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Classic cruising in Vietnam

A vintage paddle steamer provides a stately tour of Ha Long bay.

Visitors to Hanoi often find themselves drawn to the hushed colonial-style enclave of the Press Club, the French Quarter hangout for journalists and other media types. Created in 1997, the club was designed to evoke the hotel bars of Hanoi during the fifties, where journalists covering the Indo-China war met to exchange gossip, sip cocktails and dine well.

The club is co-owned by the Vietnamese Journalist Association and the Merlin brothers, a pair of French entrepreneurs who have made Vietnam their home. And it turns out that they have a keen eye for retro chic. A few years ago, Eric Merlin bought an ancient faded postcard of a paddle steamer called the Emeraude (or ‘Emerald’), which plied the jade-green waters of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay from 1906 to 1937.

Merlin was so inspired by the image that he tracked down the original owners of the ship – the Roque family of Bordeaux – in order to trace the vessel’s history. He was told that the original vessel sank without loss of life during a particularly turbulent voyage at the end of the 1930s. Undeterred, he secured the original plans and rebuilt the Emeraude from scratch.

The recreated vessel captures all the romance of a forgotten nautical age: polished wooden decks, brass fittings, and a sumptuous restaurant straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. On the topside sundeck, passengers can settle into a wicker armchair and watch the sun sink into the bay while sipping a cocktail from the bar, barely an arm’s length away. The well-appointed cabins continue the theme of vintage luxury, with double beds, showers and brass lamps. Antique maps and photographs from the French colonial period complete the atmosphere.

And then there is the attraction of Ha Long bay itself, with its eerie limestone formations and green-peaked islets. But as you gather in the restaurant with your fellow guests for dinner, you can’t help but wonder – which one is the amateur sleuth, and who is the potential victim?

© 2011 Mark Tungate
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