The upper deck on the MS Henna, en route to Vietnam, Easter 2013
The upper deck on the MS Henna, en route to Vietnam, Easter 2013

Before we even reached the gangplank, I felt it: the atmosphere referred to in Chinese as renao, a word that is largely untranslatable into English. To foreigners, it means “loud and chaotic”, to Chinese it is the essence of having fun: bustling, exciting and, yes, noisy. In China, the great outdoors is viewed as best enjoyed when accompanied by a bit of pop music: parks pipe recorded music over loudspeakers, and even temple tourism seems to go better with muzak. So it seemed only right that our relaxing sea cruise should begin with a boombox blasting in the background.

Shao Peng and his family were among the first up the plank, representing in many ways a new class of Chinese traveller. A former officer in the People’s Liberation Army who did stints at Intel and IBM, the clean-cut, button-down-collared Shao and his wife, mother and only son were doing travel the way the middle class does it these days in China: with grandma.

“My son is five, he will enter primary school and he will be very busy then,” says Shao, 41, who lives in Beijing. So before the older generation gets too old, and the younger generation gets too stressed-out studying, the Shaos grasping at that most elusive of middle-class dreams: a bit of quality family time.

Chinese explorers hit the high seas before Christopher Columbus, in ships bigger than the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria all rolled into one. But since then, the Chinese have not been much into seafaring. The pent-up wanderlust has been unleashed by the arrival in China of that most quintessentially middle class of travel institutions: the ocean cruise. And mainlanders who have never been overseas in their lives are hurrying up the gangplank to see the world, framed by their very own porthole.

Every year in China, millions of people do their first bit of real travelling: not just by smelly sleeper bus to a distant home town for lunar new year, but their first aeroplane trip to their first beach resort, or their first glimpse of Paris or London. Last year alone, more than 83 million Chinese tourists spent $100bn travelling overseas, making them the world’s biggest spenders on foreign travel. For nearly 60 per cent of them, it was their first time outside China.

I, my teenage children and about 1,000 other first-time cruisers set sail for an Easter weekend voyage to Vietnam, on China’s first ocean liner, the MS Henna, a 27-year-old former Carnival Cruise Lines ship, hastily refurbished for the Chinese market. There were only two other Caucasian passengers apart from myself (one of whom was the FT’s photographer). We all set off to be foreigners together.

For an American who grew up (as I did) counting body bags come home from Vietnam, I never dreamt I’d be chatting with a former Red Army officer while embarking on a trip there with a boatload of communists. Except they looked more like people on a Disney cruise: plenty of sandwich-generation families, with both only child and patriarch; gaggles of young female office workers out on a lark; beer-bellied men with girls in floppy sunhats; middle-aged sisters having a grown-up slumber party. One pint-sized 78-year-old, with a face ravaged by decades of deprivation – and malnourishment so severe that she barely reached to my armpit – was obviously thrilled to bits by her first trip anywhere. An impossibly wrinkled old man wearing the woollen cap and suit of a peasant leaned on the arm of his daughter, while not far away a middle-aged man in the uniform of the Chinese petty entrepreneur (man-bag for wads of cash and badly dyed comb-over) ceaselessly took snapshots of himself with his iPhone.

Then there were the newlyweds – the ultimate cruise-ship cliché – who dressed in matching Hawaiian pyjama outfits and never stopped canoodling. Here was the new Chinese middle class, in all its eclecticism.

First stop: lunch. Since this was a Chinese ship I had my chopsticks already sharpened for an orgy of delicious, if sometimes unrecognisable, dishes. What we got instead, at our first meal, was white bread and luncheon meat, served on plastic plates and washed down by the Chinese version of Kool-Aid. Even that most basic staple of Chinese life – hot water to make tea – was only dispensed lukewarm from a Nescafé machine.

No one does luxury like the Chinese, so I had expected something more along the lines of crystal chandeliers reflecting acres of bling and tables laden with Swarovski goblets. It’s hard to get in quite the right romantic mood for cruising when eating luncheon meat and mayo in the equivalent of a school cafeteria.

Next came the small matter of the safety drill – which turned out to be an occasion for yet more renao. We assembled at our muster stations expecting to be shown how to wear life vests and to abandon ship – only to find we could barely hear above the din of passengers shouting excitedly into their cellphones. Speaking as a first generation “ugly American”, that is the kind of habit that Chinese travellers might want to ditch sooner rather than later: shrieking into a mobile phone in a foreign language is something that the rest of the world would happily hold against them. (Speaking louder than the natives seems to be a big part of what got Americans their “ugly” label in the first place.)

