On a Not Very Slow Boat to (Indo) China
Given our ages (my husband and I are both in our seventies) and the heat, humidity and generally difficult travel conditions involved, in order to visit Southeast Asia, we opted for a cruise which began at Hong Kong, traveled through the Hainan or Qiongzhou Strait, the Gulf of Tonkin, the South China Sea, the Bay of Thailand and down to our final destination, Singapore. Along the way we stopped at Halong Bay, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Viet Nam, Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Ka Kood Island, and Bangkok, Thailand,
Traveling this way -- instead of our more usual independent travels, has its advantages. Among these are the freedom from airport lines, customs and immigration delays (visas are provided onboard and immigration and customs officials processed us dockside), and obviating the odious task of packing and unpacking at each location.
On the downside, we were rather limited to port areas, though that's not much of a handicap in a part of the world where so much of life takes place along water -- seas, bays, rivers, canals. Time to explore is also severely limited, but using our own senses to weigh what we could see and hiring good guide services minimizes that problem. For example, how people in a country transport themselves and their goods tells a visitor much about the level of development and the productivity of an economy, and exploring marketplaces tells you a great deal about the agriculture, availability of foods, culinary and sanitary practices.
Finally, cruise ships have to pay close attention to food preparation, sanitation and quality, so if you are traveling quickly through developing nations, you will be well fortified and needn't fear being felled by illness.
About our ship
The ship we traveled on moved at 15 knots carried 201 passengers and 161 staff. Provisioning for so many people requires a lot of careful planning. Our chief chef, Christian Juengling, oversees 19 chefs and 9 utility staff. They serve between 600-800 meals per day along with snacks and meals provided through the 24 hour per day room service operation. (Staff is provided with three meals and an evening snack each day. They are provisioned by the chief chef but their food is provided elsewhere by yet another chef. Provisioning is as international as the ship's staff. Beef comes from the U.S., some produce, all flowers and some special condiments are purchased locally by Chef Juengling, who leads groups through the marketplaces while he shops, Berries came from the U.S., lamb comes from Australia and the lobster -- the basis for his outstanding lobster bisque, inter alia, comes from Canada.
One of the most luxurious items on the ship is Black River Ossetra Malossol (lightly salted) caviar. It is supplied by Black River Farms in Uruguay, which has developed a "wild raise" method to duplicate the sturgeons' lives in the Caspian Sea. It costs $400 per kilo; each can onboard contains 1.5 kilos and this small cruise ship's passengers consume about ½-1 can per day.
The pastry area of the galley is where all the many sweets and pastries are prepared during the day. At night this is the bakery area where the chef prepares the dough for breads, rolls and breadsticks which is refrigerated and baked one hour before each meal to assure freshness. The breadsticks are so popular , the passengers consume 3-4,000 per day.
To assure proper stock for soups and sauces, giant stock pots bubble away all day every day.
All main dishes are prepared on the spot to order.
From Hong Kong to Danang
The first leg of the journey is from the port at Hong Kong to Danang, Viet Nam.
Thirty-seven years ago, landing in Hong Kong was a frightening experience. The airport was small, surrounding buildings tall, and the margin for pilot error slim. The new airport is very large, very well laid out and the landing was easy. Our cab driver reported that planes land there every few minutes at the busiest times of the day.
We arrived in the afternoon and stayed in Kowloon, preparing to leave on the cruise the next day. It has been 37 years since we last were in Hong Kong and the former British colony was utterly unrecognizable to us. Where once sampans, junks and ferries filled Fragrant Harbor, we see yachts and hydrofoils, tugs and ferries and fewer sampans and junks. Where once thousands of refugees had streamed into Hong Kong overwhelming existing housing stock, today the skyline is full of very tall, modern skyscrapers. New bridges and roads carry the residents who travel in cars and cabs instead of rickshaws and the many small dusty antique and specialty shops are largely replaced by international luxury brand stores.
From our room in the elegant Peninsula Hotel we looked out across Kowloon, which now appears almost indistinguishable from Tokyo's Ginza.
I had hoped to get a shot of the skyline from our room and one of Macau from the cruise ship, but morning brought a heavy fog and all we could see were ethereal ghosts of these places.
Until we reached the Qiongzhou (or Hainan) Strait which connects in Quang Ninh the Gulf of Tonkin to James Shoal on the Eastern edge of the South China Sea, we could see little -- an odd sea bird and some small fishing vessels. I had left the curtain on our seaside verandah open when we went to sleep and two mornings later awoke to an otherworldly site -- Halong Bay, Viet Nam. Immigration officers come aboard to issue our visas, and a tender takes us into Halong City.
From there, we travel by wooden boat through the Bay.
Halong Bay, a listed UNESCO World Heritage site, has been the home of successive cultures beginning in 18,000-BC. It is where you can see thousands of limestone outcroppings (karsts) in the shape of pillars, towers or peaks and about 1600 islands and islets. For the most part the larger land areas cannot support fauna above snakes and rats.
In was misty and grey and the karsts and islets also appeared dreamlike until the sun warmed the air.
Flat land is very rare. Halong City is one of those spots. Most of the rest of the population lives onboard boats or in houses built on rafts on the water. Nearby is an entire floating village of 50 homes in which about 250 residents live
There consumer needs are met by this floating market.
And by produce filled sampans which ply the area offering up fresh foods, like the tropical papayas, mangos, mangosteen, lichees, jackfruit, longan, and bananas.
Occasionally, in this heavily touristed spot one sees floating beggars -- that is an old woman in a rough boat, rowing with a young boy and girl in front, asking with arms outstretched for things. Bay residents are largely Buddhist, though we are told there is a Catholic church in the city. Ancestor worship is prevalent here with all residences -- even sampans -- reserving space for a family altar The high price of land and the fact that residents eschew cremation makes burial of the dead problematic. The dead are placed at the base of karsts in naturally formed tunnels worn through the limestone by the sea.
The guides seem far more candid than I remember guides in the USSR ever were but, of course, you cannot be sure of the accuracy of their reports. Ours says that until recently the Bay people were illiterate and the government has detailed teachers here for elementary and secondary education. He reports that there is something of an affirmative action program in place which permits these children to enter college with lower grades that other children in Viet Nam,
Reportedly, to preserve the environment, commerce and travel in the Bay is heavily regulated by provincial and national governments and heavily monitored. I don't know how accurate this information is . I can say we saw many boats of every kind transporting tourists here.