Seabourn Sojourn Southeast Asia Cruise - Embarkation in Hong Kong
How many cruises start with a view like this one? That's the skyline of Hong Kong, one of the most vibrant cities of the world. The photo was taken from the balcony of our cabin on the Seabourn Sojourn cruise ship, while it was docked at the Hong Kong Cruise Terminal next to the Harbor City Mall in Kowloon, just across the harbor from Hong Kong. Although passengers boarded the ship in the early afternoon, we didn't sail until after 10 pm so that everyone could enjoy the nightly Symphony of Lights laser show.
Our 14-night voyage on the Seabourn Sojourn included ports of call in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand before we debarked in Singapore. The itinerary was amazing, but with so many things to do and see ashore, the six days at sea were greatly appreciated (and needed).
Join me on a Southeast Asia voyage on the Seabourn Sojourn cruise ship. Our first stop was at Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.
Halong Bay, Vietnam- Thien Cung Cave
Our first day on the Seabourn Sojourn was a day at sea, which everyone appreciated after the long flights to Hong Kong and hours spent exploring this fascinating city. Our second day on the cruise ship was at Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Seabourn Sojourn had five organized tours in Ha Long Bay (also spelled Halong), and a free shuttle bus into the town. We had to anchor outside the protected bay area, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of 900 square miles and 1969 islands. Ha Long means "descending dragon" in Vietnamese.
Three of the tours involved a group of 25-30 riding in one of the many "junks" or tour boats that cruise around the bay, moving very slowly. These junks have indoor booth seating at tables, and outdoor areas on top and aft of the main salon. Guests can't be outside when the boat is moving, even though it moves slowly. They must have hundreds of these junks in Ha Long Bay, because we saw dozens of them.
The most active tour at Ha Long Bay was kayaking part the bay, which lasted 8 hours. Sounded like way too much exercise for us, but we learned that the kayaking group rode in a junk to the Three Cave area before they kayaked and then had lunch back on the junk. They then motored to another part of the bay, where they had a second kayak excursion to the Luon Cave and a fishing village. Back on the junk, they sailed back to the ship.
The shortest and least active tour was a 3 hour ride aroud the bay on a junk, with no stops.
Two tours left the port area and went inland. The first was a 5-hour tour of the Ha Long countryside that included a 1.5 hour ride to the Glac Tam Buddhist Zen Monastery. There they learned about Zen Buddhism and watched a Zen meditation lesson given by a monk. They also visited a home in a small village and learned about life on a Vietnamese farm before returning to the ship.
The longest tour was "Hanoi Highlights", which was a 12 hour tour, and included 7+ hours on the bus since Hanoi is quite a ways from Ha Long. They saw the highlights of Hanoi, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton POW camp of the Vietnam War (called American War in Vietnam).
We decided we picked the best tour, called "Deluxe Ha Long Bay Cruise", which was about 7 hours. We had 26 in our group, and our guide's name was Stephen, who is a math teacher and a certified tour guide. He told us that almost all teachers in Vietnam have a second job since the pay is so bad. (Note: the exchange rate in Vietnam is 22,000 Vietnam dong for 1 US dollar, so it's easy to be a millionaire even in your wallet.)
The junk picked us up at the boat, and we rode on the junk for over an hour before arriving at Thien Cung Cave, our first stop, which is seen in the photo above. Leaving the junk, we had to walk up 120 steps into the limestone cave and then up and down through the cave, which was effectively lighted to show off the stalactites and stalagmites. Leaving the cave through a different entrance, we walked back down to the water at another spot off the island, where they had moved the junk.
We reboarded the junk and went off to explore more of Ha Long Bay, including the famous "kissing rocks" seen on the next page.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam - Kissing Rocks
Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam is a beautiful part of the world, and sailing on a slow-moving junk is the perfect way to see the many rocky-outcroppings and scenic islands. The most famous rock formation is seen in the photo above. It's the "must-have" photo of Ha Long Bay. The junk Captains maneuver the boats perfectly so that guests can capture the photo above. The rocks are actually further apart than they appear in most photos. Some people think the huge rocks look more like giant chickens who are fighting rather than kissing. Just use your imagination.
While sailing to another scenic part of the bay, we had a traditional Vietnamese lunch. We started off with a variety of fried appetizers and sauces, including calamari, chicken, spring rolls, steamed clams and squid balls. Next, they sat up a hot pot in the middle of the table. It was potentially unsafe--a pot of boiling broth liquid sitting on a sterno cake under the burner that was not in a can or anything--just burning. My friend Claire and one of the guys at our table added the bok choy, two types of noodles, raw shrimp with heads, and squid and cooked it for a short time. Rice was served on the side. They also had fish on the plate to cook, but decided to not use it.
Since the junk was moving slowly, we could take photos and eat at the same time. Before we knew it, the ship had arrived at a village of sea gypsies.
Ha Long Bay - Village of the Sea Gypsies
By the time we cooked and ate lunch, we arrived at a village of sea gypsies, people who live on wooden homes on stilts in the bay. These homes are in communities that include shops and schools, also built on stilts. These floating villages are in the backs of remote coves that are very protected from the wind, tides and storms by island barriers.
We left the junk and rode in a small boat powered by woman-power--a tiny Vietnamese woman in a conical hat and holding onto two long oars. These small boats held 4 people plus the rower, and they looked difficult to maneuver. We saw the homes and stopped over in the community to take a peak at the school and shops. Then, our rower took us back to the ship. Riding in the rowboats was so quiet, and the small rocky islands are breathtakingly beautiful.
It took us almost two hours to get back to the Seabourn Sojourn, so it was about 5 pm by the time we were back in the cabin. Claire and I had 7:30 pm reservations at the Chinese dinner at the Colonnade Restaurant, but we rested a short while before getting ready.
Claire and I both had the Roasted Barbary Duck Lumpia "Shanghai style" or duck rolled up in a pancake and served with spicy cucumbers and plum sauce for our appetizer, and Szechuan chicken with cashew nuts, stir fried veggies, and chow mein noodles for our main course. Dessert was an Asian fruit salad basket with lychee ice cream. It was a delicious meal, the first of several Asian dinners we enjoyed on the Seabourn Sojourn cruise ship.
Dinner lasted till about 10 pm, and we returned to the cabin and fell into our beds--we'd been up since 4 am. So happy that the next day would be our second sea day, as we sailed south in the Gulf of Tonkin towards Da Nang.
Day at Sea on the Seabourn Sojourn
Leaving Halong Bay, the Seabourn Sojourn continued to sail south towards Da Nang in central Vietnam, our second port of call. The weather stayed cloudy, windy, and cool, with mostly following seas (thankfully), which prevented too much rocking and rolling.
Had a large breakfast (bad habit), followed by time to relax a couple of hours. We had a short tour of the navigational bridge at 10:30, which was similar to others I've done, but always fascinating. Interesting that the officer "driving" the ship was a woman--the first time I've seen one doing that, although I've been on ships with woman officers.
At noon, I went to team trivia in The Club, where I joined a team called the "In-Continents" that could take another member. (I had missed trivia the first sea day, and teams have a maximum of 11). Nice group, but we didn't do very well. I did get one answer that no one else knew, but they went along with me, so at least I made a small contribution. I always enjoy playing team trivia at sea since it provides a great opportunity to meet more of my cruise mates from around the world.
