The West

Silver service for all at sea
Traditional junks wait to take Silver Shadow passengers into Halong Bay / Picture: Veronica Matheson

A lone conical hat bobs in unison with waves in the South China Sea as I watch a fiery sun sink low on the horizon from the deck of the cruise ship Silver Shadow.

Soon my imagination is in full flight. Has the bleached straw hat been carried in the wake of our ship from Vietnam towards our final port in Hong Kong's scenic Victoria Harbour?

Or has a wind gust whipped it off the head of a fisherman too intent on hauling in his catch on one of the small fishing fleets that dot this vast ocean?

Most likely it is the souvenir bought by one of Silver Shadow's guests in one of Vietnam's busy markets that has accidentally blown away.

The conical hat, worn so often in Asia, instantly brings back rich memories of my week exploring Vietnam from seaports rather than airports.

I have taken the land route in the past, but now I am captivated by a very different view of this laid-back Communist country that is so highly rated by travellers. Backpackers, ageing hippies and mainstream tourists all crowd the busy streets and winding alleys in search of real tastes of Vietnam. Americans are here, too, and are given a friendly welcome by the Vietnamese as if wartime atrocities have been forgotten by all parties involved.

We sail out of Singapore for Vietnam and spend our first day at sea getting to know Silver Shadow, which will be our home-away- from-home for the nine-day voyage. While checking out our surprisingly roomy suite our butler (all guests have one) arrives.

"Hello, I'm Marlin, but if you forget my name just think of Marlon Brando. I'll answer to Brando too.

"Just let me know what you need as I am here to help you enjoy your holiday. Would you like me to unpack for you? Would you like me to bring you coffee or tea as a wake-up call in the morning?

"And what drinks do you like in your fridge. Do you want wine, soft drinks, spirits? They are complimentary and you won't have far to go if you get thirsty while sitting on your balcony. Or you can call me and I will mix your drinks with plenty of ice."

Marlin hails from the Philippines, and soon learns that I have a passion for mangoes. A fresh one is always waiting on a silver platter in my suite.

Silver Shadow carries up to 382 guests and almost as many crew members. On our voyage the guests come from 34 countries but almost everyone speaks English.

Our first port of call is Ho Chi Minh City (the old Saigon) in Vietnam's south where we anchor in the busy Saigon River within minutes of the city's Old Quarter. We have an overnight stay here with time to explore the city centre and tour the Mekong Delta, which is the rich food bowl of the region.

On a small boat we sail to see the Delta's busy floating markets, and visit small family businesses where sweets, popcorn, and the transparent rice paper used for spring rolls, are skilfully made by hand to send up river to Ho Chi Minh City for restaurants and street vendors.

Our most anticipated port of call is Halong Bay where traditional junks soon arrive alongside Silver Shadow to ferry passengers deeper into the UNESCO World Heritage site. There limestone rock of myriad shapes butt out of the ocean in a challenging maze that the junks navigate around. We see caves carved into rock faces and pass floating fishing villages that are alive with activity.

It is mesmerising being surrounded by these odd-shaped limestone karsts, some as big as islands, and our only wish is that the mist shrouding the area would lift. And though we spend a day in this atmospheric bay the mist shows no sign of disappearing.

Adrenaline rushes are guaranteed in Vietnam's northern capital Hanoi where streets are crowded with motorbikes that drive cheek-by-jowl while pedestrians put blind faith to the test by crossing the road at a steady pace through this motorised tidal wave. Soon we are true road warriors, walking a confident path through bikes that usually carry at least two adults, as many children as can fit on board, or bulky loads that miraculously sit in place behind or in front of the rider.

Back on the safety of the pavement crowded with street vendors, I see a squealing pig hang off one Honda, a pack of plastic crates wobble precariously off another, and lengths of bamboo threatening to decapitate anyone too close to that bike.

The cruise: Silver Shadow, like all Silversea's fleet, has a six-star rating so comfort and attention to detail are the onboard focus.

The Vietnam cruise: Silver Shadow sails out of Singapore (there is a reverse sailing from Hong Kong) for Vietnam where Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta, Hue, Hoi An, Halong Bay and Hanoi are explored. Coach tours take in the countryside and small towns en route to must-see sights.

What is included: Just about everything on board from the all-suite ocean view accommodation with butler service to gourmet meals with menus designed by Relais & Chateaux, complimentary wines, champagne and spirits, and all gratuities. The main extras are the shore excursions by coach from ports of call, and treatments in the large onboard spa.

Not to be missed: Vietnam's traditional pho, a bubbling beef broth with rice noodles and fresh herbs that creates an explosion of tastes.

  • fact file *

·Silversea's Silver Shadow has a fully inclusive nine-day voyage departing Singapore for Vietnam and Hong Kong on February 25 from $4450 per person.

·Alternatively two 11-day cruises depart March 22 and April 11 from $4850 and $5450 per person twin share, in an ocean-view suite

·The same itinerary operates in reverse from $3950 per person for two nine-day cruises departing Hong Kong for Singapore on March 6 and April 2.

·Silver Whisper and sister ship Silver Shadow are sailing the Asia-Pacific region until May this year, offering 7-21 day cruises with all-inclusive fares from $2950 per person twin share.

·The range of cruises explore Cambodia's temples of Angkor Wat, ancient Xian and its terracotta warriors in China, Japan's ancient capital of Kyoto, Chengdu in China to see pandas close up, or the unforgettable sites of Burma.

·There are overnight port stays in major Asian cities such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore. and 1300 306 872.

Veronica Matheson was a guest of Silversea Cruises.

The West Australian

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