Some background on us and our cruising style. For those of you who don't know us, we are a mid-fifties couple who love to travel. We have done land vacations and cruises and we have found that we love cruising more. If you don't cruise let me tell you the biggest reason why. You only unpack once. That's it. You get to your hotel and you unpack for two weeks and every night (or on this cruise every other night) your hotel moves to a new location. In the case of this cruise that location was usually in the heart of a city that was incredible and someplace we never thought we would go. 10 of our 13 previous cruises have been on Celebrity Cruise Lines. We hold what they call Elite status in Celebrity's Captain's Club (like a frequent flyer club) which gets us some nice perks. We have been big fans of Celebrity since we first sailed her in 2004. But our last major trip had been a cruise on Celebrity's new Solstice class ship and we found her too big for our tastes. A beautiful ship, just too big for us. Besides we were ready for something new but we didn't want to stray too far. About three years ago, Celebrity (which is a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean) spun off their own subsidiary, Azamara. We decided to give them a try. The biggest differences between Celebrity (X) and Azamara were size (only two ships and both carry less than 700 passengers) and style. Celebrity is a more traditional cruise line with assigned seating times and tables at dinners and formal nights as well as nine ships (the smallest carrying 1750 passengers). With Celebrity (and its parent company RCL) it is becoming more of a situation where the ship is the destination. This isn't the case with Azamara. And that's what we were looking for.
Azamara's small ships enable it to sail into ports that larger ships can't. Azamara doesn't have formal nights, assigned dinner seating and assigned dinner times. Suffice it to say, it's a more relaxed cruise line where the destinations are the ports. That sounded perfect for us. So when Celebrity cancelled a cruise we had booked to Australia and New Zealand that would have sailed at the same time as this Asian cruise on Azamara we decided to switch. And we are glad we did.
Pre-embarkation note to those sailing out of Singapore: we took a cab to the cruise terminal from our Singapore hotel. The cab ride was great and cheap but be sure when you are dropped off that the cab driver knows to leave you at the right place. We were dropped off a the entrance to the mall that the cruise terminal is part of. This meant we had to drag our luggage through a busy mall and down an escalator to the ship. In fact we got to where we could check in before we found where we could check our luggage. If Mike's taxi driver hadn't taken him to the right spot (you want the luggage load/unload area--not the mall entrance) we never would have found it. Mike helped me take ours down and we went back upstairs to check in. Also, make sure that you have your Singapore entry sheet with your passport. You will need both to leave. I had lost mine in the hotel because I was not told what it was when we went through passport check in Singapore. The woman who checked us through just stuck a piece of paper in my passport and that was it. No mention that we might need it to leave Singapore.
Itinerary Of course, I have done major write-ups on all the ports but I wanted to make some general statements about the itinerary for those considering or already booked on this cruise. It included boarding the ship in Singapore on a Saturday and then we did not sail until Sunday morning, a sea day, an overnight in Bangkok, a sea day, an overnight in Ho Chi Minh City, a sea day, a single day in Danang/Hoi Ann/Hue, half a day at sea and arrival at Halong Bay in the afternoon, a full day in Hanoi, a sea day and finally an overnight in Hong Kong before disembarkation. Now for me, that is a PERFECT cruise. A PERFECT itinerary. Every really long day touring was followed by either a sea day or a half day at sea before reaching the next port. Every major port had an overnight so you could experience the nightlife if you so desired. Many people we knew did overnight excursions, either to see the famous tigers in Bangkok or to spend the night in Hanoi (a three-hour drive away). Either way, it was perfect. If I were allowed to change anything, I would have done more time in Danang/Hoi Ann. It was many people's favorite port and we could have spent more time there. If you are going to cut anything, I would cut the second day in Hanoi. That three hour drive is just too far. If we had to do it again, I doubt we would. The only part of that day that was irreplaceable was the cyclo ride and we could have done that in Ho Chi Minh City.
