Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, March 11 and 12
I did not get up as early as the captain recommended to watch our first approach up the Mekong Delta to Ho Chi Minh City, but by the first light of the sun, the location was unmistakable. If you remember all that TV footage from the war of the unusual palms that seem to send fronds directly up from the earth or the water, you know you must be in Vietnam. A kind of gloom settled over me with this discovery, but only for a moment. Hey, it's just vegetation, let's not get carried away. And so far, I haven't seen much of them anywhere else in Asia.
Ocean traffic up and down the narrow byways of the Mekong Delta is quite busy and comes in all sizes, all old. One can see everything from container ships to cargo ships, to passenger ferries, to the little boats on which some families live. How there are not constant accidents is beyond me. Electricity appears widespread and there are TV antennas in even the most humble shacks. We docked for two days at a remote pier some 5 miles from the center of the city. Ho Chi Minh ("He Who Enlightens") City could be seen easily from most of the ship's decks.
I was not prepared for the incredible blast of heat and humidity. There is no use discussing specific numbers once you pass a certain area on the thermometer. Let's just call it miserable for most North Americans and move on.
A special dockside welcoming ceremony was produced for us with folk music and dancing and, most interestingly, a dragon dance with the two-man dragon twisting and jumping around on top of round posts of varying heights and distances from each other. The drum tempo enhanced the drama.
One first impression of the city is of traffic mayhem. Mopeds are jammed into the streets by the thousands, zipping around bicycles, pushcarts, cars, and masses of people. Ladies have scarves of various quality to cover everything below the eyes on their faces (also good for protection from the uncontrolled carbon monoxide emissions), and gloves on their hands to keep their skin fair. Once into the old city, still called Sai Gon, the original French Colonial influence becomes apparent from the wide Parisian style boulevards and trees. I visited Chinatown (with a bizarre and busy market), a very good lacquer workshop, the National History Museum (with interesting collections of ceramics, costumes and relics from all Vietnam's cultures through the ages), and the Presidential Palace, now called Reunification Hall. Here I was mostly intrigued by the grand spaces and restrained lines used by the 1960's Italian architects, and the fine 60's Italian furnishings and artwork. Okay, it's an acquired taste. Later, down in the basements were all the old war rooms, some equipment intact, seemingly from 60 years ago, not 35.
That evening I attended a Vietnamese folkloric event and dinner. After a long, sensuous sunset cruise on the Mekong river (at least most of the debris seems organic), we arrived at a private day-resort area for our evening's entertainment. This featured the reenactment of a traditional wedding ceremony, a concert featuring unusual bamboo and percussion instruments such as mono-chord and two-string violin, and flute, and dancing by beautiful girls in colorful traditional costumes. This was followed by a 7-course, somewhat traditional Vietnamese dinner. I found the dessert, milk apple, quite interesting. One scoops out the soft inner flesh along with it's "milk" and it has a delicate apple-pear flavor. Something looked and tasted a little "funny" somewhere, and it turned out that I did pick up something, though it could have been from any of the 150 French and German tourists who were also enjoying the evening, or from any number of people on the ship.
Ultimately Vietnam seemed to me a poor country still recovering from the setback of war in the same way Honduras will be a long time recovering from Hurricane Mitch. They are each in a sensitive, lucrative location with good resources, and with a huge number of people who just want to do business in peace.
Thailand, March 12-17
The following day, March 12th, a dozen of us intrepid explorers left the ship for Ho Chi Minh's Tan San Nhat International Airport to fly via Bangkok to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. This was the beginning of a four-night overland excursion correctly named by the ship: Adventures in Thailand. For me it was also the beginning of whatever the bug I had picked up had in mind. There was some doubt at first whether everything would eject out the top or the bottom, then it became clear it would tease on and off with both. A plentiful diet of rice and tea was attempted for several days. This reminded me that things can go wrong when you travel; you're supposed to have started out flexible anyway, remember? In a crisis, you've got to just soldier on or surrender (if you have the luxury of a choice). I chose the soldiering on because I really wanted to see and do everything I possibly could. It wiped me out, but it was worth it.
