Thursday 31st January

Today we are in Sanya, China, on an island in the Deep South of the country. This modern city is fringed with mountains and forest and has a crescent shaped mile long beach. It is a busy fishing port and a place where cargoes are carried by junks to smaller settlements around the coast. The arrival of the ship created a lot of interest. As we write we are unsure as to whether this was the first visit of such a large ship, or the opening of the new cruise terminal, or perhaps both. TV crews were on the dockside, conducted interviews and even had an aeroplane circling the ship.

We had a quiet day and went on every deck to photograph the artwork of Dutch landscapes and Dutch maritime adventures. We were studying one, on Deck 8, which illustrated the former island of Schokland, now surrounded by fields, when the Captain came out of the Bridge. He was surprised that we were paying such attention as for the past 5 years he has just walked past these works of art. As the conversation ended he said, he was determined to study these more carefully because he is a Dutchman and it is his heritage.

We have returned after dinner, during which we set sail, and our towel friend is ‘hanging around’ near the desk but he can’t get the computer to work any quicker!!

Wednesday 30th January

It is our second day in Halong Bay so we took the opportunity to walk towards the town. To do this we followed a cone-lined walkway.

En route we watched a local fishing boat, with the fisherman’s wife at the bow hauling in the nets. It did not appear to be a big catch.

At the end of the jetty we were surprised to come across the old Ocean Terminal. It looked like it had witnessed the halcyon days of travel by ocean liner.

It was undergoing restoration and, quite fortuitously on the land facing side, we found an open door so in we went!

Before entering we inspected the sculpture of ‘Kissing Chicken Rock’ (one of yesterday’s islands) which is the symbol for Halong and this area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Upon entering we saw the restored 1920s/30s interior, including check-in desks and public waiting areas and wall mounted maritime scenes.

         

We concluded our walk by returning to the ship.

This afternoon we were lucky to take a tour of the Bridge and Engine Control Room. We saw that everything was electronic and a Windows based system which is so sophisticated that, as the Captain said, does not need paper charts. However, when he drives his car with GPS in the Netherlands, he has old fashioned maps handy because the car system is not as sophisticated as his ship’s.

We saw how this very large ship is controlled with fingertips and small movements of switches. A couple of movements enables the ship to go sideways, forwards and backwards.

There is no longer a big wooden wheel to steer the ship, though there is a small half wheel rather like that in a Formula 1 car, but it is only used as a last resort.

We met the Captain and he answered our questions.

Following the tour of the Bridge we went below Deck 1 to the Engine Control Room. We were greeted by a photograph of our ship in dry dock

and then by the Chief Engineer. In this windowless room everything that works on the ship is monitored.

As we write the sky has cleared and we see Halong Bay at its best. The humidity has dropped and the late afternoon sun is picking out the beauty of the limestone islands.

We write, having returned from dinner, and found our towel friend, which we think, is a replica of the dragon that made the limestone pinnacles that we are leaving behind in the darkness!

 

Tuesday 29th January

We had arrived in Halong Bay, Vietnam, before we awoke and witnessed early morning activities and the front line of limestone pillars that we will explore this afternoon.

At lunchtime we departed, on board a converted fishing junk, for a cruise around Halong Bay. This included lunch of local produce. Delicious! Halong Bay is, according to the guide books, ‘majestic and mysterious’ but only if one listens to the guides who name rock pillars after animals when it really is a chance of erosion.

The towering limestone pillars are the remains of a primeval mass of limestone – more than likely the eastern side of the Sea of Tethys. The evidence in the rocks shows uplift and folding from the southeast, just as for example, on the south coast of Crete. This allowed a cascading mass of seawater, over a very long period of time, into the already existing limestone caverns. Eventually these were hollowed out, their roofs collapsed and hence we have the remains of the cavern walls today. Now, exposed to daylight, it is possible to see the eroded and weathered remains of stalactites, stalagmites and pillars on the exposed rock.

Inside however, it is truly majestical. The tufa (thin sheets of calcium carbonate), stalactites, stalagmites and pillars are many thousands of years old, but are beautifully lit and not ‘messed about with’. Brilliant!!

