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Emerald Harmony

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Built expressly to sail into the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, Emerald Harmony is Emerald Waterways' first ship built exclusively for the Mekong River. It's a unique feature, as most other river cruise ships plying the Mekong are forced to dock in a large industrial port outside of the city and bus passengers in.

Functionality aside, the ship also feels homey, like a comfortable boutique hotel where, at the end of each day, passengers can seek respite from some of the less comfortable aspects -- lack of clean drinking water, extreme heat and humidity, and overt poverty -- of a trip to Southeast Asia. Since debuting in Europe in 2014, Emerald Waterways is perhaps best known for its fleet of contemporary "Star Ships," which combine affordability (they are a fraction of the cost of their most upscale brethren, Scenic) with contemporary design and inclusive features.

Emerald Waterways has brought the same elegant but understated style to Emerald Harmony, which outwardly looks more like a yacht than a traditional river ship. Capable of carrying just 84 passengers, it offers a nearly 2-to-1 crew ratio and a wide variety of accommodations, from value-added cabins to suites that span 450 square feet and include wraparound balconies and private hot tubs. From the neutral palette in the spacious cabins to the cosy layout of the plush furniture in the ship's main lounge, the calming onboard atmosphere truly does make the ship feel like home.

The vessel also includes some unexpected touches like a soaring atrium, a swimming pool with a retractable sun shade, an onboard hair stylist and even self-service laundry facilities (a rarity on river cruise ships and one which we found exceedingly helpful, as the climate necessitated at least two wardrobe changes a day).

Overall, we found the ship to be exceptional. What it lacks in entertainment options and cabins with traditional balconies, it more than makes up for with its stellar shore excursions and large picture windows. The cruise director and crew go out of their way to make sure passengers are comfortable, and dining options are considerably varied for a ship of Emerald Harmony's size. It's a great way for Southeast Asia first-timers to experience the region in style.

**Daytime:** Emerald's dress code is relaxed and informal, but that's especially true on Emerald Harmony, where the weather is hot and humid all year. Passengers will be most comfortable in long, loose clothing that will protect them from sun and mosquitoes while meeting modesty requirements for the many temples they'll visit. Sturdy shoes are a must.

**Evening:** Casual attire is fine for dinner, but some cruisers choose to wear collared shirts or informal dresses. Shorts and flip-flops are not allowed in the restaurant during dinner.

**Not permitted:** Bathing suits are not permitted in the restaurant, and shoulders and knees must be covered to enter temples ashore.

Shore Excursions

Emerald Harmony provides at least one free excursion in almost every port. Passengers are divided into small groups, so the experiences are intimate and uncrowded. Tours showcase life in Southeast Asia, taking passengers to important landmarks and small villages along the river. Emerald also offers Discover More tours for a modest extra fee and Emerald Plus excursions that are exclusive to the line. For instance, the Emerald Plus tour we tried out had us visiting a local Vietnamese family's home for some live folk music before touring a coconut farm and walking over a monkey bridge to try local fruits. Excellent English-speaking guides provide context and bridge the gap between Eastern and Western cultures, and they keep groups moving at a comfortable pace -- particularly important in the hot climate, where a too-long tour could quickly wear out visitors. The tours maintain a fine balance for passengers unaccustomed to the Eastern ways of life who still want to experience a bit of local flair that isn't too touristy. Extra touches also help the excursions to stand out. As part of the line's commitment to help the environment, a reusable water bottle is provided for each passenger at the beginning of every sailing. They can be filled up prior to each excursion at a dispenser in the atrium, near the reception desk. On the way out the door, expect to be offered an umbrella if it's raining. When cruisers return to the ship, they're greeted with cold towels and delicious "welcome back" drinks, as well as shoe cleaning services on days when market visits leave footwear icky.

Daytime & Evening Entertainment

Daytime entertainment is mainly shore excursion focused. If you opt to stay onboard, you can expect a quiet, low-key vibe where you'll need to create your own diversions to pass the time. Head to the Lotus Lounge to grab a daily news print out, play a game or work on a puzzle; visit the Horizon Bar & Lounge to watch some TV; go for a dip in the pool; hit the onboard gym; take a nap; or enjoy some sun on the top deck. During the odd cruising day, the chef might offer a galley tour. At night, entertainment primarily consists of mingling with your fellow passengers over dinner and drinks. Local performers are brought onboard in various ports of call -- think Apsara dancers in Cambodia and lion dancers in Vietnam -- and a piano player might entertain during the cocktail hour. However, these happen before dinner, as most passengers retire early to rest up for the next day's shore tours. The single exception on our sailing was an after-dinner pool party on the night before one of our later excursion departures. It's worth mentioning that local onboard performances happen outside on the Sun Deck, generally after dark. Although it's a bit cooler at that time of day, mosquitoes can be particularly pesky, so be sure to load up on bug spray before you venture up there to watch. Don't let that scare you away from attending, though. The performances, often put on by local orphans, are fascinating and beautiful. The line works with them to provide support in exchange for this sharing of culture.

