Notes from the Far East: Part 3
This is the last in a series of three blog posts. Read the first one, about our three days in Beijing, here and the second one, about Fukuoka, Taipei, and Hong Kong, here
The ethics of cruising
Before I pick up my story on the way to Da Nang in Vietnam, I want to follow up on a comment I made in an earlier post acknowledging the negative environmental and economic impacts of the cruise industry.
I love cruises. They’re an almost unmatchable way to sample the history and culture of a whole set of neighbouring countries, in a short period of time, and in total comfort.1
They’re also incredibly good from an accessibility point of view – wide, flat walkways and wheelchair-accessible facilities are everywhere on the ship, and there’s typically one or two wheelchair-accessible tours already pre-organised in each port, for relatively hassle-free exploring.
But, with the entire world effectively burning right now, I can’t ignore the environmental impact of a cruising holiday. Cruise lines are wise to this too, and they do their best to give the impression that they’re cleaning up their act.
For example, the ship we were on, the Quantum of the Seas built in 2014, was one of the first in Royal Caribbean’s fleet to have an in-built AEP system,2 which sprays exhaust gasses with a fine water mist inside the ship’s funnel, removing 98% of suflur dioxides (a cause of acid rain and lung cancer), 40-60% of particulates, and 12% of nitrogen oxides. 60% of RCI’s ships have an AEP system like this. Sounds good right? Well, not if that pollutant-filled waste water is then just dumped into the ocean.3
RCI is also keen to note their upcoming ‘Icon’ class of ships will run on Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG),4 dramatically reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. …But it’s still a non-renewable fossil fuel.
Their promotional materials are full of fluff pieces about phasing out single-use plastics on their ships (straws, coffee stirers, etc), their 62-turbine wind farm in Kansas (offsetting half a million tonnes of CO2e per year), their partnership with WWF (yay, pandas). …But none of this can make up for the fact that each ship still guzzles upwards of 66,000 gallons of diesel a day.5
Sadly, fully electric long-distance ships aren’t viable right now (I’m guessing, as with all-electric airplanes, the limitation is battery capacity). But some ships do connect up to the electrical grid when in port – Royal Caribbean converted a further two ships to do this in 2019.4 Power from the grid is likely to be greeener than power generated from the ship’s onboard fossil fuel engines, so at least ships can be a bit greener when docked. Although it’s worth remembering that most countries still generate around 90% of their grid power from polluting, non-renewable sources.6
So what does it all add up to?
“RCL has achieved a 35% reduction in their emissions from their 2005 baseline”, says their 2019 Sustainability Report,4 alongside a graph showing the “carbon footprint per berth” dropping from 362 somethings in 2005, to 235 somethings in 2019. Great that they can’t even be bothered to give us a unit for these figures. (Maybe they mean 235 kgCO2e per berth per day, or maybe per berth per kilometre,7 who knows – they haven’t published the source data.)
The underlying truth is that cruise ships are dirty beasts. A large ship can put out an amount of CO2 equivalent to tens of thousands of cars, an amount of nitrous oxide equivalent to hundreds of thousands of cars, and an amount of sulphur dioxide equivalent to millions of cars.5 Each ship.
Where a typical car might produce 69.4 gCO2e per passenger per kilometre, or a Boeing 737 on an international flight (say, 950 km, the distance between Hong Kong and Da Nang), would produce twice as much, at 158 gCO2e per passenger per kilometre – cruise ships can produce twice as much again, at 285 gCO2e per passenger per kilometre.8
But cruise ships aren’t just transportation, they’re floating hotel resorts. So maybe we should compare them as such…
One study estimated that cruise ships’ energy use per passenger, sometimes as high as 1600 megajoules per night, is more than 6–12 times that of an equivalent land-based hotel.9 Another study, looking at a typical cruise trip between Germany and Norway, estimated energy use of 2500 megajoules per passenger per day, compared to 700 megajoules per day if the trip had been completed with airplanes and hotels instead.8
Cornell University data10 puts the carbon footprint of an overnight stay for one person, in a full-board hotel in each of the cities I visited on my cruise at:
|Hotel location||Carbon footprint kgCO2e per night|
|Vietnam (Da Nang)||42.4|
|Ho Chi Minh||55.4|
Equivalent data for my cruise ship isn’t available. But even if we take the most favourable figures – say we interpret Royal Caribbean’s ‘235 somethings’ as 235 kgCO2e per berth per day, and we halve that because a ‘berth’ is two people – we get:
|Ship||Carbon footprint kgCO2e per day|
|Quantum of the Seas||117.5|
So, at best, double the carbon footprint of an equivalent hotel.