 

The legend has it, that this is where the ‘dragon descends into the sea’. The myth tells of a great mountain dragon that charged towards the coast with its flailing tail gorging out valleys and crevasses. In many respects this is what we have just related but we have told the story from a geological point of view. Geology says that this is an example of Karst (limestone) scenery made of up of clints and grykes. The clints are the blocks of limestone and the grykes the gaps between them. This enables chemical weathering to widen the grykes which takes a very long time. Here we have the sea involved in an express erosion incident. Just a thought! In the Valley of the Kings near Luxor (Egypt) the tombs are excavated along the grykes because it provides a relatively easy access to the interior of the limestone mass.

 

Monday 28th January

A day at sea.

At 8:30 a.m. this morning we saw fishing boats from a local fishing community hard at work as we approached, having left Da Nang last night. Currently we have a heading of 341° at approximately 110°E and 17°N. On land this is the DMZ or demilitarised zone established in 1954 in Geneva as the boundary between North and South Vietnam in the same way as we have one in Korea today. 

Yesterday in the bar we bumped into an American Vietnam Veteran. He was based in Da Nang and the Tet Offensive clearly had an effect on him as he desperately wanted to talk about it and how 50 years later it was nothing like the place he knew. 

The offensive derives its name from the Tet or the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. This year it falls on 4th/5th February. In 1965 the Communist North’s campaign to ‘liberate’ the South had existed for 15 years. During this time the Saigon government was seen to be weak and failing. The Americans saw South Vietnam as being the next domino to fall under the spread of communism and they were not prepared to allow that to happen. President Johnson decided that it was time to ‘clear up the mess’. At first it went well for the Americans but as in many lengthy wars the opposition had no problem in finding willing recruits to counteract the USA. TV news had correspondents embedded with the troops and nightly reports were dominated by the casualty numbers. It came to a head following a night of attacks on 100 cities by the North. It was carnage and seen by the American people as an unbearable price for the US to pay. The tide turned against the war and eventually, as we recorded earlier, the Americans withdrew.

Sunday 27th January

We arrived at Da Nang, Vietnam around 6:30 a.m. and will use this as a base from which to explore the Imperial City of Hue. The city was the capital of the Nguyên Empire during their reign from 1802 – 1945. 

To reach Hue we drove along the dramatic coastline and through a mountain range. Here we used the Hai Van tunnel which, at just over 6km in length, is the longest in Vietnam passing through the mountain range where the rain forested slopes peak at 4,000ft. Looking back from here we saw the very large city of Da Nang lining the bay of the Gulf of Da Nang.

During the Vietnam War the largest US airbase was here. We were told that the mountain range protects Hue from weather systems from the southeast of the Pacific. This did not seem to work for us for at each location we visited we experienced heavy tropical rain! When the rain stopped everywhere dried very quickly but that was over lunch.

The journey took us past rice fields being prepared for the second crop and Chinese style fishing nets as well as oyster beds and fish farms in the many lagoons along the cuspate coastline (off-shore sandbars forming protected waters near land).

In Hue we visited the Imperial City. It was built between 1804 – 1833 and is heavily fortified with 2 metres thick and 10km long walls. The moat is 30 metres wide and 4 metres deep and is spanned by bridges and ten gateways. There are two sections here, the Imperial enclosure and the Forbidden City. The former housed the emperor’s residence, temples and palaces. What we saw today is only a small part of the original as the area was badly bombed during the French and American wars. There is a lot of neglected masonry stained by rainwater, moss and weeds but this adds to the atmosphere especially in heavy rain and high humidity. The Forbidden City in the centre of the citadel was reserved solely for the use of the emperor – hence the name. Everyone else was forbidden to enter. Today it is a mass of crumbling remains. To access all this we used the main entrance at the Ngo Mon Gate. 

After lunch we drove through the forest to the Tomb of Tu Duc. This is one of a number of extravagant mausoleums of the rulers of the Nguyên Dynasty along the banks of the Perfume River, named such because of the scents of lotus flowers and others growing on the banks that contrasted with the stink of the city. The tomb was designed by the emperor himself as a miniature palace for use before and after his death. It is said that the enormous expense and the forced labour led to a coup plot that was suppressed.

Saturday 26th January

Today we are at sea. At 10:00 a.m. we are at 110E and 13N in the South China Sea area of the Pacific Ocean as we head towards Hue. It is 25C with a force 5 wind from the northeast and the decks are wet from the humidity and spray from the ocean.

