As Vietnam modernizes, vestiges of the French colonial era are fading fast, except for the return of the Emeraude to Halong Bay. Since 2003, the beautiful, wood-lined paddle steamer has been taking guests for one-night cruises in a wonder-world of towering limestone islands, inlets and fiords off Vietnam.
The Emeraude is a replica of a cargo and passenger ship built around 1905 by Paul Roque, whose Bordeaux family made a fortune in French Indochina in 1858. The luxurious, state-of-the-art steamer, with a dark room for photographers, electric lights and refrigeration, plied the magical coastline of Vietnam until it struck a rock and sank in 1937.
Much later, Eric Merlin, a young Frenchman who had backpacked through Vietnam, found a vintage postcard of the Emeraude at a Paris flea market. When he returned to Southeast Asia as a tour operator and hotel owner, he commissioned a replica, built in the port of Haiphong for $2.4 million.
Emeraude cruises cost from $375 to $624 for two people in one cabin. Passengers are taken by van from Hanoi to the coast town of Hong Gai for an extra charge. There, they meet the four-decked Emeraude, partake of a sumptuous lunch buffet and settle into elegant, shipshape cabins, all burnished wood and rattan, with crisp white duvet-covered beds and handsomely appointed private baths. (For more information, call 011-84-4-934-0888, www.emeraude-cruises.com.)
The captain is a Frenchman from Normandy, the chief bursar a Filipina, the rest of the staff is mostly Vietnamese and well-rehearsed in a style of service meant to evoke the bygone French colonial era.
Everything, from cushioned chaise longues on the sun deck to dry martinis at the bar, is top-drawer, including the scenery. With thousands of molar-shaped islets jutting up from the tranquil bay, floating villages and breathtaking pink sunrises, Halong Bay was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
If the weather is favorable, cruise passengers can swim or kayak in the bay. A dinner as gratifying as lunch follows, and then the duvet calls. But for those who cannot sleep, there's an alfresco showing of the 1992 French film "Indochine," starring Catherine Deneuve, with a scene set right where you are on Halong Bay.