A reluctant cruiser sets sail for the first time in search of the best Vietnam has to offer.
SOUTH CHINA SEA - Despite a lifelong love of boating, cruising never really interested me. (See: all-day buffets with mediocre food, contagious viruses, honeymooners gone missing.) But, as with most things I’ve sworn off (like brussel sprouts and Brooklyn), curiosity eventually got the better of me after spending an afternoon on a Silversea cruise docked in New York City. The all-suite ship was the antithesis of what I had imagined. It had spacious and elegant rooms, a chic wooden pool deck, and delicious food. It felt like I had retreated to an era when the journey was as important as the destination. Suddenly, a few days at sea didn’t seem so bad – it actually sounded kind of appealing. Shortly thereafter, I accepted an invitation for a nine-day tour of Southeast Asia aboard the Silver Shadow. Our route included stops in Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Chan May, Ha Long Bay, and Hong Kong.
Get Your Bearings
With one of the highest space-to-guest ratios at sea and a maximum of 382 guests, it’s hard to imagine cruising in a more pleasant fashion. At no point did the well-maintained ship feel crowded. Having last undergone a refurbishment in 2011, the Silver Shadow feels more like an old-world ship than a modern-day vessel and is decorated in classic shades of burgundy, blue, and cream, with shiny brass and teak wood accents. The boat has ten levels with a pool deck that acts as the central hub. There are four restaurants, a lounge that serves afternoon tea and evening cocktails, and a bar with live music and a dance floor. The show lounge offers nightly entertainment, including themed evenings featuring different types of music, like blues or swing. (Note to future guests: Don’t miss the farewell extravaganza. It was surprisingly nostalgic, with photos taken over the course of the trip and a goodbye speech from the cruise director.) Wellness offerings range from a small fitness center and studio with yoga and Pilates classes to an outdoor running track and a spa with a beauty salon (all of which I was grateful for and made use of on the three days we spent at sea). Other on-board amenities include shopping boutiques, an observation library, a card room, and a casino.
Number of Rooms
Silver Shadow has 191 suites. There are eight different room types, ranging from the one-bedroom Owner’s Suite to the Vista Suite, a spacious cabin with panoramic views of the ocean.
In the Room
I stayed in a Veranda Suite, set up to sleep two in twin-sized beds. I had a pal tagging along, and, as part of our online orientation, we were able to select our bed size (one queen or two twins) and our pillow preferences (down or hypo-allergenic). The adjacent living room area was compact but multi-functional, with a desk, a small love seat, an armchair, and a coffee table that could be used for room service (this came in handy when our jet lag got the best of us one night and we slept through dinner and needed a pizza and a movie in the middle of the night). The walk-in closet was a godsend for two women traveling together. I was able to hang up my clothes (there’s an unlimited supply of hangers), stash my suitcase under the bed, and still have space for the many ceramics I bought at Sadec District in Ho Chi Minh City and Sunday in Hoi An. The private teak deck with two chairs was especially nice on warm days at sea when I wanted a quiet place to read or take in the changing scenery. The bathroom was well-sized, with two sinks, a bathtub and shower, and an assortment of toiletries from cool brands like Ortigia Sicilia and Sebamed. Unlimited WiFi was included with my suite and worked surprisingly well considering half the trip was spent at sea. The only inconvenience was that each guest is allotted one login, which requires you to sign in and out to switch between your computer and cell phone.
Without a doubt the best part of any Silversea suite is the personal butler. Raj was incredibly kind and sweet — and quite possibly a mind reader. He was always checking in to make sure I was happy and well-fed, stocking the refrigerator with my favorite drinks, and telling me stories about the many places his travels had taken him. It was nice to see a familiar face around the ship. Saying goodbye at the end of the trip was actually quite sad.
Food + Drink
Silver Shadow has four restaurants for dinner: La Terrazza for Italian, The Restaurant for contemporary international cuisine, The Grill for laid-back al fresco dining, and La Dame by Relais & Châteaux for fine wines and a French-inspired tasting menu. I ate the majority of my meals at The Grill, which is located on the pool deck and has a more casual vibe than the other restaurants. The menu is simple and straightforward, with grilled meats you can cook on your own lava stone, fresh vegetables, and a menu of sorbets and gelatos for dessert. Breakfast was spent at La Terrazza or The Restaurant — eggs, yogurt, and fresh fruit. On days at sea, I would order a salad or sandwich at The Grill, which also had a station offering local cuisine like banh mi sandwiches and satay skewers. With the exception of La Dame and some of the wines, all meals and drinks are included in the rates.
This Ship Is Perfect For
Real-life adults (age 50 and up) who want to see and experience the world from an elegant and reliable home base. At 33 years old, I was far and away the youngest passenger on the ship, which made for an excellent conversation starter with the other guests.
But Not So Perfect For
Children of any age. The ship, its amenities, and the off-boat excursions are designed for mature adults.
While in port, guests have the option of touring on their own or signing up for organized excursions. Because it was my first time in Vietnam and I wanted the full Silversea experience, I decided to schedule as many tours as my days could accommodate. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t. I ended up spending way too much time inside buses and left Vietnam feeling like I hadn’t seen or experienced all that much of the country. A tour of the Mekong Delta felt like a flop when we arrived to a section of the river with various “stops” for tourists to see what life was like for the locals. Later on, a broken-down van and a nervous tour guide had me wondering what I had gotten myself into.
A second tour that took us to Hoi An felt like a tease because we had one hour to explore the most charming town in Vietnam. Simply put, the tours weren’t designed for the kind of traveler that I am, which is very much a do-it-yourself type who would rather not have the constraints of traveling with a slow-moving group.
The one success was the third and last tour of my trip – a boating and kayaking excursion between the towering limestone islands of Ha Long Bay. This is something that I wouldn’t have done on my own, as it was a bit outside of my comfort zone, which is probably why it was one of my favorite memories from the cruise. The big takeaway: DIY when possible (in places like Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An), but opt for guided tours for adventurous or unfamiliar activities like kayaking.
From start to finish, the service aboard the Silver Shadow was impeccable. From boarding the ship to disembarking in a new country and going through customs, every aspect was flawlessly executed. The staff is perhaps the kindest and most hospitable I’ve ever encountered. By the end of the cruise, I was on a first-name basis with several of the crew members and started to feel like a bit like Eloise.
Although cruising may never be my preferred mode of travel, I left the Silver Shadow fully understanding why cruisers, especially those who travel with Silversea, are so devoted. Give me another thirty years, and I may just be one of them.