From Vietnam to India on a P&O cruise

by Tony.Peisley

An honest waiter in Vietnam got our cruise off to a surprising and money-saving start before a tuk-tuk trip in India proved unusually expensive


I was waiting outside this massage parlour in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City when I felt somebody tugging at my sleeve. Forty years earlier, when the-city-formerly-known-as-Saigon was full of red-blooded soldiers and even redder-blooded journalists, this oft-repeated scene would have meant something completely different and quite unsuitable for a family website.

This time, though, I was innocently waiting while my wife booked some remarkably cheap treatments and the tugging came from a waiter from the restaurant where we had just eaten breakfast. In my jetlagged state, I had managed to leave a tip of $100 instead of $5, and the waiter had pursued me down several streets to return the money.

This remarkable display of honesty proved a symbolically auspicious start to a cruise that had promised much - and delivered even more. We were in Vietnam to join P&O Cruises' Artemis for a sector of her world cruise that would also take us to Thailand,  Brunei and India. We had wanted to see how the ship, which was a favourite of ours as Princess Cruises' Royal Princess, was faring with P&O, and this seemed a particularly mouthwatering itinerary.

The pre-cruise stay in Vietnam was a bonus, giving us time to explore with a £30 boat trip along the busy Saigon River, a highlight as it took us to an splendidly ornate floating temple.

Artemis was supposed to anchor off Vung Tau, a fishing port that became a beach resort for the French and then an R&R haven for Australian troops in the war. In the event, we docked at Phu My, which is much closer to Ho Chi Minh City but, having embarked, we still had time to take the ship's free shuttle bus to Vung Tau, where its history was written in bar and restaurant names like "Waltzing Matilda" and "Good Morning Vietnam".

The pilot was having a lie-in in Brunei's Muara Port so we were a little late docking there, but we were all comforted to hear from the captain that - in true P&O fashion - he "had expressed our displeasure" to the appropriate authorities. These same authorities also insisted - due to a recent health scare - that all passengers had their temperatures taken. A line of charming Brunei nurses sticking a thermometer in the nearest ear produced one of the more bizarre disembarkations I have experienced in 30 years.

We had booked the £15 go-as-you-please tour to the tiny (just 18 sq km) capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, which is a 35-minute journey from the port. Again, it was many years since my last visit but it still has the world's most courteous drivers - they stop if you even think about crossing a road - and an aromatic open-air market full of fish, spices, fruit and vegetables.

The major attraction, though, remains the stilted villages out in the murky Brunei River. We strolled to the nearest along some rickety planked walkways; to see the rest, you must hail one of the many water taxis (actually just kids in small fast boats with well-honed fare-negotiating skills). It is one of the anomalies of this hugely wealthy sultanate that some of its richest residents prefer to live in these traditional and, despite their satellite dishes, still fairly primitive surroundings.

But Brunei has something of the unreal about it, which was only emphasised by the spectacular electrical storm that accompanied Artemis's departure that evening. We were again reminded of the extremes of nature that can occur in this region when arriving at Patong beach in Thailand's Phuket.  This has tsunami warning signs, not to mention umpteen DVDs and postcards recalling the tragic day the big one hit.  

There are shuttles, tours and endless taxis to take you to Phuket town if you want to do some serious shopping but we preferred the busy but scrupulously clean Patong beach, which has loungers, umbrellas, Thai massage areas (even cheaper than Vietnam) and £10-£15 options for parasailing and jet skiing. 

Chennai (Madras to those of us now closing in on a bus pass) was where we left the ship to fly home - but not before we spent a happy morning tuk-tuking around the city. Technology has moved on a little, though, as this typically noisy Indian transport icon can now reach 40mph and some drivers even have their own websites.

Even after handing over a well-deserved tip, this is still the best and cheapest way to get around (12p/hour; £9/day), as well as being the most fun. Still, some things never change: Samson detoured our trip to the local mall to a smart emporium selling everything from cashmere sweaters to carpets and is even now spending the commission earned from my moment of madness in the jewellery department.

I blame my generous mood on the previous two weeks spent on Artemis. Compared with some of the floating hotels now around, there is a huge amount of open deck space, with secluded decks at the stern ideal for quiet sunbathing. Every cabin has an outside view, some with balconies that are much more private than those on many newer ships.

Food quality was as high as ever, with the full English breakfast even better than in her Princess days. The price for the alternative restaurant (the Grill) was a good value £7.50, while the absence of the otherwise near-ubiquitous 15 per cent service charge on all cruise ship drinks kept bar bills down, too. Tips to cabin stewards and dining room waiters cost a relatively modest £20, yet service levels remained high, if not overly sophisticated.

If you want to see the world in comfort and some style, P&O Cruises is the way to do it.  You can't beat a travel icon. Just ask Samson.