Now, I’m really excited at this point of the Adventure because I’m about to board a Cruise Ship. I just love that feeling, arriving at the port and catching the first glimpse of my floating home for however many days (I’m like a kid, ‘ooh! there it is, can you see it? no..no, that’s a building, look…THERE!) then staring up at this wondrous vehicle that will transport me effortlessly from one amazing port to another.
At this point I’d love to insert a fabulous picture of the Azamara Quest however, if you’ve cruised before you’ll know its near impossible to take a photo as you’re trying to stuff your passport/documents back in your bag, hold into your key card etc..at the same time as towing your land luggage and handbag, putting said bags through the scanner and posing for the customary ‘welcome aboard’ photo then sanitising your hands before climbing the gangway…phew!! so instead here’s photo of a replica Vietnamese ‘Junk’ boat and you can just see the tip of our cruise ship in the shot!
If you haven’t cruised, trust me this pre-boarding was not a stressful experience but, if you want a photo, then you really need an extra pair of hands! (or a partner who’s happy to carry EVERYTHING whilst standing in the heat waiting for you to get the perfect shot!) Personally, I’d rather forget the photo and be sprinting up those steps instead!
I think these photos are a better reflection of the Cruise Ship as they show what a fabulous view you get from the decks, and deck bars, everything looks even better whilst enjoyed with a nice cold drink, don’t you think?
I love walking up the gang way to be met with a glass of something cold, sparkling and alcoholic (as on some cruise ships, like this one) whatever time of day, but the thing I love the most is the thrill of what beautiful interiors will unfold before my eyes (I’m the same with hotels and explains why it’s as rare as hen’s teeth that I visit anywhere twice!)
This was another first for us, sailing with www.azamaraclubcruises.co.uk on their ship the Azamara Quest and a Cruise Line we’ve been looking forward to trying. And boy! we weren’t disappointed. For excellent service, facilities and entertainment, I can honestly say that this ranks highest of all the cruises I’ve taken (and I’ve sailed with most of the major Cruise Lines). The ship was classically furnished and did not feel at all tired or dated even though it is due to undergo a multi million pound refurbishment in April to bring it in line with sister ship the Azamara Journey. On this ship, there was a high staff to guest ratio which really showed. The bar and waiting staff were extremely attentive without being intrusive, and as alcoholic drinks are included with your fair, it was lovely to be approached and offered another drink or have your wine glass refilled without having to ask or wait at the bar. I’ve had worse service when I’ve been paying and tipping. (There’s no tipping on Azamara).
Sailing out of Victoria Harbour was a fantastic experience and as the bright lights faded into the distance our floating hotel headed for the open seas toward Vietnam.
Our itinerary included overnight stays in three ports in Vietnam: Halong Bay; Da Nang for Imperial Hue and Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) as well as three sea days before reaching Singapore (I love a sea day, it’s soooo relaxing and with a programme of activities available, you can do as much or as little as you want, there’s no obligation to take part).
I must mention at this point that after leaving Hong Kong the weather was not on our side, we’re talking lots of rain, more rain and mist, but that could not spoil the adventure, it just meant it was different (and warm rain ain’t that bad!). We’d booked two organised excursions one to visit the Mekong Delta and another to cycle through the paddy fields and countryside followed by a visit to the beautiful town of Hoi An. A third excursion was a complimentary ‘Azamazing Experience’ a magical evening to Binh Quoi Village for a show of traditional entertainment, music, dance and food (This turned out to be spectacular as you’ll read later).
Firstly Halong Bay
The bay is known as ‘the bay of descending dragons’ and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of great natural beauty, made up of nearly 2000 islands of varying size some of which are inhabited. They are known as ‘The Dragon’s Teeth’ as they look like giant molars protruding from the sea! Many visitors come to take a boat trip around the bay to weave between the islands and the stunning caves. We would have loved to see the bay in the glory of the sunshine however, the mist gave the bay a mystical air.
The excursion we wanted to do was fully booked so we opted instead to look around the town and markets of Halong Bay. We have never let weather deter us so off we went brolly in hand. There is not really a lot going on in Halong bay, the streets seem practically deserted and out of the three ports, I would say that this area was the least developed from a tourist aspect apart from activities in the bay.
One of the first things we noticed as we walked around was the hap hazard tangle of electrical wiring webbing its way in and out of buildings and across the streets. How the electricians would even know where to start I’ll never know.