In Chiang Mai we stayed at the Westin (yes!) Riverside Plaza, and in Chiang Rai at the Dusit Island Resort (Dusit is an up-and-coming chain in this part of the world). Just below the glistening, well-landscaped pool in Chiang Rai were shanty shacks with longboats resting on the riverbank. During this period, I had the privilege of riding an elephant, visiting an exotic orchid farm, and touring several of the area's important Buddhist temples. We also checked out the traditional home industries of northern Thailand which are gems, silk, wood carving and paper umbrellas. It doesn't take long to relate wood carving designs with fabric patterns and with what one has seen in the temples to get a good idea of the spirituality of the people. It was beyond fascinating to me, I was entranced. I bought gems.
One evening in Chiang Mai we had cocktails and a customary Khantoke dinner with a performance of serene northern-style dancing at "Wang Nam Ping," the home of an elegant princess closely related to the royal family on her father's side. She was an outstanding hostess. Later, some visited the city's famous Night Bazaar: schlock and real, everything imaginable for sale, side by side.
We drove the beautiful 3½ hours north to Chiang Rai, then further on to Chiang Saen for a jet boat ride through the Golden Triangle. Here a humble river separating Thailand from Burma comes from the west to meet the mighty (during the rainy season) Mekong powering down southward from China, on the eastern side of which is Laos. The legendary opium riches of the Golden Triangle have been replaced with lucrative tourism and more practical vegetable farming. Following lunch at a tasteful Le Meridien hotel out in the middle of nowhere, it was on to Mai Sai at the border of Burma for tapestries, pewter and old-looking-to-antique Chinese pottery. All the riches of Asia lie at some of these remote border towns where so much trading is done. The name changes from Myanmar to Burma often enough, and the Thais seem to prefer Burma, so Burma it is. (In another arguable nomenclature situation, the names Siam and Thailand are still used alongside each other in a sort of fond, romantic sense, even though there is no meaning for the word "Siam" in the Thai language. "Thai" means "free.")
Another day, we climbed up into the cooler hill tribes area of the north to see people just 30 years out of the stone age. They are just beginning to get an idea of where they might fit into the big picture and how they might make use of themselves; there is no going back. Throughout most of inland Thailand, constant crop burning as a part of harvest cycles often blocks the sun to such a degree that it seems darker than an eclipse, sunglasses not necessary all day. The smoke is sweeter than the noxious air possible in a place like Los Angeles, but you get the same acrid burning of the eyes.
We flew back to Bangkok, to the civilized, pampering cocoon of the Shangri-La Hotel. The most delicate sensibilities are respected and delighted in this comfortable hotel. Bangkok is so vast you cannot ever see the edges. Highrises up to 94 stories are scattered miles apart. Having no obvious city center makes it hard to get a handle on the heart, the center of gravity of it, which turns out to be where almost 1/5 of the country's population lives - along the rivers and canals. Here at the water's edge life continues as it probably has for centuries, except that electrical and telephone poles run down the sides of the main waterpath, in front of their houses and shacks. Toto, we're not in Venice anymore.
We saw the Golden Buddha (well, gold filled, but at over 5 tons it's magnificent and quite substantial), the Emerald Buddha (it's jade!, and so petite), and the magnificent Grand Palace. We boarded a private river boat to explore Bangkok's busy canals, the Chao Phraya River, the Royal Barge Museum, and the Temple of Dawn. We were invited to the home of the tour company owner for a traditional Thai dinner and Krathong ceremony. For the ceremony, a banana trunk float decorated with flowers, incense, a candle and a coin are floated out onto the lake with your thanksgiving and prayers. It was the first dinner at which I was able to actually eat food. Happy camper once again was I.