Enrichment

Each night before dinner, the ship's cruise director gives a port talk to brief passengers on what they can expect the following day in terms of port calls, excursions and special meals or performances. These talks generally last about 15 minutes; little else is offered in the way of onboard enrichment.

Emerald Harmony Bars & Lounges

Horizon Bar & Lounge (Deck 3): This area serves as the ship's main lounge, where cocktail hour and most port talks are hosted. It's also the meeting point for shore tours. It offers plenty of comfy couches and chairs with throw pillows, complete with tables for drinks. Those wishing to stay close to the bar can choose seating there. The ship's main coffee and tea facilities are found there, as well, along with a piano, which rarely seemed to be used. Wall-mounted TVs -- one at each corner of the room -- provide a chance to watch sports and news, connection permitting.

Lotus Lounge (Deck 2): The Lotus Lounge, found at the front of the ship, provides an alternate lounge space for cruisers wishing to read, play games or do puzzles. The room also has a small library of books, tea facilities and light snacks, along with a TV.

Pool Bar (Deck 4): Found on the vessel's Pool Deck, this bar caters to those using the wake-facing onboard pool. It also provides drinks to passengers watching local performances on the Sun Deck (one deck above) in the evenings. A couple of notes: Plastic straws are not offered onboard. Passengers can choose from paper or bamboo. Smoking is not permitted anywhere inside the ship, including cabins. A small designated smoking area can be found on Deck 5 (the Sun Deck).

Emerald Harmony Outside Recreation

Emerald Harmony doesn't skimp in the outdoor deck department. There is an aft-facing swimming pool with ample seating options and a retractable sun shade situated, appropriately, on Pool Deck (Deck 4). One deck above, the ship has a full bow-to-stern Sun Deck with lounge chairs, a jogging track and an outdoor games area. It is worth noting that the Sun Deck might be closed when travelling under low bridges, but that isn't as common along the Mekong as it is on European rivers like the Rhine and Danube.

Emerald Harmony Services

Guest services and cruise director desks are both positioned in the atrium, just outside of the Horizon Bar & Lounge on Deck 3. Staff members there can answer questions about everything from what to expect in port to what time dinner will be served, exchange currencies, settle your onboard tab and address any issues you might have while sailing. Laundry rooms aren't common on river cruise ships, but in a region where the climate necessitates multiple wardrobe changes each day, being able to do some wash mid-cruise is a welcome luxury. The self-service facilities are found on Deck 1, just beyond the fitness centre. They include three washers and three dryers, which are free to use. Use of laundry powder and an iron are also complimentary. Send-out laundry and pressing services are available for a fee; dry-cleaning is not offered. The ship does not have a casino, dedicated shore excursions desk or medical centre.

Spa Emerald Harmony boasts a small spa with two onboard treatment rooms for massages, facials, body scrubs and foot reflexology, while the salon provides manicures, pedicures, and hair shampooing and blowout services for a fee.

Fitness The small onboard gym is actually impressive for its size. Passengers have access to a treadmill, an elliptical and a recumbent bike -- all Technogym -- as well as a weight bench, free weights up to 14 kilograms (31 pounds), yoga mats and exercise balls. Towels, water and hand sanitizer are provided. A small jogging track is found on the Sun Deck, but be warned: it's small, and it will take you forever to hit a mile. The climate in Southeast Asia also isn't conducive to outdoor cardio. On the same deck, early risers can take advantage of free stretching, yoga and tai chi sessions each morning.

Food onboard is fantastic, offering a blend of locally inspired and Western cuisines that include Cambodian street food and "Rivers of the World" themes, among others. Southeast Asia is known for adventurous delicacies like cricket, frog and tarantula. Although those options are made available for cruisers who want to try them, there's plenty of choice for passengers with more traditional tastes, and the presentation is flawless.