Nice buffet lunch after trivia at The Colonnade--a British meal with cottage pie, mushy peas, fish & chips, etc. After lunch we were back in the cabin, where we read and I napped while Claire watched a movie. Soon it was time to get ready for the "block party", which is a meet and greet of all the neighbors outside in our hallway. They serve champagne and canapes, and we all got to know each other better. The ship's officers tour the decks and say hello. Nice event and more ships seem to be adding it.
Next stop was a lecture by Dr. Lawrence Blair on "Pirates, Headhunters, Cannibals -- and the Disappearance of Michael Rockefeller". Dr. Blair is an anthropologist, author, explorer and filmmaker. Born in England, he has been a resident of Bali, Indonesia for the past 35 years. He was a good speaker--very engaging and entertaining. He looks like an explorer with his relatively long sandy gray hair, tall, lanky body, and patch over one eye. He's written about and explored much of Southeast Asia, and firmly believes that Michael Rockefeller was killed and eaten by cannibals on New Guinea in 1961.
The presentation was over at 7:30, and Claire decided she didn't feel like eating anything--just stuffed from lunch. But, you know me. I was off to the main dining room. I joined two Australian couples for dinner--very nice folks and had a long, enjoyable dinner. I ate a Caesar salad; "herb-roasted saddle of Elysian fields farm lamb" with "Confit Biyaldi", Tarbais bean puree, and roasted garlic jus (a Thomas Keller designed dish seen in the photo above); and ginger and yogurt semifreddo topped with whipped green tea and a Persian lemon meringue (other Thomas Keller dish). Very good and interesting dinner. The lamb was about 2 inches thick and divinely cooked medium. The dessert was amazing. The frozen (guess that's what semifreddo means) ginger yogurt was round and shaped like a can of Vienna sausages. It was wrapped in a thin coating of white chocolate, and the lemon meringue was not cooked, just foamy. The whipped green tea was about the size of a marble and dry, but fluffy. Very memorable dessert and something like what I expected from a Michelin-starred chef.
Back to the room at 10:30 to find Claire still awake and watching the end of a movie. Was surprised to find she had even skipped room service! Read my book a little, and we were asleep before midnight. Thursday we would be in Da Nang, our second stop in Vietnam.
Things to Do in Da Nang, Vietnam and the Tra Que Vegetable Village
The Seabourn Sojourn arrived in Da Nang (sometimes spelled Danang) early the next morning. This city on the South China Sea is in central Vietnam, located halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It was founded in the second century AD by the Indian-influenced Champa Kingdom. Today it is the home of the world's largest collection of Cham art and artifacts. Most of us in the USA; however, are familiar with Da Nang because of the role it played in the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam). It was also the site of the TV series, "China Beach" and the movie "Good Morning Vietnam".
Today, Da Nang is a bustling commercial and tourism center, primarily because of its central Vietnam location and its beaches. I visited Da Nang in April 2009, and I was surprised at how many hotels have been added (and are under construction) since I was there 7 years ago. The Chinese influence is very much in place, with some hotels (and casinos) catering extensively to Chinese tourists. Our guide said these hotels are out of the price range of most Vietnamese, and the profits from the hotels go back to China. Claire and I weren't the only people who sensed a fear/dislike of China from our guide. Other guests at dinner who were on other tours also noticed the same thing.
In addition to the free shuttle bus from the ship into downtown Da Nang, the Seabourn Soujourn had six organized shore excursions in Da Nang and the surrounding areas:
- Da Nang, Cham Museum & Marble Mountains Beach (4.5 hours). Mom and I did a similar tour to this one in 2009, which visited Da Nang on the motorcoach, and includes a stop at an embroidery factory, the Cham Museum, Marble Mountain and the Tam Thai Pagoda, and Marble Beach, which was used by American soldiers for R&R during the war. The Cham art/artifacts look somewhat Indian and date from the 4th to the 14th centuries.
The Marble Mountains are about 7 miles from Da Nang and the 5 peaks are named for the 5 elements--water, earth, metal, fire, and wood. The mountains are filled with caves used by the Viet Cong as hiding places during the war. This area has many pagodas and shrines since the Vietnamese consider it a religious site. The Tam Thai Pagoda is atop the highest peak and can be reached via an elevator ride and then 153 steps up.
- Discover Hoi An by bike (5 hours). Transfer by coach to bike hut near Marble Mountain and then 2.5-hour ride by bicycle to historic Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Participants had an hour's free time in Hoi An and then returned to the ship by coach. (Note: This group got muddy and wet, but had a good time, although one guy didn't think the ride was long enough).
- Hoa Chau and Ancient Hoi An (5 hours). Bus trip to Hoa Chau, a farming village surrounded by rice fields. Participants visit a local school and a farm house where they are served tea and snacks. They continued by bus to Hoi An, which they toured on foot before returning to the ship.
- Imperial City of Hue (9 hours). 3-hour bus trip to Hue, which was the capital of unified Vietnam starting in 1802 and continuing until 1945. During this time, it was also the cultural and religious center under the Nguyen dynasty.
While in Hue, participants toured three important sites--the Royal Citadel built in 1804, the Forbidden Purple City reserved for the Emperor, and the Thien Mu Pagoda. This pagoda was built in 1601 and was the center of many political protests during the early 1960's. After lunch at a hotel, the group went outside of Hue to visit the Nguyen Dynasty Tu Duc tomb south of the city. After being immersed in Vietnamese history for 3 hours, they had to face the 3 hour bus ride back to the ship.
The Forbidden Purple City was mostly destroyed during the Vietnam War, as was the surrounding Imperial City. These locations have been mostly rebuilt. The Royal tombs are also the site of the palace of Tu Duc, Vietnam's longest reigning emperor. His tomb is also on the site and took 3 years to build, but no one knows exactly where he is buried since the "tomb" is huge and extravagant. Tu Duc had over 100 wives, so no wonder he needed so much space. (Note: One guy told us they really enjoyed the sites since they were "spectacular and gorgeous", but the lunch was only so-so.)
- Transfer to Hoi An (7 hours). Bus ride to Hoi An (less than an hour) and then free time on your own. (Note: Now that I've visited Hoi An, this would be a good option for a return trip.)
- Hoi An cooking class. (9 hours) Claire and I did this excursion and loved it. We had 26 participants and a guide named Hung. We left the ship at 8:30 and rode through the outskirts of Da Nang along the picturesque coastline towards Hoi An, first stopping at a communal (remember this is a communist country) vegetable garden. It actually was a vegetable village called Tra Que, which was surrounded by amazingly rich soil and gardens filled with lettuces, all sorts of greens, and many varieties of vegetables. The residents of the village all work in the fields. We watched a farmer till a spot, fill it with dried seaweed used for fertilizer, and then cover it back up. Then he planted some type of radish. These vegetables are grown organically and are a staple of the everyday meals of the 100,000 Hoi An residents.
Our second stop on this cooking class shore excursion from the Seabourn Sojourn was at a noodle-making facility in Hoi An.
Hoi An, Vietnam - Making Cao Lau Noodles
Our second stop in Hoi An was at the only Cao Lau noodle makers. This region is famous for this type of noodle, which is made from rice and water drawn from only one source, which gives it a yellow hue rather than the white seen in most rice noodles. (It made me cringe a little when I thought about what kind of water made noodles yellow.)