And this is even before we’ve considered the non-environmental impacts of the cruise industry on ports. Factor in the overcrowding of port towns; the heavy incentives to book cruise-operated tours rather than local tours, and to eat/drink on the ship where restaurants are all-inclusive rather than in the port; the unfair employment practices that fill the ships with cheap labour from the Philippines and Far East; and the industry’s dirty secret that, as ships get bigger in a race to the bottom for affordability/ticket prices, the wealth of passengers drops too, reducing the amount they spend at port11 – and it all starts looking a bit grim for cruise fans like me.
It breaks my heart, because I know, with two ageing parents, one of whom uses a wheelchair, we’ve been able to see parts of the world, share unforgettable moments, that simply wouldn’t have been possible if we had to arrange individual transfers and hotels at each location. I want everyone to be able to experience that feeling of waking up in the morning to find the view outside your window has changed, and suddenly a whole new country is on your doorstep.
But I also want the world not to be burning, and the sea life not to be choking, and the historic cities not to be crumbling into the sea.
However amazing this Asian cruise has been, it’s impossible to ignore that journeys like mine are worsening the climate and ecological emergency we’re all currently experiencing. I just hope I can make up for it, though my other actions, now the trip’s over.
An early departure from Hong Kong
When we finished the previous post, we’d just sailed away from Hong Kong.
The original itinerary had us scheduled to stay in Hong Kong port overnight, to see the Symphony of Lights show along the waterfront. But Royal Caribbean decided we should leave early evening instead, to avoid the protests that had started taking place at night.
(I’m sure the fact that we’d be spending an extra evening and day at sea, and therefore captive to the onboard (paid) bars, rather than spending our money at Hong Kong venues, didn’t factor into Royal Caribbean’s decision at all.)
Now well into the second half of our cruise, there was one show we hadn’t yet seen on board the ship – Starwater.
The show is custom designed to make the most of the high-tech performance space in Two70, at the very back of Decks 5 and 6.
Two70 is named after the 270° view you get from its large, two-storey windows during the day. But come night time, those windows become a backdrop for eighteen seamless 12K projectors. We’d seen the projections in action a few days earlier, in a virtual sail-away from Taipei.
The Starwater performance combines these projectors, with one of the ship’s USPs – 6 huge LCD screens mounted on robotic arms, that move and shapeshift with incredible accuracy, alongside and behind human dancers and singers. They’re cleverly worked into the choreography, and the effect is mesmerising.
The show itself is a Las Vegas / Broadway style mixture of dance, acrobatics, music, and singing. There’s supposedly some sort of storyline running through it, but it’s really just one visual set piece after another – and it’s produced so well, you really don’t mind. A segment where they recreate a storm at sea had everybody’s hairs standing on end!
We stepped off the ship in Da Nang to, frankly, biblical amounts of rain. You know, that type of rain that’s so dense, so fast, that even wrapped up in plastic cagouls, you still get soaked through, like you’d waded through a river? Yeah, that.
Anyway, somehow, through these sheets of mist and rain, our adorable tour guide, Key (“like you put in a lock”), spotted us from the other side of the car park. Wearing a raincoat, shorts, and flip-flops, he ran across the tarmac, holding an umbrella outstretched for his guests. “First proper day of monsoon season,” he told us as we approached the car, “Still, get a free car wash!”
As we ‘dried off’ (yeah right) in the car, he explained that yesterday, the rain was so strong, the hydroelectric dams that normally generate power for the area had to be opened up, causing huge amounts of flooding downstream – “some parts of Da Nang and Hoi An flooded up to the first floor.” I got the impression this wasn’t the first time they’d had to do this.
