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 layin 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.
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, began a quest for more information. The search spanned continents and featured many false trails. Briefly, the boats were believed to have 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.
Upon learning that many of Indochina's historical documents ended up in an archive in Aix en Provence in the South of France, a school teacher was hired to carry on the search.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 companySACRIC (Société Anonyme de Chalandage et Remorquage de l'Indo-Chine). Her owner was a Monsieur Paul Roque.
A French Telephone Directory provided a list of 1,220 Roques. A letter was sent to every one of them, telling them of Eric’s flea market find, enclosing a photocopy of the postcards and the question: 'Are you the Roques we're looking for?' The call 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. 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 Henri - who embarked from Bordeaux in 1858.
After a stop in Manila, they movedonto 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, she collided with a submerged rock. The collision ripped a large hole in the shell of the vessel and she 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 andSACRIC folded. Paul Roque died in 1966. The French colonial era was over, and the Emeraude was at the bottom of the sea.
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 is not used for propulsion. Instead it opens up to provide a swimming deck for passengers.
Since her launch until now the Emeraude has cruised the bay, providing travelers with an exceptional experience and a fascinating glimpse into the golden era of travel.