I was surprised when I woke up feeling fairly refreshed around 4:30am that Sunday morning. The night before I had made the decision to get a massage around 9:30pm so that I would sleep hard and then wake up for sunrise Tai Chi at Kiem Lake before being picked up from my hotel for my cruise at 9:00am. This massage parlor looked completely normal, clean and respectable, but what happened was my male masseuse trying to get me to agree to ending the massage happily… yea. For the record, it only ended with me throwing money at him and bolting out of the spa feeling much less relaxed. So to say I was ready for a little luxury may be an understatement…
The Stellar of the Seas is a 5555HP luxury ship that is just 7 months old and is currently the most modern and luxurious ship operating on Halong Bay. I was shocked when I learned they had only been doing this for a few months because everything was so well orchestrated. From the first moment I was scooped up, to the last where I was opening a present their sales manager had left for me at my hotel in Hanoi, I felt like royalty (and there were zero hiccups). As our transfer boat approached what would become my home for the next three days I received my first glimpse of the shiny new mega yacht and I felt like a giddy little kid about to walk into Disney World for the first time. I was in awe as I starred at the gorgeous ship floating on the sea green water that was trickled with majestic green islands.
As we stepped onto the ship we were greeted by the staff whom all adorned those genuine and contagious Vietnamese smiles. We were given non-alcoholic welcome drinks and guided to our first of many meals. Our host, Tom, introduced the entire staff and informed us all of their roles. Then we indulged in a five course and five star lunch — and I ordered a beer for lunch as well as a bottle of Australian Sauvignon Blanc to my room. Ironically, Australia became somewhat of a theme for me on this cruise.
This lunch is when I confirmed that I was the only solo one on board, but that didn’t bother me. In fact, I felt like a total badass… until one of the staff members told me that they would do anything to make my stay onboard the Stellar of the Seas more enjoyable, ipso facto he said literally said “We can make it seem like you have friends, yes.”
The views that we witnessed from our tables at our first lunch were so breathtaking that they had everyone running outside to snap pictures in between courses, (guilty).
After lunch we were guided to our highly anticipated rooms. I had a room on the second floor which included a glass-walled balcony, fully marbled bathroom and a tub with one hell of a view. The pillow top bed was insanely comfortable too and I took full advantage of this feature for the first hour and a half in my room. I missed kayaking, but hey I was exhausted from sunrise Tai Chi and the not so happy ending that occurred just a few hours earlier…
I woke up in time to enjoy my wine and tub for an hour before our 6:00pm “sunset party” and a fresh spring roll cooking demonstration. I’m so grateful that my internal clock woke me up in time to make this because here is where I met Adele and Shane. Adele and Shane were from the Brisbane, Australia area and we clicked right away. After a few drinks it was time to sit down for dinner and they invited me to eat with them.
Adele, Shane and I enjoyed our meals and wine together. By group vote, the highlight of our night that night was a funny Saudi Arabian man sitting one table over. His name was Adielle, he hardly spoke a lick of English and was having the time of his life. Adielle was with his wife who was wearing the traditional Saudi Arabian head dress ensemble. Adielle’s wife actually spoke pretty good English and seemed very surprised that we all found her husband so funny. “Really? Funny? Him?” She would say and then shake her head in an endearing way. Adielle was definitely the cause for many smiles and laughs in the first 24 hours. He didn’t even bother asking for names and would just refer to everyone by the name of their home. He called me “America” and “Denver”. The first morning I came down for breakfast I was at the buffet when I heard his thick Saudi accent holler “AMERICA!” It scared me so badly that I legitimately gasped for air and grabbed my chest! But as soon as I realized it was him I just started laughing and so did the rest of the guests in the dining room. The nonverbals that he used to explain what he was talking about were probably some of the best I have ever seen. When I was explaining to him everywhere I was traveling he rubbed his thumb and peace fingers together and said (loud enough for everyone in the dining room to hear “America… Rich! Haha!” He then went on to tell an entire nonverbally well-depicted story about how I should not visit Saudi Arabia because of the way women are supposed to dress. He was even able to explain that women are now allowed to drive there and they are crazy drivers. He just pointed at his bashful wife then made a terrified face while while holding an invisible steering wheel and started making screeching noises while wiping invisible sweat off of his face. He hard clearly signed this story before, but he had us all rolling over in laughter with that “story”. While Adele, Shane and I were on the cruise for two nights, Adielle and his wife were only on for one, so we had to say goodbye to them that first morning after breakfast. We were sad to see our ship’s comedian depart, but I really just found myself regretting not speaking with his wife more. I would have loved to ask her about life as a woman in Saudi Arabia. I could be wrong, but I felt like she looked at me like a spectacle because I was traveling alone as a female in a foreign country on this luxury cruise all on my own, (in short shorts, a bikini and a bottle of wine on hand). I can only imagine that we have lived completely different lives and I would have been so interested to hear about hers.
I woke up the next morning for 6:30am Tai Chi on the sundeck and then went straight to breakfast. We had what they considered a “light breakfast” with fruit, pastries, coffee and juice and about three hours later we followed that up with a heavy brunch before leaving on our day trip.
After the breakfast the ship seamlessly transferred the one-night guests off the ship while simultaneously escorting us two-night guests to our day’s activities off of the ship. We were going to visit Viet Hai Village on Cát Bà Island. I had no idea what to expect, but we were given the choice of a bike, or a ride on an electric car (which was basically a large golf cart), so I chose to bike. I was told that the biking was very difficult due to some steep hills, but I felt like I needed some exercise after about 24 hours of stuffing my face and being stagnant on the ship.
Our Vietnamese tour guide’s name was Harry. I later learned that all of the staff members picked Western names so that they would be easier for the cruise guests to remember. Harry’s real name is actually Thieu, but for this blog I’ll just refer to him as Harry.
The only cruise guests who opted to ride bikes instead of the electric car were Shane, an Asian couple and myself (with the addition of Harry holding up the rear to ensure no one got left behind). Good thing he did, because the other woman in our bike gang surrendered to one of the hills and had to hop on the electric car. Not trying to brag, but I crushed that bike ride and dusted everyone. The hills were quite steep and I was hugging the brakes going downhill on some of them, but the only truly nerve-wracking moment was when my giant Vietnamese hat flipped around in front of my face and blocked my vision while going downhill. All good though.
Once we arrived at Hai Chao Village we cooled off under some fans while learning more about Cát Bà Island. Cat Ba is made up of 387 islands and is called “Lady Island” because all of the men go to fish for weeks at a time leaving all of the women on the island(s). We were in the town of Tai Lai which has a population of about 283 people and the life expectancy here is 90-95 years old. Apparently there is a 108 year-old woman still living on the island. We were told that this long life expectancy is due to the residents’ “live off of the land” lifestyle and their use of Chinese medicine. There is only one clinic with one doctor on the island, but the local people do not need the doctor because they can find all natural remedies for everything on their land. There is also only one police officer and one primary school. After primary school the men and women are expected to either go to boating/fishing schools, or city schools. The most mind-boggling thing that I learned was that before 2009 this island had zero electricity. If you could have felt the sweltering heat and thick humidity there you would understand why this was the most alarming stat. With the start of electricity came the start of tourism and this has helped to create a much better life for this community. Some of their medicinal secrets and practices also reside in their wine and I bet this tid bit will help tourism…
After Harry finished giving us our Cat Ba island lesson we began our “local wine tasting”. I was expecting to sip on some red and white wine, but what we actually received was much more like moonshine: 65-75% alcohol. As you can see below, it was nothing fancy, but this “wine” was about as organic as you can get as all of the ingredients were found on the land we were sitting on. Not everyone in the group participated in the wine tasting, (and they missed out), but I’m proud to say that Shane and I tried every single one.
So basically I drank a King Cobra…
The first one that we tried was called “snake wine” for obvious reasons. Harry started off the snake wine tasting by saying, “don’t worry, we have the clinic and doctor here.” Harry said that there were three types of snakes in this wine that were all found around where we were sitting (and I immediately nervously looked around). One of the snakes was a king cobra, but the other two were not named in English.
