My cruising bucket list is long, but one experience has always stood head and shoulders above the others. And while this has now been ticked off, it is a travel experience which I hope to repeat again and again. Any guesses from the image?
Yes, it’s sailing out of Victoria Harbour while Hong Kong flaunts its neon charms in the backdrop. Reclining in a deckchair on Holland America Line’s Volendam, in the company of other starstruck passengers, it doesn’t get any better.
And cruising Asia is a similarly life-changing experience. Many of us have spent a day or two here and there in the major cities, but a 14-day cruise, bookended by Hong Kong and Singapore, and offering an insider’s view of life in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, without airports, traffic jams and continual packing is something special.
Our arrival in Hong Kong coincides with the celebration of Chinese New Year, which in 2014 means the Year of the Horse. With nearly every hotel and restaurant boasting grander and grander ‘money trees’, bulging with orange mandarins and red and gold envelopes, Hong Kong is dressed to kill.
Sailaway is at 10pm, with the sun setting in the East and thousands of neon lights flashing urgent messages to spend, spend, spend. But the deep, dark harbour waters and velvet night sky weave an even greater magic.
With late night Star Ferries, fishing boats and other small craft ducking and weaving across our path, all too soon the harbour has receded, the shore lights dim, and the mystery of unknown lands takes hold.
Our first day at sea is one of orientation. There are more activities than we can possibly hope to cover, even though there are 5 sea days on our 14-day voyage. We start by booking into the boot camp in the gym, making dinner reservations in the different restaurants, while saving some time to hit the Explorations Café and Library for a latte and browse of the New York Times bestsellers, before forcing ourselves onto the Promenade Deck on level three for the obligatory 3.5 circuits to achieve a ‘mile’ of exercise.
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Tai Chi breathing and exercises are offered at 8am on most days as well as digital lessons and photography tips with the onboard ‘techspert’. We agree that we are not quite ready for the tote bag decorating nor the tissue paper flowers classes, but that’s a highly individual choice, of course.
Our first stop in Vietnam is Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site which boasts more than 3000 limestone islands. The shore excursion is a four-hour cruise, with a visit to Thien Cung Cave on one of the many cool and cloudy days common in the region, so it is disappointing to not see the ancient limestone formations as clearly as we had hoped. The walk to the cave, however, is a highlight.
In our next port of Da Nang we decide to act independently and grab a cab to Hoi An. As well as the most picturesque town in Vietnam, Hoi An is also the easiest for those who enjoy self-directed touring. We start our day in Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, at the Cargo Café where we enjoy excellent coffee, French pastries and catch up on domestic matters courtesy of the free wifi. A short stroll away, the ancient Japanese covered bridge leads to traditional community houses and chapels as well as some fun shopping. Doubling back, we find ourselves on the river again, enjoying traditional yellow colonial houses and chats with local vendors. A 120,000 Vietnamese Dong (approx. $AUD64) ticket which allows entry to up to five ancient monuments is great value.
Next on the list in Vietnam is Nha Trang and here we enjoy a cooking lesson with our guide Hoa. First stop is an extremely busy and crowded local food market where we are shown local fruits including durian, milk fruit, and dragon fruit as well as dried shellfish. We then head to the restaurant on an island in the middle of a local river, where the resident chef demonstrates three different dishes before we try our hand at creating them ourselves. It’s great fun and the meal, washed down with the local beer, is delicoust. Afterwards we head to the very cool Sailing Club slap bang in the middle of Nha Trang’s seven-kilometre beachfront, to enjoy coffee and free wifi before heading back to the Volendam.
Next stop is our last Vietnamese port, Phu My, which serves modern Ho Chi Minh City, or, as the locals still prefer to call it, Saigon. Our transfer allows us six hours in HCMC and this is plenty of time to hit the big five ‘must sees’ of Saigon. An easy walk allows us to cover them comfortably even though the temperature is a steamy 30-degrees. We start in the centre of town at the historic Rex Hotel where, in the 60s US army briefings on the war (somewhat ironically termed the Five O’clock Follies) were held. Fortified by coffee, we head out to admire the stunning French colonial architecture of the Continental Hotel in nearby Dong Khoi Street, before heading north to the similarly impressive Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral.
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From here we visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum, housed in the former French governor’s residence, before travelling on to the Reunification Palace, scene of the taking of power by the Viet Cong in 1975. A couple more blocks deliver us to the most moving of experience of all, the War Remnants Museum. Outside is an impressive display of helicopters, planes and large-scale weapons employed in the American War. Inside, the museum is divided into different themes including international reaction to the war, the suffering of the Vietnamese people and the effects of Agent Orange. The photographic evidence of the suffering and destruction forced on the local people is as difficult to absorb, as it is important to acknowledge. How the local people are able to move on from such a catastrophe is testament to their fortitude and forgiveness.
We still have some time left, so we decide to enjoy some local dishes in the Ngon restaurant in Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Road before heading back to the centre of town to catch our transfer back to the Volendam
Our shore excursion in Cambodia is similarly moving and educational, encompassing a visit to a local fishing village, a monastery, a school and a pepper plantation. Our guide is a former prisoner of the infamous Pol Pot regime and he shares his family history in a simple summary which leaves us and our fellow travellers stunned into silence. Again, the sunny natures and welcoming attitudes of the local people make a deep impression.
In Thailand we decide not to visit Bangkok because of the distance from the port, instead sampling the sights of Pattaya which is a short 20-minute cab ride away. This, a fairly seedy beach town with too many shops and little natural beauty, is probably the one destination we could have easily foregone.
Koh Samui more than makes up for Pattaya. We dock on the western side of this small island and enjoy a 30-minute cab ride through the hills and along the coast to the more populated main beach at Chaweng. Here we spend a lazy day, enjoying the delights of brunch at the Library Hotel and reclining on beach lounges which overlook the deep turquoise Gulf of Thailand.
All too soon our leisurely exploration of some of the highlights of Asia is over. We dock in Singapore at 7am and by 9am we are speeding to our hotel. We’re sad to farewell our floating home, new friends we’ve made on board, and in particular, the Holland America staff who have made our voyage so special. But as our taxi picks up speed and we spy the delights of Orchard Road –and yes, more neon signs – we realise a good day is a shopping day, and we’re on our way to the epitome of shopping heaven.