Embarkation First impressions are important and when we arrived at the port in Singapore to board Quest we didn't get a good one. This wasn't Azamara's fault but rather the result of them believing that an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure. It seems that on the previous cruise there had been an outbreak of the dreaded norovirus. Now I want to stop right here and say that the "dreaded norovirus" is really nothing more than a 24-hour stomach flu that we have all had at one time or another. Norovirus is just the big name that the news media uses to freak everyone out. When you get the flu in a closed environment, like a cruise ship, it tends to spread. And the media loves that. When I say there had been an "outbreak" on the Quest that meant that on the previous cruise 17 people had come down with flu-like symptoms. 10 passengers and seven crew members. Now with that small number of cases, many ships would have just quarantined those people and washed down the public areas and moved on. But most ships don't have a captain like Carl Smith. He and his staff made the decision that no one on our cruise was going to get sick because of something that he and his crew could prevent so they made the decision that the "Noro stops here!" and proceeded to clean the Quest with bleach and disinfectant from proverbial stem to stern. Every cabin, every public area, every piece of furniture was cleaned. And every crew member helped. Scrubbing was done not only by the housekeeping staff but also by the entertainers, the seamen, the security staff and even the officers. This meant that we were delayed in getting on the ship by about three and a half hours (we normally board around 11:00 am and we were not allowed onboard Quest until around 2:30) and then once aboard we were not allowed into our staterooms until much later than normal. They opened staterooms by deck and some decks did not get into their staterooms until after dinner that evening. But I can tell you now that the cleaning worked. On our cruise, not one single case of noro. Not one. And speaking of the Captain (and I will be doing that a bunch in this review) he did something amazing while we were waiting to board. We were sitting in the waiting area of the port and there were a few port personnel keeping things calmed down when this young man came up to us. He was in uniform and his name tag listed his position on the ship as "Master." I thought to myself when he came up to us that he was a master seaman. He proceeded to answer all our questions and sit and talk with just about everyone about the situation on board and what was going on, how long we would be held up and when we would be able to board. He was one of the best people I had ever met from any cruise line. Of course I later found out (at our Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle two days later) that this "master seaman" was actually the Master of the ship, our Captain, Carl Smith. I was dumbfounded that A) the Captain would be the one coming out to explain things to a band of passengers who were not real happy at this point and B) this Captain was so young and C) that this Captain answered every one of our questions with total frankness. What an incredibly refreshing change from past delays we have had in cruising where we were kept totally in the dark and were never told what was going on. It was just the first of many times that this man impressed me. Moving on with embarkation, we were allowed to board at 2:30 so we grabbed our carry-ons and went aboard. The first place we parked ourselves was the Discoveries Lounge. The crew had a couple of people checking carry-ons but I am sorry, I don't hand over this MacBook Pro and my Nikon that easily and the same was true for the rest of our party. So we parked our carry-ons next to a group of seats and most of our group went up to the buffet for lunch while I stayed behind and watched them. I should add that I was not being a "nice guy" but rather still had my sinus infection and was really not that hungry. After waiting in Discoveries for almost two hours they finally started releasing cabins from the top down. First up was deck 8 (not us) and about an hour later, deck 7 (YEAH!!! THAT WAS US!). We got to our cabin to find our luggage already waiting for us, got unpacked and then off to dinner as we had to leave for the Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo immediately after.
The Ship As I said before we were looking for a smaller ship and we found one. The Quest is one of the original ships built by a now defunct line called Renaissance. They were built in the mid 90s but that doesn't mean they are out of date or old looking. We found the ship to be remarkably clean and well taken care of. There were no obvious signs of age. Some passengers who had sailed in one of these ex-Renaissance ships before remarked that they were, "all the same and need updating" but we didn't think so. We liked her like she was. One of the things we learned to love most about Quest was that you could get anywhere on the ship in no time at all. On Solstice last year, if you forgot something in your cabin and you were in the buffet or the dining room or the Martini Bar you had quite a trip to go and get it. On Quest, no trip ever took me longer than a very few minutes. So you could run down to your room if you forgot something. The officers had funny line that went something to the effect that, "If you walk more than 100 yards in any direction, you are going to get wet." Another thing I try and do on cruises to counteract the food intake is to never use an elevator. On the big ships, that tends to be a goal I achieve about 60% of the time. Just too many decks to climb to. On Quest I can say I used an elevator ONCE! And that was when I was following John Howell, the Cruise Director, to the bridge (more about that later). Since the Quest only uses decks three through 10 for guests and really most only go to 5, 9 and 10 for public areas it was easy to just run up and down the stairs. And the staircases reminded me of a quaint European hotel. I really liked them. (I know, I'm weird for liking staircases.) My buddies on this cruise did not join me in my love for stairs and took the elevators most times. If we were all going up together I loved getting to each floor ahead of their elevator and pushing the call button so they had to stop at every floor. (Yes, I am that juvenile but it served them right for using the elevator.) I will admit that there were a few times I found Quest crowded but that was mostly in the buffet if we decided to eat at the same time as everyone else. We loved all her public areas. We did have a hard time at first finding a place for the eight of us to gather for a pre-dinner drink but we eventually settled on the aforementioned Discoveries Lounge due to its close proximity to the main dining room. We tried the Looking Glass on Deck 10 but found that there was pre-dinner entertainment which didn't work for us as we were after a place where we could have a conversation without having to shout. On Celebrity our usual hangout is in the Martini Bar but the so-called "Martini Bar" on Quest is part of the casino and besides putting up with the sound of the slot machines, it had a big screen television that always seemed to be showing loud sports. I have nothing against loud sports, it's just not what we were after before dinner. Our Cabin. We had cabin 7074 on the port side of the ship. If I had to do it again, I would book the same cabin but on the opposite side of the ship. Two reasons; first, we were just about directly opposite the laundry room which Kathleen said she didn't mind so much but I thought it was a bit too crowded outside our door on many occasions. The second reason is that I would want to be on the starboard side in Hong Kong so you wake up looking at the city and not at the pier. Other than that, it was a 1A cabin, the same size as the Celebrity C class ships. The bathroom was small but that's what you get on a ship. Especially a ship this size. You can't take a shower without having the shower curtain glued to your backside. The cabin die great for us. We were pleased and would have no problem booking the same class again.