Da Nang would be a brief respite from a string of dense cities on our cruise, so we were looking forward to seeing some of the natural splendour of rural Vietnam – come rain or shine! We talked to Key about life in Vietnam, on the way to our first stop.
He explained how lots of factories are moving from China to Vietnam, “to bypass the US-China trade war”. He said Samsung had already moved some factories, and Apple would be moving some soon. Meanwhile, Chinese people move to follow the jobs and also to avoid Chinese censorship.
We noticed lots of scooters on the road beside us. Key nodded – “60 million scooters in Vietnam.” Aparently lots of them are now reaching end of life, causing extra pollution, and then even more waste when they’re thrown out and replaced. He said everybody buys scooters because—and I’m not sure how much I believe this figure—cars in Vietnam are sometimes taxed as much as 300%, making even a cheap car the equivalent of 100,000 USD. Eeek.
Beside Key, as he drove, was a picture of a Buddha, hanging from the dashboard. “The Lady Buddha” he said, smiling. Aparently in Vietnamese Buddhism there are three main figures: Buddha (representing power), Lady Buddha (representing mercy), and Happy Buddha (the fat, smiling Buddha we’re most accustomed to in the West, representing contentment and abundance). People have a close relationship to the Lady Buddha, Key explained. She’s seen as familial, protecting, friendly.
Our drive to the Bà Nà Hills took us past fields and fields of oyster farms, built in sea-level lagoons. As we’d find out later, pearls are one of Vietnam’s main exports. We also drove through the longest tunnel in South East Asia – the Hai Van – at 6.3 km.
Bà Nà Hills is a town (or “station” as colonial settlements were often called) built high up in the mountains west of Da Nang, by French colonists in the early 1900s. The altitude results in Summer temperatures up to 10° cooler than at ground level, which made it perfect for colonial generals looking to escape the heat of Da Nang city.
When the French left the area, their mountain-top villas fell into disrepair. But over the last few decades, companies have been redeveloping the area into a sort of Disneyland-style (or maybe Alton Towers-style) resort. The original French colonial buildings have now been surrounded by manicured parks and gardens, museums, theme park rides, restaurants and photo spots.
The French used to reach Bà Nà on foot (or—more likely—sedan chair), up a steep, winding, 20km pass, taking about a day to get to the top.
These days, however, tourists reach the resort by cable car – the longest (5800 metres) and highest (1500 metres above sea level) in the world.
The walk to the cable car station was very cute (in a Disneyland sort of way) with little fake buildings, water features, Koi Carp, and—once you get into the station itself—boats on the ceiling!
The cable car ride takes about 20 minutes. And even on our incredibly wet, grey, misty day, the views were amazing.
As we disembarked from the cable car station at the top, Key pointed out an office on the left – “Clinic,” he said, “for treating people with altitude sickness.”
We continued on, past a flower garden, to the resort’s most famous attraction – the Golden Bridge. Built in 2017, the 150 metre long curved bridge is held up by two massive hands. It’s left intentionally ambiguous as to whether the hands are those of Buddha or Jesus.
On a normal day it’d look like this:
The day we visited, it looked like this:
Still, the mist inside the cloud made it a very ethereal experience. A dull, even light, coming at you from all directions. A golden bridge, glistening wet, and fading off into the far distance, with no end in sight. And then, out of nowhere, a massive stone thumb or finger shoots up alongside the walkway.
After the bridge, we ascended to the village on the top of the hill. We wandered around, literally surrounded by the cold, wet soup of a raincloud, taking a few photos.
The surreal lighting, and the sheer amount of water in the air, made all the colours around us pop. So strange!
Before leaving, we enjoyed a buffet lunch in the big beer hall, and met a lovely lady from Australia.
After descending in the cable car, Key asked whether there was anything else we’d like to do on the way back to the ship. He’d originally planned to take us back via the old mountain-top pass, but apparently the rain had caused huge tailbacks, so he said it was probably safer to take the Hai Van tunnel back instead.
