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  • Writer's pictureNick Elsey

On the Boat

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

19 Apr 2009

I’m spending the next night and two days aboard the Emeraude on Halong Bay. Halong Bay is about 150 km, or 3 hours east of Hanoi and should be included on even the most perfunctory of Vietnamese itineraries. What makes it so attractive, and indeed deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status, are the thousands of limestone karsts pinnacles that the emerge dramatically from the water.

Tourists wanting to see the sights are well served by dozens and dozens of junks that serve all taste and budgets, ranging from backpacker to Ritz Carlton afloat. My boat is a little different from the rest in that it’s a converted paddle steamer, rather than the traditional teak wooden junk. I’ve done my research and it’s supposed to be pretty good, and being French, is a bit special on the gastronomic front. I’m looking forward to 24 hours of being pampered.

Pottery under construction

The drive down is rather long, tedious and bumpy and after more than a couple of coffees before the off,  I was beginning to wonder how much longer it was going to take. Just when I couldn’t cross my knees any further, we pulled into a massive pottery warehouse thing for a break and an opportunity to flog some stuff to the captive travellers. Never was a porcelain break more appreciated. 

We ship anywhere

While the whole raison d’être for this place was to sell various goods to the weary traveller, it was actually quite fun. Up front is a massive store that sells all manner of pottery, silk embroidery and the like, but out back you can actually wander around the factory floor and watch them make the stuff. An Occupational Health and Safety inspector would have a heart attack if he visited here, but it was fascinating none the less to see the big pots and jars being moulded, fired and painted. 

Your typical Halong junk

Our boat

Back on the bus for the final run to Halong Bay. After another hour or so we pull up at the embarcation café facility (last chance to buy a bottle of overpriced wine for the trip) and are hit by a blast of hot humid air as we get off the bus – it’s much warmer over here than Hanoi – so we all scurry inside for a coffee and final email check before being transferred to the boat a few minutes later. We pass a couple of other traditional teak junks before reaching our boat which sure enough doesn’t have the same romantic look to it. But once onboard, well hey, who cares. You can’t see the outside of the boat when you’re sitting on the sundeck enjoying your welcoming cocktail, now can you?

After brief reconnoitre of my cabin (very nice and very cosy), we’re off for a sedate cruise out into the bay. As you can see from the pics, the bay is scattered with hundreds upon thousands of these abrupt, towering islands and the scenery is really quite spectacular. As we round each island, it’s is a bit like working your way through an advent calendar at Christmas time. Each new vista brings new and pleasant surprises – interesting shapes, dark and spooky caves, other boats to check out and critique, or even a floating village.

One of 5,000 odd karsts

After an hour or two of cruising, the first stop is Surprise Cave. Discovered by the French in 1901, it’s a popular destination for the overnight boats and we’re greeted at the bay by a fleet (jumble?) of junks. I’m a little worried that it’s going to be uncontrolled, wall to wall, elbow shoving chaos in there, but as it turns out, they have a system.

Halong Bay

There’s one way in, and a different way back out, so each boat delivers its boat load (so to speak) at the unloading dock, the group works they way up to and through the cave, and by the time you emerge blinking and smiling from the other end, your junk or tender has moved over to the pickup dock ready for the pickup (after you have dodged the obligatory crowd of hawkers of course). The captains have obviously come to some form of gentleman’s agreement and they ensure that each group is delivered after sensible interval from the last so that everyone feels that they have the caves at least somewhat to themselves.

Surprise cave

But wait I hear you cry! “What’s the surprise?” Well, the surprise is the, or more specifically, the next one. To start, you climb up a fairly steep flight of steps and enter an interesting and decently sized cave. Hmm, not bad you think…nice stalactites. Seen better before, but generally OK. You take a bunch of pics, have a bit of a poke around, and then walk up a narrow, small flight of steps on the other side to your waiting boat.

More surprises

You round the corner and…Mon dieu! A bigger cave. Much bigger. This one isn’t too shabby at all. So, that’s the surprise you think – nice one. Lots of pictures are taken and after a while you make your way over to the other side and to exit tunnel. But then, Sacre bleu! An even bigger cave. This one’s a monster. You fill up your camera’s memory card snapping away in this one. Anyway, third strike and you’re out, but it’s well worth it.

Hawkers waiting at the exit

There were other activities on the itinerary to be enjoyed, but the swimming didn’t look too tempting given the colour of the water, and the kayaking looked too much like hard work. However, the lounge deck was offering happy hour and spring roll making demonstrations, so I opted for that instead. And so the evening went.

Dinner was excellent and pre dinner entertainment was in the form of a Taiwanese film crew that had come on board for a couple of hours to film. The anchor was of the rugged, chiselled chin type (thankfully a guy), and he brought along a full entourage of young, attractive and rather vaporous assistants who spent the evening taking pictures of themselves with their phones and then admiring the results (in essence, a case study in narcissism – Freud would have had a field day).

The evening was rounded out by a showing of Indochine (primarily because part of it was filmed here) and a good night’s kip, gentled rocked to sleep.

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