Complimentary soda, wine and beer are offered during lunch and dinner, and tea, coffee and bottled water are always included. Passengers with dietary restrictions are well accommodated with advance notice.

Mealtimes vary to accommodate shore excursion schedules, but dinner begins at 7 p.m. most nights. All meals are open seating with tables for anywhere from two to 14 people, but smaller tables can be pushed together on request to accommodate larger groups. In the lounges, snacks are served along with drinks, tea and coffee throughout the day. Room service is not available.

Reflections Restaurant (Deck 2) Reflections Restaurant is the primary source for meals onboard Emerald Harmony. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style with the option to order items from a menu, while most evening dinners are multicourse, waiter-served affairs. All meals include always-available selections for picky eaters, and all buffet meals feature an action station -- think omelettes, banh mi sandwiches or stir-fry -- where passengers can watch as their food is prepared in front of them.

Horizon Bar & Lounge (Deck 3) Horizon Bar & Lounge is where passengers will find a small selection of Continental breakfast items in the early morning and finger sandwiches and other nibbles throughout the day. It's the ship's main hub for coffee and tea, and it features late-night light bites, as well.

Lotus Lounge (Deck 2) Feeling peckish for a handful of something salty or sweet? Head to the Lotus Lounge, where cruisers can grab munchies like wasabi peas and miniature cookies. A selection of tea is served there, too.

Emerald Harmony's 42 cabins each sleep a maximum of two passengers and comprise four basic types of accommodations that range from entry-level staterooms measuring 256 square feet to Owner's Suites that offer 452 square feet of living space and every possible comfort on the Mekong. Cabins are well appointed, featuring a neutral colour scheme that lends itself to passenger tranquillity between busy port stops.

They're also some of the largest on rivers, in part because 32 of them have forgone traditional balconies for open-air ones -- windows that are raised and lowered with the push of a button. (Due to the muggy weather, we only opened ours once.) We absolutely loved the small touches like bathrobes, slippers and umbrellas, which come standard in every room, along with enough outlets (eight) and USB ports (two) to charge all of your gadgets at once. Bonus: Outlets are dual voltage and accommodate standard North American, UK and European plugs, so most passengers won't need to bring adapters.

Water is delivered in reusable glass bottles to all cabins daily for drinking and brushing teeth, and all rooms come equipped with a code-activated safe, hair dryer, mini-fridge (stocked with drinks for a cost), for-fee snacks, a phone and individual climate controls.

Another amenity worth shouting out is the alarm clock in each cabin -- a rarity on cruise ships. All basic furniture consists of a queen bed that can be separated into two twins, two nightstands with small drawers, reading lamps, a sofa, a chair, a drinks table, a desk/vanity/dresser area with a second chair and an interactive flat-screen TV with channels like Discovery, National Geographic, CNN, FOX, BBC and HBO, as well as an extremely limited selection of movies

Standard bathrooms are fairly spacious with fluffy white towels and a shower-only setup with a glass door. Shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and lotion are provided in large, refillable bottles. Exceptionally sensitive motion-activated nightlights in each bathroom can be a pain for anyone needing total darkness to fall asleep, but we have nothing but praise for the makeup and shaving mirrors that are easily illuminated with a button to provide outstanding lighting for grooming.

Emerald Stateroom Suites (256 square feet): There are only four of these cabins, which are positioned on Deck 1 (Riviera Deck) and offer river views through porthole window. They include all aforementioned furniture and amenities.

Emerald Panorama Balcony Suites (273 square feet): Panorama balcony cabins on Decks 2, 3 and 4 (Vista, Horizon and Pool) feature open-air balconies with drop-down windows instead of the Emerald Stateroom's fixed-porthole windows.

Grand Balcony Suites (398 square feet): The ship's four Grand Balcony Suites, located on Deck 4 (Pool Deck), add more space, plus other amenities like a complimentary in-suite mini-bar, an in-room Nespresso machine, two items of complimentary laundry per day, an invite to the Captain's Table at dinner, a pillow menu and the option to have Continental breakfast, canapes and after-dinner treats served in-cabin.

Owner's Suites (450 square feet): The top-of-the-line accommodations aboard Emerald Harmony are the two Owner's Suites on Deck 4 (Pool Deck), which rank among the largest cabins currently available on the Mekong. Each features a private terrace with its own Jacuzzi, a walk-in wardrobe, separate living and sleeping areas, four complimentary items of laundry per day and all the amenities offered to those in Grand Balcony Suites and below.

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