     

The steward dressed our towel friend for the weather this morning when he made up our room.

In the recently published book “The New Silk Roads” (Frankopan P. Bloomsbury 2018) the author describes the economic developments in recent times in this region. These include proposals for and investment in high speed freight lines connecting the deep-water ports of Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand with their interiors and China. All of this and the so-called inland ‘dry-ports’ along the original silk and spice routes is yet again evidence of historical continuity. The past continues to be very important today. An example of this was the arrival in January 2017 in the UK of the first freight train from China along what is today known as ‘The Belt Link’ route across Central Asia. The ancient routes are certainly still operating here and continue to shape parts of the world connected to it. At the time of writing rising nationalism in the USA may prevent their participation in the dynamic future that these developments provide.

Our day at sea gives us an opportunity to study our route so far.

    

  

Marco Polo was the first European to cross the Mekong and in the centuries that followed it was France that claimed much of the region as a protectorate. This was a ploy to hide colonial expansion, but historians agree that this may have unified the area.

French military in Vietnam began in 1847 and Saigon was seized in 1859. Cambodia succumbed in 1864 and Bangkok in 1893. By now there was only Thailand holding on to its monarchy and some semblance of independence.

With the onset of WW2 and France’s capitulation in Europe, here they sided with the Japanese. Communism grew in strength as a means of promoting independence and fairer land distribution. 

Between 1944 and 1945 the Viet Minh received funding from the USA via what was to become the CIA. This was seen as subversive by the French so that when Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam to be independent on 2nd September 1945 the French had other ideas. Defeated in Europe they saw this as an opportunity to show their strength. This led to at least 30 years of warfare and civil unrest. In 1953 Cambodia and Laos achieved independence from France leaving the latter clinging on to power in Vietnam. The French surrendered to the Viet Minh on 7th May 1954 at Diên Bien Phu thus marking the end of colonial rule in Indonesia-China. 

Vietnam was divided at 17N, into the communist north (Ho Chi Minh) and the ‘free’ south (Ngo Dinh Diem). 

The Ho Chi Minh trail which existed during the time of the French reopened as the main supply route to the south. During the 1960s the USA sent in ‘advisors’ to promote a military coup because they saw Diem as a liability. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson turned the policy around and saw military force as the only way of resolving the conflict. At first it was done secretly but eventually this could not be kept and more and more US marines were sent to the country to avoid a communist victory. Through 1968 and 69 the US carpet bombed vast areas of the region, whole forests were defoliated using chemicals so that the enemy could be seen from the air and hundreds of thousands of people on all sides were killed.

In the eyes of historians this is seen as an American failure, but some of the veterans on board our ship have an opposing story to tell after meeting Vietnamese people who were grateful for what they did.

On 27th January 1973 a Peace Accord was signed in Paris. President Nixon saw this as the opportunity to ‘withdraw with honour’, but really it was a face saving deal which allowed the soldiers to leave but not in a particularly peaceful way and the last Americans being airlifted from the roof of their embassy in Saigon with threatening crowds at the gates.

Fighting continued between the nations of the region until 1991. Again, in Paris, accords were signed that led to free elections. All of this had a terrible cost – murder, destruction of families and persecution. Fortunately there has been a reversal of fortune and as we have seen earlier a return to former trading patterns.

Friday 25th January

Nha Trang, Vietnam.

At 6:30 a.m. we slipped into the bay of Nha Trang. We were greeted with the sight of a  ring of rainforest clad inactive volcanic peaks in front of which was a ring of smaller limestone peaks forming a ‘necklace’. This is because we are leaving the ‘ring of fire’ and entering the limestone basin that forms the eastern edge of the Asiatic plate in this region. On the starboard side was a hideous Disney like fun palace. This is linked to the town by cable cars slung across the bay and preventing our ship from docking. Tenders have to be used to transfer people to the main town. According to the tourist information this is a ‘party town’ aimed at Russian and Chinese tourists with shopping as a major attraction. There are embroidery workshops here and ancient towers from the 7th – 12th century. As we write on Deck 3 in front of us a fishing village climbs up the hillside from a small sheltered cove. Beautiful! These connections of the present and past, with strong Chinese influence and investment is historical continuity.

