We are experienced travelers and cruisers and we had never taken an escorted vacation before the Viking Emerald Imperials Jewels of China. However China presented challenges that we did not feel qualified to meet, so we signed up with Viking. We found the vacation more than met our expectations and we were satisfied in every way.
We decided to take the Shanghai to Beijing route rather than the reverse because we wanted to begin the trip in Hong Kong (on our own) in order to deal with the jet lag before the main part of the trip and because my husband had been the Hong Kong on business before (albeit a long time ago). We discovered later that there was an additional benefit because this version of the trip allows one to visit the zoo in Chongking and see the pandas where the Beijing-Shanghai does not.
Hotels: This trip includes hotels before and after the Yangtze cruise, in Shanghai and Beijing, and a hotel in X'ian where you see the Terracotta warriors. Our hotels included the Shangri-La Pudong and the Hilton in X'ian and the Regent in Beijing and we thought they were all very luxurious and beautiful and probably far beyond what we would normally be able to book for ourselves. We particularly loved the Shangri-La and would recommend asking Viking for it if possible.
Ship Info: We booked an entry-level cabin at the Category F level. It had a sliding door that opened to a French (i.e., non-existent) balcony. In size it was exactly the same as all the other balconies and we would recommend getting one of these if you can. There are some larger cabins but frankly you are not in them very often and unlike cruises, you are probably not going to either eat or watch television in your cabin. We thought the cabin was well-appointed and comfortable and while not as luxurious as some cabins we have had on ocean cruises, it was much more comfortable than what we expected on a river cruise in China.
We also were very pleasantly surprised with the activities, shops and food aboard the Emerald. They had quite a few lectures on local sites, history (with surprisingly open discussions of current events, including Tiananmen Square), culture (including tea and painting demonstrations) and other interesting information. They also managed to present several little evening shows that featured ethic costumes and the like that we thought were well done particularly given the limited space and the fact that they were using personnel that performed various other functions on the ship. All the staff were courteous and friendly and certainly the folks manning the desk, the bars, and the dinner tables were comfortable using English.
We thought the small number of shops on board were fine and well balanced - there was a shop featuring a tailor who made, with the help of a very hard working staff, silk jackets and other clothes made to your specifications and finished before the end of the cruise, a painter who I really loved - I would have purchased everything in his shop but settled on two items that I framed upon our return (in Michael's-nothing fancy) and they are a wonderful souvenir of our trip, a jewelry store, a store specializing in tea where they demonstrated the tea ceremony frequently. There was also a library where there were tables to play games (there was a Chinese Mahjonng demonstration during the cruise). In short, it is different from an ocean cruise but I was pleased and surprised at the extent and variety of activities especially given our limited time on board and their limited space.
We were also pleasantly surprised by the food. I thought we would be given nothing but Chinese food and that I would get tired of it quickly. Instead I found that the food was mostly Western and mostly well-prepared. At the hotels, there was generally a big breakfast buffet with a big selection of food. On the ship, there was really no assigned seating except for one or two groups that travelled together from Scotland or wherever and it was nice to meet new people frequently. Once we made a few friends with like interests, we tended to see them out and sit with them. But it was all very low key and friendly. Our servers often became familiar with our personal likes, such as ice-tea with lemon, and were very friendly. Most of the food we had off the ship at banquets and other places was uneven - the lunches were generally better than the special dinners which tended to be very touristy. Some of them, like the Mongolian stir fry and buffet in X'ian and one of the lunches in Beijing were very good. The lunch in the airport in X'ian was surprisingly good.
Excursions: We thought all of the excursions were well done and our tour escort Matthew was wonderful (ask Viking for him if you can although we also thought the other tour escort were also good). You are assigned a specific tour escort who is yours from the beginning to the end of the trip. Occasionally, at specific ports/sites, a second guide will also accompany your group and take over delivering the tour for that particular day or site. It was all very well done- they dole out an audiovox guide (about the size of a small tape recorder) that you wear around your neck with headphones like an IPod and these allow your guide to talk to you without raising his/her voice. It also permits you to wander somewhat away from the group, which if you are a photo nut like me, is very welcome. Although groups are only 35 people, it is nice to be able to wonder to nearby display cases without worrying about a crowd getting in the picture.