These overland tours are very demanding - breakfast at 7, on the bus and moving from 7:30am to 9:30pm. Of course it's necessary, and worth it, to see everything you came to see by getting away from the ship, feet on the ground. And there's nothing like the chance to sleep and wake up in a foreign place. However, it was wonderful to see the ship again. I felt like we'd been away a week. I went straight to the Ice Cream Bar for a big bowl of frozen yogurt.
Ko Samui, Thailand, March 17, 1999
After a quick overnight across the Gulf of Thailand, we came to the island of Ko Samui. Brave but savvy travellers are finding this rugged, remote little spot a paradise for sunning, swimming and diving. Here is your original palm tree fantasyland - in the making. The water is wonderful, the beaches postcard-perfect. There is a very large golden buddha at the Phra Yai temple, and several other interesting cultural sites to explore between days in the glorious water at the beach or around the pool. Though this was a Maiden Call for the Crystal Symphony, the Royal Viking Sun was expected the following day. The secret is definitely out, though I think it's not yet ready for prime time.
Singapore, March 19, 1999
Singapore is a clean, lovely city, but I couldn't seem to find any particularly defining personality in the place. There is great variety in the mixed ethnic groups. In fact, of all the melting pot that is Asia, more even percentages of Indians, Malays, Thais and Chinese are living in harmony here than anywhere else around. They are very careful about preserving and restoring cultural landmarks. Yet even the famous Raffles Hotel was completely remodeled almost a decade ago leaving it mostly homogenized and sanitized; I found little genuine character. The National History Museum has a series of clever dioramas describing the beginning, colonialization and subsequent development of Singapore over the last two+ centuries. There is also a small but fine jade collection on the 3rd floor.
This was a great ending/beginning of segments. The ship changed from around 900 passengers to somewhere around 500 (rumor had it): a very lightly filled segment. This is, perhaps, because it is only 10 days from Singapore to Bombay. One disappointment about having so many segments in a world cruise is that there are these big exits and then influxes of passengers. My problem is not that I have to meet and remember a whole new group of people; that was out of the question from the beginning. But new passengers are often lost for several days, and they are not into the same tempo or life patterns one develops after a month. The great change is not transparent for the in-transit guests, rather it is all too clear: room keys change (!), staff members change, two daily programs must be published that day - one for disembarking passengers and one for embarking passengers. It's hard to tell what's open for lunch. I had hoped for a better "flow."
Another disappointment is that they repeated many of the menu basics - at least they did for these last two segments. However, this does give one the opportunity to sample other items one couldn't get to before. There used to be such pride by the lines that did an annual World Cruise in never repeating a menu, but that was when most everyone was on for the entire voyage. Repeat attendance was required at each new segment's emergency lifeboat muster. Perhaps even more disappointing was that as the Crystal Symphony was heading into annual drydock in Lisbon at the end of the World Cruise, they were letting a couple of things go, here and there, like light bulbs (a pet peeve of mine), and it looked to me like a few carpet areas were finally accepting their last few possible steps.
We sailed west by northwest through the Strait of Malacca, quite narrow in several areas, considering the volume of world shipping that transits here. There were great tankers, old and new cargo vessels, everything you can imagine. Some of the old things were poking along trailing a pool of rust. Since we were only doing 11 knots into Penang, one supertanker even passed us by, albeit slowly. We sailed into a low pressure weather system and were well into some rain, but the seas remained fairly calm.
The "Adventures of Northern India" four-night overland trip I was looking forward to was cancelled for lack of sufficient participation. This is probably a blessing in disguise. So instead, I booked onto a specially chartered jet to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal and return to Bombay in a day.
Penang, Malaysia, Sunday, March 21, 1999
Here's yet another idyllic tropical island, the next time you're looking for one. It's much more civilized than the Solomons and New Guinea, but not overly "done" (by anyone's description), and much of the old Malay style of living seems to cling here, ensuring character. I finally broke through my expectations of such a thing as a butterfly farm, and went, to my absolute delight. The gardens and waters and flowers were lovely, but to be engulfed by the fluttering of some of the most delicate and beautiful creatures on earth was surreal. Thankfully in the gift shop there were no framed specimens; this has always seemed a little macabre to me. I also visited a batik factory and showroom. Malaysian batiks would have to do since we were denied ports in Indonesia on this itinerary because of their economic conditions. Though I did batik as a kid in high school, the work of the pros is altogether different.