We mentioned it would be nice to stop somewhere for real Vietnamese coffee (not the tourist crap in Bà Nà Hills), and Key knew just the place – a little spot on Lang Co Lagoon, with a small coffee shop and pearl trader. On the way there, he told us the place was a popular photo spot for newly married couples, and indeed, as we pulled up, two of them were being punted out on a raft, into the lake.
Floating restaurants aparently sell fresh oysters from the lagoon, with chilli salt and a squeeze of lime, catering mostly for a local (rather than tourist) market. But, Key told us, the proliferation of restaurants is ruining the lagoon. They’re empty most of the year, and only really busy during summer.
Still, the coffee was lovely!
The sleepy little pearl shop was cute. Fishermen harvest oysters from the lagoon. Most get bought up by the big corporations, but some of the fishermen, like the guy here, sell a few on the side, for a fraction of the international price. He put together a matching necklace and earrings for mum – something to remember Vietnam by!
Ho Chi Minh City
Pulling into port the next day, the weather had completely changed. The air was hot and dry, and the sun shone in a bright blue sky. We’d booked onto a group tour, starting with the Independence Palace, followed by a cyclo ride through the city, lunch, and some free time to walk around the old town.
On the drive from the port to the city, our tour guide, Van, filled us in on some the history of the area, explaining how the Vietnam/America war was only a small part of a 70 or 80 year struggle for independence that started in the 1870s.
“For America, the war ended,” she said, “But for the Vietnamese, the war still hasn’t ended.” Millions of Vietnamese still suffer illnesses and deformities as a result of American use of biological weapons like Agent Orange.
Our first stop in town was the Independence Palace, built in the 1960s as the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam. The complex features dozens of reception rooms and meeting rooms. “All green and yellow,” Van said, “to calm heads during heated discussions!”
The building has a lovely Mad Men-era 1960s aesthetic, and you can just imagine men in suits, puffing away on cigars, planning how to keep hold of Vietnam from the socialist forces massing in the North.
The building was last used in the early 1970s – in fact, some say the Vietnam war ended when a North Vietnamese tank came crashing through the building’s front gates, signalling the fall of the European puppet government. A decision was made to keep the building as a time capsule, exactly the way it looked in the 70s.
After a morning sauntering round the hushed corridors of what was effectively a museum, it was time for a shot of adrenaline before lunch. Perhaps most of all amongst Vietnamese cities, Ho Chi Minh is famous for the number of bikes and scooters on its streets. The tour we booked on attempts to show you these streets from a scooter’s perspective, in a ‘cyclo’ or cycle rickshaw.
We turned a corner outside the Independence Palace, and were descended upon by dozens of orange-clad cyclo riders. After spending a little while working out how to get Dad out of his wheelchair and into the deep bucket seat, the three of us were all set, and we headed off on what was—looking back—simply the craziest 30 minutes of the entire cruise holiday.
Slung low to the ground, and gripping tightly onto Dad’s folded-up wheelchair, I simply couldn’t stop maniacally laughing at first. Eventually I settled in for a bizarre perspective on the city, surrounded by other cyclists, all within touching distance, and many of them saddled with increasingly implausible cargoes – baskets, boxes, ladders, window frames.
We passed old Saigon cathedral, and the custard-yellow city post office. Rows and rows of shops and businesses. A secluded Buddhist garden, and a massive banyan tree.
After the ride, we had lunch at Nhà Hàng Ngon, a restaurant with a really sweet internal courtyard…
…and then headed over to another tourist hotspot – Bến Thành Market.
Built in the early 1900s by the French, the market was originally a hub of local economic activity. These days, however, it’s a tourist honeypot, selling mostly overpriced tat. Still, there were parts of the market which were clearly still popular with locals, and the sights and smells of the place were outstanding.
With a bit more time to burn, I went for a walk around the block to take a few more photos, before we hopped on the coach back to the ship.
Our cruise finished at Singapore, but we arranged to stay an extra day in the city, so we could really get a feel for it, before flying back to the UK.
We said goodbye to the Quantum of the Seas, our home for the better part of the last two weeks, and with all our luggage in the hold of our tour bus, the guide, Justin, filled us in on some of the history of the city.
