Photo by Ériver Hijano
Photo by Ériver Hijano
Seeing Asia from aboard a cruise ship is a relaxed affair.
Writer Anya von Bremzen takes a two-week-long Silversea cruise involving bubble baths, lots of food, and the ancient art of “villain hitting.”
The Silver Whisper, our ship, is brilliant white, sleek of hull. We finally go aboard on a late afternoon, after spending three action-packed pre-cruise days in Hong Kong. Tonight, we’ll sleep in port. Tomorrow, at sunset, we set sail for two weeks—from Hong Kong to Vietnam, then to Bangkok, then on to Singapore.
Our sixth-deck Veranda Suite may be compact, but the closet is bigger than mine in New York. And from our teak balcony we behold Hong Kong’s Symphony of Lights, a nightly hullabaloo of lasers and LEDs erupting over the feng shui–jumbled skyscrapers across Victoria Harbour.
Our butler, Ram, appears—extravagantly—in black tails and white gloves. He is young, Indian, slim, and handsome, and addresses me as “Miss Anya” and my partner as “Mr. Barry.”
“A butler!” I whisper to Barry. The word stirs the inner Bolshevik in me. After all, I grew up in the Soviet Union, a classless society where butlers were pompous stooges in anticapitalist film farces. But, realizing Ram isn’t going to be happy unless he’s making us happy, we resolve to explore the seemingly limitless room service options at our disposal. Which is how we end up with a pre-sail silver tray of petite blini with caviar. Now my inner oligarch wakes up and hollers a heavily accented khello!
Stretching out on our balcony with the last of the blini, I take in the scene, still somewhat in disbelief. Until this particular opportunity came along, I could hardly imagine myself on a luxury Silversea cruise. My usual mode of travel features renting a flat and exploring a place for a while—on my own terms. How could I relinquish control? The only cruise I’ve done in my life, from Soviet Odessa, was as a six-year-old with my mom. It was a very classless-society cruise; by that I mean 12 vodka-reeking comrades per cabin all retching in unison on the stormy Black Sea. My mom and I jumped ship in the dusty port of Novorossiysk and ended up stranded there for a month because tickets back to Moscow were sold out. It was not a good story.
Still, a small part of me always wondered: What it’s like to travel in such style? Plus I had an Asia itch—and to be perfectly honest, I could imagine myself gliding into Vietnam, which I’ve longed to visit, and other countries I haven’t been to in years, savoring the contrasts of these Asian ports one right after the other.
Since my last trip to Hong Kong a decade ago, the place had been so built up. I was wistful for the days of ambling uninterrupted along Kowloon’s long waterside promenade. Instead, three days before boarding the ship, we had negotiated a crowded route fractured by blockages and detours for hotel renovations and new culture-and-shopping developments.
Sixty million visitors are expected in Hong Kong (population 7.4 million) this year, the vast majority from mainland China. A new high-speed rail link from Shenzhen and Guangzhou, with a new Kowloon terminal, is about to rush in more business travelers and shoppers eager to load up their wheelie suitcases with the latest Louis Vuitton bags, and cosmetics, and baby formula (in demand ever since mainland China’s 2008 baby formula scandal).
Seeking an urban texture, a savor, that the city’s glossy expansions seem to threaten, we trekked one morning along Hollywood Road’s antique row with Daisann McLane. The former New York Times travel columnist moved here in 2005, and in 2009 she founded Little Adventures in Hong Kong, which specializes in customized culture and food tours.
On one hand, the intense sights, sounds, and flavors of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant cities; on the other, the profound relaxation of a sea voyage designed to fulfill your every desire. You could get used to this.
McLane turned back the clock for us with breakfast at For Kee, a prominent survivor of Hong Kong’s nostalgic workaday cha chaan teng—literally, tea restaurants; in practice, coffee shop/diners. “Cha chaan teng are a tradition from Hong Kong’s ’50s and ’60s manufacturing boom,” McLane explained, as we balanced on rickety stools. “The workforce included many new immigrants from China eager for cheap Westernized and industrialized food—adapted to local tastes.” Hence the kooky time-capsule globalism on our homey plates: white-bread toast with condensed milk and butter, plus For Kee’s famous fried pork chops inside squished white rolls.
