Travel

Cruising Along Vietnam’s Coast From Saigon to Da Nang

Aboard the maiden voyage of the first-ever Asian luxury cruise liner, we encounter the fever dream that is the Vietnamese coastline.
IMAGE Christopher Puhm
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DAY ONE

So Long, Singapore

The tiny tugboat strains hard, fighting for every inch it gains. In tow the gigantic Genting Dream, merging slowly, aft first, from its northern German shipyard in Papenburg, its birthplace and temporary home. Hundreds of spectators await the sight of small tugs pulling and pushing to position the 150,000-ton ship for the start of its long journey up the narrow Ems river, through windswept East Frisian islands, and into the cold North Sea.

The vessel wasn’t commissioned to cruise the rough Atlantic, or even the temperate waters of the Mediterranean. Instead, it enters the Strait of Gibraltar, passing quickly through the Mediterranean Sea, the beautiful, if troubled, coasts of Europe and North Africa soon in its rearview. Leaving behind the Old World, the cruise liner navigates the Suez Canal and crosses the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean to call upon Singapore, the starting point of this maritime marvel’s maiden voyage.

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A lanky teenage boy enters my viewfinder. He slowly and carefully baits his hook and deliberates over where to cast the line, indifferent to the vessel’s 19 decks towering high above us, or to my attempt at taking a decent picture. Lowering my camera, I instead decide to board the ship early. The check-in process is a breeze and within minutes I’m approaching the gangway, with a steward standing at attention. I show him my boarding pass and he nods approvingly. Permission to board ship granted. All around me, passengers are beginning to stream onto the lower decks.

The four-year-old explorer in me insists on pushing past the first wave of guests, perfectly content with finding plush lounge chairs or the nearest bar. Lit-up slot machines and black banks of baccarat screens line my path. Kiosk attendants are opening up shop. Bartenders smile at me, anticipating their first order. Skipping past a few like-minded travelers on the way up, I’m the first to make it to deck 19. I take in the sheer size of the ship, dwarfing everything around it. Below me the sun deck and pool, orange lounge chairs lined up, waterslides wrapped around giant stacks. In the distance, a rigid glass wall of skyscrapers stands guard over the city state.

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DAY TWO

At Sea, An Endless Sunny Sky 

A boat followed us out of the harbor last night as we departed Singapore, but this morning there’s no company in sight. No container ships ambling along, fishing trawlers pulling nets, or sail boats cutting through the waves. Nothing but the tranquil waters off the Malaysian coast and the clear blue sky above. The wake created by the ship fades slowly in the distance. On its surface, the sea has no memory.

Servet knew from an early age what he wanted to do with his life. While touring me around the ship, he tells me about his hometown, the coastal city of Antalya in Turkey. There, thousands make their living with work in the many hotels and all-inclusive resorts lining its sandy beaches, and for a time he was one of them, but serving Russian tourists shots of vodka before breakfast and managing rowdy buffet-goers eventually took its toll. He tried his luck on German ships for a few years, first cruising up and down rivers, then across the globe. But the future is in Asia, and he left Europe on the Genting Dream, one of many Europeans working on every deck.

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Do I have a wife and children, he asks, the thought of a family of his own clearly on his mind. But it’s hard to maintain lasting relationships with fellow crew, as most are over before contracts end. Back in Antalya, the 29-year-old’s siblings have started families of their own. They wonder where his path will lead him. Looking out the window reminds me that we’re at sea. The waters are calm. Tomorrow, we’ll reach Vietnam.

 

DAY THREE

You Can’t Miss Saigon 

Mist covers the mangrove islands in Cam Ranh Bay, and my balcony is wet from the morning rain. The sun rises slowly over a hazy, thickly forested peak as we pass fishing boats and small freighters sitting motionless in the bay, the only sound a low rumbling and metallic squeaking coming from below as we turn to enter an inlet. On a ship, time seems to move slower. I let go of my first instinct to rush and get ready to disembark, the leisurely speed at which we’re navigating the bay telling me that there’s no need. Breakfast is at one of the upper decks overlooking the coastline; a welcome committee lining up along a red carpet awaits us as we step foot onto land.