The flour and water are mixed, rolled out, brushed with peanut oil, and then fed through a noodle maker, which makes a thick spaghetti noodle (larger than Italian spaghetti noodles, but thinner than a pencil). These noodles are then steamed over a wooden fire in a huge pot giving them a smoky taste. We tasted some right out of the steamer and agreed they needed some butter or sauce, but you could taste the smokiness.
Leaving the noodle shop, we rode to the center of Hoi An on the coach and then walked to the restaurant for our cooking class.
Hoi An, Vietnam - Cooking Class
We motored the short distance to Hoi An, an ancient city with fascinating historic architecture that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Most of the city streets are too narrow for cars and buses, but the narrowness doesn't stop the ubiquitous motor bikes, which are everywhere.
Our first stop in downtown Hoi An was at the large local market, where we divided into four groups to walk with a guide around the market and see the types of things Vietnamese use in their everyday cooking--the meats, fishes, vegetables, and herbs. This was great fun for us all to see the bustling marketplace. Claire and I both especially loved smelling some of the marvelous herbs like different types of basil and lemongrass. Since it was midday, the meats and fishes didn't look as fresh as they hopefully did in the early morning. We also loved the different fruits so foreign to us--diamond fruit, star fruit, all sorts of melons, and the famous Durian fruit that spells rotten to most people but Asians swear it tastes great. I think you must have to acquire the taste as a child.
Leaving the market, we walked towards the restaurant (Ms. Vy's Taste of Vietnam Restaurant) where we had the cooking class. Vietnam cooking classes must be very popular in Hoi An since there seemed to be at least a dozen we walked by on our way to Vy's. Our class was on the 3rd floor, and I felt badly for those who have problems with stairs since there was no lift.
They had already prepped our dishes (like on a television cooking show), so we didn't have to do much measuring or chopping. The teacher stood at the front of the classroom, and we sat at four rows of long tables. She said we would prepare our own lunch and then eat what we prepared. The class came with a choice of two bottles of three different beverages--bottled water, soft drinks, or beer. You know I got two bottles of beer--easy decision. She had a mirror over her prep area, so we could watch what she was doing.
Our first dish was a rice paper roll, which we call Vietnamese summer rolls. These are the cold, uncooked rolls, not the fried ones. Like most Vietnamese food, they are served with a delicious fish sauce that seems to go with everything. This dish first required assembling the spring roll that had sliced pork, steamed shrimp, rice noodles, chives, and mixed herbs (anise basil, mint, Vietnamese mint, coriander, butter lettuce, shredded morning glory stems, and chrysanthemum leaves). After layering all of these items (which had been left neatly lined up on palm leaves) onto the rice paper, we slowly rolled them up, dipped them in the sweet and sour sauce made with fish sauce, lime, sugar, garlic, and chili. Delicious.
Our second dish was a grilled barbecue chicken. We put had two skinned, raw, boneless chicken thighs each in a dish and then added salt, sugar, pepper, and turmeric, garlic, shallots, chili paste (to taste), lime leaves, sesame oil, lemongrass, five spice, and fish sauce. Each of these items was in a tiny bowl, and we could choose how much of the chili paste and/or anything else we wanted in our marinade. We donned rubber gloves and worked the mixture into the chicken for a few minutes before threading onto a wooden skewer. Each of us had a different vegetable to put on top the skewer so the grill cooks could keep the kebabs separate. They took our chicken away to marinate for 30 minutes while we made our next two dishes--green mango salad and Banh Xeo, which is a fried pancake with herbs, star fruit, and green banana slices inside.
Our third dish was the Banh Xeo. They had already prepared the pancake batter from rice, mung beans, spring onions, turmeric, and coconut cream. We used gas cookers, and were more than a little worried we might burn the restaurant down. We heated up tiny frying pans with a little oil and then added a little thinly sliced pork shoulder and a few baby shrimp. After cooking the meat a little, we added a ladle or so of the batter and then covered to cook the pancake. Eventually (in a Vietnamese second, which is less than a minute), we turned the pancakes and covered them again. In another Vietnamese second, we pulled the pancakes onto top a sheet of rice paper and assembled the filling of mixed greens/herbs, green banana slices, and star fruit. We then rolled up the hot pancake and rice paper, dipped in either a peanut or sweet and sour sauce, and ate. Another successful dish, although neither of ours looked quite as good as the teacher's. It's hard to roll up a hot pancake, even with a protective layer of a thin sheet of rice paper!
The last dish was probably our favorite, and reminded me of the green mango salad we sometimes eat at a Vietnamese restaurant in Atlanta. This was the most difficult dish since it involved using a Vietnamese peeler (kind of like a potato peeler, only larger). Unfortunately, they only had "right handed" peelers, so left-handed Claire was definitely at a disadvantage. We each peeled our own green mango and then cut slices into it using a giant knife. Picking up the peeler again, we shaved slices off the mango until we had a cup or so of the green mango.
The green mango was mixed with some poached prawns, chopped onion, Vietnamese mint and mint, roasted sesame seeds, Hoi An chili sauce, salt, pepper, shallot oil, and fried shallots. We then made a salad dressing with lime juice, sugar, fish sauce (of course), garlic, and chili. Added the salad dressing to the salad, and VOILA! a delicious green salad. As seen in the photo above, I added more than a cup of the green mangoes to my salad since I liked the taste of it so much and had gone to the trouble of shaving it.
Soon as we finished making the salad, they brought out our cooked grilled chicken and had a delicious lunch. Dessert was lemongrass ice cream along with candied ginger and baked coconut on the side. Great fun and highly recommended for anyone visiting Hoi An.
Hoi An, Vietnam - Walking Tour of the Old Town
After eating our lunch, we walked to the old Japanese covered bridge, one of the oldest sites in Hoi An, checked out two different wedding couples having their photos made, and ended up at an embroidery factory where young women worked on tedious projects, often taking many months to finish one piece. The factory also had a demonstration of how silk is made just like the one I had seen in China. Those wiggly silk worms are creepy, despite the wondrous silk threads from their cocoons.
Even after all we had done, the guide gave us almost an hour's free time to wander around and do some shopping. Old town Hoi An is certainly worth another visit. Some in our group even bought one or more of the famous paper lanterns, which are Hoi An's most well-known local products.
Da Nang, Vietnam- China Beach
Back on the bus by 3:30, we made a stop at Non Nuoc village near the Marble Mountains, which has dozens of marble shops where they carve very small and very large pieces. We visited the same marble shop mom and I visited in 2009 for more shopping. (They have enough space for a bus to park and turn around.) Some people bought figurines to either carry or ship home, and some bought jade or marble jewelry.
Stopped twice more for photos--once of "China Beach" seen in the photo above, and the second of the Da Nang fishing boats in the harbor. Back on the bus by 5:15 pm and headed back to the Seabourn Sojourn.
