For a traveler who’s spent very little time in Asia, itineraries offered by cruise lines seem spicy and exotic. Singapore, Mumbai, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai resonate beyond reality through movies, novels and historic events. They’re bucket-list places to go. And a cruise is a great way to try them out, see what you like and then make plans to return for more intensive visits.
Vietnam is in its own way an awkward postscript. If you’re an American of a certain age, Vietnam is identified with wartime, brutality, things we sweep under the proverbial carpet. I was 12 when the war ended and though somewhat removed from the conflict, I’ve never had a pleasant association with Vietnam.
When I booked this cruise on Azamara Quest, I chose the itinerary for its marquee ports – Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong — cities I really longed to see. Plus, scheduling was convenient, and January is lovely here. As far as I was concerned, the ship’s three calls in Vietnam — at Saigon (or rather Ho Chi Minh City), Danang and Halong Bay for Hanoi — were add-ons. My thinking was that our ports of call in Vietnam would be a good chance to catch up on the history of this war that I’d missed but otherwise unmemorable.
I was so very wrong.
The American War, as it’s called in Vietnam, is ever-present. On a visit to Ho Chi Minh City, you can take a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the North Vietnam’s Viet Cong, living in subterranean passages just outside the southern Vietnam city, outwitted the enemy. You can also visit the War Remnants Museum, in the heart of the city — it’s a sometimes upsetting and shocking place that isn’t included on cruise ship tours because of its brutal impact, so you have to go on your own. So, yes, there’s plenty of opportunity to relive history.
But Vietnam, while still a communist country, has a lot more going for it than a war that occurred a few decades ago. If Vietnam hasn’t promoted itself as an incredibly interesting place to visit (and it truly does have more of a travel infrastructure than Cambodia or Laos), then that’s its own faux pas.
This is a place worth checking out.
On our first two days in Vietnam, Azamara Quest docked in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, and it’s a city whose heart beats in tandem with New York, to a certain point. The vibe is great; it mixes a reverence for tradition (Chinatown and its Chinese market are memorable places) with an embrace of the future (via the elegant Park Hyatt Saigon – definitely five star anywhere in the world – and new vertical urban shopping malls that have an Asian aesthetic). And don’t forget the coffee bars, as coffee is this country’s No. 2 export. Or the fabulous pho restaurants, which are to Vietnam what pizza is to Naples. (Tip: Add a bit of chili sauce, some lime, a touch of basil and a bit of mint, all provided, and it’s the best soup meal ever.)
Being docked right in town is a big, big deal. I’ve already confessed to loving this ship; its smallish size means it can get into ports that bigger vessels can’t manage. The result: I could meander right into the city, though walking across boulevards is a risk since traffic is insane. (Costa Classica, for instance, was in port the same day but had to bus passengers in — a 90-minute ride each way).
After the first afternoon here, I ventured back onboard, showered and changed, and then headed back into town for dinner. And for good reason: Ho Chi Minh City is as alive at night as New York.
Ho Chi Minh City awaits: Get all the details in our port guide.
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