After an hour of downhill and uphill hiking immersed in semi-darkness, we finally emerge out of the bowels of Sung Sot Grotto, or Surprise Cave, into the sunlight, greeted by a sensational surprise: an eye-popping panorama from on high of Halong Bay.
We pause to absorb this otherworldly nautical and rocky realm. Countless karsts – greenery-crowned limestone islets – and a flotilla of cruise ships, trawlers, junks and sampans sprawl across the horizon.
The fleet’s crown jewel is the Emeraude, a storied steamer our tour group set sail on for an overnight expedition to this 900-plus-square-mile bay at Vietnam’s northeastern coast in the Gulf of Tonkin, where, 50 years ago, a purported “incident” launched President Johnson to dramatically escalate military action in Southeast Asia.
Getting to Halong Bay
Halong Bay belongs among the rarified ranks of Earth’s most beautiful places. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and voted one of Earth’s seven natural wonders by Zürich-based New7Wonders Foundation. Ever since John Gray, who introduced kayaking to Thailand, told me about Halong Bay, which Vietnamese call Vịnh Hạ Long, I’ve longed to visit and paddle here. A trip way down yonder to Vietnam finally provided the opportunity.
The drive from Hanoi through ’Nam’s tropical countryside, passing iconic Indochinese images – rice paddies, peasants wearing Southeast Asian nón lá (conical hats) and water buffaloes – takes three hours. The minibus stops at the Emeraude Café, where we shove off in a tender to board the historic paddlewheeler anchored in Halong Bay. Due to its fabled past the Emeraude, a four-deck, flat-bottomed paddleboat steamer, is an ideal vessel for adventurers embarking on this island odyssey.
The Emeraude was originated by three entrepreneurial, swashbuckling brothers who left Bordeaux in 1858 to go East. As the French empire expanded, so did their enterprises, from opium to timber. In 1890 Chinese buccaneer Luu Ky kidnapped and tortured two Roques.
By the early 20th century the frères Roque launched four single wheel paddle-steamers, each named after gems, delivering freight, mail and passengers at Halong and Red River Delta. The Emeraude had electric lights, fans, refrigeration and darkroom for photographers lured by Halong’s charms.
In 1937, returning from Haiphong the Emeraude struck an underwater rock, sank and was never recovered – that is, until 1999, when at a Parisian flea market businessman Eric Merlin stumbled upon vintage postcards depicting the steamer. Inspired, he tracked down Roque descendants and rebuilt an Emeraude replica in Haiphong (although today’s paddlewheel is just for show). By 2003 Merlin launched the reconstructed Emeraude, reincarnated as a cruise liner.
Emeraude is French for “emerald” – an apropos name for a ship traversing Halong Bay’s Emerald City. The cover of the notebook (swag from April’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood) I scribble into bears Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz quote: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” This is an understatement as the captain hoists anchor, navigating the Bay’s 2,000+ far-flung verdant isles.
The journey: Bo Hon cave and kayaking
Our first hours at sea are spent voyaging amiably if not aimlessly amidst this exquisite archipelago. We wind through an otherworldly maze of whimsically shaped eyelid-opening islets. Lazily gliding along, the weather’s picture-perfect as karsts slip by.
Our port-of-call is Bo Hon isle, located roughly in Halong Bay’s center, where Sung Sot Grotto is. To enter, one must trek a tree-lined path up the karst, which requires hardy footgear and vigor. Would-be Indiana Joneses climb up and down hundreds of smoothed stony stairs.
Surprise Cave is no Temple of Doom, however. There’s some lights as guides lead hundreds through the popular, capacious cavern. Our leader notes various rock formations with a laser pointer, identifying a Buddha, monkey, bird or phallic symbol sculpted into Sung Sot’s stalactites and stalagmites.
One of Halong’s largest karsts, Bo Hon is a range of connected islets that also includes Dong Tien Lake, Luon Grotto and Virgin Grotto. Although we didn’t glimpse Bon Ho’s monkeys or deer, we saw stalactites resembling them.
Returning to the anchored Emeraude, some passengers swim, but I’m deterred by jellyfish warnings. I embark on a kayaking expedition with Colm, a younger, intrepid Ventura County rock climber. We’re dispatched from the paddlewheeler’s bow with little preparation as our sea-trek flies sans guide.
Quickly we discover our kayak’s seats aren’t properly set up, causing lower back pain for this car crash survivor. Cautiously we head for a floating fishermen’s village near a distant karst. But a chop in the water and discomfort caused by the support-less seating lead us to change course and circumnavigate our portion of Halong, careful not to karst-crash when nearing land.
Sea hawks soar overhead. Colm and I paddle together or take turns when one wants to shoot pictures. At an especially scenic site, both shutterbugs simultaneously reach for our cameras, nearly capsizing the sea canoe. Six-foot-three Colm’s rapid response saves us and our Nikons from going overboard.
We paddle towards a pearl farm surrounded by floats fastened to cultivated oysters, but hampered by uncomfortable seating we finally return to the Emeraude. There, although several crewmen sit nearby, only one bothers seizing the kayak’s prow and, with prodding, helps me safely out of the slippery craft. Nevertheless, there were moments adrift on the kayak, swaying on swells immersed in stellar scenery, when I felt that transcendental sense of serenity and connectedness to the universe mystics call “cosmic consciousness.”
Back aboard the Emeraude my spacious, air conditioned cabin, with a double bed, is quite cozy. Through large windows I can watch karsts dreamily drift by, though I prefer sunbathing on deck in a padded wicker lounge chair, cooled by sea breezes.
Emeraude dining consists of sumptuous buffets and attentive waitresses serving beverages. Lunch and supper offer Vietnamese and European cuisines including seafood, poultry, beef and vegetables, with breakfasts of tropical fruits, yogurts, cereals, croissants, bread and omelets.
A chef teaches passengers – Americans, Canadians, Spaniards, Brits, locals – how to cook Vietnamese cuisine, such as shrimp spring rolls, dazzling guests by deftly sculpting tomatoes with a blade.
Shipside activities include daydreaming, stargazing, sightseeing and picture-taking, with light altering one’s perceptions. After sunset, anchored off Hang Trong or Drum Cave (so-called because of the wind’s sound blowing through it), an illumined cruise ship resembles a birthday cake ablaze with candles.
In early morning, mystical karsts beckon in glorious black and white. Tai chi lessons occur on the sundeck around dawn (Good Morning, Vietnam indeed!), where, beneath the constellations, the 1992 film Indochine starring Catherine Deneuve – her beauty solely surpassed by Halong’s – screens.
Our expedition ends with a morning idyll through Halong’s evergreen islets. Assembled together, these sawtoothed, jagged jade jigsaw pieces would portray paradise.
Yet, as we steam for shore, some trash floats by. Recalling crowds at Surprise Cave, spying looming beachside high rises, I ponder how long before Halong goes the way of other paradises lost?
As Badfinger sang: “If you want it, here it is, come and get it. But you better hurry ’cause it’s going fast…”