon between two of the bay’s iconic karsts. There’s bird chatter is the vegetative scruff that ekes out a living on the limestone monoliths. And the bay’s residents are creaking oars, already at work on that day’s living.

On the sundeck of the Emeraude, more than a dozen passengers – half of them European, several Asians and several more of indeterminate Continental origin – have mustered up from their berths, intent on a proper start to the day. Twenty-five-year-old Nguyen Dinh Truong greets his guests, and the routine begins as both a complement and a compliment to another beautiful morning in one of the world’s most sublime places — Halong Bay.

The routine is tai chi, one of the internal Chinese martial arts that’s rooted in Asia, of course, but finding a widespread following in the West. And for good reason. By focusing the mind on the slow, calculated movements of tai chi forms, practitioners realize all kinds of health gains, from improved balance to psychological well-being. That, and what a way to start the day.

The Emeraude’s Mr. Truong learned tai chi from three masters, each of whom comes aboard the Emeraude on a regular basis to train not only Truong but other crew, as well. Over the past several years, Truong – who otherwise works on the boat as a receptionist – has risen before dawn to refine his practice.

As a master of the 24-step routine, Truong leads his fellow practitioners on a 30-minute regimen. Quite frequently, he’ll work one on one with passengers to help them improve their moves. Not all of Truong’s groups are skilled at this art. Indeed, many have never tried tai chi before.

“When I know someone has never tried tai chi, I work extra hard on my moves so they can follow me as closely as possible,” he says. “If I practice well, they will be able to follow in a way that suggests this person is not new to tai chi at all!”

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Bioluminescence on Halong Bay

Bioluminescence in Halong Bay

Certain natural phenomena are so otherworldly, and so eerie, that people travel great distances just to witness the spectacle. Think of Aurora Borealis, the harvest moon, the lunar eclipse and the solar eclipse. Remember the way Carly Simon sang it:

“You flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun.”

Point taken, from the very rich to the not so rich, people crave exposure to natural phenomena.

Here on Halong Bay, you can’t see the northern lights, and you can’t bank on being here for an eclipse or a harvest moon, for that matter, but you can encounter a natural phenomenon so wondrous that seeing this may very well outrank visions of the karsts as your favorite part of an Emeraude cruise. Our local phenomenon is bioluminescence, and Halong Bay happens to be one of the best spots in the world to see this natural wonder.

What is bioluminescence? It’s cold light emitted by various living organisms. Think of fire-flies and glow-worms. They’re the most common carriers of a phenomenon that occurs when these creatures release pigments that react with oxygen. That’s as much science as we’re prepared to get into here, because the sublime pleasure of bioluminescence is not a matter of knowing but seeing.

On the Emeraude, when the waters are calm and the lights are low and the moon is down, the conditions are just right for the blue business of bioluminescence. You won’t see this if you simply sit on the deck and contemplate the darkened water. But dip your hand into the sea and swirl. Voila!

The effect is even more striking when someone dives into the water, not that we’re advising anybody to dive into the dark seas of Halong Bay at night. But others have done this. Travel blogger Becky Ford described the effect this way on her blog when she went into Halong Bay at night:

“I felt like I was swimming in stars. I have never in my life seen anything more beautiful.”

Since the Emeraude started anchoring in a new place, away from the other boats in the bay, the opportunities to experience this aspect of Halong Bay are even more accessible. When the night is just so, according to the Emeraude’s Chief Purser, Anne Sadang:

“It’s like diving into the world of Avatar.”

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2014 in Emeraude Classic Cruises

 

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Setting Sail on a Bay… from a Postcard

Anniversaries are always worthy of celebration, and the Emeraude’s tenth anniversary in December was no exception. At that time, we remembered again the origins of the Emeraude’s story. In order to make sure we had the story right, we went back to the man who dreamed it was – after he stumbled upon age-old postcards of the original Emeraude (1906 – 1937) in a Parisian flea market – to build another vessel in homage to that other boat. Here’s what Eric Merlin had to say:

After you found those postcards of the Emeraude, what inspired you to build this boat?