It really is a working town with people going about their daily lives and that shows, which makes it much more interesting than visiting a tourist trap. The streets were very quiet and most people seemed to be in the market, which is the hub of the town, selling everything from fresh produce (fruit, veg, fish and seafood etc) to household goods and souvenirs. The sights, sounds and colours were amazing and as we tip toeing through the slippery floors of the markets, we were struck by the array (and amount) of items on offer. As most of the people there were working, it made us wonder ‘who buy’s all this stuff’. As we navigated our way around, it’s fair to say that no one batted an eyelid as we perused their wares and observed them working and they were happy for me to take a few photos and videos.
In total contrast to the market, with its grand European style architecture, was the five storey Vincom Centre shopping and entertainment complex. This featured more upmarket shopping, dining venues, cinema and an ice rink and was the perfect place to take shelter from the rain.
Despite the weather, our visit to Halong Bay was an enjoyable one and if we return, well take the boat trip to see the spectacular caves. So with smiles on our faces and hope in our hearts for sunnier days to come, we returned to the ship to continue our journey toward Da Nang the next day.
Da Nang – day one
Our excursion today would take us to Hoi An to cycle through the countryside, enjoy traditional food and take a look around the Old Town. First stop though, was the famous marble workshops to see local craftsmen work their magic on the marble taken from the nearby mountain of the same name ‘Marble Mountain’. Some of the pieces were huge and you had to wonder who would be buying them, as they are sold and shipped all over the world, not just Asia.
I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to cycling through the paddy fields with the sun on my face, breeze in my hair and the Vietnamese countryside for company (and Ron of course). Well, they do say every picture tells a story and here it is:
The sun we hoped for didn’t materialise, but we had one of the best (if not wettest) times ever. We joined the rest of the group for a welcome drink, then donned our helmets and ponchos and headed for the fields.
Well, everybody else headed for the fields but being near the back we missed the turn off they’d taken and headed off up a main road with another couple from the group. Bearing in mind I’d not ridden a bike for several years, the last thing I needed was trucks and cars passing me at speed on a wet road! Luckily, one of the guides on a moped came to our rescue and led us in the right direction. Despite the rain, which was warm and plopping in my eyes in big drops, it was wonderful cycling around the paddy fields on narrow tracks seeing people and buffalo at work on the land and passing locals sitting at their doorstep near the land they work. Because of the rain, we did not stop as often as we would have if it had been dry, so I just took in the sights as I pedalled around, feeling lucky to be having this experience and that made up for any lack of sunshine. I did manage to get a couple of photo’s (it’s not easy when your using your phone, in the rain with wet hands!).
As you can imagine we had worked up quite an appetite cycling around, so it was a relief to find that the venue for our meal was only a short bus ride away. We quickly arrived at The Brothers Café in Hoi Ann and were shown to our table which we shared with six fellow cyclists. Now, I hope your not too disappointed, but I did not feel it appropriate to take foodie photos whilst friendly but total strangers were eager to tuck into their food from the sharing plates. I can honestly tell you that ALL the food was delicious and plentiful. http://www.brothercafehoian.com.vn/
After the great food and cheerful conversation, we headed back out into the rain for the second part of the excursion, a guided walking tour followed by free time to explore.
Part of the popularity of Hoi An it’s well preserved Ancient Town. It has an interesting history and this is reflected in it’s architecture, with a mix of designs from Chinese wooden shop houses and temples to colourful French colonial buildings, ornamental Vietnamese tube houses and the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge and pagoda. Parts of the city have the quaintness of a themed setting in a Disney World Park, but the way it looks is authentic and just the way it has evolved.
By now you’re probably a bit fed up of photo’s with no sunshine, and I’d love you to see how lovely Hoi an is, so luckily enough my brother-in-law (who recommended Hoi an to us) sent me some photo’s from his visit, needless to say, you’ll know which ones were his!
Hoi an is famous for the production of silk. This includes silk lanterns and these adorn the streets of the Old Town. We were not lucky enough to visit Hoi an at night, but for those who visit on the 14th day of the lunar month, you’ll witness the Lantern Festival (or Full Moon Festival) where the street lights are dimmed and the colourful lanterns lit. The festival is popular with both tourists and Vietnamese visitors, who flock to see the town in its old fashioned glory, enjoying street food and music, playing traditional games and buying paper lanterns with a candle inside to float down the river. This is said to bring luck, happiness and love.
The following photo’s are of the entrance and interior of the small Japanese Covered Bridge (which isn’t particularly impressive) and was built in the 1500′ to link the Japanese community to that of the Chinese on the other side of the stream. It is ‘guarded’ by statues, a pair of monkeys one side and a pair of dogs on the other. There are various tales about their purpose, one being that the construction started in the year of the monkey and concluded in the year of the dog, another says that many of Japans emperors were born in the year of the monkey and the dog.
