A taste of everything
Southeast Asia’s ports of call boast ancient histories and modern tourist economies
Standing before an entryway to Vietnam’s infamous Cu Chi tunnels on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, retired US Army Colonel William Roscher leaned over and peered into the cramped opening leading to a dimly-lit earthen network.
During the Vietnam War, Viet Cong guerrillas used the 124-mile underground complex as a safe haven and base of operations for attacks on US troops. From 1968 to 1969, Roscher commanded an intelligence-gathering unit assigned to a division stationed at Cu Chi. Life in the tunnels went on literally beneath their encampment despite the efforts of “tunnel rats’’ to ferret out the enemy.
Roscher, a Phoenix resident, took the opportunity to return to Vietnam in January when he and his wife, JoAnn, sailed aboard the Ocean Princess on a 16-day cruise through the heart of Southeast Asia. The 4,173 statute-mile odyssey began in Singapore and included stops at ports of call in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Okinawa, Japan, before ending in Shanghai.
Revisiting Vietnam for the first time in more than 40 years gave Roscher an eerie sense of déjà vu. “Seeing the tunnels was quite amazing,’’ he said. “During wartime, none of us realized how extensive they were.’’
Times have changed. Now eager to draw US and other foreign visitors to the country, the Vietnamese government has transformed the Cu Chi complex into a war memorial and tourist attraction.
As the Ocean Princess followed the ancient maritime trade route through the South China Sea, its 684 passengers from 38 countries often found themselves entering distinctly foreign waters. Daily Facebook updates showing Buddhist monks chanting inside ornate temples, laborers working rice paddies, and shopkeepers hawking snake wine reflected the kaleidoscope of cultures, religions, and commerce in this exotic part of Asia.
“A lot of people haven’t been to this part of the world, so they have a great deal of curiosity about the history, living conditions, climate, people, and places,’’ said Susan Rawlings, Ocean Princess cruise director. “This cruise provides a good overview of Asia. You get a taste of everything.’’
That first taste came in sunny Singapore, where the sultry morning air was tinged with the spicy sweetness of curry. Highly regarded for its wide boulevards, clean-swept streets, and orderly traffic, this island nation off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula has evolved into a melting-pot metropolis. Ultramodern high-rises cast long shadows over cloistered alleyways and ethnic enclaves in Chinatown and Little India. Familiar Western-style cuisine blends with the succulent tastes of Indian, Malayan, and Chinese dishes prepared at ubiquitous food courts and street-side eateries. Symphonies and theatrical performances draw audiences to the Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay, and Clarke Quay’s nonstop night life attracts pub crawlers to bars and restaurants along the Singapore River.
The new Marina Bay Sands, a $5.5 billion waterfront casino resort that opened last year, has eclipsed even the venerable Raffles Hotel, long famous for its gin-laced Singapore Slings, to become the “Lion City’s’’ newest architectural icon. Described by locals as “the building with the boat on top,’’ the complex’s three 55-story towers are crowned by a ship-shaped Sands SkyPark, where guests can sip a Tiger beer or soak in an infinity pool while they admire the skyline view.
The Ocean Princess sailed from Singapore’s HarbourFront complex past Sentosa Island, home to Universal Studio’s first theme park in Southeast Asia, and through the Singapore Strait bound for the Gulf of Thailand.
Two days later, the ship anchored off the Thai fishing village of Na Thon on Ko Samui island, a popular beach hangout for backpackers and vacationers. At the Namuang Safari Park, a convoy of lumbering elephants awaited us, their trunks raised in greeting and their eyes searching hungrily for bananas we had brought along. During our afternoon island tour, Ko Samui revealed signs of encroaching tourist development, including the opening of 17 five-star hotels and a handful of McDonald’s and KFC restaurants. However, the islanders have preserved their silken-sand beaches and fascinating religious attractions, including the golden Big Buddha seated atop a dragon-festoon temple staircase on Fan Island and the mummified remains of a famous monk at Wat Kunaram.
