Saturday 25 October 2014

Travel: Set sail for a taste of the Orient in Vietnam

Lisa Grainger

Published 26/05/2014 | 02:30

Halong Bay,Vietnam

IT'S DAY five of the nine-day cruise from Hong Kong to Singapore, and on the deck of Silversea's Silver Shadow, Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton is looking worried. Around us, 15ft swells are rolling the ship from side to side. And in the ship's main restaurant, he has 180 people ("minimum" the maitre d' tells him) booked for dinner.

"I have to admit, I'm not feeling my best," he says, mopping his pale brow and trying to keep upright on the rocking deck. "But we have to get on with it."

Atherton is clearly a chef with the bit between his teeth. Three years ago he was reasonably well-known as the genius behind Gordon Ramsay's Maze restaurant in London.

Since leaving in 2010, he has become one of Britain's culinary stars, with 11 restaurants worldwide, and another nine opening in 2014. His Pollen Street Social restaurant, he says proudly, "is number three, I think, in the country".

In January he starred in a new British TV series. In June, he publishes a new cookbook. And throughout 2014, he has restaurants opening in Dubai, Hong Kong and, most excitingly for him, New York.

"I love travelling," he says, "so for me opening around the world is a fantastic opportunity. When I grew up in Skegness, in a caravan, I never dreamt I would visit these places. Now I'm opening restaurants in them. It's pretty incredible."

This week, though, he's on the Silver Shadow as a guest celebrity chef: a label he loathes, although fame does have its advantages, he admits, "like giving my two beautiful girls a life I never had growing up ... "

"If I died and people didn't say I was a good chef, I'd be gutted," he says. "I don't want to be famous like David Beckham. I just want to cook great food."

On the ship, his cuisine is clearly appreciated. Many of the passengers – on Silversea cruises, about 45 per cent American and 30 per cent British, with an average age of 56 – have come on board specifically to sample his Michelin-star cuisine, to watch two demonstrations and to go to market with him in Ho Chi Minh City.

Exploring the busy market, he is clearly in his element. "I love seeing all this fresh produce," he enthuses, showing passengers buckets of giant prawns, exotic prickly fruit, edible flowers and dried sea cucumbers.

"These may not look delicious, but they are," he says, pointing to the cucumbers. "When I worked at El Bulli [in Spain], we did a delicious dish with them, scraping the insides out and wrapping them in bacon. They taste really good, quite scallopy."

Although fine food is key on this Silversea cruise, it is not the only attraction. The Silver Shadow is scheduled to stop at six cities and, being just 610ft long, it can dock in harbours that larger vessels cannot enter. Hence our starting point, in the heart of Hong Kong.

For a cruise-virgin like me, starting a journey from the middle of a city is a glorious experience. Having effortlessly checked on to the ship, within an hour I am off the gangway and into the bustling streets. Because we sail at 11pm, there is plenty of time to explore: to nip into dim sum joints, stock up on pretty nail polish (in case I need to touch up my pedicure) and enjoy the warm air of south-east Asia.

Back on board later, I find time to explore my new temporary home. My cabin is larger than I'd hoped, but then Silversea's ships have the highest space-to-guest ratio in the industry (74), with cabins ranging from 287 to 1,435 square feet.

Not only do I have a large double bed in my cabin, covered in crisp white Pratesi linen, with a choice of six types of pillow, but a wide wooden desk, a balcony and a grey-marble bathroom with capacious shower and, surprisingly, a bath stocked with Bvlgari products. I also have a walk-in wardrobe and – a wonderful surprise – a charming Indian butler who shows me the (complimentary) in-room dining menu and minibar, before offering to unpack.

As we sail out of Hong Kong harbour, passengers gathering on decks, sipping champagne, as the captain sounds the ship's horn, I begin to see the point of cruising. The views of the neon-lit city from the water are spectacular, giving way, eventually, to darkened coastline and then nothing but dark sea, quiet and a star-studded sky.

I had slightly dreaded the next day (headlined "day at sea" on the itinerary) but the people-watching and exploring is quite fun. Some passengers, clearly, have set routines perfected over years of cruising. Many have in-room breakfast delivered by their butler. A few spend early mornings jogging on the top-deck Astroturf track or having massages in the spa.

Others play bridge in smart wood-panelled lounges, or take an art tour with an American art dealer, who is showing – and selling – prints by Chagall, Miro and Picasso. Keen cooks, such as I, watch Jason Atherton in the ship's auditorium, preparing lime-cured scallop with pickled apple.

While some passengers are clearly content to relax on board, it's the excursions I most look forward to. On day three, the ship's horn signals our arrival in Halong Bay, the Unesco-protected bay of 1,969 islands, worn into strange, almost mythical shapes.

Having boarded junks (sadly painted white, rather than the traditional red, thanks to a new government edict), we spend the morning sailing through the islands, marvelling at their shapes – and bargaining for pearls from onboard vendors.

The excursion I am most looking forward to is to the ancient imperial city of Hue, but it doesn't happen. Holidays at sea, I soon learn, are much more capricious than those on land. When the captain announces that it's too dangerous to dock, we're at sea – literally and metaphorically – for two days.

We sail on to Nha Trang, finding time to see the impressive Khmer ruins and indulge in a mud spa, and then it's off to Ho Chi Minh City.

It is on this journey up the Saigon River that the disparities between traditional and modern Vietnamese life become increasingly obvious.

In the countryside, boat people in traditional clothing and A-shaped hats ply the waters in their rustic wooden boats. But as we sail further, skyscrapers start to appear, surrounded by roads buzzing with thousands of motorbikes.

Having got a sense of this busy city from the water, I wander off to enjoy it close-up. Strolling along back streets, I chat to traders selling baskets of fruit, eat spicy soup under the stars, buy pretty laser-cut Christmas cards and enjoy browsing stalls with products made from coconuts, alligator and bamboo.

It is while relishing this freedom on land that I realise I probably won't ever be the kind of traveller who enjoys set itineraries and cosseting Western environments at sea.

Having previously hitchhiked through Vietnam on my own, driven across America, and spent three months travelling around Africa collecting myths for my children's book, Stories Gogo Told Me, I'm too independent.

I might change my mind: there is plenty to enjoy about cruising, from the super-friendly butler and spacious cabin (with a bath, unlike many so-called five-star hotels) to the choice of delicious food, at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just, perhaps, not quite yet.

GETTING THERE

Silversea's Silver Wind will be departing on December 12 next for a nine day voyage from Hong Kong, China, to Singapore calling at Ha Long Bay, Chan May, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore.

Prices start from £2,450 per person based on double occupancy of the Vista Suite.

Silversea's Silver Shadow will be departing on November 22, 2015 for a similar nine day voyage from Hong Kong, China to Singpaore.

Prices start from £2,750 per person based on double occupancy of the Vista Suite. www.silversea.com / 0044-844 2510837

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