 

 

Thursday 24th January

Phu My ( Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

It was at the entrance to the Mekong River at 4:00 a.m. when the ship left the South China Sea to a deep-water port where the mangroves have been cleared.

In the 1920s and 30s passenger liners were able to navigate the meandering river (known locally as Saigon River) and dock close to the city centre. From our dock we can see local fishermen and trading vessels. Close by is a giant container ship, the MSC Beryl, registered in Panama. The loading of containers was underway when we arrived and by late morning we saw her set sail on a trans-Pacific crossing and a Panama Canal transit. Using its own power it was gently nudged and turned in its own length into the departure channel of the Mekong River.

The Mekong Valley was inhabited about 1000 years ago when rice was grown along the valley. There is evidence in Thailand that rice may have been grown in the region as early as 4000 BC. China has long influenced the Mekong region through art and architecture to language and religion. The trade along the river helped the spread of new ideas and traditions such as the use of canals for transport and irrigation. Many of these are still in use today as we have witnessed.

The principal port of the Funanese, as the people of the delta were known by the Chinese, was Oc-Eco and archaeological explorations have revealed contacts with people from Indonesia, the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. All of this before the Northern Europeans.

As we departed a local dance troupe bade us farewell.

 

Wednesday 23rd January

Today is a day at sea, accompanied by our latest towel friend.

We travelled overnight across the Gulf of Thailand and at 08:30 a.m. we were off the southwest tip of the enormous Mekong Delta. We were sailing through waters that had entered the gulf from a distributary which has its source near Tibet. This results in a brown sea and the propellers churning the alluvium. This is essentially eroded Southeast Asia!

During the afternoon we were heading northwest passing the Mouths of the Mekong and by tomorrow morning we should be docking in one of these.

We saw some shipping activity: – 3 fishing boats, 2 container ships, 1 barge under tow and at 8:30 p.m. 2 lights on the horizon.

Chinese traders visited this region in the 13th century moving through the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait to the Indian Ocean. Here the spices were traded at ports such as Kochi. Arab dhows, or overland camel trains, moved the valuable cargo onwards. By sea, these spices reached today’s Middle East and then by land to the Mediterranean Sea via Gaza, Aleppo and Istanbul (Byzantium or Constantinople in the past). Overland the commodities crossed Pakistan, Afghanistan ‘the Stans’, Russia and the Caspian Sea ports to Europe.

All of this before European colonialism during the period known as the Age of Discovery in the 16th century. It was only by traders calling in at small ports such as Marseille and Barcelona or by navigating the River Danube from the Black Sea did the spices reach Europe. Safer and faster routes were developed by the Venetians via the Straits of Gibraltar to the Bay of Biscay and even to the Pool of London opposite the 11th century Tower.

Tuesday 22nd January

By 7:00 a.m. we had docked at Sihanoukville, Cambodia. This is not a pretty place but does give us access to the countryside, forest and coastline.

We participated in a town and village exploration which enabled us to visit a pepper plantation. We saw how the young trees matured to produce green peppers for up to 20 years and how black and red pepper is produced.

Our exploration continued at the foot of a mountain range to Kampot Town. This is a riverside town with streets lined with modern and French colonial architecture which in many ways is like small town France as well as New Orleans. We walked through a covered market used by the local population which was started by Chinese merchants. We had lunch by the river and close to the old French bridge and the modern durian fruit roundabout.

 Durian fruit sometimes called ‘smelly fruit’. It is also described as smelling like hell but tasting like heaven.

 Palm sugar in many forms.

Pineapple 

Rambuttan

 Durian fruit roundabout

Whilst returning to the ship we were fortunate to be able to walk through the Roman Ropov fishing village where we witnessed traditional trawl net fishing which is on a very small scale compared to that in the North Atlantic.

The first Europeans in this part of the world were looking for spices. This was the catalyst for discovery and the shaping of the world that followed. Colonial expansion in Southeast Asia developed via the quest for cinnamon, cloves, pepper, nutmeg and mace. A trade in these commodities had however been practised for many centuries before this.

About 1511 the Portuguese seized the port of Malacca (near Singapore) which allowed them to dominate the flow of trade between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. This made Malacca the richest port in the east by becoming an entrepôt port as we saw in Singapore and continue to see each day when we dock. At this time we witness the ‘to and fro’ of loaded and empty containers being delivered or taken away by barges fed by the bigger ships.