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September 23, 2004 --No matter where you go in Southeast Asia you'll see a fascinating mélange of ancient cultures and customs thriving alongside the new. Wildly ornate temples dating back a millennium rub shoulders with towering office buildings, while bicycle rickshaws and rickety buses share narrow streets with shiny new cars. Vietnam is a particularly alluring destination, and more and more South Asia cruise itineraries are including calls there.

With a rich history going back some 2,000 years and infused with aspects of Chinese, French and American culture that date to those countries' occupations, Vietnam is a must for travelers seeking a truly exotic vacation. Towering mountains, dense jungles, river deltas, and pristine beaches make Vietnam a natural beauty in addition to a cultural treasure.

But don't hold your breath. While you won't yet encounter the rampant commercialization of other Far East destinations like Singapore and parts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, times are a' changing, and fast.

"It's still a relatively undiscovered, untouched gem, but definitely on the verge of major development," says Brad Ball, a spokesperson for Silversea Cruises.

In the last year, a Vietnam Tourist Promotion Board was established to target Asian and European travelers, plus two new ports opened, according to Phan Xuan Anh, the chairman of a local tour operator, Viet Ventures. At Cai lan in Ha Long bay, ships can now dock for quicker trips inland to Ha Noi, and from Chan May port, historic Hue is just an hour's drive away, compared to the three-hour trip from the more established port of Da Nang. More hotels and resorts are going up in places like Hoi An, Nha Trang City, and Cam Ranh Bay, plus roads are being improved. There are now better connections between Ha Long bay and Hanoi, and between Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta. A new tunnel between Hue and Da Nang will open by year's end.

If you want to go, do so now, before McDonalds and Starbucks beat you there. For first-timers to the region especially, a cruise is an extremely convenient way to visit. A familiar, secure ship serves as your home base, from which you can venture out into the dynamic ports of call via organized shore excursions.

Most itineraries range between one and three weeks in length, and many depart from Singapore, the region's hub, as well as from Hong Kong and Bangkok. The prime cruising season for Southeast Asia routes is November through May. So as to better blend in with the low-key local cultures, ships sailing these parts tend to be smaller, generally carrying fewer than 800 passengers. Most are also ultra-lux.

Itineraries that include Vietnam often include calls in Malaysia (Penang, Port Kelang/Kuala Lumpur, Sarawak, Sabah), Indonesia (Bali, Sumatra, Java and Jakarta, Lombok, Sulawesi), Thailand (Phuket, Ko Sumai), and/or China (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Canton, Tianjin/Beijing). Ships often remain in popular ports for more than one day to afford guests ample opportunity for touring.

Among the lines visiting Vietnam are Seabourn (www.seabourn.com) and Silversea (www.silversea.com).

The 204-passenger Seabourn Spirit, an all-suite ship with marble bathrooms, walk-in closets, Frette bedding and free-flowing Piper Heidsieck champagne, spends two luxurious weeks cruising along the coasts of Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia, from Singapore or Hong Kong. Spirit calls on Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok for two days each (for local sightseeing and day flights to neighboring Cambodia to see its famed temple complex, Angkor Wat, though you'll need more than a day to do this place justice), plus a day in Da Nang, for sightseeing including Emperor Gia Long's palace in nearby Hue, and a day in docked Cai Lan, for trips inland to Hanoi. At the lovely Thai island of Ko Kood, the crew drops anchor and sets up a champagne and caviar beach party, the line's signature weekly treat. Prices are from $7,699 per person including all drinks and tips. Sailings are from January 2 to March 27.

The all-suite 296-passenger Silver Cloud, a slightly smaller version of fleetmate Silver Whisper, is just as luxurious, with roomy suites -- most with balconies -- plus three excellent dining venues and unlimited quantities of Philipponnat Royale Reserve champagne. The 12-night cruise sails between Bangkok and Hong Kong, spending two days in Ho Chi Minh City and three in Haiphong (for Hanoi), plus and one each in Da Nang and Huang Pu (China). Prices are from $5,640 per person, which includes all drinks and tips. The sailing is Feb 16, 2005.