Palace and Pagodas Cruise
31st January to 16th February 2011

Monday 31st January and Tuesday 1st February 2011

That was a LONG flight to Hong Kong – nearly twelve hours. We left Heathrow at 9.15pm on Monday and landed at 9.45am today UK time, 5.45pm local time. Gill napped and watched bits of films and I watched four films in a row, only sleeping briefly. Of course, we're now (10.30pm local) utterly exhausted!

Carly very kindly drove us to Heathrow. We got there in plenty of time, so we checked in as soon as possible then had a contingency meal in Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in Terminal 5. However, the two meals we were served by British Airways were really quite good, so maybe we needn't have bothered.

We were on board the 'Minerva' a little over an hour after landing, but had to do the mandatory lifeboat drill almost immediately. I know that by international law all cruise ships have to insist on all passengers complying, but it's still really irritating to be shown for the umpteenth time how to put on the blinking lifejacket when all you really need to know is where your muster station is.

We then had a brief stroll around the ship and out on deck, where we goggled at the illuminated Hong Kong waterfront. I've taken loads of photos and a couple of bits of video, but these don't do justice to what your eyes are seeing for real.

At dinner it's pot luck who you sit with, so you have to be prepared for small talk with people you mightn't eat with again. However, we were seated with a nice, older American couple plus two other pleasant couples and the meal passed in a very relaxed way. We  ordered a bottle of Soave intending to make it last two nights, but guess what? Yes, we cleared it in one sitting ;o)

Tomorrow we're on a five hour tour from 8am, followed by our departure from Hong Kong at 5pm, i.e. 9am London time. Right now that early start sounds like a problem!
(click on photos to enlarge)
Hong Kong's nightly
light show
Hong Kong lit up
Chinese New Year
It's the Year of the
Chinese New Year
Wednesday 2nd February 2011

In the event we slept well and woke before the 6.30 alarm went off.

Today's tour was really very good. We went for a brief sampan trip in the seemingly chaotic Aberdeen harbour area, then were taken to the Stanley Road market and ended up at a viewing point in the hills high above the city. The view was pretty amazing even though there was quite a haze that partially obscured it. Then we came back down from the peak on a tram – on the steepest sections the gradient seemed to be approaching 45 degrees!

We were back on board for lunch and then back ashore at 2pm for a quiet wander round the shops nearest to the terminal where the ship's moored. I lost count of the number of times that I was approached and asked if I'd like to have a suit or shirts made for me!

Gill pointed out as we walked around a shopping centre that must be almost as big as Bluewater that nearly all the shops were expensive 'designer' outlets like Cartier etc. and that they seemed too expensive for ordinary people.

So we're now back on board ready to depart at 5pm – 9am UK time. One of the lecturers on the ship will speak to passengers on the sights we'll be seeing as we depart. Tomorrow's a Sea Day, and there will be several expert lectures on the region during the day before the first Gala Dinner which'll be a black tie job.
Hong Kong, Harbour tour
Floating restaurant
On our sampan trip
Stanley market

Thursday 2nd February 2011
Sea Day

Overnight the clock went back an hour as we travelled westwards, so we're now only seven hours ahead of the UK. The good news was that we had an extra hour to catch up on our sleep.

Immediately after breakfast there was a combined presentation from the four lecturers we're going to be hearing from during the cruise. These will be covering the social and political history and the geography and geology of the region. Gill had enough foresight to insist that we took our seats 20 minutes early, and she was absolutely right – the passengers on this ship seem to be the sort of people who take education and information very seriously indeed and they were clearly determined to bag the best seats! Even in this session there was a useful point to remember – the definition of 'prehistory' *

An hour later came the first of these presentations, in which the speaker explained the term 'South East Asia', i.e. the area between India and China, and in which he explained the cultural and historical similarities between the peoples of these nations.

In the afternoon we ventured out on deck with our books, and amazingly managed to catch the sun on a fairly overcast day. I'm now very red and people are already assuming that I was on the previous cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong! :o)

At 5pm an archaeologist spoke about the Han Dynasty – 200 BC onwards – and centred on a remarkable excavation in the 1980s that revealed a tomb from that time containing the perfectly preserved body of a 50 year old woman. Her skin was still flexible and her blood vessels still contained red blood. A full post-mortem examination was carried out that revealed the precise cause of death, and we also saw footage of this. Gill and I were both unsure about whether this was an appropriate way to treat the remains of a fellow human being, fascinating though it might have been.

Then this evening came the champagne reception attended by the captain and senior officers, immediately before the first 'Gala Dinner'. This required dinner jackets from the male passengers but, as usual, women could wear what they pleased – sexism lives! ;o) I have never previously owned a 'DJ', but eagle-eyed Gill had spotted a while back that M&S sell the jacket and trousers for as little as £49 and so we went to Bluewater and bought one, plus fancy shirt and bow tie – sorted!

Tomorrow it's another early start. We arrive in darkness in Haiphong, then leave the ship at 7.30am for an eleven hour trip to Hanoi and back. From what we've heard already this promises to be a wonderful experience!

* Pre-History pre-dates written records
Looking down over
Hong Kong
Sailing away from
Hong Kong
A very quiet Hanoi
The streets of Hanoi
The streets of Hanoi
Friday 3rd February 2011
Haiphong and Hanoi

We were up at 6am for an early breakfast and then a 7.45am departure on the 2+ hours coach trip to Hanoi.

Haiphong., Hanoi, Da Nang, Saigon. These are all names that are so closely linked with my memories of the 60s and 70s and the grim Vietnam war that it's hard to accept that we're really visiting them all. From what we've been hearing from the guest speakers Vietnam, now a reunified country controlled from the North, is making an heroic recovery from the devastation of what they call The American War. China might be a 'tiger economy', but Vietnam is seen as a 'baby tiger' because of its incredibly rapid economic growth.

The area where we're moored in Haiphong is a desperately unattractive container port. Initially, the road to Hanoi looked little better until you realised that even in apparently run-down locations there were mobile phone and technology outlets and sophisticated electronic advertising signage along the way.

But the most immediately noticeable feature of life here is the enormous number of people riding mopeds and scooters, often with two adults aboard and a child (sometimes two!) tucked between them. Our tour guide pointed out several times that nearly everything is moved around in this way, e.g. farmers taking produce, and even live animals! to market, shoppers taking their groceries home and even people moving house taking their furniture with them! Initially, it seemed that in the chaos of hundreds of mopeds nipping around everything was quite safe, but on our way home Gill saw the aftermath of a couple of accidents.

When we got to Hanoi we had a brief walk around the old town area, but because today is part of the New Year celebrations and therefore a public holiday all the shops were closed, which disappointed quite a few people, especially Gill. Then we visited the 'Water Puppet Theatre' – what on earth might that be you might well ask, just as we did! It was a half hour show in a theatre that had a waist-deep pool of water instead of a stage, with a traditional Chinese-style 'orchestra' alongside. In a series of eleven brief tableaux puppeteers behind a screen manipulated puppets representing people, animals and mythical creatures on the surface of the water using long bamboo poles and, one assumes, strings to animate them. There were sections with titles like, 'Dragon Dance', 'Buffalos Fighting' and 'Carp transformed into Dragon'. Great stuff! One of the musicians was playing a single stringed instrument with such skill and grace that it was completely entrancing – we couldn't even see where the string was as she made delicate gestures seemingly in mid-air.
Hanoi's Water Puppet
Hanoi's Water Puppet
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake
Then it was off to the Intercontinental Hotel for a buffet lunch before going off to see Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. The sun was out by now and it was nicely warm. The mausoleum is very much after the style of Lenin's Tomb in Moscow's Red Square. Like the rest of Vietnam it was closed for the holiday, which means that we can't report on having seen Uncle Ho's embalmed corpse.