Three days at sea is heaven to me (any more days would be sainthood, absolutely out of the question). The guest chef for this segment, Barbara Tropp, from the former China Moon Cafe in my home town of San Francisco, was a true delight. A question regarding the smallest nuance of a recipe or a technique invariably brings forth a wonderful diatribe sure to reveal, even in an obscure way, impressions of her unique take on the meaning of life, for starters. Her sensibilities about food and eating are a revelation. The pan-Asian menus she created for the Guest Chef's dinners were a grand discovery. Barbara was a delight all the way through Bombay. Also, the great songstress Leslie Uggams was sensational. In case you're wondering what the celebrity guests do around the ship, Ms. Uggams and Tab Hunter (an interesting and gentle soul with such stories to tell) could be seen chatting at the Ice Cream bar, for example.
Male, Maldives, Thursday, March 25, 1999
I thought Male was about as idyllic and remote as I could experience on this trip. Perfect little palm-fringed islands make up the edges of great atolls. Water at the shore was shallow and clear and warm, a little cooler when you go out further, though the depth even 1/4 mile out can still be only about 4 feet. Water temperature would be very warm in the shallows, a little cooler further out, then upon returning to the shallows, it seemed so warm I wondered why I ever thought it was cool at first. Well, it's quite hot here just several degrees above the equator and the sun is a real stinger. There is an amazing array of colorful fish, some familiar to my snorkeling in the western hemisphere, some a little different, and some even unique to this part of the world. The air temperature came to be felt as very comfortable, with a breeze. The resort at which we played for the day (the transfer to which was the only shore excursion offered in Male) was mostly populated by Europeans, as this area tends to attract visitors from countries much nearer than the US, the US being about half way around the world. It would be worth it to come almost any distance to spend time here; I would just stay a while longer.
Cochin, India, March 26, 1999
Boy, did we haul it to get here without spending a day at sea. We left Male at 3pm and somehow covered the 383 nautical miles in 22 and 1/2 hours to arrive at Cochin by 1pm the following day. I know we weren't really moving that fast, but it sure seemed so. The "lost" 30 minutes were because the west coast of India is 30 minutes off the rest of the world around it, a hint of "things off" to come.
For some reason, the dirty brownish sea on our approach to Cochin seemed some portent of the horrors I have heard to come in India. Yes, I was fearful. But I was determined to take it in the best way for me - in a small to medium dose each day and then return to the ship to process experiences and rest.
Our Maiden call at Cochin began with a colorful display of formally dressed Indians holding tall, brightly colored silk umbrellas. At the center of this show was a large elephant with a golden headpiece. Again, the heat was stunning.
Not being ready yet for the prime time of Cochin proper, I decided to take a waterway cruise through the surrounding vast river system (hence, the brownish water) that takes up most of the coastal area for miles, and provides a livelihood for tens of thousands. Beside the extremely humble villages lie coconut groves and paddy fields, and an amazing old Chinese legacy to the Indians - a clever contraption for catching the rivers' rich fish. At the tip of one island directly in the harbor is an 18th century Dutch colonial mansion being renovated into a hotel. Someday this will be a fine attraction.
Mumbai, India, Mar 28-30, 1999
It really should be called Mumbai because that is what it is called by the Indians. It was the Portuguese who named it Bombay (another story).
The ship docked with the first hint of dawn, and 120 privileged passengers were on their half asleep way to the airport for a specially chartered jet adventure, "Taj Mahal in a Day." It was about an hour from the pier to the airport, then some waiting (hey, it's the airport, AND it's India). The flight to Agra was about two hours, then we were off to a local Sheraton for lunch. I loved the spicy chicken and lentils. Many others didn't care for the food (but liked the beer). Did I forget to mention how hot it was? Then it was on to the Taj Mahal.
