Gyles Brandreth's river cruise holiday adventure
The Radio 4 game show supremo found he was far from tongue-tied when he took to the waters of the Mekong.
As anyone who listened in to Radio 4’s Just a Minute game show two weeks ago will know, I was until very recently a cruise virgin. More than that, I was positively anti-cruise, turning down several offers to give lectures on board. Being holed up in a vast ship with a bunch of retired strangers and tossed about on the high seas is not my idea of a fun holiday. Besides, my wife is a poor sailor. Show her a photograph of the Isle of Wight ferry and she goes green at the gills. So: no cruising for the Brandreths.
And then we decided to visit Vietnam and Cambodia. Each of our three grown-up children had been on backpacking expeditions and implored us to go. “I’ve got books to write and films to make for The One Show,” I protested.
“Dad,” said my son, “joining a protest march in 1967 doesn’t mean you know all about the Vietnam War.” One of my daughters chimed in: “You can’t die without seeing the temples of Angkor. They are one of the wonders of the world.”
Chastened by the young and wise, I did my homework and found that the best way to cover all bases in the minimum amount of time was to take a 17-day trip by land and river, starting in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south and finishing in Hanoi, cruising the Mekong river to visit Cambodia in between. Word of mouth led me to Titan Travel. I was immediately encouraged by the brochure cover, which promised a “VIP home departure service from every UK address” (I am all for adventure, but like most sixtysomethings I like my creature comforts), but the moment I signed up for a Uniworld cruise, doubt crept in.
By Gyles Brandreth (2:57PM BST 11 Jul 2013)
Never mind the lift to the airport; I had committed to a two-week package holiday. And because we were off to south-east Asia, antimalarials were advised. We took them and my wife came out in hives. And what do you pack for such a journey? Titan advised us to dress casually, and for comfort, but don’t you have to dress up for the captain’s cocktail party?
Along with my pre-cruise nerves came the task of securing visas. Although we used an agency that guaranteed a fast-track service, getting the paperwork sorted proved an expensive palaver. Of course, as Winston Churchill pointed out towards the end of his life, most of the things we worry most about never happen, and, in the event, the visas came through in time and we packed our bags somehow and didn’t go anywhere near the haunts of malarial mosquitoes.
Bayon Temple at Angkor Wat
The airport limo arrived chez Brandreth early, and the flight left on time, but beyond that all I can recall about the day of our departure is eating three breakfasts in succession: one on Cathay Pacific towards the end of the 13-hour flight from Heathrow; another in the lounge at Hong Kong airport where we changed planes; and the third on the final short hop from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City.
When we landed, it was midmorning and the heat was overwhelming. “Be positive,” hissed my wife. “Here’s our guide to greet us.” And there was Wang, standing at the front of a crowd of several hundred people holding up a large sign with our names on it. After a cheery welcome, he escorted us to a waiting minibus and, as we stepped into it, handed us each a bottle of ice-cold water and a refreshing hand towel. Over the next two weeks, every time we got in or out of any means of transport – bus, car, boat, tuk-tuk – iced water and hand towels were offered without fail.
As we drove into town, Wang set the scene. “This is Vietnam,” he began. “And it’s a country, not a war.” It was the first of the many perceptive points made by the guides over the next two weeks. Each of them – Wang, Fin, Tri – spoke good English, knew his stuff and put it over with a humour and humanity that were both impressive and, ultimately, rather moving.
Wang helped us navigate the cultural minefield, too. “If you want to tip the driver,” he volunteered, “give him a dollar or, at most, two.” Oh, the relief of knowing what’s expected on the tipping front. Indeed, on this trip we were briefed at every stage on what was appropriate. We were guided and cosseted all the way.
“This may be OK after all,” I murmured to my wife as we collapsed onto the bed on arrival at our luxuriously appointed room at the Park Hyatt in Lam Son Square. Free for the rest of the day, we slept for five hours before setting off for an early evening stroll. It was 95 degrees in the shade.
Magic on the Mekong close to Phnom Penh
The scooter traffic is overwhelming (Wang warned against bag-snatchers), but the city is not intimidating. A French missionary introduced the Roman alphabet in the 17th century, and despite whatever it says in the guidebook, credit cards and US dollars are accepted everywhere. We wandered past the Caravelle and the Rex hotels, where journalists and diplomats were holed up during the Vietnam War. We also looked in at the Continental, where Walter Cronkite and other newsmen spent so many hours in the terrace bar that it became known as the Continental Shelf.
