A cruise from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City reveals two extraordinarily diverse cultures, as Cruise International Editor Liz Jarvis discovered when she boarded a Silversea cruise
It’s noisy, dirty, smelly, and chaotic. It’s also captivating. Welcome to Vietnam.
Our journey by sea to Ho Chi Minh City began in Singapore, where the contrast with the Vietnamese city couldn’t be greater. Singapore is almost clinically clean and by day seems uninspiring, a mishmash of skyscrapers and traditional architecture.
At night though the city is transformed, the skyline glittering, the river illuminated with the rainbow of colours from the nightly laser show emitted by the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Families promenade and the waterfront restaurants are busy.
After a delicious dinner of fresh crab and the obligatory Singapore Sling we headed to the rooftop bar of The Fullerton Bay Hotel, with its stunning views of the city, and it’s up there that I start to appreciate the appeal of Singapore: glamour.
The following day we boarded our ship, Silver Shadow, at the shiny new and very empty Marina Bay Cruise Terminal, to be greeted by Silversea staff bearing trays of champagne, and shown to our Veranda Ocean View stateroom, which was comfortable and spacious.
That night we dined in Le Champagne ($30 cover charge), and I tried the much-heralded Gold Leaf Risotto. The gold leaf seems to dissolve in your mouth, and my lobster main course was also excellent, as was the warm white chocolate soufflé.
There are several bars on Silver Shadow and a small casino. The best place to be though is the Panorama Lounge, where you can step out on to the deck and breathe in the ocean air.
This is proper pampering, and my Elemis facial later that day was very good too. We also became attached to our butler.
Our favourite meal by far was the Hot Rock dining experience, where you choose the meat you want (in my case steak and prawns – not as weird as it sounds) and then it’s served on your own little barbecue for you to cook the way you like it.
And I decide that this is the real bonus of cruising with Silversea. Extraordinarily good food, and unobtrusive service. What our ship may have lacked in state-of-the-art facilities was more than made up for by the luxurious experience, making our cruise to Vietnam all the more pleasurable. The atmosphere is informal and unpretentious, and there are excellent lectures too, including one given by a military expert, and another telling us about the art on board, which includes works by Salvador Dali (available to buy, should you happen to have several thousand dollars to spare).
The other big advantage is the size of the ship, meaning it can pull right into Saigon harbour, avoiding the need for lengthy transfers. Along the way we pass rural scenery and traditional fishing boats.
In Ho Chi Minh City the riverbanks are lined with tall skinny traditional-style houses and though the name may have changed from Saigon there’s evidence of the city’s French past everywhere, including wide boulevards and colonial villas. There are also lots of street vendors – mostly women, wearing traditional conical hats and selling hot food, fruit, handmade crafts and lottery tickets.
‘We don’t talk about the War,’ our tour guide tells his busload of passengers – mostly Americans. He’s joking, of course, because there are reminders everywhere you go, including the former Presidential Palace, now the Reunification Palace, where tanks crashed through the gates in 1975; the site of the former US embassy, where helicopters carried out the last evacuation; and the Rex Hotel, the well-known hangout for military officials and war correspondents.
If you’re interested in exploring the city’s military history further, it’s well worth taking the excursion to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were used by the Viet Cong as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches, and ultimately helped them win the war. Be warned though that most of these underground tunnels are only two feet wide and five feet high, so not for the claustrophobic. Along the way you’ll pass paddy fields and villages, as though time has stood still. And if you want to see more of Vietnam then the Mekong Delta excursion will take you on a tour of local villages. You’ll visit the Cai Be Floating Market and be left with vivid impressions of rural life along the canals.
In Ho Chi Minh City we spot an extraordinary number of brides – seven in total – having their photos taken outside the Notre-Dame Basilica. Each one has her own make-up artist and hairdresser in tow, as well as her groom. Our guide explains that their traditional white gowns are hired specially for the photographs, and the couples won’t actually get married for another two weeks.
Other highlights include Gustave Eiffel’s impressive General Post Office, with its stunning mosaic-tiled floor and frescoes on the walls; China Town, where we visit the beautiful incense-scented Thien Hau Temple; and the An Dong and Binh Tay indoor markets, mazes of stalls with endless hats and pairs of shoes you could easily get lost in.
As we make our way to the airport, the sun is starting to set, but there are still countless motorbikes and scooters on the streets, whirring past us in a blur of colour. Ho Chi Minh City has a unique charm, and our brief taste of Vietnam has left all of our party wanting to explore more.
A 9-day voyage from Singapore to Hong Kong in November 2013 starts at £2,750pp, cruise only. See silversea.com. Singapore Airlines offers return flights from London to Singapore from £830. Visit singaporeair.com.
Photo: © Robert Francis/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis