Nice and breezy
All the fun of a family voyage in Asia on Holland America Line’s MS Volendam
IT is 7pm on a mild evening in Nha Trang, and we are meant to be out shopping. Our ship is in port until 11pm as part of a 14-night cruise around Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. We’ve spent hours exploring this lovely Vietnamese seaside town. We have strolled its lengthy waterfront, climbed about 160 steps to a pagoda, screeched with laughter as cyclo drivers led us safely through bustling roundabouts and we have stopped at a beachfront cafe just before sunset for a sweet cup of local coffee that tasted like liquid caramel.
It’s been a busy, delightful day, and right now, according to my carefully researched, custom-made itinerary, we should be rounding it off with some outdoor retail therapy. There is a market nearby, bursting with bags and bowls and trinkets, and I have reliably informed the family that’s where we should be heading.
But then we discover the pop-up alfresco restaurant that has suddenly appeared on one of the uppermost decks of our ship, Holland America Line’s MS Volendam. The sun loungers that usually fill the spacious terrace have tonight been replaced by clusters of tables, colourful lanterns and fairy lights.
We ditch the shopping plan to dine on barbecued Asian specialities beneath a twinkling sky and encircled by the sparkling lights of Nha Trang. It’s a charming scene, simple, elegant, unexpected and unlike anything we have experienced on a cruise.
We have been to Vietnam before, each time following carefully considered itineraries created by yours truly. Having long ago assumed the role of organiser-in-chief for family travel, I’d come to enjoy the planning almost as much as the holidays, eschewing structured experiences in favour of roads less travelled. It’s a formula that has mostly worked, taking us to some wonderful destinations.
But there are drawbacks, not least of which is the level of expectation if you do your task too well. I discovered this a year ago, when after a week-long cruise around the Caribbean I found myself, en famille, on a street in Buenos Aires late one Saturday night, newly arrived, tired and hungry. As my family stared at me forlornly, I realised I had been organising our holidays with such precision, marshalling my husband and two teenagers to ever more exciting locations, that they assumed I would miraculously be fluent in Spanish and know just the place to eat.
On our Caribbean cruise, on the other hand, there had never been a need to search for a good feed. Meals were always available, no matter when hunger struck. And, best of all, nothing was my problem.
Don’t like what’s on the menu? Try another restaurant. Fancy sleeping in? Sure, order breakfast in bed at your leisure. No time for the 8pm nightly show? Check it out at the 10pm . . . Or go with your mates from the kids club. Fancy a spot of table tennis? Trivia? Tai chi?
Seven ports over 14 nights on the Volendam’s Southeast Asian itinerary means there is a lot to see, and we get to do so without having to pack and unpack every other day. We are used to living out of suitcases on holidays. Standing in our spacious cabins and enjoying the prospect of spreading out all our stuff, we couldn’t remember the last time we had stayed put for so long on tour.
Starting from Singapore, we have revelled in the soothing pace of a holiday at sea.
There really is nothing I need to do; even our visas are organised by the crew. Shore days are still busy with sightseeing, including Koh Samui as it wakes from a long, late night of revelry, Bangkok from its busy river and a taxi ride to revisit the charming Vietnamese town of Hoi An.
These days are mostly long, and several times our dock is a good two-hour drive in each direction from our destination. Yet each time we feel cushioned by the knowledge we will end up back on the ship, where the most taxing responsibility for any of us (including me) will be getting showered and changed for dinner.
Sea days, meanwhile, assume a pattern of their own: breakfast at leisure, then whatever we like. That might mean a solitary walk around the teak walking track, a spot of reading in one of the many comfortable seating areas, a swim, a round of team trivia, line dancing, a game of cards, a movie in the theatre or a cooking class in the ship’s demonstration kitchen.
No matter that my new-found talent for making marzipan roses is unlikely to be as handy on dry land. I can still revel in the enjoyment of learning a few new kitchen tricks alongside my family.
Eventually, we dock in Hong Kong. After two weeks of sightseeing, pampering and rarely having to put our hands in our pockets, none of us is in a hurry to disembark. Dipping into so many different cultures over two weeks has been rewarding and surprisingly relaxing. And I couldn’t have organised it better.
The Xom Bong Bridge in colourful Nha Trang, main picture; Holland America Line’s MS Volendam, left; markets in Nha Trang, below