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It looks like Ho Chi Minh City is catching up. The city-bound highway takes us past rice paddies and auto repair shops, reminding me of trips to the province, if not for the constant buzz of motorcycles and the occasional Buddhist temple.


After an hour-and-a-half, and without a warning, we enter the capital. Farmland suddenly gives way to rubble and bulldozers, and sheds are replaced first by expensive condo towers, then gated villas and then even more towers, financed with the help of eager foreign investors from Singapore and South Korea. A sign announces a new subway to be built in cooperation with Japan. No longer here are the old navy headquarters built by the French colonial government 140 years ago; its barracks along the Saigon River are prime real estate, and Vietnam is looking to build.

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The Ho Chi Minh I want to explore isn’t the one being constructed on the outskirts, it’s the old city at the center. There are a few interesting sights—the colonial-era cathedral and post office, and the grand reunification palace—but it isn’t an obvious charmer like Hanoi, Vietnam’s cool, cultural capital. Skipping the bustling main market and its grabby vendors, I instead amble around the surrounding streets and let myself be surprised.


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The city’s most charming cafes are hidden behind unassuming souvenir shops and down narrow passageways. Their owners don’t give up their secrets easily. I’m lucky the city is willing to share a particularly delicious one on this scorching hot afternoon. Up several flights of stairs, fenced in by rusty, corrugated iron bars, I happen upon a trendy café overlooking a bustling street. No sign advertising its location, just a hunch. I have enough time to finish the best iced condensed milk coffee I’ve ever had before I need to catch my ride back to the port.

 

Day Four

Looking for Love in Nha Trang 

Not a single soul is on the promenade deck early in the morning. No water sloshing down the steep water slides; no jets bubbling up the hot tubs; the orange sun loungers untouched. The pool water gently splashes against the edges, mimicking the ocean’s current. On this calm, hot day off Vietnam’s coast, it’s the only sign of movement. I take a stroll on the wooden walkway wrapped around the deck’s restaurants and bars, and peer through the windows. Slender waitresses in traditional red and gold cheongsam dresses flit past private dining rooms, screened off from the main banquet area. After an exploratory tour of the ship’s bars last night, a traditional dim sum breakfast looks the most inviting.

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Just then, a few decks below, a tender boat is slowly lowered into the water and leaves for the harbor. Soon, more will follow, bringing us ashore. The hills and beaches of Nha Trang are waiting.


Russian and Western European tourists have made the sandy beach their refuge from a cold autumn back home, claiming the best beach chairs for themselves for long, lazy days of tanning and dipping in the water. My tan can wait, and instead I navigate through a steady stream of motorbikes to procure a fresh coconut in one of the nearby beachfront stores. At the corner, a group of middle-aged local men sits idly on the curb next to their motorbikes. Noticing me, one of them gets up to greet me with a big grin, and I expect a pitch for a bike rental. He unleashes a flurry of blunt gestures upon me, one more unsavory and hilarious than the next. Willing women, whose skills and features he describes in manic motions, are waiting nearby to perform said gestures, for a small fee. Laughing, he continues to proposition me as I escape into a silk embroidery shop around the corner.

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In the quiet courtyard, a young man on a guitar plays songs of longing and sorrow. A young lady, sitting in a window, puts thought into every stitch of her artwork. Nestled high up in an old, leafy tree, a treehouse looks down on us all. 


Why he chose to wait this long, I’ll never understand. Outside a temple not far from the beach, our guide tells us the story of an old G.I. searching for his Vietnamese girlfriend. Forty years he waited before returning to Nha Trang, where he was stationed in an airbase during the war. Never married and without a family of his own, he only now returned to her old village, our guide as his translator. They did find her house eventually, but she cautioned against him knocking on her door without warning. The guide went inside alone, introducing herself, and told her of the American standing outside. She didn’t want to see him. Too much time had passed, and there were things he didn’t know. His guide came back alone, and said that the husband, a jealous man, was with her inside. The man understood and left without ever seeing his former lover. But, she was scared the villagers would be suspicious of him, and the reason for his visit. No one would ever know she was a spy for the Americans—not even the American waiting outside.