Over the next two quick days, we OD’d on novelty dim sum embedded with piggy faces, we rushed around temples, and we indulged in a Cantonese banquet of mind-boggling finesse with my old foodie friend Walter Kei at Fook Lam Moon—aka “the tycoons’ʼ canteen”—to keep my inner oligarch happy.
But our main Hong Kong mission? It featured a slipper and an elderly sorceress.
An urban-folkloric tradition called da siu yan—which translates as “beating petty people” or “villain hitting”—is still flourishing in the hands of “grannies” under the Canal Road overpass in Causeway Bay. We located the old dames encamped in force among the concrete pillars. Apparently it was high season for villain hitting; business was brisk.
Finally we approached her: a neatly dressed granny with dyed black hair, squatting beside her red cabinet of god statuettes and fruit offerings. We were handed sheets of thin joss paper, a kind of offering for the spirits we were appealing to. I wrote our names on a stack of colored sheets, and on a white sheet imprinted with male and female figures, the name of the specific person we wished cursed. The granny placed our white paper on a brick and began to pound away on it with a very large, well-worn man’s slipper. “Yeah! Go GRANNY!” we burst out, surprised at our own vehemence, as her thundering slipper slowly shredded to bits the letters TR . . . P on the paper. She then smeared a White Tiger God paper figurine with pork fat (to keep bad luck at bay) and set alight our various papers.
“Maybe she’ll save us all,” Barry coughed, as the granny circled us, waving smoke and muttering incantations.
Before we weigh anchor to depart from Hong Kong, passengers and crew are marshaled on deck in bright-orange life vests for a mandatory safety drill. Lifeboats are indicated. Suddenly—viscerally—it registers that this mode of travel comes with the possibility of calamity. Flying feels weirdly abstract, somehow remote, even with its turbulent terrors. But the sea?
“Eek, what if there’s a rogue wave?” I squeak, suddenly recalling a dread image from The Perfect Storm.
We awake at dawn, blinking groggily from our balcony at a misty gray world of water from which, slowly, the fantastical limestone buttes and bergs of Ha Long Bay rise up. They grow more and more monumental in the clearing light as we glide on among them, spellbound, at the speed of a car slowed for a school zone. This is a prime gift, a special richness, of ship travel: landscape encountered at a contemplative pace and perspective.
From our Ha Long dock we join a shore excursion to Hanoi, three and a half hours inland. Seven hours on the road for all of four hours in a city I’ve been dying to see? Here’s that side of cruise travel I pitied: a tantalizing place, experienced like a mini hallucination, poof, with petrol fumes. But despite the absurd schedule and our guide’s dutiful rushing, it’s worth it. I’m totally smitten by Hanoi, four-hour version. Retro-Soviet splendors such as the monumental mid-’70s mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh mix with French colonial vestiges including the Old Quarter of narrow shop houses. Darting scooters and bicycle lady fruit vendors in non la (conical hats) pass the bombastic President’s Palace on whose leafy grounds Ho resided modestly beside a carp pond. The city feels insulated from the wider world, even with its tourist crowds—plus it’s breezy and cool.
Hazy, humid Ho Chi Minh City, on the other hand, a two-day sail south, appears a metropolis thrusting toward the wider world. Skyscrapers and construction cranes greet us as we berth close-in on the Saigon River for our 30 hours in port. As dusk falls, we make our way to a table at the rooftop bar of Anan (Vietnamese for “eat eat”), one of Asia’s most exciting new restaurants. We quaff jasmine ale under the soaring Bitexco Financial Tower and a full moon. Peter Cuong Franklin, Anan’s visionary chef-owner, makes a point of producing his own populist bia hoi, a watery, unpasteurized fresh brew associated with Hanoi.
Franklin’s story offers a glimpse of the country’s wrenching past and its hopeful future. As a teenage war refugee he fled central Vietnam and was adopted by a family in Chicago. About a decade ago, he quit an international finance career to devote himself to cuisine, training at Chicago’s Alinea. After opening two hit restaurants in Hong Kong, he took the leap and opened Anan in 2017, on the clamorous thoroughfare that houses the old Cho Cu wet market, which is packed with fresh meat and produce. His project here—to both innovate and preserve—involves deep ties to the market scene. After drinks and before dinner, he takes us around Cho Cu, walking his street with the air of a thoughtful anthropologist. “Things actually change several times a day,” he notes. “Banana sellers bike in from the countryside, sell out early, and leave space that might then be taken up by a lady who makes pig intestines banh mi for the schoolkids.”