Dare I say I was somewhat underwhelmed? Please, before I am blacklisted by any of you with a trace of art appreciation or romance, allow me to explain that it was a holiday so there were far more than the usual 10,000 daily visitors. I found it very difficult to see around or get through the masses of people to really sense or absorb something from the monument. It is so hard to find peace anywhere in India. Also, I experienced the (sometime) nonsense of being in a tour group that's a little too large, having to stick together, worrying about people getting lost, then having guides recite a tale which is not necessarily what the place is really about. There are great obstacles to be overcome in order to perceive what is before you.
That said, it IS truly incredible and perhaps somehow even beyond beautiful. Several people were instantly overcome with emotion. It is a work of art like no other in the world, absolutely feminine, entirely perfect in form, and supreme in its magnificent design and decoration. As huge as it seems from any distance, it is actually human scale up close - somewhat of an optical illusion. The central tomb area has a very intimate feeling about it, though the roof seems to fly. Marble inlay detail and carved stone tracery are astonishing. Overall, the effect is of such serenity, such peace-in-love, a celebration of the deepest affection, crafted for eternity.
My recommendation would be to visit the Taj Mahal twice - once on a morning's opening, then again later just before that day's closing. These are both times when the crowds would be at their lowest. (The Doris Duke Alternative: rent it for a day.) Also, very important in my view is to see the nearby Fort Agra, the grounded yang to the Taj's ephemeral yin. They should never be thought of as separate. They are each best understood in conjunction with one another, rather than alone - especially once you see the view of the Taj from the Fort, where, imprisoned later by his son, the king had many years of an emotionally laden view of his favorite wife's tomb until his own death. He was then buried by her side in the Taj Mahal, clearly the only break in symmetry, never originally intended.
About India in general, it is the worst and the best of this world. It is an assault on all the senses that cannot be ignored. The population (almost 1 billion souls) is completely out of control. No space is unused. The pollution is so bad you can usually see no more than 1/4 mile (from about 60% vehicle emissions, 40% industrial). Children and adults, cows, water buffalo and dogs live and walk on all the streets, ramps and freeways within less than an inch of their deaths. Beggars may easily be the most persistent in the world. Sidewalks are upholstered with vendors of all things, encroaching a bit more (but where?) every day.
You may see many sights of British Colonial importance, or of importance to today's city life, but as India is predominantly a Hindu nation, nothing means what we might think it means. It is a faith, more than a religion, and Hinduism emphasizes personal ritual and public observances, spiritual contemplation and some asceticism in order to fulfill the only thing that you were born to do, the right thing, which you must do. They believe in reincarnation. It is about what you do, not what you think. The famous caste system, though outlawed, is alive and well, so ingrained. Forget for a moment our seven deadly sins; their simpler three are lust, hatred and delusion. Buddhism is intertwined with this and revealed in the common belief that suffering is inherent in life. Hence the life in the streets. Of course, there are Tibetan, Zen and other variations on Buddhism. And the country contains many Muslims, Zoroastrians and Jains. India receives my Unity in Diversity award.
But besides all the things we think are bizarre and out of control, there is strong family and friendly love, charity, kindness, even a twinkle of affection in a little boy's or girl's eye as they drag behind you begging for "one dolla." They would never show enmity; it does not exist in their way of thinking. Poverty and filth, yet love and great beauty exist side by side. A casual evening's walk home from work is a colored and patterned show of dazzling women's attire. Elegant in their silk saris, Indian ladies ride side-saddle on the back of motorbikes. There is much we must re-look or maybe overlook, whatever it takes, in order to not judge by standards not meant for them.