Dinner at Restaurant 2 on the Seabourn Sojourn
Claire and I had dinner reservations with another couple that evening at 7:30 at Restaurant 2, a tiny alternative venue with a set menu. The menu changes periodically during the cruise. Since it has a fixed menu, Restaurant 2 might not be a good choice for picky eaters or those with food allergies. The night we were there it was:
- Chef's cocktail of grilled octopus ceviche, potato salad, and lemon grape juice,
- Lobster corn dog with truffle sauce,
- Chicken brick parcel with mustard dip, salsify and green apple cappuccino with a mushroom crostini,
- Roasted salmon in sake ginger brine and melted cous cous,
- Orange soy duck with artichoke tart tartin, quince puree, and prosciutto sauce, and
- Florentine of pumpkin nougatine, banana toffee and bourbon ice cream.
All the portions were tiny, which was perfect since it was so many small plates of food. The meal is supposed to be an event, and it was. Some of the dishes were exceptional, others were just okay to me. However, my dinner companions loved a couple of the items that weren't my favorites. I think the menu is designed to be a conversation-starter, and it was. Restaurant 2 is full each evening (no surcharge on Seabourn), so most diners love the mixed flavors and interesting dishes.
We had a day at sea the next day, followed by two days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - Day at Sea and Sailing up the Mekong River
A Day at Sea on the Seabourn Sojourn - Da Nang to Saigon
It was a busy day on the ship. Claire went to the cooking demonstration in the morning in the Grand Salon. She said it was terrific and she picked up lots of tips. At noon, I went to play Team Trivia (our team only got 5 out of 13 correct--not too good). I answered 3 of the correct answers, so was happy with my participation. Most of the other questions, I was clueless. Who's ever heard of a porcelator or Sir John Harrington? That's 2 questions we didn't know. A porcelator is the hole in the back of the sink that keeps the sink from overflowing and Sir John Harrington invented the flush toilet in 1589 (not the toilet). I did know that Canada was the closest country to Greenland and that the national bird of India was the peacock. Another guy and I had to fight with our team to get them to agree on Canada--sure was glad we were right, or we might have been kicked off the team.
Claire and I both got the Thomas Keller meal. It was a salad of blistered heirloom carrots on a bed of Medjool dates, finger lime and coriander with spiced yogurt and wildflower honey. Delicious, although I would have never figured out any of the ingredients except the carrots without the menu. Second course was a citrus crusted fillet of king salmon, creamed arrowleaf spinach, and a red rice porridge. The salmon was good, but I think it was poached, so it didn't look quite as good as it tasted. The spinach was very good, but I didn't care much for the porridge. Interesting, but wouldn't order it again. Dessert was phenomenal--a Valrhona chocolate ganache tarte with coffee ice cream. Dark chocolate and especially yummy.
Soon after dinner we went to bed since we wanted to get up early to enjoy the river views entering Ho Chi Minh City.
Sailing up the Mekong River to Ho Chi Minh City on the Seabourn Sojourn
We arrived at the mouth of the Mekong River early the next morning (about 5 am), picked up a pilot, and cruised up the river to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), docking about 11 am. The river was not as scenic as some I've seen, but was interesting, with lots of small fishing boats and large cargo ships sharing the waters. The region is very flat, with lots of green foliage and small creeks and rivers running into the Mekong.
Probably the most unusual buildings we saw were concrete buildings about five stories tall, with rows of tiny open windows. These were "bird condominiums" for the sparrows to roost in and build their nests. Sparrow nests are a delicacy in Asia because of the popularity of bird's nest soup, and the nests are quite expensive, running about $1000 per kilo (2.2 pounds). I'm not sure how many nests it takes to equal a pound, but I bet the nests are fairly light.
Claire and I stood outside on the deck during most of the sail into Ho Chi Minh City, taking some time to eat breakfast (of course). Many of our fellow guests joined us since the weather was perfect. We had finally left the chilly weather of the Pacific behind and were in areas influenced by the warmer Indian Ocean. It was in the 60's in the morning, and up to 95 by the afternoon. Fortunately, the surprisingly low humidity meant the temps dropped back down quickly to about 70 by nightfall. February is definitely a good month to visit Southeast Asia.
We arrived at Ho Chi Minh City in the late morning, and the Seabourn Sojourn docked within easy walking distance of the downtown area.
Ho Chi Minh City - Shore Excursions from the Seabourn Sojourn
The Seabourn Sojourn docked less than half a mile from the center of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the mid-morning, and the ship did not sail until the late afternoon of the next day, giving guests the opportunity to either take one (or more) of the cruise ship's excellent excursions or explore on their own. We had a choice of six Saigon shore excursions, four of which were offered both days.
- A Cultural Evening in Saigon - This evening tour was a special Vietnamese dinner and cultural show at the historic Majestic Hotel. This tour could be offered since the Seabourn Sojourn had an overnight in Ho Chi Minh City. The evening started with drinks on the rooftop terrace of the hotel, which overlooked the Saigon River. Dinner featured specialties from north and south Vietnam, and the entertainment included dancing, music, and traditional costumes. Since we had several Asian meals on the ship and ashore, my friend and I chose to skip this evening tour so we could explore the city at night a little on our own. Everyone who went said the dinner and the entertainment were both excellent.
- Artists of Saigon - This half-day tour was offered both days, and introduced the participants to the diverse art and architecture of Vietnam. The excursion takes guests about 30 minutes outside the city to a village founded a decade ago by several Vietnamese famous artists. The houses in the village are of several different types of architecture, and the artist specialize in various forms of art, including oil paintings, lacquerware, ink drawings, earthenware, and wood carving.
- Journey on the Mekong - This full day tour was a big hit with all who participated and was offered on both days. It included a 2-hour ride on a mini-van to one of the Mekong River's nine branches, where the participants boarded a small boat and stopped at the Cae Be floating vegetable and fruit market, and a local farmer's house. Lunch at the Mekong River Resort was included in the shore excursion.
- Street Food Savvy - This half-day tour was on our second morning in Ho Chi Minh City. It included a tour of one of the local street markets, where the guide explained many of the foods being sold by the vendors. Next, the tour group visits the large Ben Thanh Market, which is Saigon's large indoor market, with all sorts of food and other items. Lunch is at the Ngon Restaurant, which offers an extensive menu of Vietnamese foods. My friend and I did this tour and it is explained in more detail on page 14 of this article.
- The Soul of Saigon - This half-day tour offered both days explores the major highlights of Ho Chi Minh City, including the History Museum, a water puppet show, a ride in a pedicab that takes participants by many of the city's famous sites including the Notre Dame Cathedral. The group next visits the Thien Hau Temple, followed by a stop at the Minh Phuong lacquerware workshop and a photo stop at Reunification Hall, which was once the Presidential Palace of Vietnam.
- Cu Chi Tunnels - This 6.5-hour tour was offered both days and is explained in more detail on the next page.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - Cu Chi Tunnel Tour and a Night in Saigon
Cu Chi Tunnel Shore Excursion
Soon after the Seabourn Sojourn docked in Ho Chi Minh City, we had a shore excursion to the Cu Chi tunnels. Mom and I enjoyed a similar tour when we were here in 2009. We had a bus with about 26 people that first went on a driving tour of the downtown historic area. The lunar New Year was just a few days away, so throngs of people were getting ready for the holiday, scurrying around on the ubiquitous motor scooters. I hadn't forgotten how busy the streets were in Saigon. Many on the motor scooters were carrying flowers (mostly the bright yellow flowered) ornamental apricot. They pick the leaves off these small trees about a week ago, leaving the brilliant flowers. Most are grown in pots, making them smaller in size. Some of these bonsai-stunted, pot-bound trees are a couple of years old. We also saw many yellow mums and cumquat trees, which are supposed to bring good luck in the New Year.
