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Indo Chic - Halong Bay

I have entered a dream.

It’s a clear October day. There is not a cloud marring the opalescent sky and I am lost at sea among North Vietnam’s limestone wonders.

I am afloat in the midst of Halong Bay where I have been transported by car from bustling Hanoi. This natural marvel and World Heritage Site, covers 1, 553sq km (620-square miles) of thousands of limestone islands and grottoes rising from clear emerald waters.

Supernaturally sounding Ha Long means ‘dragon descending’. According to legend, the bay formed when a dragon plunged into the sea, whipping its tail from side to side in a frenzy that carved the region into a grand archipelago.

Geologists explain it differently of course.  Over the past 230 to 280 million years, rainwater and the ocean have eroded the landscape into an array of towers known as fenglin and clusters of conical crags, known as fengcong.  Simultaneously, rising and falling tides have chiselled, notched bands into their bases lending a tottering appearance to these primeval rocks. 

This site was inscribed by UNESCO in 2 000, citing its geomorphology as a unique asset worthy of mankind’s preservation; a long overdue accolade for undisputedly one of the world’s most stunning marvels. More so if ones mode of transport is the Emeraude, luxury steam cruiser.

Aah! The Emeraude…is simply one of the most spellbinding news stories in Vietnam.  Unsurprisingly travel agents report a deluge of enquiries and bookings from celebrities and travel writers alike. When a fellow sybarite happens to be James Sullivan, author of National Geographic Traveler Vietnam book you know you have chosen well.

The luxurious Emeraude peddle wheel steamer was launched in 2003, and is an identical replica of a 10th Century boat that sailed Ha Long Bay when French Indochina was its most glamorous.

Like its predecessor the new vessel is a part of the Halong Bay mystique, something sailing at you out of a time warp – big, immaculately white, sumptuous colonial:  As emblematic of Mother France as anything in Vietnam ever was.  Just being on board is grounds for a need to receive a penance: Luxurious cabins feature polished wooden floors, air-conditioning and individual bathrooms equipped with old world brass fittings evoking romance of the nautical age.

Tourist authorities make much of the islands grottoes – several being admittedly striking.  But the pre-eminent Ha Long experience is waterborne.  It’s about being afloat as much as possible amid a landscape as fantastic as any famed Impressionist artist could have conjured with oil paints. You don’t want to alight upon an island as much as drink in the panoramas.

From topside on a canopied deck with potted banana plants I observed floating fishing villages as we sailed by. 

Once we passed a movie set where in 1991, a French production company filmed scenes for an epic masterpiece Indochine, a hymn to the waning days of the lost colony, starring Catherine Deneuve. And still later most guests recognised a famed two rock formation which was the backdrop scene from an early Bond movie with Sean Connery.

On board I was hard pressed whether to sip cocktails and luxuriate topside in a wicker chair, schmooze at one of the two bars or, to visit Sung Sot Cave (Cave of Surprise by kayak) when we anchored at Trinh Nu at 4 pm. I finally settled, predictably, for almost everything.

Hang Sung Sot is regarded as one of the two most beautiful caves in the bay.  Opened to tourists in 1995, a trail leads a half mile through the 135, 000 square-foot cave, threading through three chambers each larger than the previous.  Grotesque stalagmites and stalactites reveal the usual suspects – turtles, junk sails, monkeys, -and one “special part” of a dragon luridly lit in red and aimed at a hole in a pocked ceiling of craters.  The third chamber is breathtakingly cavernous.

I returned to the barge in time to loll on the third floor sundeck for a manicure and traditional Vietnamese foot massage with high tea before watching the vessel’s faux stern wheel being lowered down to a deck.  Then I glided off its edge to swim in the vast ocean. A lone bather, I felt scrumptious pleasure as the warm wave-less water licked and caressed my skin.

Much later, fashion-plate guests dressed with French flair, wafted into the dining room. The scene was reminiscent of a scene from Scott Fitzgerald’s opulent Great Gatsby.  Spoiled for choice, we groaned through course after course served by silhouette waitrons. 

This! After a gastronomically exquisite lunch which included fried squid and beer steamed crab and other seafood delights:  Nobody complained.

By night while the moon hovered over a blue black sea I stared out and marvelled at the tapestry of stars. I will forever remember that night. For one moment, a brief moment in eternity, I captured the finest of what life has to offer. I wanted to hug this moment in my arms, keep it to myself and revisit it again and again...

Stretching Indochina mood of pampering to its last drop, I had a traditional Vietnamese massage in my cabin before rolling over to sleep. Too soon day and night melded into one and though I was too relaxed to join the complimentary Tai Chi class on deck at 6.30am I enjoyed a full breakfast before disembarking. Then sulkily I made for my tour guide who transported me to the airport for a flight to Saigon.

Travelling six thousand miles for a 20 hour cruise is a far way to go. But it’s a journey I heartily recommend.

If you too dream of a nostalgic journey through colonial Indochina look no further.  This is it!

Written by Lana Jacobson for Home & Leisure Magazine

 

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