A Chinese girl attends lessons in pizza-making for budding junior chefs
Lessons in pizza-making for budding junior chefs

Having worked up an appetite trying to figure out which was our lifeboat, we decamped to the ship’s vintage 1980s sit-down restaurant, where the Vietnamese head waiter reported approvingly that “these days the Chinese are upgrading – now they drink a lot”. At the next table a middle-aged couple tucked in with a magnum of cognac plonked firmly on the table. (In the ship’s duty-free shop, a magnum of Louis XIII Grande Champagne Cognac from Rémy Martin cost HK$31,888 (£2,750), but the sales staff reported passengers usually prefer the “cheaper” cognacs and whiskeys priced at HK$2,000 to HK$4,000 per bottle).

The food was, once again, less than stellar: a bland bit of fish, some mediocre red-braised pork belly (a Shanghainese speciality that is hard to make badly) and some limp stir fry. Samantha Wang – who had formerly worked on a European cruise liner and was probably the only passenger on board who had ever sailed before – got it in a nutshell: “The food is not very authentic western food and not very authentic Chinese food,” she said.

Samantha may be an experienced cruiser but her mother, Zhang Min, 54, had never been outside China before, let alone on a cruise ship. But when the ship wove its way the next day between dramatic karst peaks to dock at Halong Bay, in what was formerly North Vietnam, Samantha and her mother did not join the group tours that are such a cliché of Chinese tourists abroad. Neither did the Shao family. These days, more and more Chinese are choosing to break with convention and explore foreign countries without the benefit of a tour guide.

Soon it was time for the high point of the trip, from the social point of view: the gala or “captain’s dinner” – complete with a cameo appearance by the handsome Norwegian ship’s captain. I had hoped to have a word with him about the finer points of South China Sea navigation, but what was I thinking? Blond Scandinavians are at a premium in Chinese tourist spots at the best of times. Throughout the cruise, passengers repeatedly asked to be photographed alongside the FT’s middle-aged Italian photographer. When faced instead with a tall, yellow-haired, handsome young chap in full sea captain regalia, the crowd went wild.

The diners obeyed the wonderfully eclectic dress code that prevails on the mainland – and prevents even most Chinese from determining who is rich and who is not in today’s China. In short, the wealthy sometimes dress like peasants and the peasants sometimes dress like landowners – and they all come decked out in the same brands.

Whether for a gala dinner or a day at the office, the range of acceptable clothing appears to be far broader than in the west: some turned up for the semi-formal dinner in board shorts, others were in ball gowns. Zheng Weihang, general secretary of the China Cruise and Yacht Industry Association, says his group plans to launch a “civilised passenger convention” to give first-time travellers a crash course in the finer points of cruise etiquette. “We will include such rules as no slippers at formal dinner parties,” he says.

Zheng endorses the practice adopted by some foreign cruise companies of making sure up to half the passengers on their Chinese cruise are not Chinese. “If a cruise carries only Chinese, it is not easy to cultivate cruise culture and learn cruise etiquette,” he explains.

Personally, I found the Henna’s dress code very liberating. Some of the older passengers seemed never to get out of their pyjamas for the whole trip. They paraded on deck in them, indulging in the charming mainland practice of advertising just how relaxed they are by appearing in public places – the street, the grocery store, the barber shop – in bedroom wear.

The PJ-clad grannies were only one of the things that made the Henna feel like a small corner of China afloat. For example, there was no one at the bar. Like many westerners, I thought drinking was one of the primary reasons for cruising, but as Helen Wang, of MSC Mediterranean cruises in Shanghai, says, “Chinese people don’t have a ‘bar culture’.” They do, however, like to shop and gamble. “Westerners do not shop so much and do not spend so much time and money in the casino,” she says.

That is not to say that Chinese tourists are teetotal – they just don’t get drunk on a bar stool. But if they don’t hang out at the bar, where do Chinese cruisers congregate? Zheng, of the cruise operators’ association, says “they prefer to play mah-jong”. So China Cruise has added more chess and card tables – and taken away some of the deck chairs. For sunbathing, it seems, is another of those barbarian habits that have not yet caught on in China. “On a western cruise there are never enough deck chairs for all the people who want to bask in the sun – especially north Europeans,” says Zheng. “But Chinese people, especially ladies, do not like to bask.”