Nearby was the 'One Pillar Pagoda', which as the name suggests is a traditional building standing on a single post. Its purpose is to house a shrine at which people can pray and leave gifts and cash to support their desire to give birth to a boy. I went up the steps to get a few photos, but when I saw that several young women were standing in front of me in front of the buddha praying quite earnestly and leaving their offerings it seemed a bit insensitive to hang around and gawk, so I left photo-less.

After this it was the last stop of the day. The 'Temple of Literature' was originally an early university where youngsters could study for three to seven years and the best students were taken into the 'Civil Service' of the day. Nowadays it's more like a shrine, where students can appeal to their deities with prayer and, of course, cash! There were 500 and 1000 Dong banknotes all over the place that were periodically being gathered up by attendants, That sounds impressive until you know that there are 30,000 Dongs to the Pound – yes, thirty thousand! - meaning that 1000 Dong is worth 3p to 4p. Still, as Gill pointed out, maybe that's still quite a lot in the local economy. I hope you will appreciate my restraint in avoiding jokes or puns about Dongs!

At 3pm it was back on the coach for the two and a half hour drive back to the ship, and Gill and I took the opportunity to catch up on some much-needed sleep.
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum
Temple of Learning
Temple of Learning
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay
Saturday 5th February 2011
Ha Long Bay

We were up early-ish again for the day's excursion, a trip on board a junk around Ha Long Bay.
It was a little disappointing that, once again, the air was misty and visibility wasn't wonderful, but as the morning drew on the sun came through a little as the mist gradually burned away.

Ha Long Bay is a remarkable World Heritage Site. The area is limestone that has eroded over the millennia at varying rates, leaving many small jagged and rocky islands that have gradually been covered with trees and scrub. The sea has a strange but attractive milky green hue and I'm sure that in clear sunlight everything would have looked even better. If you Google for images of Ha Long Bay Vietnam you'll see exactly what I mean.

There are about 350 passengers on board, so it took quite a while for us all to be organised into groups and disembarked on to a small fleet of junks, about three dozen at a time. We sailed into the light mist, enjoying the sun as it gradually broke through. A Vietnamese girl appeared on the open top deck after a while carrying several trays of jewellery that she attempted to sell to us. Unfortunately, she spoke no English, and she therefore found it hard to do any business at all as there was no indication of what she was charging.

After about an hour we reached a larger island and got off to visit the remarkable cave system. It seemed that a large part of the island was hollow, with cavernous, beautifully-lit chambers that had enormous stalagtites and stalagmites. It was really a very impressive sight. Apparently, Ho Chi Minh himself had visited in the 1950s and declared that all Vietnamese should visit this wonderful place.

As with UK attractions there was a gift shop at the exit, but this one was selling some very nice-looking souvenirs. I was quite tempted by their range of dragons carved out of a green jade-like stone that were selling at between 750,000 and 900,000 Dong. That sounds a lot until you remember that at 30,000 Dong to the pound the most expensive cost only about £30! Nevertheless, it seemed a good idea not to be tempted just yet!

Re-boarding the ship we found the jewellery seller making renewed attempts to interest the ladies with her wares. This time she produced a whole range of other things such as silks and mirrors, and finally people started to show interest. It was clear that haggling over the price was expected, which Gill and I always feel uneasy about, especially when the asking price already seems reasonable. Nevertheless, she  got into the swing of things and bought several items as did many other of our fellow passengers. But you just can't help remembering the scene in 'Life Of Brian' where, against his will, he has to haggle with the seller of false beards.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay
Caves in
Ha Long Bay
Caves in
Ha Long Bay
Caves in
Ha Long Bay
We were back on the ship for lunch, followed by two lectures in the afternoon. The second, delivered by a former member of Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service, centred on two revered North Vietnamese heroes, Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, and was really interesting.

The previous day we'd noticed in the Daily Programme that there was to be a General Knowledge Quiz. As you know, Gill and I are fond of a quiz, so she sought out Carole and Ron, who we'd met a couple of times at dinner, and asked if they'd join us. They said they were game and offered to bring along another couple to make up the required team of six. By the time the quiz was about to begin at 9.45pm the additional pair hadn't appeared, but another couple nearby who were on their own asked if they'd like us to make up the  numbers, so all was set.

