Good morning, Vietnam

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 November, 1999, 12:00am

It was going on for midnight, and the bar was deserted. Someone had fed the jukebox, which was playing Cat Stevens, but there were no customers. The Celebrity disco on the top deck was also empty, though strobe lighting flashed to techno-rock.

On Deck 10 of the 13-deck megaship SuperStar Leo music thumped to no one in the Starlight disco, and next door, in the games centre, space monsters zapped each other and racing cars burnt the rubber on banks of video screens, but there were no players.

Thoughts turned to the ghost ship Marie Celeste as I sat alone in Henry the Black, the English pub on Deck 7.

A few hours earlier I had waited patiently with around 2,000 passengers to go through the boarding procedures at Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui. The din was deafening. Now there was silence. What had happened to them all? My one regret about taking this cruise to Halong Bay in Vietnam was that I thought I would miss the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals on television. To my delight, the ship had satellite TV and I had locked myself away in the cabin for more than three hours before emerging to explore.

There were no customers but Henry the Black had staff, and it lived up to its boast of being an English pub, with bar billiards, darts, dark wood panelling and even prints of hunting scenes around the walls. Well, nearly. There was no English draught beer on tap.

'Will you have any tomorrow?' I asked, and bit my lip in embarrassment as soon as I finished the sentence. Of course they wouldn't. We were at sea. We wouldn't return to Hong Kong for another three days.

The ship was cruising so smoothly that it was easy to forget we were afloat, as I had done when we dined earlier in Windows Restaurant at the stern, which seats more than 600 passengers.

It was when I turned my head and saw the lights of TST drifting slowly by on the port side that I was reminded we were no longer on terra firma.

I had a game of darts, downed a draught Tiger beer and left to investigate the disappearance of my fellow passengers.

On the Starboard side of Deck 7 I heard an unworldly wailing, and made my way in trepidation towards it. I was getting warm. Karaoke in the Bund Bar. It was packed. I moved on quickly and behind the doors of the Maharajah found not an Indian in sight - it was heaving with Hong Kong Chinese.

For Maharajah is the casino, and doubtless this is one of the reasons why Star Cruises can offer three nights on board the luxurious SuperStar Leo, including food and entertainment, for as little as $1,699 per passenger.

Midnight, but this is no Cinderella cruise. Up on Deck 12 the Raffles buffet restaurant has just opened. It's supper-time and passengers can help themselves until 1 am. And they are. In fact they are gorging themselves. Raffles can cater for more than 300, and I can't find a seat.

As I continue to explore the ship, it becomes clear why I could not find my fellow passengers. The ship is big, the night is young.

The cinema shows Chinese movies from midnight, a Filipino band is playing in the Galaxy of the Stars nightclub, there's live jazz and blues at Champagne Charlie's bar, and a blockbuster movie in English is just starting in the Moulin Rouge theatre, which had earlier been packed for Showtime.

Most of the passengers on this trip were Hong Kong Chinese, and strangely, the movie Titanic has been given the credit for the cruising craze that is sweeping the SAR.

Show a film about an 'unsinkable' cruise ship that strikes an iceberg and goes down with the loss of 1,513 lives, and wait for the rush for berths. It doesn't make sense, does it? But of course, Asians know they aren't going to bump into any icebergs in the South China Sea. On this cruise, the only ice they'll come across is likely to be in a bucket on the bar.

Passengers are pampered for four days and three nights on the SuperStar Leo by around 1,000 crew from 38 countries. The Scandinavian captain claims it is the largest crew on any liner worldwide.

There are optional shore trips at Zhanjiang in China, and at Halong Bay, our final destination, which is Vietnam's answer to Guilin.

I gave the Zhanjiang trip a miss, opting to explore the ship further instead. My guidebook described Zhanjiang as 'a drab, urban conglomeration', but some Chinese passengers who went ashore for a coach trip to a lake said it was fairly interesting and the seafood excellent.

Each day an entertainment guide is delivered to the 1,000 cabins, listing a host of activities on board. The ship even has an entertainment officer. But if you aren't into bingo, dancing lessons, quizzes or karaoke competitions, it is easy to find solitude, the vessel is so big.

I had a cabin with a private balcony ($3,549 per passenger, twin sharing), where I could have been a recluse for most of the trip, if I wished. There is even room service.

I have to admit that the din in Raffles buffet restaurant became a bit too much to bear after a couple of days, but there are other, excellent restaurants, with the decorum that one would expect on more upmarket cruises, and the food there is also inclusive.

Passengers must book tables at these restaurants, Windows (Chinese and European) and the Garden Room (Chinese). There are also other restaurants, including Chinese and Japanese, that charge moderate prices.

In fact there is so much food available that one has to resist the temptation to be a glutton: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, cakes and sandwiches, dinner, midnight supper.

Some passengers would dine at the opulent Windows or Garden Room and then make their way to the buffet to dive into the fruit and confectionery.

Among the many facilities are a swimming pool, jacuzzis, saunas, a large and well-equipped fitness centre, a jogging track and sports deck, shops, a well-stocked library, mahjong room, beauty salon, smoking room and even a child care centre.

A fond memory of this cruise will be opening the curtains in my cabin to unveil the beautiful limestone islets of Halong Bay, only a few hundred metres away. The ship had dropped anchor as I slept. Good morning, Vietnam.

The tour of Halong Bay was, however, rather disappointing. Passengers disembarked on to a fleet of wooden vessels for a close-up, but rather hurried look at some of the limestone and dolomite islets, before going ashore to become targets for souvenir sellers and a greasy hotel lunch that many left virtually untouched.

Passengers, totally spoilt by now, couldn't wait to get back on board to pile their plates high in Raffles.

But Halong Bay is only a small part of this voyage, and this was just a teaser. As we left, we realised just why Halong Bay has become a Unesco World Heritage site.

We had seen only a few of the strange-shaped limestone formations during the tour, but after we upped-anchor we passed close to dozens. There are said to be around 3,000, which you can explore at leisure if you make your own way to Halong Bay and hire a boatman.

This last night on board was celebrated with a gala dinner, when the chefs made an extra special effort to serve up food that would do a five-star hotel proud. In a restaurant that can seat 600-plus, I was asked: 'How would you like your steak, sir?' The cruise was over for me the following day, but just beginning for others. The SuperStar Leo operates seven days a week, and would be leaving for Hainan Island hours later.

Cruising the South China Sea For inquiries about Star Cruises, phone 2317-7711, or check the web-site: