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Scooting Around Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh-1

Going on cruises has led us to do things in life that are out of character. One was during an Alaska cruise with Princess…being afraid of heights and then taking a helicopter onto North America’s tallest mountain, Denali.

Ho Chi Minh-2The most recent was after a river cruise with AmaWaterways…taking a scooter rider with two complete strangers on a street corner in Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon has been called since 1976.

Actually, they were two scooter rides. One on the “back seat” of one Huynh brother scooter; one in the same place behind the other brother.

We’d just walked out of The Independence Palace, formerly the headquarters of the South Vietnamese government before it fell and North Vietnamese tanks rolled onto the palace grounds on April 30, 1975. The Hunyh brothers were waiting for us…or anybody else daring enough to go touring with them.

For whatever reason, we agreed to go. For whatever reason, we (obviously) made it back safe and sound.

There’s always been a tendency in our household to shy away from street vendors who want to take you “somewhere.” Not only did we throw that theory out the window, we didn’t even know where “somewhere” was, only that they were going to show us Saigon, as it’s still known to people of our vintage, both in and out of Vietnam.

These were two of the 9 or 10 million people (it depends who you ask) in Ho Chi Minh City, taking us on two of the 7 million scooters. One of us thought it was safer than trying to cross the street, and that seemed like sound rationale to the other.

Off we went with the brothers Hunyh.

What became a 90-minute trip to see the city through the eyes of locals, the first stop was the post office. That’s right, the post office. Either locals are proud of its French Ho Chi Minh-PO2architecture or they think it’s something tourists want to see, but the post offices in our world are places we go to mail things. Period. Nonetheless, this one was beautiful, and adorned with a huge picture of the country’s patriarch, Ho Chi Minh.

We had a glimpse of the cathedral down the street that was not open, and running commentary (make that riding commentary) about a variety of sights along the way and the life of the two brothers: Both are married, one for the second time and one for 24 years to a woman who “I love forever.”

Next stop was the Viet Cong Museum, also closed, but with enough artifacts on the grounds to take it interesting. One of the Hunyhs insisted we climb onto a Viet Cong tank, Ho Chi Minh-VCan act which we suspect would not have been met with much of an endorsement had the still-Communist government’s officials been around.

The last stop was a famous pagoda — the brothers are Buddhists — that was a particularly busy place this day because it had something to do with fertility, so most of the occupants were women who wanted to make sure the stars were aligned and the gods were Ho Chi Minh-Pagoda-2smiling. We stayed there longer than expected (nothing to do with fertility), watching people light incense and pray while getting an elaborate explanation of everything in and outside the temple, including a 70-year-old turtle in a cage that would have infuriated Ho Chi Minh-4animal rights people in North America.

Since we were paying them by the hour, we could only surmise why the last stop took so long. The price was 300,000 dong per hour (Vietnamese currency), per person, which isn’t nearly as much as it looks. For an hour and a half, that was almost a million dong.

Or $45.

All things considered, it was money well spent. The brothers Huynh were delightful, polite and trustworthy. We’d probably have paid that just for the scooter ride — or to get across the street without being run over!

In the news…

• Four new shuttle buses dedicated to cruiser passengers in Port of Galveston
• Arrival of Anthem of the Seas kicks off cruise season in Puerto Rico
• TUI Cruises to send new Mein Schiff 6 to U.S. and Canada in 2017

Today at 
Scenic going deep into Southeast Asia

Norwegian Spirit
14 nights
April 23, 2016
Port Canaveral (return): St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Funchal, Barcelona
Inside: $829
Cost per day: $59

Taste Of Talkeetna Beer On Princess

Denali beer-1

TALKEETNA — We know less about craft beer than we know about Kraft cheese, and most of what we know about it is that it goes well with crackers, grilled bread and macaroni. Yesterday in this funky Alaskan town — and funky is the only word to describe it — that changed at least a little.

This is the home of the Denali Brewing Company, now the second-largest craft beer supplier in Alaska. Because Princess Cruises was looking to make a stronger connection Denali beer-2with the locals it visits each year from May to September, and because timing is everything, the two are linked professionally. Denali beer will be served on Princess ships around the world, thereby ensuring its status as the most popular beer this side of the Alaskan Brewing Company

Seven years ago, the place on Main Street Talkeetna where the Denali Brewing Company was founded by two men selling beer out of their trunks was the hub of a town so small it can’t be incorporated. Translation: among the amenities on this lot was the town showers where people…showered.

Talkeetna is used to being the little engine that could.

Most, or many, of its residents still have “dry houses” (as in no running water), yet it has an airport. Its winter population is dwarfed by how many tourists descend on it each summer. Anybody who wants to climb here has to register at the Ranger Station in Talkeetna, and now beer from this Alaskan hamlet is going to be known around the world.

But that’s what craft beer is all about…right?

Being the second-largest craft brewery meant selling 7,300 barrels (about 225,000 gallons) last year. Denali has no illusions about being number one: Alaskan sells 160,000 barrels (close to 5 million gallons). 

Princess is about 10 per cent of Denali’s business, and one brand — Denali Gold — is sold only at Princess Wilderness lodges in the summer, of which there are five.

“Princess knew how much people appreciated a local experience when they came to Denali-ShawnAlaska,” says Denali’s Shawn Standley. “We had to make sure we could produce the high quality and the volume that Princess needed. This year, we sold more Denali Gold in May than in the whole year last year.

At least two of our children, and maybe all three, would love to have on their business cards what Standley has on his.

Beer ambassador.

He is the spokesperson, the front man for founders Sassan Mossanen and Boe Barnette, the later of whom now retains only an equity interest in the company, having re-located to the lower 48, as Alaskans call the states to the south. He can tell you all you want to know about the hops and and grain and yeast and water used to make it, and all the different “flights” of beer so popular at tastings…and that the beer equivalent of a wine sommelier is a cicerone, and there aren’t many of them in the world.

Not many years ago, that was all pretty much foreign to him.

Which means…there’s hope for us.

In the news…

Three free shore excursions on Windstar this summer
• Fires still dangerous but Alaska highways stay open

Today at portsandbows.com: AmaWaterways and Disney ship philosophy

Norwegian Spirit
16 nights
November 5, 2015
Barcelona, Funchal, Antigua, St. Kitts, St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Port Canaveral
Inside: $729
Cost per day: $45

Costa Message: Forever Italy

A couple of months back, we were in Italy, which in our world is always a nice place to be. Today would be an even better time to be there, because it’s Republic Day, a national holiday to celebrate the end of Italian royalty (except for Sophia Loren, of course).

The ship we boarded in Naples that day was the almost-new Costa Diadema. At a press Neil Palombaconference that week it was made abundantly clear by Neil Palomba, President of Costa Crociere, that his cruise line is first and foremost for Italians and that — while owned by Carnival Corporation — it’s run by Italians.

As they say in Italy…si?

He sounded a little defensive, almost as if he was getting some heat with talk of Costa ships going off to America and China, among other worldly cruise hotspots. More than 60 per cent of Italian cruisers choose Costa and this week the cruise line is showing once again it’s not forgetting its roots.

The press release that announced Republic Day celebrations four times on three Costa ships made a point of saying the ships would be flying the Italian flag. Thinking that the ships must be registered elsewhere (most are registered in tax Diademahavens), we found that all three are registered in Italy. As is the Diadema — you can see its flag modestly displayed halfway up the funnel. 

The celebrations are while the ships are docked at ports in Denmark, Germany and Norway, so we can only assume Costa wants to show the locals what they’re missing by not being Italian…as well as involving the Italian embassies, of course.

This is the 69th June 2 since the Italians exiled the monarchy for its unpopular decision to back Benito Mussolini, the dictator who ruled Italy during the early years of World War II, and it’s 68 years since Costa became a cruise line. They’ve grown old — or up — together, and Costa’s never going to miss a chance to remind Italy’s people.

In the news…

• Chinese ship capsizes on Yangtze River; hundreds feared dead
• New Royal Caribbean sale starts today: up to 30% off fares

Today at portsandbows.com: Tallest of the tall ships

Norwegian Spirit
7 nights
December 5, 2015
Port Canaveral (return): Nassau, St. Thomas, St. Maarten
Inside: $519
Cost per day: $74

Good Times For Cruise Business

It seems like every time we turn around, we’re finding yet another person (or couple) who has discovered what great value cruising is, in general. The latest came during a weekend visit to friends who just completed their second cruise, and these “newbies” are grandparents of seven.

After two cruises, they’re committed.

Yesterday, this trend was confirmed. Again. The Cruise Lines International Association, which monitors trends of all kinds on behalf of the cruise lines, announced its “State of the NassauCruise Industry Report.” If you’re one of the people who believed cruising was in serious trouble after the Costa Concordia and the Carnival Triumph, it is in the best interests of your education to read on…

According to CLIA’s research:

• There is likely to be a 60 per cent increase in cruise passengers this year.

• Cruise lines intend to launch 22 new ships in 2015, covering the oceans, rivers or specialty (adventure) destinations to explore.

• The roll call of ports, worldwide, has climbed to 1,000.

• It’s possible these increases will account for a million jobs for the first time.

• More than ever, passengers are demanding and receiving that cruise lines cater to their needs with innovations to accommodations like WiFi ship-wide, phone connectivity and multigenerational cruises.

And here’s a nugget that might surprise you. In this age of doing everything ourselves online, seven of every 10 cruise passengers uses a travel agent.

Cruising has never enjoyed such popularity. Some of us have just been lucky enough to enjoy it earlier.

Today at portsandbows.com: All the latest cruise news

Norwegian Spirit
10 nights
March 16, 2015
Barcelona (return): Casablanca, Funchal, Santa Cruz, Arrecife, Malaga
Inside: $449
Cost per day: $44

Ebola, cruising and questions 

Anybody with a modicum of travel sense and even a passing interest in current events knew this weekend was coming. Anybody with a hint of common sense knows the question was just hanging there: “When will ebola affect cruising?”

This weekend, it did.

There has not, at least so far, been a cruise passenger with ebola. However, there has been a Carnival Magic passenger who had contact with an ebola victim. There have been two port calls missed because the countries (Belize, Mexico) refused to allow the Magic to dock. There has been a change in the security questions you’ll be asked the next time you get on a ship. And there has been an impact on the travel companies that trade on the stock market, including cruise lines.

And now there are questions:

• How many people are canceling cruises because they fear this deadly disease is out there waiting to touch them, as difficult as that is?

• Did the Carnival Magic have to undergo a decontamination before people would step on her decks again, even though there is no evidence of contamination?

• Is there going to be a drop in cruise fares because of cancelations?

• Are cruise officials going to find that it’s an exercise in futility trying to convince clients there is no logical reason to fear cruising when there are still illogical traits associated with ebola?

• What will passengers say if they see their cruise ship is “registered” in West Africa (yes, there are some), even when the ship hasn’t been near West Africa for months or even years?

The major cruise lines — Princess, Royal Caribbean, Carnival — have already announced tougher screening on embarkation, which will add to the annoyance of passengers if they’re already annoyed by the check-in process. The new protocol for all cruise lines is to ask if passengers have been to the ebola hotspots in Africa or have had contact with somebody who either has ebola or who has been in contact with an ebola patient. Beyond that “contact screening” is recommended and cruise lines can “deny boarding” to any guest, which they’ve always had the right to do anyway.

Meanwhile, it had to be Carnival.

The “ebola contact person” could have boarded any cruise ship, but it was one from Carnival, which has just completed rebuilding its brand and image from a series of problems. This one makes Carnival an innocent victim.

Here’s how Carnival, this decent and completely innocent victim, responded:

All passengers on the Magic were given a $200 onboard credit. All passengers will receive a 50 per cent discount on a future Carnival cruise.

Remember when it was norovirus that caused panic?

Today at portsandbows.com: On the rivers of America

Norwegian Spirit
12 nights
November 14, 2014
Venice, Athens, Ephesus, Istanbul, Mykonos, Naples, Rome, Florence, Toulon, Barcelona
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $49

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