There were 31 teams of six people, so about half the passengers took part. So, what do you do when the passenger list includes 29 Doctors, one Canon, one Knight, two Professors and a Peer, quite apart from retired bankers, diplomats and senior Civil Servants?

You beat them in a General Knowledge Quiz, that's what ;o) We scored 26 out of 31, one ahead of the second-placed team and won a bottle of Champagne that was served to us immediately.

So, a good day all round!

 Sunday 6th February 2011
Sea Day

Today we've been sailing southwards towards Da Nang and we'll arrive early tomorrow morning.

It's been a day for relaxation, and the weather's been just about warm enough for reading on deck. There have been another three lectures today, and the best has been from the geologist who covered the science behind plate tectonics and continental drift. He's hinted a couple of times that he has controversial views to share with us later on Global Warming, and it's now apparent that he's a sceptic on the matter. Can't wait for that one!

There are plenty of other diversions on board. There's live music in a number of formats; a harpist/singer, a pianist, a four piece band and a classical group of singers and musicians. There's also a professional artist to either teach beginners or coach more experience painters.

The passengers are a varied lot. There are enough down-to-earth people to make good company for Gill and I, but there are an awful lot of people who look down on any other form of cruising. I was wrong to fear that we'd be the youngest people on board, but there are quite a few people who look like they might not last out until Bangkok. We learned today that 'Minerva' carries coffins, just in case! Someone we had lunch with today said that on a recent, similar cruise on a ship with 800 passengers as many of four of them died en route!

Tomorrow's excursion takes us from Da Nang to Hoi An, where Gill hopes to buy silk and maybe even have it made up into a dress while we're still in the city!

Minerva moored in
Ha Long Bay
Hoi An
Hoi An
Hoi An
Hoi An
Monday 7th February 2011
Da Nang and Hoi An

We docked in Da Nang at dawn. Like most ports the area around the ship is industrial and unattractive.

We were booked on the Hoi An excursion, leaving at 8am. Hoi An is 40 minutes' drive southwards along the coast, is set on a river and its Old Town has been designated a World Heritage Site. It's a very pretty little town, and looks especially nice in the warm sunlight we've had today – 24C. Today is the last day of the New Year celebrations, and Hoi An was still gaily decorated with colourful lanterns, flags and cats – the Chinese have just celebrated the start of the Year of the Rabbit, but in Vietnam it's the Year of the Cat.
Hoi An
Hoi An
Hoi An
Hoi An
Hoi An
We had a guided tour around the old town and were then let off the lead for 90 minutes. Knowing that there are a lots of shops in Hoi An that sell silk Gill had been looking forward to today since before the cruise. We tracked down a shop that had been recommended in one of her travel guides, but it seemed nothing special. However, directly over the street was a better one. She found a lovely emerald silk, and the five metres she wanted worked out at one million Dong but she sweetly negotiated then down by a third.

She asked if they had it in stock.

“Yes, in our warehouse”
“How long will it take you to get it?”
“About five minutes”

The girl produced a crash helmet and shot off on her moped. While she was gone her colleagues tried to persuade me that I needed a suit. Frankly, if we'd had all day in the town maybe I'd have had one made – Gill thinks that the going rate is about £30!

The Vietnamese people are very friendly and welcoming; you could well imagine coming back for a longer stay. It's amazing that they seem to bear no ill-will at all to Americans for what they call  'The American War', and it seems that returning ex-GIs are received with warmth. On the other hand, they have no great love for the Chinese, having suffered their aggression for millennia, most recently when China invaded North Vietnam in the late 1970s.

Their capacity to forgive and forget is remarkable and heartwarming. We've also found that their command of English is surprisingly good, bearing in mind that the country was only opened to the outside world in 1986.
Hoi An
Hoi An
Hoi An
Hoi An
Hoi An
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