A slice of the gambler's life on Neptune's casino cruise
If you did not know already who the Neptune gambling cruise ship's principal customers are - mainlanders with money to burn - the greetings in Putonghua at the pier in Hong Kong offer an indication.
The casino ship, which has been operating out of Hong Kong for nearly four years, is hardly the 'brand new' five-star attraction touted in the glossy brochure, and the Russian signs on various doors hint at a previous life in colder climes. However, the cabins are clean and comfortable, the food is plentiful and reasonably varied, and the atmosphere is less smoke-filled than you might expect for a nation of chain-smokers.
To help punters build up their reserves of energy for a night of gaming, the buffet opens before the ship steams out of Victoria Harbour.
To pass the time before the tables open, there is entertainment. On a week-night trip, it amounts to a solitary singer and a lucky wheel.
Still, for HK$380 - including accommodation and three buffet meals - that does not come as a great surprise.
The assembled crowd is clearly not there for the music, and the speed with which they flee when the wheel stops spinning is startling. To see a bar filled with 40 people empty in less than a minute gives some hope that hurdles champ Liu Xiang will not remain China's only world-renowned sprinter for long.
Drinks in the bar are cheaper than in Hong Kong nightspots, but you will be drinking alone. Alcohol is not permitted in the main gaming room and its dozen or so tables - offering baccarat, blackjack, sic bo and other games - are the main attraction.
After less than two hours under way, the dropping of the anchor signals that it's time to buy some chips and test your luck. The clientele, mainly male, vary from the jovial to the desperate, some clutching handfuls of HK$20,000 chips and lurching from table to table all night.
There is also a VIP gaming area with a handful of tables that must be for those with serious money.
Other attractions onboard include mahjong and massages, and the round-the-clock hard-core porn on one channel of the in-cabin TV system hints at other services.
You can get a beer and a kebab or two from the back deck barbecue, which offers good views of a largish mainland island.
That raises some questions about the crew's navigational abilities - given the Neptune is supposed to be in international waters 12 nautical miles from land. However, they do manage to steer the ship back to Hong Kong the next morning.