Harry let us know that the snake wine was good for men and I think he was a little shocked that I even wanted to try it. He made a point to add that snake wine was especially good for older men in order to keep their women happy… “Keep you strong. Drink one to three times a day…” Harry said. As soon as Harry shared this information with our group all of the wives in started ordering bottles of snake wine. Just kidding, just kidding. However, being as I was the only woman who drank the snake wine, a few moments after I slung back my shot of snake Harry looked at me and asked in front of the whole group how I felt. I just quickly replied, “hm… a little arroused.”
I must say, there wasn’t a single wine that I wouldn’t have tried again. My two favorites though were the hibiscus wine and bee wine. Fermenting actual bees with bees from the bee farm just a few meters from us was part of the process of making the bee wine, so when it came to purchasing I decided to go with the hibiscus (mostly due to the whole bee-pocalypse thing).
After our wine tour, the remaining bike crew followed Harry back to the boat. It was nice riding with Harry because I was able to learn all about him and his life.
Harry is 31, speaks English very well and comes from a family of farmers in a town called Tan Dan, Chi Linh, Hai Duong. His year usually consists of working for the Stellar of the Seas (some in an office) for three months, on his family’s farm for three months and going to school for nine of those months, (three of which overlap with Stellar of the Seas. He said that when he goes home to work on his family’s farm his mother will say that he doesn’t look like her son because he is so pale and muscular. He said that in the past he would always be working outside, so he would be very tan and not have time for the gym, but because of his job and school he loses his tan and has time for the gym. In Vietnam, pale skin is a very desirable quality and symbolizes a higher class. Harry was a very happy guy and even glowed when talking about going home to work on his peaceful family farm. “I miss the buffalo” he murmured as we passed a bull on the side of the road. He let me know that his family’s farm consists of buffalo, goat, duck and rabbit in Hoang Tien, Chi Linh, Hai Duong, which is just about 18kms from his home town.
From Cát Bà Island we went to a private beach to rest and swim in Halong Bay. While all of the other couples were canoodling I was still trying to get in that workout that I desperately needed by swimming laps around the bay. The water was such a welcomed relief to my freshly steamed skin.
After another leisurely bath I made my way to the last supper. I walked around the dining room looking a little confused about where I should sit when one of the staff members tapped me on the shoulder and said “we set you a plate with your family…” he then guided me over to Shane and Adele’s table and sat me down. I looked at them and explained to them how I guess they now thought we were all family (I mean we were all blonde) but how I did not want to intrude on their last romantic dinner onboard together. I truly believe they were being genuine when they insisted that I eat with them. We had a wonderfully fun dinner and it really did feel like I was eating with family. Thank you Shane and Adele! 🙂
The next morning I slept through Tai Chi, went to our “light breakfast” and then met the group downstairs for the last off-the-ship-adventure. So we left the cruise ship, for a motor boat which we then left for a bamboo boat which was propelled by a tiny woman wearing enough clothes for a brisk winter evening in Denver, Colorado.
She had on at least another full-sleeved layer underneath that thick flannel. As you can probably see, she also had on gloves, full-ankled socks and her entire face covered. This was a perfect example of how much the Vietnamese culture values pale female skin. As you will see in the picture below, her male counterpart did not have much covered. She out-rowed him though… seriously.
It was a fairly quick trip through the cave, but it seemed so long because of the heat. I was just sitting there with a calm breeze that consistently brushed off of the water onto my face and I was sweating bullets. I genuinely looked at the woman who probably wouldn’t have been much cooler in a wool onesie just totally baffled.
Once we got back to the boat it was time to eat our big brunch and then say goodbye to the mega yacht which now felt like a home.
The Stellar of the Seas stood true to its name and gave me an experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life. The ship was one of the nicest I’ve ever boarded, but anytime a smile is brought to my face at the thought of this trip it will be because of the people I met, not the things.
A special thank you to the amazing crew on Stellar of Seas, which includes, but is definitely not limited to: Harry, Tom and Lucky.
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