Part of our excursion took us to one the oldest houses in Hoi An, Tan Ky House which is centuries old and has been lovingly preserved by seven generations of the same family. This long, narrow house type served as a family home entered from the street with a central courtyard to let in light, give a glimpse of nature and collect rainwater. The rear of the house faces the river and was rented out to merchants.
Our final visit was to see silk production and some of the craftspeople who make beautiful silk garments, artwork and also hand stitch commissioned portraits copied from photographs. This was great to see.
We had a little free time and after the tour we’d usually have plonked ourselves down outside a café to have a drink and a bit people watch…as you do. As this wasn’t an option we decided to seek out one of the stalls we’d passed earlier selling the most beautiful ‘pop up’ Christmas cards. There were so many designs it was hard to choose, but choose we did and after sending some to family and friends, we kept these two as souvenirs.
To round off our visit before heading for the dry cocoon of our coach, we wanted to try some of the delicious looking street food, cooked fresh before our eyes. Now I know what your thinking…wasn’t the earlier feast at the Brother Café enough?? well it was, but our motto is always ‘well, we may never get the chance to come back again’ and so we forced ourselves to try prawn and spring onion pancakes (don’t ask me what they were called?think along the lines of Indian Chaat pancake) and a large sweet doughnut ring. Both were delicious and ensured we headed back to the coach with our love of Vietnam growing by the minute (as well as our bellies!!)
Da Nang – day 2
On our second day in Da Nang, we wanted to stroll around the city and do what we love, which is observing local life. The first thing you notice above everything else here cities is monumental number of mopeds which is the favoured mode of transport in both the cities and countryside.
The reason I’ve not included a photo of mass mopeds taken in Da Nang is for this reason: It’s quite a bit of a bustling place and mopeds pull up off the road onto the ‘narrow’ pavement (if any) and practically park at the shop door. Now, when your trying to get your bearings (and failing) and crossing numerous roads to get back to the port, the last thing you want to do is 1. stand still to take a photo 2. try to cross the road slowly 3. take notice of the traffic lights (the drivers certainly don’t). The advice we were given was to just go for it, they will see you and avoid you rather than you trying to avoid them…yikes! However, we tried it and it worked!
One thing that was a constant source of amazement and humour was the unreal amount of ‘stuff’ and number of people these mopeds carried. We saw 3 people on some.
Although De Nang is not very ‘touristy’ in itself, It’s a gateway to some really interesting places and is worthy of its inclusion on any cruise itinerary.
Ho Chi Minh City – day 1
On arriving in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City I’m glad to report that the sun had finally decided to show its warm and smiling face! Azamara Quest’s size means she can dock in the city port, unlike some of the larger cruise ships which have to dock in Phu My (as we did on our last visit to the city on the Diamond Princess) which is a 2 hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City. The information here will be drawn from both visits, and explains why we’re wearing different outfits in the photo’s!
This was going to be a busy day as we had two excursions to enjoy, daytime and evening with just a short time to spruce ourselves up in between. The first one was a Journey to the Mekong Delta, something we we’re really looking forward to. Half of the time was spent travelling there and back ( 2 hours each way) due to the bustling traffic more than distance, but it was worth it to visit the Delta with is maze of canals, islands and swamp lands.
On arrival we boarded a boat to take us over to one of the islands to witness the everyday lives of the river dwellers and visit the traditional home of a fruit farmer to sample, local tea, exotic fruits and then observe sweets being handmade from coconut. This was all very lovely and we enjoyed it however, you did get the feeling that the traditional home had evolved into more of a tourist trap to be honest, as after each experience, samples of everything we had tasted (apart form fresh fruit) was presented to us with an opportunity to purchase, before being led to another specially created area and the process was repeated. So yes, you’ve guessed it we came away with tea, bee pollen (and yes I have used them, just once mind, well it is for consumption in the outdoors, with sun and friends!!) and sweets, before boarding little wooden boats for our journey through the canals. (I could also have had dozens of post cards, hats etc…if the opportunist locals had their way, but I am quite good at saying no…I am..really!)
After the food, we precariously clambering into our traditional xuong (wooden boat) to be rowed through the maze of the canals (with our goodies in tow, not ideal). Now I LOVED this bit (apart from the boat wobbling as the lady in front kept taking selfies!! what for? why not take in the beautiful surroundings instead! and which is the I didn’t take any photo’s while in the boat, but Ron got a couple). The surroundings were surreal and I had to pinch myself, when I wasn’t trying to keep my balance that is! and being surreal it seemed unreal, if you know what I mean (you now, like something Disney would create for one of their rides).