I found it fascinating, what was happening in 1910-1915 — fascinating that at the beginning of the last century, there were tourist boats on Halong Bay. My first idea was this — where are these boats! My dream was to come back to Vietnam and find these boats in the mud.

How did you move from that original inspiration, with the postcards, to what we have today?

I built a story in my head, looking at these postcards for many months. They were on my desk, in a plastic folder. And it took some time before I began work on the project. The first real move was some talk with a friend who was in ship building and who could design a boat that looked like the one in the postcard.

I started to really think about this in 2001, and I actually pressed the button in December 2002. We started construction In January 2003. The boat was launched in December 2003. It took 11 months, building in a boatyard in Haiphong.

Along the way, you went looking for the French family that owned the original Emeraude. How did you find them?

After sending out 1,220 letters to all of the Roques in a French telephone directory, I received a lot of phone calls from Roques, maybe 20-30. They all said, ‘This story, it’s fascinating.’ They would tell me how it’s a strange coincidence, and about their grandfather who went to Hong Kong! Anyone with a connection to Asia, they were happy to tell me about it.

After a few of these calls, I received a call from someone I’d never met. He was in his 40s. He said ‘Don’t look further. We are the family you are talking about. I will introduce you to my father, Xavier, who is the son of Paul Roque.’

I went to visit the Roque’s apartment. They told me about the history. They showed me the china from the original Emeraude, and they gave me a brochure, the original. I copied that and gave them back the original.

How is your boat different from its predecessor?

We wanted to build the new version a bit different. The original Emeraude was smaller, and it was carrying freight and mail on the main deck. There were no more than six cabins and we needed much more. The paddle wheel in the back was nice, but not workable today. Still, we added the housing to keep the same silhouette. We did design the boat based on postcard, trying for the shape to be as similar as possible.

The cost of a trip, then and today, was about the same, when you factor in currency changes. The itinerary was the same. The trip went out over two days, and one night. The advertising then was all about how the Emeraude delivered the highest quality of standard and comfort on the bay. Today, we say the same.

The Emeraude Captain’s Blog

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2014 in Emeraude Classic Cruises

 

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Experiencing Tet Aboard the Emeraude

Tet aboard the Emeraude

As with most of the world’s favourite holidays, Lunar New Year in Vietnam is all about the preparation. From the eldest member of the family down to the littlest toddler, everyone has a role to play in Vietnam’s biggest and most beloved annual festival.

In the weeks leading up to the Tet holiday, mothers descend on markets and stores searching for delicious produce, new clothes, fruit, cookies boxes and all the treats traditionally enjoyed on the first day of the new year. Fathers lay out pristine bills of ‘lucky money’ to be dispensed in ornate red and gold envelops. Children practice songs they will perform for visiting relatives; and grandparents diligently water the orange trees, potted bamboo and brightly coloured blossoms that adorn the home’s doorstep.

Aboard the Emeraude in beautiful Halong Bay, we’re getting ready with a ‘Year of the Horse 2014’ cruise programme that celebrates the Tet essentials while showing visitors around this spectacular corner of the country.

An orange tree, carefully chosen for its many fruits, will be set up in our restaurant five days before the holiday commences. Red lanterns will hang from the ceilings.

On the 30th of January, after the guided excursions to Sung Sot Grotto and the Halong Pearl Farm, everyone is invited for complimentary Tet sun downers and canapés, before heading downstairs to a sumptuous Tet Buffet Dinner in the restaurant. Gourmet European dishes will play second fiddle to a mouth-watering line up of Vietnamese delicacies. Look out for grilled beef salad with lemongrass, a Pho soup station, Halong seafood specials and of course, a selection of the best traditional cakes.

Our passengers won’t see this, but just before the new year begins, our captain and top members of the crew go to the ship’s wheelhouse for a short ceremony. The captain will set up offerings of rice cakes and fruit on the altar, give thanks for a safe year, and pray for blessings in the year to come. Each year this ceremony is held in the wheelhouse, as it’s considered the most important part of the ship.

Afterwards it’s up to the sundeck, where we plan to party the night away with a live jazz duo and a midnight countdown to the first moments of the Year of the Horse. For those who are especially keen to begin the new year with good vibes, we’re hosting a tai chi session on the deck at sunrise the following morning.

