This was the first time Celebrity was done this route and it showed. The ports were all terrific with overnights in Singapore, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Hanoi, and Hong Kong, but Celebrity was comically disorganized at port calls in general, getting people ashore, running shore excursions, and handing out passports.
Hotels: Fairmont Singapore-Nice, but pricey Renaissance Bangkok-dirt cheap, and incredibly nice hotel Caravelle Saigon-cheap, and nice, but not as nice as Renaissance Sheraton Hong Kong-Expensive, but a very nice hotel
In Singapore, we did some nice tours before we got on the ship, including a city tour, and a tour of the World War II sites (Kranji was very moving). But I will focus on what happened once we got on the ship. We had planned to go to this nice new aquarium on Sentosa, since our ship didn't leave until 2 PM the next day. Unfortunately, we would soon learn that we had to be on board at Noon, which was never told to us when we booked. It was very misleading, and the beginning of our discontent with Celebrity's port operations. Apparently, there are 2 different aquariums on Sentosa. We accidentally went to the old one, which like everything else on the island, didn't open until 10. Because we had to be on board at 12, we didn't have time to go to the new aquarium instead. To add insult to injury, the ship ended up leaving port 4 hours late because all passports needed to be turned in, but a group of Russians (if you believe the scuttlebutt) failed to turn their passports in and were lounging at the pool despite constant announcements and impassioned, angry pleas from the captain. So, we had rushed for nothing.
In Bangkok, all 4 members of my party were booked on the "Essence of Old Bangkok tour, which left at 10:15 A.M. My youngest son and I planned to stay overnight in Bangkok and just have the bus leave us there at the conclusion of the tour instead of going back to the ship. We were worried about getting our passports in time (you needed to collect your passports in order to stay overnight ashore as the hotel asks for them) since they were set to be given out at 10:30 A.M. Thus, I talked to guest relations and they assured me that our passports would be the highest priority and we would be able to get them at 10:15. Still concerned, I went to the shore excursion desk and told them my situation, and they once again assured I would get the passports in time, and if not, they would book me on a different tour which was "Overnight Bangkok on your Own". Long story short, we did not get the passports in time because Celebrity was so slow and inefficient at distributing them. As time marched on, I returned to the guest relations desk to ask about my so called priority status. The woman at the desk (can't remember her name, but she was Peruvian) told me that they were in her supervisor hands and we would get them soon, and that we should wait by the desk to receive them. 20 minutes later no passports. We went back to the place where passports were being distributed and had to wait even more time to get them. The Peruvian had blatantly lied, a tactic we found was used often by our crew who could care less about our experience. When we finally got our passports, we rushed to the shore excursion desk to make sure we got on the "Overnight Bangkok on your Own" tour. There was now no room left, and without any aid from Celebrity we were forced to find our own transport to Bangkok. It was very expensive, but we did get to the city in time to see the Grand Palace< the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. The next day we went to Wat Arun, The National Museum, the Marble Temple, and the Sri Racha Tiger Zoo before returning to the ship. We would later learn that the tour we tried to get on was delayed so much due to passport issues that it did not arrive in Bangkok until 5 P.M. according to some of our fellow passengers. So, it was a blessing in disguise that Celebrity had failed to get us on that tour, as it saved us from further incompetency from them.
The exception to the rule of bad shore excursion, passport and gangway issues was in Saigon. We had booked the Saigon Overnight tour (a bargain at 295 dollars) after enjoying staying overnight in Bangkok so much, no thanks to Celebrity. Our tour guide, Hoang, was just great. He was the best tour guide on the entire cruise. He spoke very good English, was kind, courteous, and gave lots of information and interesting anecdotes about his hometown. We saw all the usual sites on day 1 (Presidential Palace, History Museum, Water Puppet Show, Market, Church, etc.) and stayed at the Caravelle Hotel that night, which was great. My son had wanted to visit the highly touted War Remnants museum, which we didn't have time for the first day. However, it did open at 0730 the next day. We rushed there and thoroughly enjoyed our brief 45 minute visit. Next, we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels which was fascinating. It was incredible to see how the Viet Cong constructed this massive system with such little resources. The best part though was the shooting range they had where you could fire a wide range of weapons from the Vietnam War era, including AK47, M16, and M60s. We picked the AK47 and the M60 and it cost 68 dollars, not cheap, but incredibly fun. I had fired the M16 and M60 before, but never an AK, which was so unique since obviously I was not exposed to that as an American. There were no real issues with passports or disembarkation we experienced in Saigon, so that was a relief.
After a day at sea, we arrived in Chan May, the port for Da Nang and Hue. We booked the Imperial Hue tour. This was the tour from hell! Our tour guide, Tran, had an absolutely incomprehensible accent and had an overall poor command of English. After paying hundreds of dollars for my whole family to go on this tour, I expected better from Celebrity. Could they really not have found a single guy in all the Central Highlands who spoke English better than this? If you listened hard, you would be able to make out about 30 percent of what he said. For example, "bla bla bla bla Heavenly lady Pagoda bla bla bla" So when he explained things anywhere that day, it was utterly useless. First went to the aforementioned Heavenly Lady pagoda, where I listened to another tour guide who actually spoke English. Next we went to the imperial palace. I hired four rickshaws to take us there from where the bus left us because my wife has a bad knee and cannot walk well. The rickshaw guides had quoted us two dollars each to go to the palace. Unfortunately, they lied. Instead of taking us to the palace, they take us on this one hour long wild goose chase around the streets of Hue despite my constant urgings to take us straight to the palace. When the tour finally ends, they want 1 million dong apiece, like 48 dollars. I am incensed. I did not want this whole long tour, I wanted to just be taken to the palace and pay my 2 dollars. I give them a million dong for all four of us, but they won't let us leave and attempt to physical restrain us. A poor plan since both my son and I have at least 7 inches and more than 80 pounds on all of them. My wife gives them 500k more dong and we leave. We only have 30 minutes left to see the Imperial Palace, and without a guide, no matter how bad, to show us around. Tran comes looking for us and he is not happy. We aren't actually late but he must just have had a bee in his bonnet about it. We get back to the bus roughly on time, but he still looks like we shot his water buffalo. We travel back across the Perfume River for lunch at a "4 Star Hotel", really a 2 star in my book. The food was of poor quality and little variety. The drinks were long passed expired and when we went down in the elevator we found ourselves stuck behind a buffet table. Oh my. After lunch we travel to the Thien Mu tomb to hear some more garbled explanations from Tran. We then return to the ship to recover from our trying day.