Our only disappointment was that it was over too quick, it would have been lovely to get more glimpses of life on the island as we peered through the shrubbery at the passing local houses and businesses. Again, it felt a bit like we’d been on a Disney ride.
The next part of this tour was lunch at the not so lovingly named Mekong Rest Stop Restaurant for a meal which included the specialities fried fish and vegetables in rice paper. Now, when your sharing one fish with another couple, where do you start? especially as its best eaten with your fingers! but we managed with our cutlery, being polite as us Brits are. So if you were hungry, you’d had it. The setting for this meal was all very nice but the ‘get them in and out quick’ mentality was in evidence so what could have been a more enjoyable experience left us a tad disappointed, again only because it was rushed.
After the Mekong Delta, we were really looking forward to the complimentary excursion: A magical Evening at Binh Quoi Village, to experience Vietnamese culture in a lush garden setting of coconut palms, gentle creeks and colourful lanterns. So, after a quick freshen up, we were off again. The event was held in a park which is closed especially to host this event and the setting was magical with lanterns hanging from trees and traditionally dressed hosts serving complimentary drinks as you strolled toward the entertainment area. Along the way we were entertained by dancers, and there were various stalls offering complimentary craft items such as Palm flowers, personalised name scrolls and clay figures to name a few.
When we arrived at the seating area, it was laid out beautifully with decorated tables and chairs in front of a large multi media stage and catwalk. We felt this was going to be special and we weren’t wrong. They had even set up sail type awning in case it rained. What followed was an evening of spectacular music, song and dance followed by a fashion show which showcased how the traditional Vietnamese dress ‘Ao Dai’ had evolved throughout the centuries.
The fashion show was a real highlight and a complete surprise as it wasn’t mentioned in the programme. It showed how the ‘Ao Dai’ traditional dress has evolved due to changing fashions and tastes to become relevant for todays Vietnamese women. The show started with a modern version worn over jeans. These and the designs that followed were wonderfully colourful and a delight to see, and we had a ‘front row’ seat too, which had us feeling a bit like The Beckhams!
Ho Chi Minh City – day 2
We were up and out early to reacquaint ourselves with some areas from our first visit in 2012. The city is easy to get around and if you like to explore on foot as we do, there’s lots of interesting highlights within walking distance of each other. First on the list was Ho Chi Minh Square on route to Ben Thanh Market via the famous Rex Hotel.
Here you can buy almost everything imaginable. The atmosphere is lively but not overly noisy. You will be asked if you want to buy anything but not in a pushy way. You might even find yourself with a shirt on your back before you know it if you’re not quick enough, but it’s all in good humour.
The Rex Hotel is famous as being the venue that hosted the military briefings given to the press each week during the Vietnam War. These briefings took place in the roof top bar, which was a well known hang out of military officials and journalists. The briefings became known as the Five O’clock Follies. On this occasion we didn’t go inside we just wanted to reminisce however, we had lunch at the roof top bar on our last visit, the setting and the food was lovely. I remember sitting there trying to imagine events that had taken placed and what it must have been like. How fortunate are we these days to be able to visit these places. Now you understand why I love a cruise tour.
The other places we visited included the Reunification Palace in 2012. This was the building that saw tanks storm the gates signalling the fall of the Siagon regime and the end of the Vietmnam War. One of the original tanks is on display in the grounds. The city has it’s own Notre-Dame Basillica (ooh la la!) so its was no surprise to learn that all the materials came from France. Central Saigon Post Office was another highlight, even if you don’t have any postcards to send it’s worth a visit to admire the fantastic interior and beautiful hand painted maps on the walls. Lastly, we passed by the river slum houses, unfortunately its a sad fact that up to a quarter million people still live in slums around the city.
Lastly we decided to return to this lovely little café after visiting it in 2012, to enjoy a spot of light ‘brunch’ before our return to the ship and we weren’t disappointed. We’re not Vegan but the food and service is great as it was the last time.
Before we came to Vietnam for the first time in 2012 I wasn’t really sure what I expected to find, but I found it to be a wonderful country to visit and somewhere I’d definitely recommend to anyone planning a visit to Asia. We found the Vietnamese to be friendly and polite people and the customer service in cafes etc. was some of the best we’ve received anywhere. Yes, the sun didn’t shine as much as we’d have like but that can happen on any holiday, we were just unlucky this time, so don’t let that put you off.
So this marks the end of our time in Vietnamese. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our adventure so far and that we’ve perhaps inspired you to visit Vietnam. I hope you’ll come back to read about or continuing adventure as we now cruise off to Singapore.
Until the next time. Bye for now. June xx
labels: Vietnam, Halong Bay, da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong delta, Asia, Cruise, Travel, Travel Jems, Azamara Cruises