The West

A little taste of the Orient
Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas is so big that some of the port's have to be reached by tender. Supplied picture

The thing I quickly learn about the Voyager of the Seas' port stops is that they would be better described as pit stops.

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However, the short time I do spend sampling the five Asian cities on my itinerary offers me enough intrigue and a mix of old-world charm and unstoppable new-world progress to leave me wanting more.

Before my voyage, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Xiamen and Shanghai were not high on my travel radar, but I can safely say that I wish I had more time to spend exploring each city's hidden gems, side streets and lesser-known sights.

I overhear a fellow passenger saying that with cruises, the ship is the holiday and the land stops are the bonus where you get a taste of each city - enough to confirm if you want to go back for a longer stay.

If that is the case, they served their purpose, because out of the five cities, there are at least two - Hong Kong and Shanghai - which I am itching to revisit.

I land in Singapore and am amazed by its imposing skyline, impressed by the shopping, knocked for six by the intense humidity and appreciate the cultural side of the Lion City.

A visit to the Art and Science Museum provides two vastly different but fascinating exhibitions - the works of Andy Warhol and mementos, costumes and props from the Harry Potter movies, both of which I thoroughly enjoy.

After less than 24 hours in Singapore, I am on the cruise ship. After two days on the water, we arrive in Vietnam's biggest city, Ho Chi Minh City, or as most people still call it, Saigon.

Pockets of Ho Chi Minh City are stunningly beautiful - particularly the French Colonial architecture, including the opera house and Notre Dame Cathedral. There is so much history, from the sobering reality of the war museum to the landmark that is the Reunification Palace - the site of the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates - which has now been turned into a museum.

The city's Ben Thanh Market is sprawling and a place you can get lost in for hours. In many ways, Ho Chi Minh City reminds me of Bali - with the roads full of incessantly beeping motorbikes and people constantly approaching you on the street offering their goods or services.

The next destination is my favourite and not only because it is our longest stay. Approaching the heart of Hong Kong on our tender boat - the Voyager is unfortunately too big to dock in Victoria Harbour - and seeing the massive skyline makes me feel like an excited child in a lolly shop.

It has to be seen to be believed, how many skyscrapers can be squeezed on to one small island.

The exciting and pulsating city is a modern powerhouse and is showing no signs of slowing down - our tour guide notes that there are plans afoot to reclaim more of the harbour because there is desperate need for more land. One of my tour mates is gobsmacked by how different Hong Kong's skyline looked compared with her last visit just five years ago.

Sometimes, the most popular tourist attractions in any city can be let-downs, but definitely not Victoria Peak. The mountainous hub is one of the world's most expensive areas and the vista from the lookout is breathtaking. I don't think I have ever been to a better viewing area.

The fun doesn't stop at just appreciating the view and sampling the shops. It wouldn't be right to go to Victoria Peak without taking the famous Peak Tram.

As we speed down the mountain, I'd be lying if I said thoughts of my imminent death didn't flash across my mind as the tram defies gravity down the steepest incline - at 27 degrees - of any tram in the world. All that stops you from certain demise is one cable, but I take some comfort as our tour guide assures us the tram has not had one accident in more than a century of operation.

At night, it is definitely recommended to watch the Symphony of Lights show, in which Hong Kong's skyline comes alive with lasers and colourful lights synchronised with music. The Avenue of Stars in Kowloon is a good vantage point to enjoy the show.

While rain mars most of my overnight stay in Hong Kong, it does give me more time to shop. After all, Hong Kong is renowned for its impressive array of shopping choices, whether it is market fare or high-end designer stores.

I had never heard of Xiamen (pronounced Sha-men) before. It's not a small city by Australian standards - three million people call the Chinese city in the Fujian province home - but we are talking about China.

Xiamen is an industrial and educational hub and we are taken by our tour guide to the centuries-old South Putuo Temple to witness the spiritual side of the city.

The Buddhist temple's intricate and beautifully crafted buildings are a wonder. It is moving to see locals worship in front of many golden statues and is well worth the visit - even if the Red Bull stand out the front and the shops selling souvenirs and trinkets make the place seem a little less sacred.

A piece of advice for any cruise voyage - don't feel you need to book a tour in every city. Allow yourself sometimes to explore cities at you own pace. You may get lost, but on a tour you are at the mercy of a tour guide, who can be a valuable source of information, but can have a downside.

Our tour guide in Xiamen is a lively young girl who, from what I could understand, seems to obsess about telling her group how Taiwan is really China's. The only photo opportunities given to us, besides South Putuo Temple, are along a beach expressway and a sign which translates into "Two Systems, One China". Unsurprisingly, not many cameras click away.

Shanghai marks the end of our cruise and is the city I am most anticipating. I am left disappointed when my three-hour tour consists of a trip to the 88-floor Jin Mao Tower, only for the skyline to be shrouded in fog, and am then ferried to the airport five hours before my plane departs.

At 23 million, it's a city with more people than the whole of Australia, with so much to take in, and all I see is one tower, glimpses of a hidden skyline and the airport.

However, from the teaser I got of Shanghai, I am mightily awestruck by the intimidating and incomprehensible magnitude of the city. It is fantastic to set foot in China, if only briefly.

Every city in varying ways awakens my senses and delights the wide-eyed traveller in me.

As I sit in Shanghai airport with plenty of time on my hands, I am mentally preparing for my return trip.

Hopefully, it will be sooner rather than later.

The West Australian

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