Cruise ship sails along the coast of Asian nation

October 30, 1994|By Martin C. Evans | Martin C. Evans,Orange County Register

The sights I saw along Vietnam's central coastline could not have provided a sharper contrast to the vessel that had carried me there.

A man bicycling along a highway toting a wire cage -- with an ominous green snake coiled inside.

A family of four -- plus a chicken, a string of coconuts and a pair of pineapples balanced on a single motorbike.

A fisherman paddling out to sea in a tiny round basket woven from rushes.

A field marked with a grim skull and crossbones to warn of land mines still deadly after more than 20 years.

But as the sun crept toward the horizon, ending a day of dusty roads and tropical heat, I was tired and hungry. There was nothing I wanted more than a cool shower and a risk-free hot meal. So the sight of the great, gleaming hull of the Club Med 2, the 390-passenger sailing cruise ship that was my floating hotel during a weeklong tour of the Vietnamese coast, was a sweet -- if incongruous -- vision.

On this cruise, I was able to travel along a coastline that used to be the target of U.S. Navy battleships and napalm-dropping Marine jets -- without giving up some of the things I like best about vacations. Like soft terry-cloth bathrobes. Like tea and cookies at 4 p.m. Like cocktails at 7. Like a big bed to curl up in after dinner and a show.

The cabins, though not as luxurious as those on a top-end cruise ship, had the soothing brightness, clean lines and woody details Scandinavian design.

Spacious and efficient -- cabins measured roughly 18 feet by 10 feet -- all of the staterooms faced the ocean through twin portholes. The twin beds could be zipped together to create a comfortable queen-size expanse.

With each sunrise, adventures along the Vietnam coast awaited me. But as the sun went down, the cruise ship's soothing comforts eased me gently into each good night.

Vietnam, a hauntingly beautiful land of curious and friendly people, delicate green rice paddies and brilliant blue skies framed by coconut palms, is a source of fascination for a growing number of tourists.

It is here that two world powers, first the French and then the United States, lost bitter struggles with bicycle-riding Vietnamese communists.

Vietnam was cut off from virtually the entire Western world after its 1978 invasion of Cambodia. Tourist interest in Vietnam has picked up since 1989, however, when the country withdrew its troops and speeded its return to a market economy. Western restrictions against trade and tourism with the communist nation have been relaxed.

But with terrible roads, poor sanitary conditions and virtually no suitable hotels in any but the largest cities, travel here can be unpleasant. Club Med has stepped into the vacuum, offering a cruise package that allows travelers to get a close-up look at life along Vietnam's coastline while avoiding most of the hassles.

How close up?

Well, one day found me balancing on an earthen dike in the middle of a rice field north of Danang, talking with a farmer who wore a trademark Vietnamese conical straw hat. I didn't have the cigarette he wanted, but instead drew a smile by handing him the tiny jar of raspberry preserves I had kept since breakfast.

The next day I swam out from a beach and clambered aboard a wooden fishing boat with a fellow passenger, a Vietnamese woman from San Francisco who chatted with the fishermen for a quarter-hour. She asked them what life had been like for them in the 19 years since she escaped from Vietnam in a crowded fishing boat.

Their tales of hardship and poverty, their amazement that a middle-class Vietnamese-American could travel in such great style, moved her to tears.

The trip I took was Club Med's newest package, a seven-day cruise between Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City. It began with a day at sea, during which we slipped past China's Hainan Island and through the humid air of the South China Sea.

The boat stopped at Halong Bay, where for an extra $40 passengers were ferried in tour boats among the 3,000 limestone islands that rise spire-like from the bay's jade-green waters. The peaks are among the most beautiful sights in Asia, akin to the formations near Thailand's Phuket or China's Gulin, and the sight of peasant fishermen working the waters was an exciting first glimpse of life in Vietnam.

But elements of the Halong Bay tour were disappointing. It meandered about aimlessly on rickety boats with no life preservers and no guide to explain what we were seeing. And although Club Med makes a big deal about being ecologically sensitive -- the ship compacts its garbage and stores it rather than dumping overboard -- passengers were tacitly encouraged to bargain with local fishermen, who pulled alongside the excursion boats to sell large chunks of coral that -- judging by the briny stink of decay -- had been ripped from a living reef and left to die in the sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.