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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the launch of the Vietnamese Binh Chuan cruise, which in 1919 became the first ship to cruise along the coastline of Vietnam from Haiphong to Saigon.
When I was 12, a few years after the reunification of North and South Vietnam, my father and I sailed from Haiphong to Saigon on a cruise ship donated by the Norwegian government.
My childhood memories of industrial Haiphong are of extensive damage following the war and workers cycling home from factories.
I savoured the incessant beauty of my country while sailing all the way down the coast. It was like a dream come true and it was then that I planned to build my own fleet of cruise ships.
I fell in love with Halong bay in 1995 and came to know every single island, camping on the isolated beaches and exploring by kayak. At that time, travelling the 175km to Halong bay took almost 10 hours. In 1997, I took a film crew to the bay to film ‘Vertical Ray of the Sun’, directed by Tran Anh Hung and filmed in Cua Van floating village between Halong Bay and the Cat Ba archipelago.
The scenes that I treasure most from the movie are those with local people and the images of the frangipani trees with their creamy flowers. The film is shown on board Heritage Cruises.
PASSION FOR CRUISING
I initially launched a fleet of cruises under the brand Emperor Cruises in Nha Trang bay, Bai Tu Long bay and in the Cat Ba archipelago and have now established Heritage Cruises on the Red river. I plan to develop longer trips from north to south Vietnam to fulfill my childhood dream.
My first project, Emperor Cruises, explored some of the world’s loveliest bays and beaches. The concept was inspired by the luxurious lifestyle of Emperor Bao Dai, the last monarch of the Nguyen Dynasty. He had six beautiful villas and palaces in the most exquisite destinations in Vietnam.
I was fortunate to meet the Hue Researcher, Nguyen Dac Xuan, and following an in-depth study of his life, I wrote a book about Emperor Bao Dai. On the Emperor Cruises boats, Vietnam’s first five-star all-inclusive cruise with butler and limousine services, our guests can enjoy the luxurious lifestyle of an emperor.
The soul of Tonkin inspired the design and décor of the Heritage Cruise boats, Vietnam’s first boutique cruise on the Red river and in the Gulf of Tonkin, that sails through the Cat Ba archipelago and Halong bay before connecting with the capital, Hanoi, and the Highlands via the Red river and its tributaries.
As a heritage-inspired designer cruise ship with a boutique concept, Heritage Cruises prioritises guest experience, offering upscale service with an artistic twist and a focus on local culture and arts.
For this personal project, I explored from Hoa Binh on the Black River, along the Clear River and the Red River, right down to the delta regions in Nam Dinh, Ninh Binh and Ha Nam. Along the way I met artisans, craftsmen, historians, researchers, artists, painters and overseas Vietnamese and learned their stories.
One evening during the fall of 2017, I was chatting with three friends in the vintage Maxim’s Cafe on Dien Bien Phu street in Haiphong, when a French-speaking couple around 60-65 years of age and another Vietnamese couple of around 70-75 years entered the coffee shop.
The Viet Kieu gentleman approached me to seek help in a heavy accent. I knew he spoke French, so we started a conversation and I ended up becoming their interpreter. The man, Henri de Bollivier, shared his moving story with me.
Henri’s Vietnamese mother had married a French doctor working in Haiphong during the Indochina War. They both left Vietnam in 1954 after the defeat of France at Dien Bien Phu when the Geneva Peace Accord was signed.
Henri grew up on the island of French Reunion but his parents divorced and his mother moved to Paris. As she grew older she wanted to return to Vietnam but was too weak to travel so far. She wanted Henri to go back home on her behalf, find his roots and pay respect to his ancestors and homeland.
Henri had visited Haiphong on two occasions to find his family, but without success. The third time, with the help of a letter from Vietnam, he travelled to Haiphong with his French wife and was overjoyed to find his family.
Henri was delighted to show his wife colonial Haiphong and other sights. They tried famous local dishes, learned how to make the best nuoc nam (fish sauce) and discovered the quintessence of Tonkin. I was touched by their story and realised how important it is to trace your roots.
THE IMPORTANCE OF HERITAGE
Through the cruises I have met inspirational people, enriched my life with new experiences and started an ever-growing collection of old stamps, postcards, photos, paintings, and antiques. Heritage Cruises passengers can see this collection on board in the l’Art de l’Annam exhibition.
Heritage tourism is a niche market where guests personally encounter traditions, history, the arts and culture and visit communities whose residents tell their own story.
I admire the nationalist entrepreneur Bach Thai Buoi, his ethical business and start-up spirit; we have shared values as we both come from a poor background and started our working lives with French people. French is the first foreign language that I learned and my first trip abroad was to France at the age of 20.
THINK BIG AND DREAM BIG
It was my burning ambition to cruise from Haiphong to Saigon, emulating the first Vietnamese ship to do so on its maiden voyage in the early 20th century.
A century later you can embark on a voyage through time on a Heritage Cruises Binh Chuan ship – a vessel designed and recreated from heritage designs and with impeccable service fit for the 1920-30s bourgeoisie.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci’s quote captures Heritage Cruises’ vision and philosophy perfectly: the key principle behind every project is a devotion to simplicity, heritage, boutique and product authenticity.
It is the total experience − the unique impression derived from the quality, quintessence and ambiance in a spectacular location − that makes a Heritage Cruise unforgettable.