Singapore, it turns out, is named after a mythical lion-like “Singha” animal, “Singha-pura” translating to “lion city”. Justin said, while there had never been lions on the island, there did used to be tigers.
The country’s population is 75% Chinese, 15% Malay, and 9% Indian. The national language is Malay (chosen for political reasons, to show solidarity with Malaysia and Indonesia), but there are four official languages: English, Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin. Justin said almost everything is done in English, including business and law, and kids are taught English first, then Malay second.
Justin told us how, before Singapore’s independence from the British, the birth rate was far too high, with many families having 8–10 kids. So in 1965 they instituted a 2-child-per-family law, with a £300 dollar fine and de-prioritised school places for each further child. The plan worked too well. By the 1980s, the birth rate was dropping too fast. They removed the 2-child limit, and ran national adverts saying “two is good, but have three or more (if you can afford it)” but the birth rate still didn’t increase. Justin said they started paying mothers £3000 for each baby. No effect. They upped it to £5000. But that was still only twice the average monthly income, and it didn’t change with inflation. Eventually the birth rate crept up to 1.2 children per family – much lower than most countries in this part of the world.
Apparently one of the country’s main challenges is drinking water. While Singapore receives almost as much rainfall as the Amazon rainforest, at just 42 km from east to west, there simply isn’t enough space to collect and store the water. Instead they buy water from Malaysia. The price has been pinned since 1961 at 3 cents per 1000 gallons. Justin said Malaysia hates the contract, and they won’t renew it when it expires in 2061. So Singapore has made moves to become self-sufficient, bolstering their existing (and expensive) de-salination of sea water with a massive waste water recycling programme – like a space station! They call it, ironically, “new water”.
Before we knew it, we were at the National Orchid Garden. It was a gorgeous place to stroll around.
Justin told us how, traditionally, ladies wear an orchid flower on top of one or both of their ears. If it’s on their right ear, they’re single. Left ear – married. “Both ears,” he joked, “married but available.”
Many of the orchids in the garden are dedicated to famous figures from around the world – like this one, for Princess Diana.
Singapore’s first prime minister, in the 1970s, establised a massive tree planting programme across the city. Justin told us the Rain tree (“five o clock tree”) is still very popular with locals – it’s umbrella shaped, and the leaves unfurl in the sun, providing shelter, and then curl up when it’s dark, revealing the stars.
Next, we travelled to China Town, to visit the Bhudda Tooth Relic Temple. The statues outside were particularly characterful!
I’m not at all religious, but I don’t think I could ever get tired of the atmosphere inside temples like this. It’s like a silent riot of colours and details and aromas.
We finished our tour with a drive through Little India, the old Colonial area…
…and a first glimpse at the massive shopping and nightlife area around Marina Bay.
Justin told us how all of this land was initially reclaimed using sand and rock bought from Malaysia – until Malaysia realised that they were helping their closest competitor expand a little too much! Singapore started buying their rock from Indonesia instead. The area is now home to a golf course, massive gardens, two sports stadiums, and a huge shopping a leisure complex.
After checking in at our hotel for the night, we returned to the Marina Bay area, to see the Gardens by the Bay – a massive, 250 acre park with, among other things, 18 light-up ‘Supertrees’, ranging 7–15 storeys tall.
We’d been told how spectacular the Supertrees were at night, but nothing could prepare us for the full effect when the sun went down and the lights came on.
We managed to time our visit just right to be up there, in the tree canopy, just as the sun was setting. All of the heat and humidity of the daytime evaporated, and a fresh, cool breeze took over. The gardens below us started to light up and pulse like deep sea anemones. It was eerie and spectacular.
When we got back down to the ground, a light show started, with the trees dancing and changing colour to match the music.
Light show number 1 complete, we knew another one would be starting imminently along the Marina Bay waterfront. We legged it over, arriving just in time to catch it. The animated projections onto sheets of water were amazing! What an end to our first day in Singapore!