The tour of downtown included some walking, but mostly was on the bus. We saw the famous Rex Hotel, where many of the journalists stayed during the war, the post office, the opera house, city hall, and large Catholic cathedral. Sometimes we forget that Vietnam was once a predominantly Catholic country since French colonized/occupied Vietnam for 350 years. This tour did not stop at the War Remnants Museum, which is Vietnam's version of the American War.
Ordinarily, the tour next drives towards the tunnels, stopping for lunch outside the city. However, with the New Year holiday, the restaurant they normally use on the road to the tunnels was closed, so we ate lunch at the Ngon Restaurant before heading out of Ho Chi Minh City. It was an excellent lunch, with traditional Vietnamese dishes like spring rolls, fish, and a hot pot with rice. Fruit for dessert. Our lunch was set, but most individuals dining at Ngon walk around the perimeter of the inside of the restaurant where local street vendors are cooking their specialties. If you see something you like, you order it and it is delivered to your table. Kind of like eating in a food court of traditional Vietnamese food. Ngon is one of Ho Chi Minh City's most popular eateries.
Soon we were back on the bus riding through small villages and the countryside to the Cu Chi Tunnel area, about 45 miles northwest of Saigon towards the Cambodian border. The members of the Party Committee of the Cu Chi Zone (the Viet Cong who lived in the area) built a series of spider-web-like underground tunnels covering about 150 miles that they used as a base, with places for eating, living, meeting, and fighting. Thousands used the tunnels, and at least 1500 died in the tunnels. The clay like soil in the area is perfect for tunnels since they didn't have to use wooden supports to hold them up. They even buried solid bamboo in the tunnels, which the termites ate, leaving a perfectly round tube for ventilation or smoke removal.
The tunnels were used from 1960 to 1975, and the site is preserved as a national monument, with over 1 million visitors per year. Interesting, but very sobering for older baby boomers like me from the USA who know that the diabolical killing traps and other fighting methods were used against Americans our age. Probably the weirdest part of the trip was the National Defense Sport Shooting ground which is next to the tunnel site. Mom and I could hear shooting when we visited in 2009, but we visited the shooting range this time, where some in our group and others paid $2 per bullet to shoot an AK-47 or machine gun.
Claire and about half our our group even went down into a tunnel (the same one mom did) and walked about 20 yards or so underground in the dark. She said it was miserably hot and that once was enough. I made photos of those coming out of the tunnel.
Leaving the tunnels, we rode back to Saigon, loving the sights from the bus--mostly people on small motorbikes. Only the wealthy have cars, since the "luxury" tax on a car can almost double the price--out of range for most citizens. Motorbike drivers must have a separate license and adult drivers/riders have to wear a helmet, but children do not. Also noticed that many homes (even in the country villages) were very narrow, but multi-leveled. Property taxes are based on the amount of street or road frontage, so some of the buildings (even in the villages) were three or more stories tall and about eight feet wide, but long. They kind of looked like stacked mobile homes or the shotgun houses of Charleston, SC.
The holiday traffic was heavy, so we didn't get back to the Seabourn Sojourn until after 5 pm. We went up to the pool bar and had a drink with a group of six from the UK and Britain who were on their way to eat out at the Lemongrass Restaurant in Saigon. Claire and I ended up eating outdoors at the Patio Grill for the surf and turf night with a couple from Houston. Claire had salmon and I had huge prawns. Both were good. It was the first night warm enough to dine outside, and was perfect.
A Night on the Streets of Saigon
After dinner, we decided to be "brave" and walk to the downtown area to see the lights, flowers, and people. Our ship was docked in a perfect spot, only about 1/2 mile away. The challenge was crossing the streets. We didn't have a problem until we were less than a block from the "action". One two lane street (one way) we had to navigate on our own, but the very wide six lane street was a challenge. We smartly waited for a group of Vietnamese and walked with them. Using the crosswalk is a joke, but made us feel better. The motorbikes and random cars will stop for pedestrians, but it's scary.
Many of the streets were blocked off to vehicles, but packed with all 9 million (or so it seemed) Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) residents. It felt very safe since there were so many families out looking at the lights, flowers, books (our guide said that people could look at the books and then trade an existing one for a new one that interested them at a later time.) We didn't see any place to buy the books, so maybe that's the way it works. All the books were paperbacks.
Going back to the ship was easier since we had our "traffic dodging legs" now. Back onboard the Seabourn Sojourn by 10 pm and in bed soon afterwards. We explored some of Saigon's markets the next day on a "Street Food Savvy" Tour.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - Street Food Savvy Shore Excursion
Claire and I ate another great breakfast at The Colonnade on the Seabourn Sojourn and went for a tour called "Street Food Savvy" at 8:45 am. Only 23 on the bus, but the other bus with the same group only had 10 (we found out later). This tour was different than the one usually ran because of the New Year's holiday. All shops and most restaurants shut down by noon (except a few touristy ones) on the lunar New Year's Eve because tradition dictates that everyone is inside their home with their families. Since traffic is rough and some have to travel to be with families outside Saigon, all businesses shut down. It actually looked like many never opened, and by the time our tour was over at 1:30, the streets were practically vacant.
We started with a visit to a street market just outside the city center. We strolled along 3 or 4 blocks with our guide, but couldn't hear what he was saying unless you were right next to him. Wish we had some of those audio devices like the river ships use. It was fun to watch people shopping and dining along the streets, but it was very dirty--the worst we've seen--with trash everywhere. Of course, crossing the streets was a challenge, but we quickly learned to walk slowly and steadily ahead and not run or even walk fast. The steady walking allows the motor bike drivers to judge your position and go ahead or behind you accordingly. Spooky, but it works.
Leaving the outdoor street market, we went to one of the parks where they had set up the flower stalls since everyone buys flowers or plants for their homes as part of the New Year celebration. The most popular are kumquat trees (with fruit on them) for prosperity and flowering ornamental apricot trees, sunflowers, or yellow mums because of their yellow color. The best part of the flower market was seeing how the flower pots are loaded onto the back (or front) of the motor bikes. Not sure how they can ride so well with a heavy pot on their bike!
We stopped by Ben Thanh Market, the largest indoor market in the city, but it was almost vacant and getting ready to close. In fact, they closed the doors behind us as we left, not allowing anyone else inside. Our last stop for the morning was for a Vietnamese lunch at one of the few "authentic" places in town still open--the Ngon Restaurant where we had eaten the day before. Fortunately, we had a different lunch, but it was as good as the previous day. This time, I was smart enough to tell our guide about my mollusk allergies, so I was given my own hot pot with all the vegetables and shrimp only rather than the hot pot with the shrimp and mollusks the others had. Still had four dishes--fried pancakes with vegetables and shrimp (like we made in Hoi An), fried spring rolls (wish they were the fresh ones), a glass noodle dish with crab, and the hot pot. Fruit for dessert, but not as good as the fruit on the ship. Saigon Beer to drink again, which was fine with all of us.