Everyone thought Franklin was crazy, opening a modern restaurant at a local market with no valet parking. But tonight Anan is jam-packed with all the cool people in this sweltering town, and I get a surge of excitement tasting Franklin’s market-inspired updates of Vietnamese street food, particularly the sizzling betel leaf rolls with buffalo meat and the earthy grilled rice-paper “pizza” topped with duck and local artisanal cheeses. Next morning, we’re back at Cho Cu and Franklin wants to demonstrate how to eat the folkloric delicacy balut. He garnishes a partially developed duck embryo with chili and herbs, squirts on some citrusy calamansi juice, and slurps it all down with a grin. We demur and try hard to grin back.
While reading by the pool in the sun, I order iced coffee, put down the book, and change my order to beer with one of the countless omni-attentive attendants. My book is Hunters in the Dark, by the novelist Lawrence Osborne, an old friend now based in Bangkok whom we’re seeing tomorrow. Barry, more hoarily, has an Evelyn Waugh travel compendium. What did Waugh himself bring along on a 1929 “pleasure cruise”? Oswald Spengler’s profoundly pessimistic Decline of the West!
One hundred years after Spengler’s book was first published, the availability of fast Wi-Fi aboard the Silver Whisper speaks to the decline of our powers of concentration. But it’s an indispensable aid during our lolling hours. Somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand, for example, the internet tells me how lucky we were to survive the seething flood of Hanoi’s mad motor scooters—some 5 million of them, I learn. A special pleasure of cruise travel: you and your companion revisiting the highlights to each other as the ship drifts along.
No rogue waves so far.
“Easy! Eat, drink, massage!”
Lawrence has texted back about how to best spend 32 hours in Bangkok.
He also offers to debauch Barry while I go to malls.
“But I don’t want to get debauched,” Barry protests, as I giggle. “I want to go to the mall too!”
We both wind up getting a massage—a foot massage, from traditional Thai specialists at the Wat Pho temple complex, famed for its massive gold-plated Reclining Buddha, some 50 feet high and three times as long, which we crane our necks at through a moving forest of raised cell phones. My massage is pure bliss. Barry squirms in his chair in agony.
Tippy, our tireless guide, now threads us out of Wat Pho’s gaudy fairyland of spires and lavishly horn-tipped roofs, maneuvering along from shade to shade past imperious saffron-robed monks. Bangkok these days ranks as the world’s second most visited city. The overrun Grand Palace? In this shocking heat and humidity? Instead we follow Lawrence’s advice and go eat: the world’s crispest fried chicken at the Flower Market; delicate dumplings dyed purple with butterfly pea flowers at Or Tor Kor food court, a dizzying collection of regional street food stalls. We even go to the mall, for a proper lunch at Paste Bangkok, a much talked-about modern Thai restaurant. The southern Thai crab curry and the zingy “flossed” salmon and watermelon salad prepared by chef Bee Satongun are worth walking all the way to Bangkok for.
Come sunset, we inch through the choking traffic to fulfill the “drink” part of Lawrence’s agenda with the man himself, who greets us among tropical fronds at the riverside Chakrabongse Villas. The century-old colonial house here is a former royal residence converted into a boutique hotel by Lawrence’s friend Narisa—“a relative of the king,” he drops nonchalantly. We sip sundowners on the open terrace as gaily colored longtail boats glide on the Chao Phraya River, and on the opposite bank Wat Arun temple rises like a mammoth floodlit ornament.
I’ve known Lawrence forever. Lounging here, a tan farang (tall foreigner) in sunglasses with his white linen shirt, he looks like a man of the world enthroned. After years as a struggling bohemian artiste in New York, he moved to Bangkok in 2012 and has seen his literary career turn to gold. He’s touted as the new Graham Greene; Hollywood has snapped up his novels. “Thirty-two hours in Bangkok, eh?” he repeats, delighted by the absurdity. He slaps his knee with a cackle.