The next morning, after breakfast (featuring my new favourite condiment – Kaya, a coconut-based jam), Mum and I left Dad in the cool of the hotel, while we went to explore the city a little by water taxi.
Where most cities might have a hop-on-hop-off tour bus, Singapore has a hop-on-hop-off water bus. The boat took us from the riverside village (previously home to the city’s cramped opium dens, now trendy waterside dining), past the old colonial Ministry of Information, and the South Bank where the city’s first Chinese workers originally settled. All the while, massive skyscrapers loomed in the distance.
We passed under the Cavanaugh suspension bridge—built in Scotland, and brought here, only to find it was too low, preventing large ships from travelling further up the river—and next to it, a really cute sculpture of four kids jumping into the river. On a day as hot as this, I almost wanted to join them!
Along the waterfront, we got a different view on the massive skyscrapers that had formed the backdrop of our light show the night before.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also include these two incredibly touristy photos that the boat operator forced us to take:
A quick stop at Louis Vuitton (modestly declining their offer of a free 11am Singapore Sling) and it was time to whizz back to the hotel, to pick up Dad, and visit our final destination of the trip.
Named after the British founder of colonial Singapore, the world famous Raffles Hotel has been a symbol of luxury in Southeast Asia for over 130 years. It’s famous, among other things, for being the home of the Singapore Sling cocktail.
We were met at the entrance by one of the infamously polite Raffles doormen:
Previously, the Long Bar would have been inaccessible to Dad with his wheelchair, but a year or two back, the hotel underwent a massive renovation, which included the addition of a lift, allowing us to go up and see what all this Singapore Sling fuss was about.
There are bags of peanuts on all of the tables – by tradition, once you’ve eaten them, you discard the spent shells on the floor. It smacks of spoiled colonial man-babies happy to make a mess because they’ve never had to clean a floor in their lives. A bit ridiculous, to be honest.
Still, the Singapore Slings were a lovely way to end the day – and the entire cruise!
Part 3 verdict
I really enjoyed our day in Da Nang, despite the torrential rain. Perhaps more than any other city on our trip, the people of central Vietnam were thoroughly friendly and welcoming to visitors. Nothing was too much effort for them, and they seemed to take pride in sharing their country with us.
But our days in Vietnam also made us realise just how precarious many of these peoples’ lives are. There was incredible poverty on display, and it was heartbreaking to hear our tour guide talk about the exploitative corporations and cheap Chinese labour that cut down even further on the opportunities available to Vietnamese people just trying to get by.
Then, to travel from the poverty of Vietnam, to the bombastic hyper-technological richness of Singapore – what a contrast. The light shows in Singapore were spectacular, especially considering they’re put on every night, entirely for free. There’s an unease here though, too, with places like Raffles putting a highly polished sheen on what is still, shamefully, a history of cruelness and erasure under British colonial rule. (As I said last time, when will we learn to stop fucking up other people’s countries?)
Overall, looking back on the entire holiday, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam stood out as places I’d love to explore in more detail – Japan in particular. At the other end of the spectrum, China was indifferent—verging on outright hostile—to us as visitors, and no matter what museums or attractions were available, I simply never felt safe in the country. Hong Kong, too, was a disappointment – dirty, tired, and dumbed down for tourists.
As mentioned above, I still feel conflicted over the environmental and economic impacts of cruise holidays. No matter how much the cruise lines attempt to green-wash their operations, the truth is they’re not doing nearly enough, nearly fast enough.
That said, cruises are so easy, so comfortable, and so horizon-expanding. They’re also pretty much the only way a wheelchair-user like my Dad could have seen so many parts of the Far East in so short a time. As a result, we had a really memorable family holiday, on a side of the world I’d always wanted to visit. And now I have the three blog posts to prove it!
The only thing that comes close, I think, would be a train tour, like the Orient Express, except one that stops at each destination for a day, to let you explore, without having to embark/disembark each time – does such a thing exist? ↩
In their 2019 SEC filing, they say “the company’s carbon footprint is measured as carbon intensity in kilograms of CO2e (Carbon dioxide equivalent) at double occupancy per cabin multiplied by distance in kilometers sailed.” ↩