Of sails & tales

Journey of a lifetime

Of sails & tales

Cruises have always held a fascination for me. However, a morbid fear of the sea prevented me from indulging in my fancy.  This winter, when Providence threw open a window, I decided to grab the bull by its horns. Feeling a tad apprehensive despite the brave front, I stepped into the luxurious innards of the cruise ship called Azamara Journey.

My tryst with a magical journey began at that moment, a magic that was to last for 13 days as the ship navigated its way along the South China Sea. In those 13 days, it would sail from Hong Kong to Singapore, with stopovers at three ports at Vietnam and one at Thailand.

A cruise is not about the destination also. The journey is the most crucial component of the entire experience, and what a journey it is. Located within the 10 levels are several lounges, five restaurants — two of them are speciality restaurants, a luxurious spa, a casino designed to get you addicted to gambling, a well-stocked library, sun deck, walking track, gym and fitness centre, a cabaret lounge, and a host of facilities that ensured I remained goggle-eyed.

The first stop

Enraptured with the offerings, I raced breathlessly from one deck to the other, exploring and imbibing. After sailing for a day-and-a-half, we tendered at the famous Ha Long port of Vietnam. Ha Long is famous as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we stepped out of the ship, our eyes were greeted by a skyline dotted with wind-sculpted hills, while bobbing junk boats crowded the waters.

Those of us who had signed up for a shore excursion were taken to gape at the limestone monoliths that are said to date back to the Palaeozoic Era. Geologists believe that the formations of these hills,  eroded by wind, tides and rain, took place over millions of years. A conglomeration of 2,000 tiny islands, which extend all the way from the Gulf of Tonkin, Ha Long is just 180 km from Hanoi.

Stepping out of the ship, I joined fellow passengers for the excursion that took us through breathtaking sights including the stunning stalactites and stalagmites at the Sung Sot Cave, also known as Surprise Cave, which is the largest of many such caves. Kayaking in the lagoons is a popular activity, but I had no wish to torture my arms, so I spent the afternoon sauntering through the busy market at Ha Long.

The next afternoon, the ship took off for Danang. Once a part of the Hindu Champa Kingdom, and the third largest city after Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Danang is popular for its pristine beaches and marble mountains. The tiny town sees hordes of backpackers during high season. The Dragon Bridge, a metallic mammoth spanning the Han river, is one of Danang’s prime attractions. On weekends, crowds gather on the brightly lit promenade to watch the metallic dragon spewing fire.

A collection of sculptures from the Cham temples awaited me at the unpretentious Museum of Cham Sculpture. It  houses more than 300 pieces dating from the 7th to the 15th century, when the Champa Kingdom was at its zenith. There are umpteen time-worn idols of Brahma, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Shiva, Ganesha and other gods, along with their entourage of apsaras and dwarapalakas.

The high point of our day was the visit to the nearby Hoi An town. A port town, Hoi An has all the makings of a trading town with a delightful ambience. The ancient town and the riverside were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of their medley of French, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese architecture.

An expanse of white powdery sands, the 3-km stretch of Cua Dai Beach is one of Hoi An’s popular attractions. With its flurry of conical hats, fruit and vegetable vendors, temples, pagodas and rice fields, Hoi An is an artist’s delight. At the centre stage is the old Japanese Bridge that spans the river and connects the two parts of the town. Statues of a pair of monkeys and a pair of dogs on either edge of the bridge are supposed to denote the year the construction began and ended.

And it pours...

A sudden torrential rain drove us into the lacklustre Hoi An History and Culture Museum that boasts of some ceramic artefacts and a hotchpotch collection of memorabilia. A trudge through the rain-soaked streets to pay a visit to the huge central market, and some temples later, we settled down for a delightful Vietnamese meal.

Returning to the ship, I promptly made my way to the coffee shop to rejuvenate my exhausted self with a dose of caffeine.

After a 12-hour sail on a serene sea, Azamara Journey docked at Ho Chi Minh City, which was its last port of call at Vietnam. Once known as Saigon, HCM City, known as the Pearl of the Orient, boasts of beautiful French architecture. Whether it is the Notre Dame Cathedral or the Central Post Office, or the Opera House and City Hall, each structure is an exquisite example of the classic French Colonial architecture.

While some of the passengers had opted to visit the historic Cu Chi Tunnels, I joined the group that made its way to the town. On our itinerary were the historic Independence Palace, some significant structures and the bustling Ben Thanh Market that sells everything from textiles to tobacco and food to spices.

I spent the next day-and-a-half onboard, enjoying a luxurious spa treatment; attended a couple of lectures and indulged in food orgies in the restaurants. An enchanting pool-side party that evening saw me shaking my leg to work off a few calories. And then we docked at the Klong Toey port at Bangkok.

When in Bangkok, it’s impossible not to stumble into a few temples and palaces, or to ignore the ultimate pilgrimage of women — the shopping malls. Since we were docked for three days  here, there was enough opportunity to indulge in all the touristy things, and catch up on shopping as well.

The next morning, we docked at Koh Samui, the ultimate beach paradise of Thailand where one does nothing but loll on the sand, gazing at the dreamy landscape beyond. I did it, too. Other things could wait.

As the ship sailed towards the last port, I knew that the magical journey was over. Heavy-hearted, I watched the ship dock at Singapore. It was time to go home. There had been a couple of revelations during the journey. One of them was the discovery that I was not afraid of the sea, I loved it. The more important one was that a vacation is not about destination, but how you reach it.

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