If you are able to make a moment's peace to observe the highlights of Mumbai, see the immense gothic-styled Victoria Railway Terminus (well over 2 million a day pass through), the Dhobi Ghat, an outdoor laundry where men pound clothes against ancient stones in seeming dirty grey-brown water (but such brilliant whites!) and, most importantly, the Mani Bhavan Ghandi Museum. Here the great prophet of compassion and peace made his home over the years. The back of the first floor is a full-to-the-rafters library, the dusty, glassed-in books humming with all the knowledge of the world, circa 1948. On the second floor is a large room containing about 25 dioramas depicting various important milestones in his long life. These scenes are at a somewhat low height, so they are accessible to children. Other rooms display historical photos, correspondence (i.e., with Hitler and Truman) and framed quotations that will certainly live through the ages, if never be fully embraced by us all. Then on the third floor is Ghandi's own room, as it was last left in all it's impossible simplicity. Just off it is the front balcony from which he sometimes spoke. The floor tiles are the original, bearing yet a hint of his presence among the noise and smell of eternal Bombay.
If you can bear an hour's cruise six miles across the waters of Bombay harbor (most everyone makes it just fine), you can enjoy the Elephanta Caves. Up 125 steps on your own, or borne on a "palanquin" by bearers, you may find these caves hewn out of a solid mountain quite a marvel. Did I forget to mention how hot it was? Well, it's cooler up in these 2nd century caverns with imposing and beautifully detailed circular columns, and many partially-surviving sculptures and wall carvings of the three most important gods of the Hindu trinity. You have my best wishes to survive the vendors on the way back down (if you made it past them getting up).
I didn't do very well surviving any vendors in Mumbai, especially on that one evening when we all came back at 10pm, wiped out from the one day trip to the Taj Mahal. There had been a fashion show staged by one of the better stores in town (which I missed) and afterwards a little sale (which I did not miss). The third and last morning in town I even surrendered myself to their actual place of business to pick up a jacket that needed alteration and to see more of their fine spangled tapestries. Many people bought beautiful carpets (which only reminds me of dear friends in Texas who had a bad experience doing this). You must have done your homework to fully understand technique, content and quality with carpets. And bring color swatches if you're serious. What happens if you get it home, and it doesn't fit or it's the wrong color? It's not like they'll drop by tomorrow with another one for your inspection.
Do not invest in any paint manufacturing enterprise in Southeast Asia or India. It must be against ALL their religions as it is rarely used, except for painting signs. (The bulk of these signs are about the great war of the colas.)
The cruise during this segment seemed quiet, with only 500 passengers and 560 crew. People ate on their balconies or in their rooms on casual nights. One evening the 100 or so privileged full World Cruisers had a "Block Party" in the officer's staterooms followed by a grand barbecue on the back deck (noticeably taking all the first-string service staff with them). The Aquavit it takes to keep those Norwegian events going! For me it was time to hit the wonderful alternative restaurants, Prego for Italian and Jade Garden for Asian cuisine. And during the day my objective was to continue to try to skip the attractions of the "Reflections" newsletter listings of activities and events, to only read and swim and sun as much as I could. I thought it might be fun to be "brown as a berry" again.
We had such smooth sailing so far from Cairns where I embarked. There was only that couple days after Guam when we had 8-12 foot seas. I was having so much fun "surfing" in the 11th deck lap pool when I was thrown out of the pool against the side of the jacuzzi and scratched my left hip. Of course, I was quite proud of such a stunt. However war wounds and illness out here are nothing. Many passengers on for a while have been sick once or more, or are still lingering from various maladies. I think they may be socializing too much, spreading the viral wealth. In any case, I have been blessed.
For this segment, we're up from 500 passengers to about 650. And one of the first things we did after leaving India was give ourselves back those darn 30 minutes! We crossed the Arabian Sea. With 10,000 feet under the keel, we entered the Gulf of Oman. The next morning, around 3am we passed through the narrowest part of the Strait of Hormuz into the famous Persian Gulf. I will have a full day in vibrant Dubai, UAE. My personal destination is the Gold Souk, regardless that it is a Friday and most of the shops will be closed. I have my priorities.
Tim Josephson is a long time San Francisco-based Mariner, passionate about blue water cruising, and frequent contributor to the SeaLetter. He can be reached for questions or comment at: email@example.com.
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