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Day Five

Demons in the Mountains of Da Nang 

This morning, the sea gently reminds us of its presence. The sheer size of the ship creates the illusion of that we’re staying at a sprawling resort complex on firm ground. The nightly shows, the lounge singers, the casino—all part of the ruse. To marvel at the ocean’s magnificence or to completely ignore its existence is a conscious choice. But every sunrise, pulling back the heavy curtain reveals a new scenery: an unknown, far-off coastline, a trail of ships left in our wake, a welcoming natural harbor.


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Facing the vast, empty expanse while running on a treadmill, the ocean provides the tiniest of hints at its potential energy. Gone are the calm waters off the Malaysian coast; the minute but constant shifts in balance make it feel like a zero gravity run on a space station overlooking the steel grey ocean surface of a planet much harsher than our own. I adjust my stride accordingly. The instructor brings me back to earth with advice on how to work off last night’s laksa. I try out the water rower next, focusing on the horizon with every pull while a flywheel spins water in a steady rhythm around the machine’s round glass tank.

Dancing dragons greet us at the port as we disembark in Da Nang in the afternoon. Spanning the length of the bridge, a steel dragon guides our entrance into the city, and brings us closer to Am Phu Cave in the Marble Mountains. Along the beach road are miles of ambitious resort projects, and miles more still under construction. Da Nang has long exhausted its supply of white marble for artisans to craft immaculate Buddha statues, so it is building its own Riviera instead.

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Soon after the long stretch of resorts ends, we arrive at the cave, a curious interpretation of the Buddhist idea of hell. Hands sticking out of the murky water underneath the short bridge warn visitors not to enter the domelike cave, pitch black if not for an illuminated Buddha sitting deep in the cavern. Narrow passages lead down to displays of doom: poor souls devoured by monsters, chained to wooden poles, held hostage by demons. But, there’s also another dome leading to heaven—a steep, slippery staircase cut roughly into the rock. I climb to a plateau and see a small opening high up, its light shining down on the altar in front of me. Ascending to heaven isn’t easy; my shirt clings to my skin from the near claustrophobic humidity. I hesitate and decide to head back down. Everyone else has already left.

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Day Six

Saying Goodbye to the Dream

A stiff northeasterly wind blows across the pool deck on a sunny afternoon in the middle of the South China Sea. The coast of Vietnam is long out of sight and the sea is all there is around us. Goosebumps boost me up several flights of stairs past the abandoned mountain climbing wall and the ropes course, its obstacles swaying in the wind. Friendly attendants greet me on the way. From the top, the waterslides look even steeper, with an almost vertical drop and quick turns making up for a lack of horizontal space. I take the plunge and drop straight down the tube. A clear segment suddenly appears in a curve and for a split-second it feels like it will drop me straight into sea, but it doesn’t. I let the other slides give me a good bounce-around as well, and then soak in the hot tub until I’m boiled to perfection. Looking out over the water, there are sparkles dancing on the waves from here to the horizon. The sea is perfectly calm again on the last day of our journey.

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Tomorrow, in the early morning hours, a hazy Kowloon Bay will await the arrival of the Genting Dream. The cruise liner will pass between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon at a meandering pace, the city’s highrises, gently sloping hills and mountains still covered in fog. Disembarking the ship, passengers will slowly stream into a cavernous arrival hall, suitcases lined up and waiting for their owners. Hong Kong, too, will wake up to a sunny, new day as men and women glide down escalators from their apartments in the midlevels, shopkeepers and servers shuffle onto busy subways on their way to open stores and restaurants, and tourists line up for the tram’s first trip to Victoria Peak. The Genting Dream will leave at night. The port of Guangzhou calls and another journey begins.

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Christopher Puhm
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