Sunset on the Mekong and a Super Bowl Day at Sea
Sailing Down the Mekong and "Officers on Deck"
Back on the ship before 2 pm, I took a nap while Claire read. The Seabourn Sojourn sailed away from Ho Chi Minh City at 4 pm, and we enjoyed the river views and the sunset as we moved towards our next port of call in Cambodia.
Went for a drink at the pool bar around 5 pm and watched them set up for the "Officers on Deck" event, where the ship's officers serve snacks and food from a series of booths set up. It started at 6 pm and lasted until about 7:30. Very nice. They served caviar, a hot Asian soup, steamed shrimp, and 3 or 4 other types of canapes, along with raspberry margaritas (from a giant margarita glass-shaped bowl) and cosmopolitans (from a giant cosmo-shaped bowl). Of course, the bars were open for those who didn't want one of those libations.
Claire and I ate dinner outdoors again at the Patio Grill. It was a South American theme, with sea bass and beef skewers as the main courses. Delicious, and the fish and beef were cooked as ordered. (Claire and I split the fish and beef). Had some chimichurri sauce with the meat.
After dinner, we stayed by the bar for the Rock the Boat dance party. It was hopping and fun.
A Super Bowl Day at Sea on the Seabourn Sojourn
The next morning was Super Bowl day in this strange place 12 hours ahead of home. Kickoff was at 6:30 am, and we were awake and watched the first half in our cabin before getting dressed and going to the Grand Salon at half time to watch the rest of the game. Even though guests could watch on the television in their cabins, we were delighted to find about 50 or 60 folks in the lounge watching the game on the giant screens.
Seabourn treated the crowd right with a buffet breakfast (eggs, pastries, and American bacon), along with an American sport favorite--hot dogs with buns and plain old Budweiser in a can. Not every day you can acceptably have beer before 9 am! Both sides were well represented and we had fun. The only disappointment was that on this international broadcast of the big game, we didn't get to see the same commercials as those shown in the USA.
After the Super Bowl game, Claire went off exploring while I worked on journals and photos and went to Team Trivia at noon. My team the In-Continents seemed to fall in third or fourth place most days. The questions continued to be the most difficult I'd ever seen.
Ate lunch outside at the buffet--Greek day with good Greek salads, lamb skewers, and a rose wine. After lunch, we read and napped.
We had dinner reservations for the family style Thomas Keller dinner, so went to that after a drink in the bar. We ate in The Colonnade outside on the back deck of the ship, and it was a great night to sit outdoors and enjoy the calm sailing and many oil drilling rigs all lit up in the distance. The menu was the same one we had enjoyed our very first night on the ship before we sailed from Hong Kong. It was just as delicious this time!
Our fixed Thomas Keller menu was:
- Waldorf Salad -- crisp chicories, Fuji apples, celery branch, white wine poached currants, candied walnuts, Roquefort blue cheese dressing. This Waldorf salad also had several different greens (mostly lettuces), so was really like a tossed salad with all the toppings.
- Grilled "RR" Ranch Rib Chop -- blistered asparagus, whipped red bliss potatoes, Santa Maria remoulade, and A4 sauce.
- Drunken Goat--goat cheese soaked in red wine and served with Marshall's Farm Honey and grilled country bread
- Chocolate silk pie with whipped chantilly
This was a delicious meal, and we loved the various flavors. Each dish (except the cheese and pie) was served family style, and we cleaned the plates. Our server wanted us to have more, but we passed.
The wait staff dressed in blue jeans, and the "background" music was a little louder and different than usually seen in the other Seabourn venues.
After dinner, we decided to skip the cellist and went back to the room. Claire was wide awake after her long nap, so decided to watch a movie. I was out like a light by 10:30, eager to see a new country (for me) the next day--Cambodia.
Sihanoukville, Cambodia - One Day in Cambodia
The Seabourn Sojourn had three shore excursions available in Sihanoukville:
- Phnom Penh Adventure - This 12-hour tour included 9 hours on a bus (4.5 hours each way from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh). The drive is scenic, and many guests went to Phnom Penh, despite the long ride. Those on the tour saw many of the capital city's highlights such as the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and the Toul Sleng Museum.
- Ream National Park River Cruise and Hike - This 7-hour tour included a river cruise on the Prek Tuk Sap River through a mangrove forest, a stop at the village of Thmor Thom, and a hike along the side of the forest to the Koh Som Poch Beach for lunch. The tour concludes with a visit to Meditation Mountain, which is considered a holy place to gather medicinal plants.
- Sihanoukville Highlights - This half-day morning bus tour of the Cambodia city was the one my friend Claire and I took. Details follow.
"Sihanoukville Highlights" was a nice introduction to the city, but we were surprised how much poorer (and dirtier) it seemed than Vietnam. Lots and lots of trash.
Cambodia obtained its freedom from France in 1953, and in the 1960s jetsetters like Jackie Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve flocked to the beaches and resort hotels near Sihanoukville. In 1970, civil war broke out and the king was deposed. The Khmer Rouge killed millions of residents, and millions more fled the country for refugee camps in Vietnam. By 1993, peace was restored, and the country has been rebuilding since. In addition to all the killing, the Khmer Rouge destroyed many of the tourist sites like hotels and destroyed may Buddhist temples. Our guide went to a UN-sponsored camp when he was 7 years old and learned English there. He was away from his home for many years. You can't help but wonder how many others have similar stories.
Almost everyone in Cambodia is Buddhist, and Sihanoukville has five main wats (Buddhist temples) that have been rebuilt. We visited two temples--Wat Krom and Wat Leu. Both were very beautiful, with lots of gold paint, ornate paintings, and intricate décor. Wat Leu was set in a lovely area full of trees and up on a mountain overlooking the city of about 150,000. Other than the pagodas, the most fascinating part of the site were the dozens of monkeys all around the place. Claire even got a photo of one drinking from a discarded can.
We stopped briefly at a war memorial, but got the sense it's more of a reminder of what was and could be again rather than to honor those who fought. Many children had things to sell everywhere we stopped, but our guide warned us not to buy or give them money because if they make money, they aren't allowed by their parents to go to school. We were surprised to know that Cambodia does not require children to attend school, so it's understandable why so many were on the streets. One small girl wanted to sell us bracelets, and when I said "no thank you", she said "Why?" Very sad. Mothers with babies stood on the street and seemed to know 3 English phrases--"Hello", "Give money?", and "Bye-Bye". They had warned us on the ship that we'd see a lot of poverty and those who had been maimed in the war that ended 15 years ago. And we did. The ship was primarily stopping here to retrieve the 40+ guests who left the ship in Ho Chi Minh City for two nights to fly to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, the most popular tourist destinations in Cambodia.
We also walked through the busy Psar Lu Market, the covered city market. Much like a poor man's Walmart, with everything for sale--food, clothing, and junk of all kinds. Fun to look at the fruits and vegetables on the 30 minute tour, but we avoided the stinky seafood.
Our last stop was at one of the beaches. We sat up in the shade for about 45 minutes and drank a local beer made in Sihanoukville called Angkor. The cold bottled beer was $1.25 each, and our guide told us to check under the cap. Of the 6 at our table, 3 of us got a free beer. We drank the second one, and Claire had another one! Nice beer, nice price.
