Stepping onto the Emeraude is as transporting as time travel. And the vessel's history is as captivating as a fine old yarn.
In 1999, a young French entrepreneur Eric Merlin was rummaging in the St. Ouen flea market in Paris, looking - as was his habit - for anything old with links to Vietnam and Indochina.
On this day, he found three postcards, dated 1916, 1917 and 1919. Two pictured paddle steamers in Halong Bay. A third showed a steamer at port in nearby Haiphong. A magnifying glass revealed the name of one of the vessels, the "Emeraude".
For some time, the cards lay in Eric's desk in Paris. From time to time, he took them out and showed them to friends. He dreamed of finding the old vessels. Later, as those prospects dimmed, a new dream took sail.
He'd rebuild one of the old paddle steamers.
The vision was far more than mere homage. He planned to launch the boat on Halong Bay. The realisation would conjure, not just a much missed means of transport, but a lost era of glamour, romance and discovery.
Despite excellent connections and an impressive track record at a successful Vietnam-based travel company, Exotissimo, he found himself unable to attract investors. No matter. In January 2003, with postcards as the only guide, he commissioned boat builders to bring back the Emeraude.
While the boat took shape in a shipyard, Eric began a quest for more information.
The search spanned continents and featured a number of false trails. Briefly, he believed the boats had sailed between England and France as mail boats, a theory promoted by information on an Australian stamp club website. The British Maritime Museum dispelled that story.
Meanwhile counterparts in Paris came up with another picture that matched his paddle steamer postcards, and Eric pressed on. When he learned that many of Indochina's historical documents ended up in an archive in Aix en Provence in the South of France, he hired a school teacher to carry on the search.
Soon, the information was coming in thick and fast. The Emeraude was part of a fleet managed by the barge and towing company SACRIC (Société Anonyme de Chalandage et Temorquage de l'Indo-Chine). Its owner was a Monsieur Paul Roque. Instinctively, Eric knew the Roque family was his best bet for information.
Working from Vietnam he found a French Telephone Directory containing 1,220 Roques. He drafted a letter to send to every one of them.
He told them of his flea market find and enclosed a photocopy of the postcards. He outlined the information found to date and asked, 'Are you the Roques we're looking for?'
His staff in Vietnam helped put the letters in envelopes and address them all with stickers. He then carried the 10kg box back to France and stamped them in a small sleepy village where he was staying on holiday. The tiny post office had never seen so much mail.
And then the calls came. Maddeningly, the first twenty or so were of no help at all. They'd called to say yes, Roque was their name, what a lovely story. But they weren't the Roques he was looking for.
One couple said they'd recently visited Vietnam on holiday if that helped. It didn't.
And then the call he was waiting for finally came.
"Look no further," the voice said. "I am the grandson of Paul Roque."
Excited, Eric travelled to Paris as soon as he could.
And there, right in the middle of the sizeable Roque family apartment, was a large antique model of The Emeraude. Eric could hardly believe it.
That wasn't all. Among the many mementoes of a bygone colonial era was the original china from the boats. Silverware too. There was even a 100-year-old staff uniform.
The Roque Brothers
Paul Roque, who launched the Emeraude, was the second generation of his family in Indochina. Initially, there had been three adventuring brothers - Victor, Xavier and Henry - who embarked from Bordeaux in 1858.
After a stop in Manila, they moved onto Hong Kong where they established themselves as suppliers to the French Army. When the troops of Admiral Rigault de Genouilly took Saigon, they followed in 1860.
Against this historic backdrop their empire grew. Sugar, opium, timber, public works, steamships. The list was long.
Now rich and famous, they were targeted by Chinese pirates. In 1890, the notorious Luu Ky and his men kidnapped and tortured two of the brothers.
Paying the ransom meant selling off many of their assets and Victor, by this time 61, left for home near-bankrupt and in poor health.
Henry assumed control but was soon joined by Paul, son of Xavier. They scaled their business back to concentrate on the North and, in particular, Haiphong and Halong Bay.
There they had the idea to build a small fleet of five "paddle wheeler" ships that would double as cargo and cruise vessels. They'd be called - the Rubis, the Perle, the Saphir, the Onyx and the Emeraude.
Though down on their luck, the Roques invested heavily in the boats.
They came to the conclusion, as Eric did almost a century later, that there was a market for a little luxury on Halong Bay.
So they ensured the boats had electric lights. They installed ventilation and refrigeration. They included darkrooms for the many photographers who were inspired by the scenery. And the Emeraude set sail.
Paul Roque returned to Paris in 1921, the last of his family to leave Asia after more than six decades. The Emeraude steamed on.
Years later, on the evening of March 16, 1937, as the Emeraude was returning to Haiphong, it collided with a submerged rock. The collision ripped a large hole in the shell of the vessel and it quickly sank.
Incredibly, according to the police report, all those aboard were saved. However, the Emeraude was never recovered.
Following their defeat at the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French finally left Vietnam and SACRIC folded. Paul Roque died in 1966.
The French colonial era was over, and the Emeraude was at the bottom of the sea.
Eric's Emeraude was built locally in Haiphong to international standards but very much in keeping with the original design. In December 2003, the namesake of the glorious old vessel set sail.
While the original was split between cargo and cruisers the new Emeraude is exclusively a leisure vessel. The paddle wheel at the back echoes the design of the original but isn't used for propulsion. Instead it opens up to provide a swimming deck for passengers.
From its launch and for most of the next ten years, the Emeruade cruised the bay under the able hand of a French captain who’d been guiding vessels on Vietnamese waters since the early 1970s. But all things must change, and the French captain gave way, in 2012, to the able hands of a captain who grew up on Halong Bay, Nguyen Van Quan.
Likewise, Eric Merlin’s story with the Emeraude came to a sort of close in 2014 when Openasia assumed ownership of the vessel. But the experience of cruising Halong Bay is not likely to change much, at least not on the Emeraude.
Kurt Walter, who has managed the Emeraude for the better part of 10 years, will continue to guide the Emeraude as an Openasia manager. He’ll cruise the bay waters once a week as he has year in and year out. He’ll see the vessel through its annual maintenance and dry docking. And he’ll ensure that the experience of a passage on the Emeraude today is as spectacular as it was on the day the vessel launched.
“A cruising vessel is very much like a story,” said Walter. “You have a beginning, a middle and an end. In the meantime, we are only now just starting a new chapter.”