Our group was more diverse than I had expected. There was an Australian bookseller who had sold his business and was breaking in his two new knees; an American detective who had retired at 42; a Hong Kong businessman who was celebrating both his 80th birthday and his golden wedding; and a middle-aged Canadian insurance man with a 24-year-old Russian companion, who was simply celebrating. There were couples and singletons, but only 24 of us in all, and to my amazement we coalesced at once.
We were the only Britons and the only cruise virgins. “This is my ninth Uniworld cruise,” announced a retired engineer from Vancouver. “It’s my seventh,” declared a retired teacher from Nebraska. It was every step of the way a tour: we travelled together and we ate together. But it was brilliantly organised. In a packed two weeks of sightseeing, not once was the bus late. When 24 cyclos were required to ferry us around town, 24 appeared. And the advantage of it being an organised tour was that everywhere we went we were expected: we stood in no queues and saw infinitely more than if we had tried to arrange everything ourselves. Even better, we were not constantly dropped off in tourist shops and made to feel guilty about not buying the local crafts.
We spent two nights in Ho Chi Minh City before boarding our boat, River Orchid, for seven nights. New this year, it has an old-world, colonial feel – a bit like a small Mississippi cruiser. There are just two decks of cabins, each with river views. That much I expected. More surprising were the comfy beds, the power shower and bedside lights you could actually read by, the three-pin electric plug sockets (no adaptor required) and the lavatory that worked every time. Add to that a sun deck with complimentary drinks and coffee on tap (from 6am for early risers), not to mention the paddy fields, temples and pagodas that we drifted past, and the trip we were dreading – a Carry on Cruising Goes East – had become the holiday of a lifetime.
A cycle rickshaw Ho Chi Minh
There was no captain’s cocktail party and none of the other horrors I had feared. In the dining room we shared tables and ate at set times, but we could sit where we wanted and give away as much of ourselves as we pleased. (After a Margarita or two, some of our dinner companions had more than a few travellers’ tales to share). Every day the boat docked somewhere new and, by foot or bus or sampan, we went to see a sight – ancient or modern – that would take your breath away.
In Vietnam, we visited the Cu Chi tunnels and explored the labyrinth of underground passages begun by the Viet Minh in 1948 and expanded by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. For the first time, talking to the Viet Cong veteran we met, I understood what the war was really about and why there was never any chance that the Americans could have succeeded in their mission.
In Cambodia, the full horror of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime is on display in the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. There, we viewed the memorial stupa crammed with the skulls of men, women and children who were tortured and executed by the thousand. In Phnom Penh we visited the school transformed by the Khmer Rouge into a torture and interrogation centre, Security Prison 21, and met one of the handful of survivors.
At Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world and a Unesco World Heritage Site, the chief surprise was that it wasn’t as crowded as I had feared; nor was it an anticlimax. The highlights of the trip were the obvious ones, but the special delights were unexpected: Angkor’s smaller temples (at two we were the only people there), the elephant ride at dawn, navigating narrow canals through the town of Sa Dec, visiting the floating houses of Chau Doc, imbibing the buzz of the street markets and catching sight of traditional wedding parties and an elaborate funeral cortège.
Because our guides were local lads, our new-found understanding of the country far exceeded what we might have discovered independently. Inevitably, because our programme was so packed, absorbing it all was a challenge. By day 10 some members of our party were suffering “temple fatigue”. The veteran of nine Uniworld cruises explained that he was taking a day off: “You have to take a holiday from your holiday,” he said. “It’s one of my rules.”
The River Orchid
Departing River Orchid for the final time, the entire crew (all 28 of them) lined the riverbank to say goodbye. None of us wanted to leave. From Siem Reap in Cambodia we flew to Hanoi in Vietnam for a final flurry of excitement: the home of Ho Chi Minh; the famed One Pillar Pagoda, which has been rebuilt many times since the original was created in 1049; and the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university, built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius.
And then we flew home – exhausted and exhilarated. I am currently flicking through brochures working out where I am off to next. Only river cruises, mind you. A serene river with two dozen fellow travellers and a blood-red setting sun – that’ll do nicely.