The next day was much better. Although there were issues with tenders the next day and our excursion was delayed an hour, which was cut off from our tour, Ha Long Bay by Boat was simply stunning. All these little islands jutting out from the water were breathtaking. When we arrived at the island with the big cave, there was a 45 minute wait to get in, due to our late departure. It was worth it though. The cave was the largest and most spectacular I had ever seen, and different colored lights were put in it to further the mystique. We then visited a floating village where a local boat came up right next to ours and the kids from the village jumped on to our boat to essentially beg for money. It was heartbreaking, but at the same time fascinating. The next day we traveled to Hanoi (3.5 hours overland) which was great. We saw the Hanoi Hilton where John McCain was imprisoned, took an electric cart through the busy market, and saw Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. We couldn't go inside as it is only open in the morning, and we couldn't visit his cottage because of some military exercise that was going on. In the words of our terrific guide Hung, "This is a communist country. They just tell me it is national security and I can't do anything about it". We did get to see the lake where John McCain took a "swim" according to Hung, which was cool. Afterwards we returned to the ship.
Two days later we arrived in our final port, Hong Kong. We took a great tour the first day there (Highlights of the City with Dim Sum Lunch). The next day we disembarked and went to Ocean Park which was incredible, if a little expensive at 280 HKD. They had 4 different pandas which was mind boggling, a great aquarium, and a thrilling cable car ride. We didn't have time for much else there, since my wife wanted to go shopping for fake purses as Christmas gifts, but my sons really enjoyed shooting water cannons at people on the River Rafting ride, a bargain at 10 HKD per session. Next, we were on our way to lunch when we were approached by an Indian trying to sell Fake watches and purses. My wife couldn't resist. He led us into a seedy apartment building, up to the 6th floor. There were bars on all the doors and led us into his apartment where he had an impressive (read: frightening) surveillance system and 3 of his goons guarding the door. We bought a nice purse bargained down from 250 dollars to 180, which I still thought was too much. After a delicious late lunch of Pho at a Vietnamese restaurant, we journeyed on to buy even more crap at the Ladies Market. My two sons went to the Hong Kong Museum of History instead, which they said they thoroughly enjoyed, and only cost 20 HKD total, less than 3 bucks.
The Ship and Cruise Experience
Having previously cruised with Celebrity on the Century in 07, where the service was out of this world, I expected to be treated as a valued guest. Unfortunately, even though I was in a suite, I was treated more as cattle. The service was really no better than Royal Caribbean or Princess. But at least they make up for it with great activities and entertainment. On Celebrity, not only was the service underwhelming, the entertainment and activities were the worst I've ever seen. There was really nothing to do when the ship was not in port that was worthwhile. Just opportunities to give Celebrity more of my hard earned money. No good shows, no fun activities or game shows, not even the Newlywed game! A travesty, in my eyes. The comedian, Joel Osborne, was Fifty Shades of awful. He couldn't handle the crowd and was criminally unfunny. The other shows were similarly poor, except for Mario D'Andrea, a guitarist/vocalist who was great. The trivias, which my son loves, were almost exclusively during the day, when we were in port, and were not even that good when we were there. No real variety in subjects, no entertaining staff. Not even an exciting game show format. Worse yet, the food was not particularly good. The alternative restaurants were absurdly overpriced at 40 a person, though Qsine was an experience. The food outlets were not open frequently or long enough, with the Pool Grill closing at 6, the dinner buffet at 9:30, and Ice Cream at 10. The main dining room wasn't very good. The service wasn't as good as on other cruises and the variety was lacking. There was little for my vegetarian wife. The quality of the food wasn't overly good either. And overall, the staff didn't go out of their way to help you. You had to take the initiative to get them to act if you needed assistance after they made a mistake.
All in all, it was an enjoyable cruise, not because of the ship, the service, activities, or entertainment, but because of the ports. As much as I might complain about the onboard experience, I didn't take this cruise for the ship. I took it to see Southeast Asia. A cruise is a great way to see it, and the overnights really made the trip for me. It would be very difficult and expensive to see all those places on your own, and you would be stuck eating local food all the time which you may not like. I'd rather a bad steak on Celebrity than chicken feet in some random place in Vietnam! I do hope Celebrity learns from this. The service may never get better because they simply do not care enough, but they certainly should improve the tendering, passports, and port operations. Their problems with that were simply ridiculous. In the future, I will look to book Princess or Royal Caribbean, because Celebrity has simply lost its edge. It is no longer a "premium" line. Its service is average at best and the food is somewhere south of that. Celebrity never was good at entertainment or activities, but this cruise was truly awful in those categories. If you are considering taking this cruise, I would urge you to lower your expectations. And I would certainly avoid the Millennium if you are cruising more for the ship than the ports. Unfortunately, no other cruise line is doing a similar route (except for Holland America, yuck) so if you want to cruise Southeast Asia, at this point, you have to stomach the Millennium, to enjoy the rich experiences ashore.