The tour escorts are responsible for all the logistics. They get you to and from the buses, and in and out of your hotels and to and from the airport. They did a phenomenal job which made the various transfers painless. If you are used to an ocean cruise where you pack once for the duration, it is a little different to have to leave a hotel in Shanghai, a cruise cabin, a hotel in X'ian and a hotel in Beijing. But they collect your bags at night and they deal with delivery and check-in at the airport and delivery to your rooms at the next location. It was amazing to see how smoothly this was accomplished. The only issue came at the port of Chongking, where we disembarked and there was a long causeway followed by a stairway where we were expected to manage our carryon items ourselves (we still had them because we needed to dress, etc. in the morning even though our suitcases had already been collected). There were certainly some passengers who found this transfer a little more difficult than expected and we commented on that to Viking even though it wasn't a big problem for us. They may arrange for some sort of porters in the future to help.
In sum, we would definitely recommend this trip and thought it was a very good value for the price. Certainly there are more expensive tours but we can't imagine what they could have done better.
Lessons learned- a few comments on things I was wondering about before the trip:
Money: we found that most large purchases in most gift shops can be done with a credit card. If you need local Chinese currency, the best place to get it is in the ATMs around your hotel. In fact, we found that most hotels, and the ship, will not change Dollars (or other foreign currency) to local currency. But they will change local currency into the smaller denominations you will need if you want to make some small purchases from the local markets or street vendors that you will meet. If you are getting a transfer through Viking to your hotel, you probably won't need local currency before you get there although you can get some in advance at a bank in a major US city like New York.
Internet: We brought my Kindle Fire and were able to access the internet in our hotels and on the ship. We were surprised that we were able to send and receive messages through our Yahoo account and most news from the outside world was not blocked.
Medical: We brought a regular drug store of stomach medications in case of illness but thankfully we did not need it at any time. They provided bottled water which we used and we drank bottled beverages or beer at meals off the ship. The food on the ship presented no adverse health problems - we ate salad and fresh vegetables without fear and with no after effects.
Luggage: We were concerned about the size of our carryons, which are standard domestic rollerboards but somewhat larger than the 20" that they advised we needed. At no time, in any internal flight, did anyone look or comment on our carryons (or our other luggage). You do have to comply with their requirements on not carrying open liquor bottles - one couple that packed a partial bottle of vodka had their luggage held up by the authorities until they removed it- but otherwise there was never a problem with that.
Peking Opera: We were leery of this additional evening excursion because we knew that Chinese opera can be dissonant and difficult to follow. However they selected several pieces that were beautiful and sometimes very funny- there were translations in English to help you follow and the costumes were so amazing that our pictures here because some of the best of the trip. We would definitely recommend going on this excursion and the Tang Dynasty evening (where the food was mediocre) which also had beautiful costumes and music. How many times are you going to be able to experience this?
Pre/Post Cruise: For what it is worth, we stayed in the Sheraton in HongKong precruise and the Westin Beijing after the cruise for a few days on each end. We had been told that the Viking folks would be booked in the Westin so we anticipated that we could stay on at the same place but they changed it to the Regent at the last minute and we did not want to pay more for the Regent particularly as we had Starwoods points to use for the Westin so we transferred by taxi at the end. I think the extra time in HongKong was good for the reasons mentioned before and the extra time in Beijing (we obtained a local guide) allowed us to see the hutong neighborhoods, the museum and a few temples we did not see with the Viking tour and eat in local restaurants with our guide. But if you don't have time to do that, you will not have missed anything significant. We wished there was a second day in X'ian, as the ancient capital of China there is a lot to see there beyond the Terracotta Warriors, and we have so advised Viking.