Back on the ship by 12:30 or so, we had lunch outside. Since we didn't have breakfast, we both got a burger. Yummy as always.
Spent the afternoon lounging around and catching up on photos and journals while Claire read and watched a movie. Lazy afternoon.
Went for drinks about 6:45 and then ate a nice dinner in The Restaurant. Claire had the roasted tomato soup, grilled scallops, and raspberry sorbet. I had the tuna carpaccio, grilled grouper, and the Thomas Keller dessert, which was orange sherbet mixed with vanilla ice cream and dipped in very dark chocolate and sprinkled with ground pistachios. It was appropriately called a dreamsickle, but wasn't on a stick. Tuna and dessert were terrific; the grouper was okay but a little dry. Several at the table got the Thomas Keller main course--a duck confit, which they said was delicious, but neither Claire nor I are much for duck.
Went to the cabaret show done by the five onboard singers and two dancers. Very fun, with music from the 60's and 70's that all of us baby boomers love.
In bed by 11 pm. The cruise ship sailed on towards Thailand. We had a special "beach day" ahead, with water sports like water skiing and paddle boarding, swimming, and lunch.
Ko Kood, Cambodia - A Seabourn Signature Event
The next day was a special one on the Seabourn Sojourn--a full day at a spectacular private beach on the island of Ko Kood, Thailand. Don't feel badly if you've never heard of Ko Kood (also spelled Koh Kood, Ko Kut, or just Kood). As far as we could determine, Ko Kood has no industry except for a few small resorts. This picture perfect tropical island also has one of the best beaches I've ever seen--trees providing shade, but perfect white sand with no sea urchins or rocks, and a slowly sloping bottom where you can walk out about 1/4 mile without being over your head. The water was also brilliantly clear and the color of a swimming pool.
Seabourn has a "signature" exclusive event on every cruise like an exclusive concert or a day at a beach on cruises like ours. We anchored before 8 am, and tenders started taking people ashore by 9:30 for water sports like kayaking, paddle boarding, water skiing, snorkeling, and banana boat or tube riding. We decided to skip the water sports and went ashore about 11 am.
The walk from the tender dock to the beach was only about a quarter of a mile, and the walk was on a paved trail. Only the main restaurant on the ship was open for lunch, and all other venues were closed. I'm sure almost everyone went ashore who could negotiate getting into and out of the tender.
At noon, they started serving caviar and champagne from surfboards, well away from shore, but where the water was still only waist-deep. Fun, and you should have seen the 400 folks leaving their beach chairs to wade out like a bunch of lemmings to the feeding/drinking frenzy. Lots of fun.
Also at noon, they started serving a spectacular buffet that went on until 2:00 or so, complete with huge grilled prawns, barbecue ribs, hamburgers, hot dogs, salads, etc. The free bar was open all day, and I'm sure some might have over-imbibed, got too much sun, or got water up their noses from being thrown off the banana boat or "couch" pulled behind the ski-boat. Claire and I ate a huge lunch, chatted with friends, and bobbed around in the refreshing water for a couple of hours or so. All in all, it was a memorable, perfect day.
They also had Thai massages from locals for a good price and a few trinkets for sale in a booth. We never saw anyone who wasn't from the ship except the few handicraft people at the booth and the local masseuses.
We returned to the Seabourn Sojourn about 3:30 to beat the crowd since the last tender was at 4:30. The weather was so nice we sat outside on the balcony and read our books, taking turns getting ready for dinner. We decided to eat outside at the Patio Grill and found a table for six where two couples had just sat down. We had met Bob and Jamie from Houston before, but I was especially delighted to meet the couple who lived in Greenland! (Greenland only has 57,000 residents). Neither of us was very hungry, so we both got the Caesar salad and grilled salmon. I added a scoop of passion fruit ice cream and a scoop of rocky road, so I guess I was hungrier than I thought.
Claire went to the show at 9:45. It was a singer named Roger Wright whose claim to fame was being on British television and starring in "The Lion King" in the West End theater district of London for three years. He was pretty good she said. I was afraid I'd fall asleep from the sun, food, and champagne. This cruise line constantly delivers memorable days.
The Seabourn Sojourn next sailed for our next port of call, Bangkok.
Laem Chabang, Thailand - Seabourn Shore Excursions to Bangkok and Pattaya
Early the next morning, the Seabourn Sojourn docked at Laem Chabang, the seaport for Bangkok Thailand. Laem Chabang is located about 15 miles (a 30-minute ride) from the beach town of Pattaya, which some of avid novel readers may recognize as a site often used in books set in SE Asia. Laem Chabang is about a 2-2.5 hour coach ride from Bangkok, so the Bangkok tours take a full day.
The Seabourn Sojourn had seven shore excursion tours from Laem Chabang, three of which went to Bangkok, while others visited an elephant village, took a Thai cooking class, visited the "Sanctuary of Truth" (an ancient wooden Thai temple), or had a driving tour through the Thai countryside. The shore excursions were:
Comprehensive Bangkok - This full day tour included many of the highlights of Bangkok such as a boat trip along the canals and the Chao Phrya River, the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, and the Emerald Buddha. Lunch is a Thai buffet at a hotel.
Bangkok Temples and Tuk Tuks - This full day tour included stops at the Wat Traimit temple, home of the solid gold Buddha, the Wat Ratchanadda temple, with its metal castle, and Wat Pho temple, home of the giant reclining Buddha. In addition to touring by bus, guests get to ride in one of the famous tuk tuks, which is a great way to see the city. Lunch is at the same Thai buffet as the other Bangkok tour. My friend Claire and I took this tour and you can read more details on the next two pages.
Transfer to Bangkok - Since Laem Chabang is about a 2-hour drive from Bangkok, this transfer enables those who like to explore on their own or are looking for things to do and see for free to have a guaranteed ride to and from the ship. Guests were dropped off at the Central World Plaza Mall, and an escort provided information and answered questions about things to see.
Elephant Village of Pattaya - This half-day shore excursion visits an elephant camp about 45 minutes from Laem Chabang. Guests learn how the elephants are trained to work as both beasts-of-burden and in ceremonial processions. They also learn how the mahouts (trainers) teach the elephants and get a chance to feed them.
Panoramic Thai Countryside - This half-day tour includes an hour sightseeing drive past the Bang Saen Beach and the local Nong Mon market. The bus stops at Ang Sila, a seaside fishing village where carvers demonstrate how they work in granite to make pestles and mortars. Refreshments are served at the Bang Phra golf course, and the tour concludes with a visit to the Khao Khlew Open Zoo.
Sanctuary of Truth - This mystical wooden pavilion is located about 45 minutes from Laem Chabang in North Pattaya. On the half-day tour, guests learn about this the Sanctuary of Truth, which is the largest wood-carved structure in Thailand.
Thai Cooking Class in Pattaya - On this 7-hour tour, participants first visit a local market to gather the fresh items needed for the cooking class, which is held at the Nah Pah Thai Culinary Arts School. This school is located at the Royal Cliff Beach Resort in Pattaya, and participants learn to prepare Thai dishes and get to eat their own cooking.
Bangkok, Thailand - Golden Buddha at the Wat Traimit Temple
Since Claire had never visited Bangkok and I've only been there once, we signed up for the "Bangkok Temples & Tuk Tuks" 9-hour tour, of which 4.5 hours were driving back and forth to the port and 1 hour was having a delicious Thai lunch in the luxury Royal Princess Hotel.
