Old-World Splendour Lives on in Vietnam

The islands are everywhere, endless and looming, like an army that has encircled your camp in the night. They phase in and out of the fog, great jagged knives of stone and foliage, rising from the steady emerald sea. Each one calls to mind another familiar scene: the towering cove to the right, like a vision straight out of Neverland, is where the pirates would await Peter Pan; the craggy cliffs ahead are just like the stomping grounds of Robinson Crusoe. Looking out upon the serpentine rows of rock vanishing off into the distance, it’s easy to imagine that a child born here could grow up believing there is nothing else on earth beyond these sparkling tree-topped isles.

And to think: twenty minutes ago, I was worried this place might have lost its magic.

Ha Long Bay sits off the northeast coast of Vietnam, a collection of nearly 2,000 limestone islets that was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1994. Its name roughly translates to “Descending Dragon,” which makes sense when you see its undulant ridges cascading across the South China Sea. It’s like something out a fairytale.

I’ve dreamed of visiting Ha Long since I was 10 years old, after my older sister returned home from a kayak trip through the area. She described it as a land lost in time—a quiet and devastatingly beautiful sanctuary. Now, on a blustery weekend in early April, I am finally on my way there with my girlfriend for an overnight cruise.

But in the decade and a half since my sister’s visit, Vietnam has changed immeasurably. In 2014, more than 7.8 million tourists visited the country, nearly four times the number from 2000. And Ha Long Bay, understandably, has grown into one of the nation’s biggest draws.

I can’t escape the thought: What if I’m too late? What if my dream destination has become nothing but an overpopulated tourist trap? I spend most of the four-hour drive from Hanoi to Ha Long concerned that we’re headed to the Vietnamese version of Niagara Falls for a ride on its Maid of the Mist.

The moment I step off the shuttle bus, though, my fears dissipate. Yes, there is a gaggle of passenger boats populating the harbour. But the landscape behind them is too vast and breathtaking for that to matter, and the ship we’re headed for—the Emeraude—stands well apart from the rest.

Photo courtesy of Emeraude.
Photo courtesy of Emeraude.

A modern replica of an actual steamship that traversed Ha Long Bay from 1906 to 1937, the Emeraude is heavy on old-world charm. Turn-of-the-century brass fans adorn the walls, and glossy hardwood extends the length of the ship’s three decks.

By the time we drop our bags in the cozy cabin and head to the dining room for lunch, the mainland is nowhere to be seen. We’re surrounded completely by the misty islands now, with a handful of fishing boats and tiny floating villages our only company.

The cruise’s first stop is at Hang Sung Sot— Vietnamese for “Surprise Grotto”— a string of caves buried deep in the side of a mountainous isle. The formations within are spectacular, but it’s the graffiti scattered throughout the chambers that’s most fascinating. Dating from as far back as the 19th century, the earliest messages are scrawled in French—echoes from the colonial era—but there are kanji to be spotted, too, harkening to Japan’s occupation of Vietnam during the Second World War.

Back aboard the ship, we’re greeted with piping hot crepes served with sugar and lime, a welcome respite from the crisp air atop the fly bridge. Shamelessly, I help myself to a second serving—and a third.

Soon after, the boat docks again at a floating pearl farm, where thousands of oysters are grown in hopes of retrieving the rare orbs within. It takes at least five years for an oyster to reach prime pearl-producing maturity, at which point a bead fashioned from freshwater mussel shell is surgically inserted within and left to cultivate for roughly 10 to 18 months. Less than half of the oysters will actually produce pearls, and only a tiny portion of those will be of a high enough quality to fetch top dollar.

We decide to skip the excursion, and curl up instead on the wicker chairs outside our cabin with a good bottle of Burgundy. The rain falls on the seawater like slender fingers dancing across a piano.

A couple of glasses later, and I’ve worked up the necessary courage to take a dip in the squally sea. The water is freezing but bracing. I tread in circles for a few minutes, savouring the majesty of the scene, the patter of the raindrops on my forehead, the taste of salt on my lips.

In the evening, during a post-dinner stroll, we stumble upon two crewmembers fishing for squid at the ship’s rear. They offer us lines of our own, and we clumsily join the hunt. Despite our companions’ goodhumoured efforts to show us the proper hooking technique, we (perhaps thankfully) fail to catch anything. The night is as deep and black as the ink of our prey—only the foggy, ethereal glow of passing jellyfish cuts through the dark.

The next morning, we awake at the break of dawn. On the top deck, a young staffer struggles to teach two older Scottish ladies the basics of tai chi. We settle in a quiet corner with a steaming pot of tea.

The sky is still overcast, so there’s no real sunrise—just a slow fade from midnight navy to charcoal to bluish gray. It feels appropriate, somehow, and certainly doesn’t detract from the beauty all around us. Black kites soar overhead searching for food, and the fishermen do the same on the boats below, hauling in their heavy nets.

By the time our tea has gone cold, the ship is moving once again. Slowly, we wind our way back through the oblong bluffs and serrated peaks until at last the islands retreat and the silhouettes of high-rises come into focus in the distance.

The spell, for now, is broken. But I have a feeling that this is a dream I’ll want to revisit soon.