After dinner at Namh, the sleek restaurant that was the flagship of Australian chef David Thompson (who has since moved on), Lawrence calls for a wee spot of debauchery: “Come on,” he urges, “this is Bangkok!” Which is how we end up staying out way past midnight nursing Singhas in a dark, tourist-packed go-go bar called Billboard, peering up at young Thai women wearing Day-Glo white bikinis as they stand undulating and remote-eyed within a large Jacuzzi, while a thundering soundtrack pounds. My inner Marxist is livid.
“Mr. Barry, oh, he looks very fatigued,” announces Ram. “May I draw him a bubble bath?” Now we have a private nickname for our butler: Mr. Bubbles. Speaking of bubbles, it turns out we can order Pommery—part of the cruise’s all-inclusive package—whenever we want. We order it a lot from room service.
The Silver Whisper has a dress code, by the way. Several nights are formal; proper attire is required at restaurants. Our cruise mates—mostly in their later years, deep pocketed, serial luxury cruisers—flash their tuxes and sparkly evening gowns at the bar, where a Filipino crooner trills lounge classics for them, then proceed to a dinner of lobster or steak or crab salad prepared with old-fashioned flair and presented by a United Nations of servers. We remain proletarian on our teak balcony and order in guac and chips. It goes surprisingly well with the Pommery.
If Bangkok’s anarchic, uncontrolled growth represents one model of Southeast Asia’s urban future, Singapore offers the counterpoint. It may not be—never was—“Disneyland with the Death Penalty,” as the writer William Gibson scandalously dubbed it in the early ’90s, the same time I visited. But still, the culture shock starts at its border. No chewing gum allowed in. Only an open pack of cigarettes, otherwise import fees. DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS, the disembarkation card warns. Which sends me frantically ransacking my pillbox before going ashore, seeking the microdose of medical marijuana a doctor pal in New York slipped me a couple of years ago.
“Everything fine, Miss Anya?” Mr. Bubbles inquires upon delivering chocolates and seeing me manically flushing and reflushing the toilet.
Once we are ashore, the island’s social planning shows us its more benevolent face, as we go exploring with Suhail—a burly, ebullient veteran guide, who, I suspect, earns more per hour than a Vietnamese guide does in a day. “Our government wants us to be healthy,” Suhail informs us during a brief pit stop amid office blocks at Ya Kun Kaya Toast, part of an iconic, retro-atmospheric local chain of cafés. He waves his cell phone. “You download an app, Healthy365, and earn points when you eat right and exercise—and you get vouchers back from the government!” “Wow,” I gulp, impressed. My mouth is full of the artery-clogging breakfast I’ve been craving since my last visit: perfect white toast with loads of butter and kaya (eggy coconut marmalade), served with runny poached eggs.
“See the Healthy Choice QR code at the stalls? You scan that,” Suhail says later, at the Tanjong Pagar Plaza hawker center. I’m impressed again. I opt for an unhealthy choice of the peanut ice kachang I’ve also been craving: a lethally delicious load of sugary shaved ice, crushed peanuts, red beans, and corn.
We get more social planning lessons in Chinatown, after departing the blissfully air-conditioned Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Suhail points to a striking pair of conjoined skyscraper towers. Mega-casino? No—public housing. Eighty percent of Singapore’s residents, including Suhail himself, live in subsidized apartments that they own. What’s more, each housing block has a strict maximum ethnic quota, based on the island nation’s ratio of Malaysians, Chinese, and Indians. “It promotes tranquility,” Suhail, an Indian, declares with a sunny smile. The government aims to have public transportation no more than a 10-minute walk from anyone, a park or gym at most 15 minutes away.
The government aims . . . the government aims. . . . The refrain continues at Singapore City Gallery, where multimedia presentations showcase the controlled transformations, from 1965 independence to the carefully envisioned future. The crown jewel here is an enormous scale model of Central Singapore, bristling with its swelling wealth of skyscrapers, which is kept updated and is actually used for city planning. The government aims—says Suhail—to make Singapore the greenest city in the world. And have we heard about the “Garbage of Eden”? It’s Semakau (Mangrove Island), just offshore, where the city’s refuse is dumped, after incineration, into a plastic- and clay-lined landfill site created between two small islands. The landfill has become a thriving nature and marine reserve. “Families go there for picnics,” Suhail boasts, smiling wide. “It’s the loveliest garbage dump in the world!”