Our tour left the ship at 8:15 am, soon after docking. The ride into the city was mostly through industrial areas, with lots of factories. There were a few farms, mostly growing rice or tapioca (who knew the Thai loved tapioca?). Our guide spoke terrific English and was very funny, which made the tour even better. Her name was "Toy", but she insisted we call her mama Toy.
Our first stop in Bangkok was at Wat Traimit, a temple famous for its 5.5 ton, solid gold Buddha who is 13 feet tall and dates back to the 13th century. Very impressive, with huge sapphire eyes. Apparently it was covered in plaster and gold leaf (many Buddhas are covered in gold leaf) for hundreds of years until 1955 when someone workers dropped the massive Buddha and cracked the stucco covering the treasure. discovered it was made of solid gold. Quite a finding!
Bangkok, Thailand - Wat Pho Temple
Our next stop was at the temple complex of Wat Pho, which consists of many ornate temple buildings. Many have paintings or statues on the inside, but no seats. Etiquette for visiting Buddhist temples is very important for visitors--everyone must remove their hats, shoes, and socks and have their knees and shoulders covered (both men and women). Visitors should also be respectful of the sites.
Wat Pho is Bangkok's oldest temple and the site of Bangkok's reclining Buddha, who is 151 feet long and covered in gold leaf. He is huge. They were cleaning/re-plating the soles of his feet while we were visiting. If you visit, be sure to walk completely around the Buddha to get a perspective of the size.
After seeing the Buddha, Claire and I stood in a line to get blessed by a Buddhist monk as part of the continuing lunar New Year's celebration. He dipped some type of hand broom (that's what it looked like) in sacred water and smacked us on the head and both shoulders a few times. The weather was very hot, so the cool water felt good. Then, he placed a polished seed, piece of wood, or piece of pottery in our hands. We put a dollar in the box, and another monk tied a red string with white beads around our wrists. I figured I had been blessed by two shaman in Peru (on different trips) that seemed to be bringing me good health and happiness, so figured I might need a recharge since it had been a few years.
Leaving Wat Pho, we next boarded 3-wheeled tuk-tuks, which look like a motorcycle in the front since the driver straddles the motor, but have a covered seating area for 2 Americans or 4 Thai (they are tiny) over the back 2 wheels. Our group of 24 had 12 tuk-tuks, so named for the noise the Daihatsu motors used to make when the vehicles were first developed.
We zipped through the traffic, led by a policeman on his own motorcycle. Great fun and a good way to see the city. We stopped for a few minutes at Wat Ratchanadda to make photos, but the famous metal castle, Loha Prasat, was being renovated and was covered with a giant scaffolding. The grounds of the Wat were quite lovely, despite its location on a busy Bangkok street.
After a 20-30 minute ride, we arrived at the Royal Princess Hotel and enjoyed the buffet lunch with Thai dishes. (They also had western food, but most of us tried the Thai.) The most unexpected dish was a purple ice cream dish made from taro root, the same thing the Hawaiians use to make poi. I thought it tasted pretty bad, but several others liked it.
Before heading back to the ship, we had a 30-minute stop at a jewelry "factory", where some bought sapphires, silks, or other Thai goods. We passed.
Back on the ship by 4:45 pm, we did a little shopping in the pier shops. I was disappointed to see the pier building didn't have the foot massage stations we enjoyed so much in 2009.
Back in our cabin, we saw that The Colonnade had a Thai dinner, so we called to get reservations. We couldn't get in until 830, so went for a nice walk to get our steps in before showering. After walking, we joined some new friends (sat downwind of them) for a drink by the pool.
Our Thai dinner was excellent. We both had a pomelo (grapefruit) salad with crabmeat, chicken, shrimp, Thai basil, mint, roasted peanuts, and coconut. Delicious appetizer. Claire had the Thai green curry chicken and I got the Pad Thai noodles. Loved these too. Dessert was a lemongrass ginger-mango mousse, and I almost licked the cup or ordered a second one, but resisted.
In bed by 11 pm or so. Our last two days on the Seabourn Sojourn were at sea--time for me to catch up on photos and journals and for Claire to lie in the sun or shade and continue reading her 800-page book on Alexander Hamilton.
Two Days at Sea and Debarkation in Singapore
Our last two days on the Seabourn Sojourn were at sea as the luxury ship sailed south from Bangkok to Singapore.
We got our exercise both days by walking outdoors on deck 5, which has an outdoor promenade that encircles about 3/4 of the cruise ship (the bow is closed). We did a lot of eating (what's new)--breakfast and lunch at The Colonnade, and dinner there one night outdoors for Italian night. We both had the seared beef carpaccio for an appetizer, and Claire got the Osso Buso veal, and I had the seared swordfish with chili, capers, and olives, with a basil and lobster gnocchi for our main courses. Claire had the tiramisu for dessert, and I got a delicious chocolate thingy.
Our last night we ate dinner in The Restaurant. I had the Thomas Keller yellowtail sashimi with artichoke appetizer, and it was delicious. I also had the Thomas Keller pork tenderloin, but it wasn't as good as some of the other dishes on the ship he designed, although I cleaned my plate. Claire got the shrimp (not Thomas Keller) and said it was quite good.
I played Team Trivia both days, and my team continued to be in the middle of the pack of the 10 teams. We were second after the next to last day, but fell to fifth on the last day at sea. Great fun, even though we didn't win.
Seabourn is one of the few cruise lines that has a guest laundry. Since we were staying in Southeast Asia for 17 more days, I managed to squeeze in a load of free self-service laundry, although the laundry room was packed. Sometimes I've seen launderette "wars", where the best and worst of humanity are seen, but the Seabourn guests were well-behaved. The ship has two laundry rooms, and each has two stacked washers/dryers, two ironing boards with irons, one deep sink, two chairs, baskets for laundry and a clothesline for hanging lost and found stuff. A small conference room is next to the laundry rooms, and the Seabourn staff have outfitted it as a laundry waiting room, with a few chairs, some magazines, and a paperback book exchange.
Had the farewell party in the Grand Salon with an excellent cello player. He did a nice mix of songs, all of which were familiar, and he had a nice sense of British humor. They had the show before dinner since they figured none of us might attend later since we were trying to pack. About 100 of the 400 onboard were staying for another two weeks on the ship while she sails roundtrip to Malaysia and Myanmar. Seabourn rarely has the same itineraries back to back, so many Seabourn frequent cruisers book more than one voyage in order to see and enjoy more of the world.
Back to cabin after dinner and our big bags outside of door before going to sleep.
The Seabourn Sojourn docked about 7 am in Singapore. Claire and I had a giant "last breakfast" and sadly disembarked the Seabourn Sojourn about 9:30 am, found an ATM to get some Singapore dollars, and took a taxi to our hotel.
How quickly a great trip can be over! Sometimes it feels like I've been away from home for months, and other times the days flew by and it seemed like we were just leaving Hong Kong. The Seabourn Sojourn staff provided amazing service on this cruise, and the luxury ship delivered memorable food, accommodations, activities, entertainment, and ports of call. This Hong Kong to Singapore itinerary is a wonderful introduction to Southeast Asia.
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