The next day, a brilliant orange sun rose above dockside cranes as the Ocean Princess shoehorned its way into Laem Chabang port, gateway to Bangkok. The 2 1/2-hour bus trip inland took us from rice paddies and fish farms into the chaos of the city. Our tour guide shepherded us through the manicured grounds surrounding the golden spire-crowned Grand Palace, former home of the Thai kings, and the jewel-like colonnade and ordination hall of the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha. “It was sensational, just stunning,’’ said Robert Hale, of Suffolk, England. “An amazing collection of showy wealth.’’
In a nod to Bangkok’s moniker, “Venice of the East,’’ we boarded a slender longboat at noon for a wind-whipped ride down the mud-brown Chao Praya River and through the narrow stilt-house-lined klongs, or canals, in the Thonburi District. The highlight of Bangkok for Canadian passenger Carolle Walls of Vancouver, British Columbia, was an afternoon stop at the Gems Galore showroom. “I bought a pair of sapphire and diamond earrings,’’ she said. “It made my day.’’
At Phu My, our first stop in Vietnam, our guide Thanh struggled to stay upright as our bus lurched over the broken, washboard pavement on the provincial highway leading from the harbor to Ho Chi Minh City. Masked riders on Chinese-made motor scooters swarmed past dilapidated metal-roof houses, small roadside fruit stands, and flooded fields dotted with water buffalo. Despite Vietnam’s turbulent past, the nation’s predominantly youthful population has adopted an upbeat attitude. “We are a new generation that is trying to develop our country,’’ Thanh said.
Downtown Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, displays vestiges of its pre-communist past. Architectural treasures, such as the neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral and the French Colonial post office, are well preserved. But mid-rise apartments near the teeming Ben Thanh central market reveal crumbling walls and cornices.
Vietnam offers some good bargains. The Minh Phuong Lacquer factory dazzled us with its vast selection and reasonable prices for fine lacquerware. A stroll along fashionable Dong Khoi Street near the Rex Hotel, site of the US military’s weekly updates during the war, surprised us with its Fifth Avenue flair and stylish department-store window displays.
During our subsequent port stop at Chan May, we toured the historical highlights of Vietnam’s old imperial capital of Hue and motored down the placid Perfume River in a brightly painted dragon boat. Inside the moss-blackened walls of the ancient citadel, we were approached by enterprising trishaw drivers who, for two US dollars, fast-pedaled us in a jostling chariot-style race back to the Cho Dong Ba market.
Hong Kong, where we spent two days, burst upon our senses like the laser lights that illuminate skyscrapers and strafe the night sky during the “Symphony of Lights’’ show on Victoria Harbor. Since 1997, when the British relinquished control to the Chinese, the island has amazed the world with its explosive growth and affluence.
“Hong Kong has to be one of the most exciting places on earth,’’ said Glenn Amer, a Princess Cruises featured entertainer. “I love the crowded sidewalks and tiny, winding streets. It always reminds me of the movie ‘The World of Susie Wong.’ ’’
We toured the island on the double-decker Big Bus and took the Victoria Peak tram up to the 1,400-foot-high sky terrace for a dizzying harbor view. Along Hollywood Road, we bargained for antiques and then walked to the Mid-Levels Escalator, the world’s longest moving-staircase system, for a quick ride up through SoHo, a district of trendy bars, restaurants, and shops. The next day, we threaded our way through Kowloon’s underground shopping labyrinth and rode the immaculate MRT subway to Prince Edward Road to saunter through the lotus- and orchid-infused flower market and Yuen Po Street bird garden, where birds flit inside ornate bamboo cages.
The Ocean Princess’s final two ports of call before reaching Shanghai introduced us to distinctly different islands. On Taiwan, we viewed the changing of the military guard at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall and snapped photos of the Taipei 101 Tower, one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, before exploring the thriving night market in the port of Keelung. On Okinawa, during a gentle rain, shy geisha hid beneath pink umbrellas at the restored Shurijo Castle, and Japanese schoolchildren posed for pictures along shop-lined Kokusai Street in Naha, the Okinawa prefecture’s capital.
“I enjoyed all the ports,’’ said Susan Freschi of Klamath Falls, Ore., as she and her husband, Jerry, concluded their first visit to Asia. “Each and every one was a unique experience.’’
Claudia Capos can be reached at email@example.com.