For many visitors, the Tet Festival is a unique opportunity to observe long-held customs that are very close to the hearts of the local people. Wherever you may be on the evening of Jan. 30, 2014, we at the Emeraude wish you many memorable adventures and joyful moments in the Year of the Horse!

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2014 in Emeraude Classic Cruises

 

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A Ten-year Chapter in the Emeraude’s Story

Halong at Sunset

We sailed past a milestone earlier this month at Emeraude Classic Cruises, when we celebrated our 10th year anniversary as one of Vietnam’s most distinctive travel experiences.

There are not many people anywhere who will be able to picture the dramatic progress Vietnam’s tourism industry has made over the past decade, but suffice to say a lot has changed. The greatest evidence of the bay’s growing renown among international tourists was its inclusion as one of the New 7Wonders of Nature in late 2011. Who would’ve thought that this little-known corner of Vietnam would one day feature on the bucket lists of travelers from all over the world?

In fairness, we had an inkling.

It all began on a crisp December morning in 2003, when the Emeraude’s first cruise departed the port in Halong City. The vessel was unlike any other on the waters that morning. Its old-world appeal was anchored in the history of its namesake: a French-owned paddlewheel steamer that plied the bay between 1906 and 1937.

The Emeraude debuted with 34 colonial-inspired cabins and one Paul Roque Suite. Its French captain, world-class instruments and adherence to international maritime standards set a new precedent for safety in the bay.

Half a year after its launch, the Emeraude introduced Vietnam to the joys of glamorous caving, with its annual black-tie Wine & Dine Cruise Classic, now also in its 10th year. Our mid-May overnight cruise and culinary extravaganza is attended by some of the country’s most noted figures and is still the only annual wine dinner in Vietnam that continually makes waves in the local and international press.

By 2008, we’d added two new suites–the Emeraude Suite and the Captain’s Suite–to offer prime lounging space and an additional element of privacy for the ship’s growing roster of VIP passengers, who now included the likes of US Senator John McCain, and five other US senators.

In June 2012 the ship underwent its most extensive refurbishment to date, with renovations to its deluxe and superior cabins, the installation of fresh furnishings, wall coverings and light fixtures, and a complete redesign to its bathrooms. For the first time since its launch, the revived Emeraude set sail with a seasoned Vietnamese captain at the helm: Captain Nguyen Van Quan.

On the eve of our 10th year anniversary, we published a 112-page book by author Pam Scott with research by entrepreneur Eric Merlin. The volume, titled ‘Jewels of Halong Bay’, chronicles Merlin’s discovery of a vintage postcard in a Paris flea market in 1999, the story of the Roque brothers who made a fortune in colonial Indochina, and the resurrection of the Emeraude as a living piece of French-Vietnamese history.

Looking back from now to 2003, so much has changed in Halong, yet there is still nothing out there quite like the Emeraude. The best part of the Emeraude’s remarkable legacy is that it’s not simply a thing of the past: it’s written every day we cast off from the shore, every time a new traveler is introduced to the wonders of this spectacular destination.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2013 in Emeraude Classic Cruises

 

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The Monkeys of Halong Bay

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One of the most frequent questions we get on the Emeraude, especially after passengers have visited the grottos of Surprise Cave, and walked the boardwalk back to our tender, is about monkeys. What kind of monkey was that, clambering over the limestone rocks, and harassing passengers for hand-outs?

That monkey is a macaque. Now, we don’t mean to downplay anyone’s enthusiasm for an encounter with this primate, but of all the monkeys in Vietnam, this one is the least interesting. Monkey Island in Cat Ba is populated by macaques introduced for tourism.

Disappointed? Perhaps, and we’re sorry your encounter with the macaques isn’t anything to text home about. But here’s some better news from Jeremy Parker, Programme Officer at Fauna & Flora International, whom I met over a glass of wine at the Press Club in Hanoi recently. “Vietnam is one of the most important places on earth for primates, with at least 24 species, many of which occur only in Vietnam. It is also one of the worst places to be a primate, as Vietnam holds 5 of the top 25 most threatened primates species globally.” And Halong Bay is part of the reason why.