Men perform Hawaiian dancing on the ship's deck as an audience looks on
Hawaiian dancing on deck

However, the Chinese choose to talk, drink, eat or play, the world’s cruise lines had better get used to it. After all, this is Marine Tourism Year in China, and Beijing’s latest five-year plan decrees that cruising should be encouraged. China already has five cruise terminals for ocean-going ships, three more are under construction and five to six more are planned. Shanghai itself has two, for the excellent reason that after spending $260m building the stylish North Bund cruise terminal, the city fathers discovered a bridge that would prevent large cruise ships from getting to it. They considered tearing the bridge down, or turning it into a drawbridge or a tunnel but they eventually settled on the elegant solution of building a whole new terminal upriver. That may well be another characteristic that the Chinese share with us Americans: having more money than sense.

Bridges notwithstanding, the Chinese cruise industry has managed to grow from next to nothing only seven short years ago – when the first outbound liner in over half a century left Shanghai – to carry 500,000 in and outbound travellers by 2011. But it’s still only a tiny percentage of the total overseas travellers from China, which could soon reach 100 million.

And if Chinese state media is to be believed, some of them had an interesting reason for wanting to take a cruise: the Shanghai Daily quotes one Luna Xu, a public relations manager at a French company, saying she wanted to watch the sunset on deck with her boyfriend, “just like scenes from the film Titanic”. Titanic imagery is, it seems, more of a positive force in the industry than would seem reasonable: indeed a Chinese shipyard is meant to start building a working replica of the ship shortly, (though no final contract has yet been agreed with Clive Palmer, the Australian tycoon behind the Titanic II project).

On board the Henna, though, there weren’t many Leonardo and Kate lookalikes: most were families, or groups of singles. In China, where paid leave is uncommon outside national holidays, it was not quite clear how most travellers had managed to get off work in order to come. One young marketing professional said she just told her boss at the last moment and disappeared – leaving his wrath for her return. Others were between jobs. But it seemed likely that a large cohort were what passes for nouveau riche in today’s China, including former peasants who sold their land to local governments and became successful entrepreneurs. Those were probably the ones who did not want to tell me what they did for a living.

Chinese tourists exchanging money in Vietnam
Exchanging money in Vietnam – though most shops accept Chinese currency

With our three-night cruise priced at RMB2,588 (£285) to RMB15,888 (for the presidential suite) – and a hefty 35 per cent discount on offer – the Henna is meant to be targeting the middle classes or below. But others in the industry say the ship is closer to the top end on price – and the bottom end on facilities. Yuan Yuan, marketing director at HNA Tourism Cruise and Yacht Management, which owns the ship, will not say how much the company spent refurbishing it – only that most of it went on “retrofitting the machines and engines” rather than redecorating a ship that, she frankly admits, looks all of its 27 years.

Of course, much of our time was not spent on board but in our destination cities of Halong Bay in the north and Danang in the south. Danang was a name that I probably knew even before Peking (as then was). It was the place where the body bags came from: a US military base only 85 miles south of the demilitarised zone.

My fellow passengers and I came from opposite sides in that war, which pitted my country against theirs in a conflict that all but destroyed Vietnam. But they seemed largely oblivious. “We’re on a cruise! Let’s not think about that now,” said one genial old guy. “We were busy with our own problems right about then,” he said, in a coy reference to the Cultural Revolution.

And so it is today. Our North Vietnamese tour guide hardly mentioned the war. She dispensed lessons in bargaining and warnings about fake products, and insisted on taking us by bus the 200 yards from our Chinese lunch to the local market – on the grounds that Vietnamese roads are too treacherous (which is saying something given the standard of driving in China). She even cautioned us not to eat the local food, fearing that “it might not suit our tastes”.

And that’s when I really understood: from her point of view, the Chinese are the new “ugly Americans”. They don’t eat the food, they don’t drink the water and their money is so mighty that they use it in the marketplace without even changing it into the local currency. As we left the restaurant – after a meal of what one wag called “Vietnamese Sichuan food” – the local peddlers completely ignored us and made a beeline for the Chinese. Like the Americans before them, they have now become a colonising force in world tourism. After 600 years on dry land, China is back on the high seas.

Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent. With additional reporting by Yan Zhang

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