Having cruised on Azamara Journey three times before the ship was not unfamiliar but three weeks prior to our departure from Singapore she had undergone a "facelift" with refurbishment of some of the public areas and the Windows Cafe and the exterior repainted in very dark navy blue (some thought it was black)- A bit like Marmite (Vegemite)- some loved it some were horrified! However the new policy of wine included at lunch and dinner, all soft drinks and coffee included together with tips meant that the end of cruise bar bill a pleasant surprise.
Azamara's policy of booking and paying for shore excursions not less than a week before departure with a discount of 50% meant very good value for money. This policy is being discontinued in May but replaced by complimentary spirits beer etc. OK for drinkers but as my wife does not drink we would prefer the current system and discounted shore excursions.
Being a relatively small ship (650 passengers)makes for a country house feel and most of the passengers on this cruise were seasoned travellers looking for something different from past venues and few were disappointed.
Check-in at the cruise terminal in Singapore was very well organised and although embarkation did not start until 12.30 there was ample space to sit and wait with complimentary coffee soft drinks and snacks available.
We were met at the gangway by Chow our guide who escorted us to the most luxurious mini-bus driven by Peter and they could not be faulted. Chilled water, cold towels after each visit etc. Visited a market that straddles a railway line and when trains approach the stallholders move back their wares, fold back their sun blinds and the train passes through - this is repeated several times a day. Then on to a floating market and ride through the Klongs on a long tail boat. In the afternoon visited the Royal Palace
An early start as a long journey but worth every moment. We were taken to the Hellfire Pass where Prisoners of the Japanese blasted a cutting through rocks and transported everything by hand to construct the Rangoon-Bangkok Railway. Reliving the harrowing experience of those men was humbling when one realised the cruelty to which they were subjected. The excursion then continued to River Kwai but stopping at a Thai Restaurant on the river bank included within the price was most enjoyable. After lunch a visit to the Bridge, walk over it and then a long tail boat ride down the river and a visit to a tented museum preceded a drive back to the ship The cost for two days for two people including lunch etc was US$400 - fantastic value for money. When we returned to the ship we asked the Manager of the Shore excursions office why they did not do this trip and his reply was "What is the River Kwai and why would you want to go there"!!! We were staggered that he had no idea about it
This tour started in a somewhat boring Museum where the "brainwashed guides" wanted to impress upon you how the Country developed. We were not impressed and felt we would have a disappointing day - how wrong we were! We left Da Nang and travelled through the countryside to Hoi An an absolutely fascinating place with canals and historic buildings dating back centuries. The market stalls packed, not only with the usual local produce but some with "fake designer goods" of all descriptions. Lunch at a local restaurant on the return journey was excellent.
Hanoi is a three and a half hour journey from the ship docked in Halong Bay but most people visiting Vietnam would regard Hanoi as a "must see" The journey is broken up by a stop half way at a huge shopping warehouse selling everything from silk to marble statues. The problem was that the coach was there for 45 minutes on the way to Hanoi and 30 minutes on the way back. Comfort breaks were necessary and toilets very clean but these have to be paid for and the souvenir shops provide for this. Hanoi is interesting and to see how Ho Chi Minh lived was enlightening. The City is very clean and lunch in a local restaurant very good. Criticism was that there was not enough time to explore the shops but we were told by our guide that it was because he needed "keep us together" as we could easilly get lost. This was not really true and some of us felt that they wanted us only to see what they were allowed to show us. There is a much stronger feeling of a communist country in Hanoi than Saigon
The ship arrived at mid-day but the trip from the river mouth to the dock fascinating with all the tall rock formations and the ship picking its way (with the aid of the pilot) to the dock an experience. The half day tour on boats through the various rock formations incredible and half way through the tour a stop to visit the most spectacular caves with stalagmite and stalactites amazing but quite strenuous with lots of steps.
Although we were overnight in Saigon the ship did not dock until lunchtime and therefore limited time on the first day but a visit around the city with various stops was very enlightening once one got used to the traffic.
On the second day we visited the Mekong with a long coach journey but well worth the effort. A cruise on the Delta, a visit to a factory making honey and processing coconut by products preceded a ride by pony and trap through the villages and ended with ride in a punt back to the quay where our boat was waiting. This was followed by a delightful lunch in a local restaurant.
We left the ship in Hong Kong to travel home but as our flight was not until the evening we were able to take a City tour and airport drop-off. This was well worth while and excellent value. It started off at Victoria Peak ascending by tram and after a photo stop and short exploration went on to Stanley Market for some shopping but it is no longer the "bargain hunter's dream" of a few years ago. The tour then continued to Aberdeen Village and a ride around the Harbour in a sampan.
Those taking this tour left their luggage with a the porters at the dockside and were transported separately to the airport where the staff were waiting to make sure we all collected our cases. It was very well organised