There are seven critically endangered primates in Vietnam: the western black-crested gibbon, the cao vit gibbon, the northern white-cheeked gibbon, the gray-shanked douc, the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey, Delacour’s langur, and the golden-headed langur. It is the golden-headed langur that has a connection to Halong Bay, for there is a population living in Cat Ba National Park. Cat Ba is the biggest island you’ll see as you voyage through Halong Bay on Emeraude Classic Cruises.

There are only about 55-60 of these primates left in the world, and all of them live on Halong Bay. Unlike the aggressive macaque, the langur is a gentle soul, living on leaves, flowers and fruits in the national park and an area near Cat Ba town. Can you spot one from the deck of the Emeraude? Not likely.

“The National Park is off limits to visitors,” said Jeremy, “although a few groups can sometimes be seen near Ben Beo harbour if you know when and where to look.”

The Cat Ba langur is so threatened because of past hunting pressure on the species. As recently as the 1960s there may have been as many as 2400-2700 langurs on Cat Ba Island. Only through conservation efforts of Fauna & Flora International’s partner, the Cat Ba Conservation Project, over the last 14 years has the species been saved from complete extinction.

Conservationists are really interested in the survival of this monkey, and so are we on the Emeraude. Why? Well, we’ll let Jeremy speak for us:

“In esoteric or metaphysical terms, these things have evolved over many years, and they are kind of mystical. These are creatures have been entrusted to the world, and they’re disappearing.”

“If you believe in a better world for tomorrow, these flagship species are extremely important. Primates are us. When you look at a primate, you feel something. If you have children, you’d want them to see them.”

By The Emeraude’s Captain

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2013 in Emeraude Classic Cruises

 

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Even the Nights Are Better Aboard the Emeraude

Almost ten years have passed since one crisp morning in December 2003 when we first launched the Emeraude onto the water in Halong Bay. The Emeraude’s debut led a revival of romantic travel within the bay; the ship’s itinerary showcased the best this corner of the world had to offer. Over the years, except for a few tweaks here and there, we’ve made few changes to that original itinerary.

That is, until early September this year, when we decided it was time to sail beyond our usual anchorage point, to spend the night in a more secluded part of the bay.

When we wrote our itinerary back in 2003, Halong was welcoming far fewer travelers than it does today. Titov Island, our previous overnight location, is one of the most popular anchorages in the bay, and it’s gotten harder to give our guests the kind of privacy and space they deserve.

There were many reasons to choose Hang Trong for our new anchorage point: it’s far from any city lights, the waters in the area are particularly calm, and there’s a special feeling of intimacy with nature and the bay that accompanies these undisturbed waters. You can expect to see only a handful of other boats sharing this space with the Emeraude. Of course, fewer boats mean less chance of collision at night and greater peace of mind for our guests.

Hang Trong - New anchorage point of The Emeraude Classic Cruises

Hang Trong – New anchorage point of The Emeraude Classic Cruises

One other reason you won’t see many other boats around is because it takes an extra hour of cruising time to reach Hang Trong from the more well-known overnight stops. That’s an extra hour of fuel each way that we absorb into our costs, but it’s also an extra hour of sailing when the light is at its most beautiful and it’s an extra hour we’re happy to add to our itinerary in order to give guests a greater feeling of moving, cruising and experiencing Halong–which after all, is exactly what they’ve come here to do.

While we no longer stop at Titov Island, there are still other opportunities to kayak and explore. Our adjusted route also allowed us to add a new attraction: a visit to a Halong pearl farm, where you can witness the full cycle of pearl cultivation in just 45 minutes, and even purchase a few of these lustrous mementos to take home if you choose.

Before the last rays sink behind the karsts you’ll have a view of one of the lesser-known parts of the bay, and by the time you head down for breakfast we’ll be on the move again. There’s no chance of mistaking this cruise for a floating hotel. Best of all, instead of sitting stationary during the golden hour, with the Emeraude you’ll be quite literally sailing into the sunset.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Emeraude Classic Cruises

 

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