In the 25th-floor swimming pool of the swank new Andaz hotel, where we’re staying post-cruise, I tread water and reflect on the two weeks at sea. I feel a pang for the Silver Whisper’s nautical glamour and Mr. Bubbles’s sweet ministrations. Yes, the mere 32 hours in Bangkok left me weeping for more, and the four Hanoi hours seem a cruelty. But then, those quick-burst exposures have imprinted surreally intense impressions, a vividness that longer visits crowd down: the orange sun sinking behind Hong Kong’s skyscrapers as the Silver Whisper glided off . . . the sweet-dusky salad of ants’ eggs and smoked fish at our farewell lunch in Bangkok’s 100 Mahaseth restaurant . . . the stage lights of squid-fishing boats in the dark sea night. Cruise mode enabled us to compare Asia’s metropolises while they were still bright and fresh to us—in interludes of well-pampered indolence at sea.
Ultimately, perhaps, it’s the rhythm and perspective of sea voyaging that will always stay with me.
“And who’s afraid of rogue waves, anyway?” says Barry, treading water beside me.
Silversea offers itineraries between Hong Kong and Singapore regularly in the fall, winter, and spring. For more information, visit silversea.com.
Looking to go deeper on your next cruise? These four small-ship cruise lines cater to the seasoned traveler, getting beyond the blockbuster ports and overrun tourist attractions in favor of off-the-path discoveries and culturally immersive experiences.
“New Zealand Splendors”
New Zealand is well suited to coastal exploration via cruise ship, but the country tends to get looped in on itineraries that focus more on Australia. Seabourn bucks the trend with two new 16-night New Zealand–centric runs aboard the 600-passenger Seabourn Encore. Sailing round-trip from Auckland, you’ll make about a dozen stops within the country and have the chance to take expedition-style excursions—perhaps a guided kayak and Zodiac outing near Oban, a tiny fishing town on Stewart Island known for its resident brown kiwis. Embarks Jan. 6, Feb. 23, 2019. From $6,299 per person. seabourn.com
Azamara Club Cruises
Two 17-night itineraries aboard the 690-passenger Azamara Pursuit traverse the Atlantic Ocean between Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro and explore Portuguese history and heritage. On a route once followed by Portuguese explorers, land activities include market tours and cooking lessons in Madeira, Portugal, and nightlife outings to hear traditional music in the lively African island city of Mindelo, Cape Verde, home to a unique Portuguese-African creole culture. On board, hear destination-themed lectures and taste dishes made with local ingredients. Embarks March 20, Nov. 13, 2019. From $6,098 per person. azamaraclubcruises.com
“In Search of the Northern Lights”
Viking is the first U.S. cruise line to offer an in-depth Arctic Circle voyage in the winter—prime time for viewing the northern lights. The 12-night trip between London and Bergen, Norway, aboard the 930-passenger Viking Sky takes in Norway’s winter-wonderland landscapes via six ports. You’ll spend your days trekking with huskies in the Arctic or paying visits to the native Saami community near the Saltfjellet Mountains, and you can fortify yourself between activities in the Scandinavia-inspired spa. Embarks Jan. 13 and 25, Feb. 6 and 18, March 2 and 14, 2019. From $4,999 per person. vikingcruises.com
“The Rivers of West Africa”
River cruises in western Africa are practically unheard of. Which is why this seven-night itinerary from Greece-based Variety Cruises, known for its private-yacht voyages, is such an unusual offering. The trip on the 44-passenger Harmony G between the Senegalese capital, Dakar, and the Gambia River in The Gambia, includes visits to such historic sites as the Wassu stone circles, aka “African Stonehenge”; nature reserves where naturalists help identify rare birds, hippos, gorillas, and more; and destinations virtually untouched by tourism. Embarks Jan. 12 and 26, Feb. 2, 9, 16, and 23, 2019. From $1,990 per person. varietycruises.com
>> Next: The AFAR Guide to Cruising
Sign up for the Daily Wander newsletter for expert travel inspiration and tips
Please enter a valid email address.