By Carla Sue Broecker
When we sailed out of the spectacular Hong Kong Harbor on the Seven Seas Voyager it was with some misgivings. First of all, it was in the evening and the harbor was somewhat foggy. That didn’t deter all of the magical lights that cover the building surrounding the harbor. And, we love visiting there and seeing old friends at the markets. It is such a magical and fascinating place. It is truly a melting pot of many cultures, styles of architecture and people. It never ceases to surprise and please you. We were also pleased to know that we will be back in Hong Kong in the next month or so. Our cruise is a series of segments and we double back to a number of ports, which is just fine with us.
We set sail that evening across the South China Sea to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. After a full day at sea, we arrived and anchored at our destination. It was at this point that a lot of our fellow passengers took a 12-hour excursion to Hanoi. This requires nearly four hours on a coach in each direction. We had been there before, so we chose to go on an excursion called “Cruising the Monoliths.”
The scenery is breathtaking. Huge rocky monoliths jut out from the Gulf of Tonkin like rugged fingers, changing color constantly in the sunlight. There are literally thousands of limestone figures of all shapes and sizes. The best and almost only way to visit Ha Long Bay is to hire a “junk” and work your way among the passageways from the port at Ha Long City on the mainland.
Ha Long Bay means “bay of descending dragons.” An old legend tells of a massive dragon which appeared and spat out pearls to block invading ships. The pearls became the islands, which shield Ha Long Bay from the rest of the Gulf of Tonkin.
Each island is more spectacular than the next with trees hanging off the rocky cliffs and dark shadows of the caves that permeate the formations. Steep walls assure that almost all of the islands are uninhabited, but hidden within some of the coves, entire villages are seen floating on the water.
Among the many shapes, there is an island that resembles a man looking towards the mainland, aptly named Man’s Head Island; and island that looks like a dragon hovering above the water, named Dragon Island; and an Island that resembles an old man fishing, named La Vong. Other islands named for their appearance are the islands of the Sail, the Pair of Roosters and the Incense Burner. At the core of the islands there are wonderful caves and grottos. It has been proven by scientists that Ha Long was one of the first cradles of human existence in the area. In all, the bay is made up of 1,969 islands.
That evening we went by coach to a local theater to see a unique cultural event, a water puppet show. It is the sort of thing you want to see once. When guests walk into the theater it has all the appearances of a conventional theater with a stage in front with a curtain. In front of the curtain is an orchestra “pit” filled with water, and this is where the performance takes place. Six or eight unseen puppeteers stand in the water behind the curtain and operate the puppets on long poles horizontally. Puppets representing fish, people and all sorts of animals cavort in the water to tell simple stories. It wasn’t Shakespeare by a long shot, but it was charming and not too long. Get it?
The next day was spent at sea once again. Our next visit was to one of our favorite places, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). It is the largest city in Vietnam. It was the capital of the French colony of Cochin-China and later of the Republic of South Vietnam (from 1955-75). It fell to the communists in April of 1975, and has a population of 9 million people. It is expected to grow to 13.9 million people by 2025!
South Vietnam fought against the communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, and with aid from the United States and countries including Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. Saigon fell when it was captured by the communists on April 30, 1975, ending the war with a Communist victory. Vietnam was then turned into a communist state with the South overtaken.
We saw the Minh Phuong lacquerware factory and the lace makers and visited Reunification Palace and the Jade Emperor pagoda. We then went on to the Ben Thanh Market. We were busy but obviously not as busy as the Vietnamese!
On the second day, we took a long excursion to the Mekong River Delta. After an hour and a half drive to the town of My Tho, we visited the ancient Vinh Trang Pagoda. Then, we drove to a boat pier along the Mekong River bank where we boarded a local boat and enjoyed a cruise along this very busy river. Along the way, we stopped at Thoi Son Island and visited a village. At one point we stopped at an outdoor café where we were treated to tea sweetened with local honey and bee pollen. The tea was accompanied by banana crisps and little sweet berries whose name escapes me.
Further down the path, we stopped again for more treats. This time it was bowls of local fruits including mango, papaya and grapefruit. A bowl of local sea salt mixed with hot chilis was there for dipping the fruit. Not necessarily a custom we are used to, but really good.
The excursion was finished by a terrifying (to me) ride in a sampan along the canals of the island. Each little boat was rowed by a local in the front and back, and seated four passengers. They were very rocky, and we were told to sit in the middle so it wouldn’t turn over and keep our hands inside the boat. Yipee! There was no way back. To get out of the thing you had to summon all of your strength and stand up without going into the water, then climb up a four-step gadget to dry land. I sort of landed flat on my stomach on the dock, and four charming, strong men picked me up and salvaged my pride all at the same time.
The next day was spent cruising the Gulf of Thailand and we were in Laem Chabang (Bangkok). We visited the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun). The impressive silhouette of Wat Arun’s towering spires is one of the most recognized in Southeast Asia. Constructed during the first half of the 19th century in the ancient Khmer style, the stupa showcasing the ornate floral pattern decked out in glazed porcelain is stunning up close. Apart from its beauty, Wat Arun symbolizes the birth of the Rattanakosin Period and the founding of the new capital after Ayutthaya fell.
The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew command respect from all who walk in their sacred grounds. It was built in 1782, and for 150 years served as the home of the Thai Kings and the Royal Court. The Grand Palace continues to have visitors in awe of its beautiful architecture and intricate detail. Wat Phra Kaew enshrines Phra Kaew Morakot (The Emerald Buddha), the sacred Buddha image meticulously carved from a single block of emerald. It is amazing!
The pioneer of all floating markets, Damnoen Saduak, continues to offer an authentic experience despite its increasingly touristy atmosphere. Imagine dozens of wooden boats floating by, each laden to the brim with farm-fresh fruits, vegetables or flowers. Food vendors fill their vessels with cauldrons and charcoal grills, ready to whip up a bowl of “boat noodle” or seafood skewers upon request.
Our next stop will be Ko Samui, Thailand, where we will visit an elephant camp and have an authentic Thai lunch off the ship. VT
A view of some of the monoliths in Ha Long Bay.
Our new friends, Jill and Peter Corless, who live half of their lives in Prospect and the rest in Florida.
The Cathedral in the center of Downtown Saigon.
The Saigon Opera House.
The enormous Laughing Buddha at the Vinh Trang ancient pagoda in My Tho, Vietnam.
A deep fried whole fish was part of the Vietnamese lunch served along the Mekong Delta.
Ricarte and Angel, our suite steward and stewardess who take good care of us on the ship.