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Mar. 23rd, 2011

Sail the Halong Bay and Explore Vietnam on the Emeraude

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Photo Courtesy of Emeraude Classic Cruises
There's a different type of luxury in getting away from the trappings of the world. One where you experience the natural wonders of the Earth. One where you taste foods you've never tasted before, prepared in ways you've never seen before. One where you leave the stress, the hectic pace and the worries of the civilized world behind.

If that's one of the ways you define luxury, then there is no more luxurious destination than Vietnam. In Vietnam, you won't find any of the common sights and sounds of Western countries. You won't find towering cathedrals, impressive monuments, colossal amphitheaters, or excavations of ancient civilizations. Rather, the fascination for Vietnam comes from its extraordinary beauty and simplicity of life, juxtaposed against its emerging economy.

During a recent trip to Vietnam, nothing said luxury like my excursion along Halong Bay. This bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is dotted with about 3,000 limestone karsts and isles. Local legend has it that long ago, when the Vietnamese were fighting Chinese invaders, the gods sent dragons to help defend the land. The dragons spit out jewels and jade, which turned into the islands and islets of Halong, forming a great wall against the invaders.

Most travelers opt for a short cruise on Halong Bay, half a day usually, to admire the beautiful waterway. But if you have more time and a flair for a romantic journey, I recommend a night aboard the Emeraude. That's exactly what I did.

The Emeraude is a replica, one-of-a-kind steamer from the French Indochina days. When I stepped aboard, its polished wooden floors and brass fixtures and fittings exuded warmth and character. Its distinguished style offered a timeless elegance, and the service was impeccable.

Every cabin has a window and if it's on the walkway, like mine was, it also includes a balcony and sitting area, although you won't be spending too much time in your cabin. During the day, you can treat yourself to a soothing massage on the sun deck while sipping a refreshing cocktail and gazing at the rock formations reflected in the crystal clear water of the bay.

Or you can explore the huge caves with gorgeous stalactites and stalagmites that top the isles. I headed for the Hang Sung Sot Cave. This cave, whose name in English means Cave of Surprises, was named by a French explorer who was amazed by the size and beauty of the cave's interior rooms. It is probably the most beautiful of all the caves found in this region of Vietnam.

When I exited the cave, I found myself high above Halong Bay, peering at a gorgeous panoramic view of the water, the mist, the limestone karsts and the women paddling boats laden with all sorts of things for sale - from conical hats to Ritz crackers and Oreo cookies. It's truly an amazing site.

Back on the Emeraude, the swimming deck provides an opportunity for a dip in the cool waters of the bay surrounded by the majestic scenery. I relaxed with high tea, which is served in the late afternoon. For dinner, the Emeraude's restaurant offers delicious freshly caught local seafood and other specialties.

I discovered my dream menu aboard the Emeraude. I couldn't get enough of pho, a light, delicious Vietnamese soup made with a lovely, delicate beef stock, rice noodles and aromatic herbs. And I can't forget to mention the spring rolls! Vietnamese spring rolls are made with bits of shrimp, sprouts, green onion, fresh basil and cilantro, artistically wrapped in a soft, thin rice pancake. Served along with several types of sauces for dipping, this is one luscious treat.

It's so easy to understand why Vietnamese food is one of my favorite cuisines. It is healthy, fresh and naturally low in fat, yet so wonderfully delicious. It consists of fish and meat in small quantities, plenty of vegetables and fruit galore. And, while we here in the West love our freezers and microwave ovens, in Vietnam everything is fresh. If the spices were picked in the morning, by dinner time, you need a fresh supply.

A special treat aboard the Emeraude is the demonstration of Vietnamese culinary techniques and tips by the chef. It's hands on, too, so you'll get a chance to practice what the chef teaches and at home become the star chef among your family and friends.

After dinner, the Emeraude's decks invite sitting and enjoying the magnificent sunset. When it's dark, the film "Indochine" is screened under the stars. As you settle into your seat, glass of wine or cup of tea in hand, there was a gauzy fog draped haphazardly over the limestone karsts.

But that doesn't obscure them or their beauty. As the movie progresses, the familiar karsts of Halong Bay appear, as lovely and mysterious on the screen as they are in real life. The next morning starts with taking in the calming silence of the bay while practicing T'ai Chi on the deck.

The entire trip aboard the Emeraude is a step back to another time. The excursion along Halong Bay ignited all of my senses. It was an exotic escape that is hard to match and one that every traveler should experience.
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