For many, a cruise means a huge ship, large crowd and the related stuffs therein. Then there is the other type of cruise: a small boat with a small number of guests, friendly staff and meticulous personal attention. The Coral Discoverer turned out to be such a boutique. My wife and I joined the South China Sea run from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, covering the long stretch of Vietnamese seashore, 22 January through 3 March 2017.
The meticulous planning and attention to detail were obvious from the moment we gathered at the Saigon Opera House, Ho Chi Minh City. We handed over our baggage and boarded the coach to the ship docked near the city centre. The small crowd facilitated quick clearance of immigration formalities. We attended the Captain’s welcome reception that evening in the Explorer Bar. At the top deck, with drink in hand, and the spectacular panoramic view of the nighttime Ho Chi Minh City all around, the experience was enchanting. Then we moved to the spacious dining hall at the lower level.
The majority of the gusts seemed to know each other. It turned out that they had shared past cruises in the Coral Discoverer itself or in one of the two other ships of the Coral Expeditions. The number of returning guests was impressive and was a testimony to the quality of the cruises. The sumptuous dinner was informal, enlivened with friendly discussions, and lingered on about three hours into the night. This set the pattern for every subsequent evening: drinks at one of the bars, then a leisurely buffet with affable banter. Food and wine were excellent and plentiful. In the bar, the selection of spirits was superb; the cocktails were tasty.
We enjoyed a beautifully appointed Bridge Deck Balcony Stateroom. The toilet is necessarily small, but properly planned, exquisitely appointed and well stocked with toiletries. Lazing on the balcony, casually taking the view, when the boat sailed, anchored or docked was an exhilarating experience. The ship is spotlessly clean, both public areas and private quarters. For a ship of this size, the facilities are remarkably lavish: three bars, a lounge cum presentation room, an exercise area, a sun deck and even a small library. Moving around was not difficult even for the elderly.
Vietnam has a rich and troubled history. The cruise arrangement did justice to that heritage. Every day we docked or anchored near an interesting seaside town or village. The day started with a lavish Continental and hot breakfast in the ship. The Discoverer has a unique boat for transporting guests to the seashore, when anchored away from the coast. The Xplorer is securely docked to the ship at the back. The guests could just walk into this boat from the main deck. Then it goes down smoothly as an elevator cab to the water and glides to the shore. The boat rides were unique opportunities to enjoy scenic beauty and to see the seaside life.
On land, we travelled in comfortable coaches, savouring scenic beauty and wowing at the rich historic legacy. Prominent among them were the cable-car ride up the Lin-son Truong Pagoda and the climb on foot to the huge Reclining Buddha statue. A visit to Vinh Moc Tunnel and the Benh Vien Hospital Cave of the Viet Cong rekindles the poignant history of the nineteen sixties. The Hue Citadel, Ha Long Bay, Sung Sot cave, Titop Beach and the steep climb to the top of the hill, Lan Ha Bay and the Cat Ba National Park were among the attractions we visited. When the plans demanded lunch or dinner on shore, impeccable arrangements waited for us. The tour team meticulously arranged every detail and took care of the entry fee for the attractions, eliminating any delay. An expert tour guide was travelling with us. Also included in the team was an expert on Vietnam. He made audiovisual presentations on history, social issues and life in general in Vietnam.
Rough weather disturbed the cruise arrangement one day. Nevertheless, an equally interesting fallback plan was in place seamlessly.
Another unique feature was the open bridge policy. The bridge of a ship, as the cockpit of a commercial aircraft, is a sensitive area. However, Coral Expeditions has an open-bridge policy in their ships. We enjoyed the experience of watching the captain navigating the ship, sitting on a nearby comfortable sofa.
The dedicated team, at every level, is probably the greatest asset of this ship. Informal, pleasant and friendly, they were at the spot, at the time when a guest needed help.
The room is not huge, but not tiny or cluttered either. The junior-king bed is firm and comfortable. The size of the wardrobe is adequate. A writing table, a sofa and chairs complete the room. The lighting is excellent. The wide plate-glass door to the balcony and the windows offer beautiful view. Probably the most enjoyable feature is the balcony. The en suite bathroom has a shower cubicle, running hot water, commode, washbasin, and generous supply of toiletries. The fixtures and fittings are first rate. The room is cleaned, bed made, every day. It is possible to arrange the time of cleaning. Laundry service is included, but no ironing. An iron and board may be borrowed. WiFi is available for purchase.