Cocktails, Suites and Vietnam's Halong Bay - Who says cruising is dull?
Small, luxury cruises mean shorter lines, sumptuous food and spoilt-rotten passengers, says Kirsty Blake-Knox.
Ever since I watched Jane McDonald shimmy around a poop deck on 1990s docu-soap The Cruise, it's been my dream to high-tail it around the seven seas in the lap of luxury.
Cruise liners tend to divide travellers. There are those who love them (people who have been on a cruise) and those who sneer at them (people who have never been on a cruise). The latter ask lots of questions when I tell them I'm going on a seven-day cruise around the coast of Vietnam.
Won't I get seasick? Won't I get bored? Won't I miss the 'real' Vietnam? And didn't I know that the only people who go on cruise ships are so old, they remember getting oranges as Christmas presents?
I didn't care - my cabin had a terrace where I could drink cocktails while watching the sun set over the Mekong Delta. How could you get bored of that?
The cruise had set sail in Singapore, but I was hopping aboard in Ho Chi Minh City - formerly Saigon. It's one of those turbo-charged Asian cities, with swarms of mopeds zooming by (on one, I see a family of four; on another, a man carrying a pig).
After ditching my bags, I make a beeline for Binh Tay Market in search of some decent pho. The aisles of the indoor market are narrow and the astringent smell of cured fish catches in your throat.
Everyone is hustling. "Looking," I tell one vendor. "I'm just looking".
"Well, I'm just selling," she replies, nonplussed.
Sweating profusely but determined to get my pho on, I settle into a stall and am served up the hot, clear broth. Pho is such a messy delight to eat. Afterwards, with soup down my dress and delighted with life, I jump in a cab to see the Jade Emperor Pagoda before heading for the ship.
When I see Silversea's Silver Shadow, I coo at the size. "It's humongous!"
Except it's not, really. Silversea specialises in 'small' all-suite ships with a firm emphasis on luxury. Just 380 passengers are on board, compared to the 6,000 who can travel on Royal Caribbean's biggest ships. Not only are the queues for the buffet shorter, but the crew-to-passenger ratio is higher (you get spoilt rotten) and it's quicker getting on and off board.
I settle in with a glass of Champagne and, the following morning, stepping onto my terrace, I see we have been transported to our next destination, Nha Trang.
Nha Trang (pictured) is home to some of the best beaches and dive sites in Vietnam, and tucked in the mountains are the spiralling Po Nagar Cham Towers. However, I decide the best thing for me to do is lie on the beach, swim and read Jilly Cooper's latest novel, Mount (perfect cruise reading material). As I pour over Rupert Campbell- Black's latest sexploits, a lady wearing a conical hat wanders by carrying two silver tiffins stuffed with fat, fresh lobster and begins cooking them. Before I can ask how much, I remember the boat is leaving in 30 minutes so I rush back. (If you miss boarding, you must make your way to the next destination at your own expense.)
That afternoon we sail towards the South China Sea, and I spend the day in the hot tub chatting to other passengers. This is one of my favourite things about the cruise - it's filled with fun stock characters: the newlyweds, the pensioners squandering their children's inheritance, sisters in their 60s doing a 'golden gals on tour' holiday, the second and third wives' clubs, the glam Russian lesbians, and the ultra-camp air steward. I feel like I have walked into the pages of my Jilly Cooper novel.
But there are plenty of other Great Gatsby- esque things to do - like playing shuffle- board, or watching the crew talent show, or retiring to the cigar and Cognac room. Last but not least, you can go for a sunset walk with the ship's resident 'gentleman host', Art - who I'm told is definitely not a gigolo.
As the cruise unfolds, the days on board seem to melt together and drift apart. One minute you're storming the stage at the Dolly Parton tribute night; the next you're slap bang in the middle of the busy port of Chan May - from where we take a jaunt to the pretty town of Hoi An (above).
"Gooood morning, Vietnam," says our tiny tour guide, Jimmy, who makes adorable dad jokes every two minutes and thanks us individually for laughing.
Located on the banks of Thu Bon river, Hoi An is filled with saffron- coloured 18th- century merchants' houses that are now part museums and part shops. You can spend a tonne of money here very quickly - I ended up with an enormous wooden carp and 'wishing bowl'. Shopping in the sun is hungry work, too, but this is a good thing, as that evening we are eating in La Champagne - the only floating Relais & Châteaux restaurant in the world.
The food here is rich: gold-leaf risotto, seafood bisque and lobster thermidor all fly out of the kitchen in a flash. Packing on weight on a cruise is exceptionally easy. It's always booze and food o'clock.
The following morning, there's a flurry of excitement as we sail into Halong Bay. Legend has it that the bay was formed when a dragon, sent by the Jade Emperor, descended from heaven into the sea and sprayed a thousand emeralds and pearls from its mouth. From these jewels, the 3,000 islands were formed. Passengers crowd around the railings as the karst islands emerge on the horizon.
This is the real beauty of being on a cruise - there is no better way to see anything for the first time than from the bow of a ship. The Halong Bay vista is incomparable. There are no traffic jams or taxi ranks; the landscape unfolds in a whooshing, panoramic sweep. Afterwards, we putter about on junk boats before setting off on our final leg to Hong Kong.
This involves a whole day at sea. It's a wet and stormy day, too, but I discover that sleeping as the boat rocks is a dream. So is dancing - you career from one side of the floor to the other as water pulls and pushes the hull. The last night is a scream. My new friends and I stay up late, vowing to stay in touch but knowing we won't.
Stepping onto dry land the next day, I realise that none of the things grouches had warned me about were founded. The cruise wasn't boring, it wasn't filled with OAPs, and I didn't get seasick. It had been a total and utter riot. My own little fantasy world filled with beautiful strangers, Champagne, and the Vietnamese landscape unfurling around me.
What to pack
Sunglasses and sunscreen (it's easy to burn while lounging on the decks); a smart suit and/or LBD (there's usually one formal night on board and passengers really do make an effort); espadrilles (high heels are a disaster on a cruise) and binoculars for peering at the sights on shore!
Silversea's Silver Shadow departs on a 14-day voyage from Hong Kong to Singapore on October 8, 2017, calling at Halong Bay, Chan May, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City,; Bangkok and Koh Samui. Fares start from £4,550/ €5,237pp based on two sharing the Vista Suite. See silversea.com or call 0844 251 0837 for more information.
Wi-Fi can be shaky at sea, so bring books and embrace being cut off from reality for a while. Be warned, too, that there can be a real difference in temperature between home ports and ports of call. It's also a good idea to bring a few jumpers and cardigans, as the sea breeze can be chilly once the sun sets.
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