If you remember the Bonsai you will remember a hand-built, Indochine-style wooden boat that did dinner cruises and parties on the Saigon River. A labour of love, the boat was constructed and operated by the Ernest family together with its co-founder, Thomas Peter. You will also have some fond memories: weddings, dOSe parties, wine and gin launches, live music and buffets, all to the backdrop of the Saigon skyline.
That was until January 2015 when tragedy struck.
A Japanese cruise liner broke its moorings, and smashed into the Bonsai. Worse still, it hit the recently added sister boat, The Artisan, putting them both out of action.
But Bonsai’s co-founders Thomas Peter and Ines Ernest took this as a challenge to come back bigger and better. And now, two years later, they have returned with a new vessel, the Bonsai Legacy, which operates out of District 4’s Nha Rong wharf.
The team, who brought in Aline Ho, owner of Asiatique Design, designed and built the US$2 million vessel, with a focus on recreating the classic Indochine feel of the original Bonsai. Ho came into the project having conceived and managed the design of the Heritage Line vessels in Halong Bay.
“More thought has been put into the customer experience,” says Thomas. “It’s a well thought-out ship design, functional yet traditional with a twist. Indochine was and is our forte and so is Bonsai’s design, inspired by the Indochine era.”
The design of the boat complements the service customers can expect.
“Our cruises were known for their memorable experience and superb ambience,” he says. “During this hiatus, we were given time to conjure creative designs and contemporary Asian cuisine. More importantly, we had the time to learn, improve and come up with an even better product.”
Upping Their Game
Getting back on the water has not been without its challenges. In response to the number of accidents in the Halong Bay, new regulations have been introduced by the authorities. Following them is a challenge, yet they are also a source of security for the tourist boat industry.
“Although it is only a dinner cruise ship, the authorities have stepped up their game and are strict like never before,” says Thomas. “It’s tough if one is not prepared to deal with it, but it will help the tourism industry in general and the cruise industry in particular to improve its reputation.”
The team behind Bonsai have also worked on their product.
In total, the Bonsai Legacy has three entertainment areas, with a band from the Philippines playing on the upper deck and the traditional Hoa Mai band, with their one-string violin and stone drums, playing on the deck below.
Refreshment starts with a buffet; there are interactive live cooking stations and a Robata grill, with a mix of Asian and western food. Cocktails are designed to showcase the varied ingredients available in Vietnam.
“We also work closely with local providers and companies such as Pasteur Street and Alba Water, and are trying to offer more local high end products,” says managing director, Ines Ernest. “We have incorporated a green operation and have gone away from plastic bottles and straws and, are trying to lower the ‘carbon’ footprint by offering more local products. On the food side we have worked closely with a food consultancy company and Steven Long, runner up of Vietnam’s master chef.”
The riverboat cruise industry has grown considerably since 2003, but Bonsai’s customer base remains the same; tour operators, multinational corporate companies, study groups to Vietnam and the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Events (MICE) trade from ASEAN countries. Local groups such as International Ladies Vietnam have also become customers.
Sunset cruises are still the most popular choice, but Bonsai has added lunch cruises with a built-in cooking class and themed Vietnamese nights for overseas groups. Other plans in the works include a comedy cruise, a wine-tasting event and a wedding charter.
Their return, believes Thomas, has been perfectly timed.
“The number of tourists has increased dramatically over the past few years,” he says. “Nha Rong wharf is a madhouse at times, while the river is as calm as ever.”
Adds Ines: “We are passionate operators and happy to go the extra mile.”
For more info click on bonsaicruise.com.vn
Photos by Bao Zoan