Days 68-69, March 14-15:
Two Vietnamese ports, Nha Trang and Phu My, on our world cruise itinerary, introduced Humberto, Duffy (our bear that went around the world) and me to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Some passengers had been here during the Vietnam War and for them the stops were akin to a pilgrimage, oftentimes difficult with memories of that conflict. In Nha Trang, the first of the two ports, we walked past waves of vendors – that we would encounter at every stop during our touring offering us everything from postcards and beads to garments and wallets – to board a tour bus for our Nha Trang Highlights Tour purchased onboard the ship.
The four-hour program took us to the Po Nagar Cham Towers, one of the last testaments to the ancient Cham civilization, built between the 7th and 12th centuries without the use of mortar, our local guide, Li, said showing us the stones from one of its impressive columns. It is a Buddhist temple – Buddhism is the most popular religion and the government allows people to practice a religion of their choice but reserves the right to intervene if a religion is deemed to be detrimental to the general welfare, our port guide Barbara said. Ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists come to this temple, as it is believed that if you “make a strong wish here, it will be granted,” Li said.
The temple was crowded with worshipers and tourists, and filled with the scent of incense. We saw a worshiper rub some wood near the entrance to the temple as he exited, perhaps making a wish. Outside, a local band played and there were great views of the Xom Bong Bridge and Nha Trang Harbor filled with brightly colored red-and-blue fishing boats. From the Cham Towers, we headed – there was a lot of traffic including thousands of motor scooters and cyclos (rickshaw/cycles) – to the Long Son Pagoda, founded in the late 19th century, rebuilt a few times and now home to fewer than 10 monks. Glass and ceramic tile dragons and sculptures of this fanciful creature adorn the entrance and roofs, and 152 stone steps lead up to a giant white statue of Buddha sitting on a lotus blossom. From platforms around the Buddha there are panoramic views of Nha Trang. Additional stops on our tour included a visit to an embroidery shop where ladies in traditional Vietnamese dress and typical cone-like hats demonstrated the art of embroidered pictures, and where we were served steaming hot cups of tea, spiced ginger morsels and baked sweet potato wedges in the shop’s courtyard – an unusual, but interesting snack.
A final stop was made at the beach – a pretty ribbon of pink sands with a backdrop of green hills and nice waterfront cafes where we could relax with a coconut water or coffee.
The beach was the star attraction during the Vung Tau Highlights tour we purchased onboard at our next Vietnamese port of call, Phu My. Known as Cap St. Jacques during French colonial times, Vung Tau has been a popular resort town for residents of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. French Colonial architecture buildings have been maintained and pretty villas, now guesthouses, dot the hillsides. We drove along the coast, past a 100-foot-high statue of Jesus (reportedly the second biggest in the world after the one in Rio de Janeiro that we saw earlier on our World Cruise), and we visited a Buddhist temple with fine views of the coastline. Another stop was made at the White Villa, used for vacations by Vietnam kings and presidents of South Vietnam, according to our local guide, Tom. The White Villa has beautiful Chinese porcelain, ivory tusks and carved rosewood furniture. Frangipani, hibiscus and jasmine perfume its gardens that have views of the bay with colorful wooden fishing boats.
Returning to the Amsterdam, on both days, the menus at the La Fontaine Dining Room featured some Vietnam dishes including a delicious rice paper spring roll with shrimp, and on our second day, we also had a lumpia dinner and sate barbeque up on Lido Deck poolside, with music from the Amsterdam orchestra. The chilled mango and papaya soup, jumbo shrimp skewers, chicken and vegetable lumpia, grilled Vietnamese pork and other dishes were delicious. For dessert we could have such fresh fruits as pineapple and exotic dragon fruit that tastes like a mild kiwi or enjoy a variety of baked goods and ice creams from the Lido. As if all this were not enough, we were further immersed in the culture of Vietnam with a presentation by a local troupe of seven musicians and six dancers who performed folkloric songs and dances of Vietnam in the ship’s Queen’s Lounge.
Freelance travel writer Georgina Cruz and her husband Humberto are currently sailing on Amsterdam’s 112-day Grand World Voyage and will be sending in cruise diaries throughout their time on board. She has logged 174 voyages to all seven continents and visited more than 100 countries.