Other areas of the ship I want to comment on in this review: The gym. Located on deck nine, forward, I used this every morning we didn't wake up in a port (about 9 days). It got a little crowded on the first few days of the cruise but by the last sea day there were very few folks working out. I would say the max capacity on cardio machines is about 15 and they were full at the start of the cruise and had less than five being used by the end of it. They have a small free-weight area that I used and about 10 weight machines. Not the gym on the Solstice, but plenty of equipment for me to get a good workout. They gym is connected to the spa but neither of us used the spa so I can't make any judgments there. There is also a therapy type pool connected to the spa but it is an extra charge and we didn't partake on this cruise. Speaking of pools, we are not really pool people but we never saw it really crowded, even on sea days. The library or The Drawing Room. We heard this referred to as being known as the "most beautiful room on the high seas" on all the former Renaissance ships and it certainly lives up to that name. It is a wonderful and quiet place to read or do anything in peace. Don't talk or you will get shushed. You will find it on deck ten right next to the Aqualina and Prime C restaurants. There are a lot of books as well and it is totally on the honor system but with the kind of folks on the Quest, that worked out just fine. I know that Kathleen read at least two books from this library while we were on board. Other than those two and anything I mentioned above, the rest of the public areas were very nice. If I could change anything about Quest it would be to add some room to the buffet. But I should add that the buffet was more crowded that it might be on another cruise to another, cooler destination. There is an outdoor seating area that was underused due to the fact that the temps outside in Asia in most places were generally in the 80s or 90s with 90% plus humidity. In the Mediterranean we have eaten many meals outside the buffet on Celebrity ships but on this cruise, we didn't eat one.
The Food There has been quite the discussion on the Cruise Critic boards about Azamara's food. It amazes me the differences in opinions about the food. Some think it is terrible with little selection while others find it excellent on all counts. It is one place where the difference in your tastes in food in general make all the difference in the world. For me, the food on Quest was the best food I have ever had on a cruise ship, period. Not everything was great but the majority of what I ate was superb. And more than that, it was interesting. You see to be able to make my review of the food work for you, you need to understand my feelings on food in general. I like to eat interesting food. My favorite foods include octopus, squid, duck, lamb, pastas, sauces, Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Italian and Greek. I like things that most folks don't. I like spicy food. And in the past, one of my biggest complaints about food on our cruises has been the lack of spice. No heat. No "interesting food." Well not on Quest! The food on cruise ships can be broken up into four areas, the main dining room (open for all three meals), specialty restaurants (open for dinner only) the buffet/grille and room service. We don't often do room service (we did do a breakfast via room service on this cruise as we didn't know if the buffet would be open early enough for us to eat before we left for an early shore tour) very often so I will not be commenting on that other than to say our one breakfast arrived on-time, and hot. It was breakfast. That's about it.
Main Dining Room On most of our cruises we ate dinner in the main dining room every night but because this cruise was so port intense, because the offerings on the buffet on certain nights were really interesting and because we fell in love with the food in Aqualina (one of the speciality restaurants) we only ate dinner in the dining room seven nights where on a regular 14 night cruise it would been 12 or all 14 nights. Of all the three venues for food (buffet, MDR and specialty restaurants) the main dining room was the least interesting and the service there was hit or miss (see my notes about service below) so it was easy for us to make other choices. That said, I had some of the best prime rib I have ever had one night, some excellent caesar salads (Azamara does better salads than X but not better soups), three or four superb pasta entrees and some great appetizers as well. We also got escargot and as much shrimp as we could eat. If I had to rate the food in the dining room on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 at the top, I would give it a solid 7. I should add that you can also eat breakfast or lunch in the MDR but we only ate lunch there once and had a special sea-day brunch there on another day. I think this is because once we found out how great the buffet was, we never went back.
Speciality Restaurants Now a few words about the speciality restaurants. There are two on Quest (Aqualina and Prime C) and during our sailing you paid an extra $5 service charge to eat in them. Every cabin was guaranteed two reservations and every suite, three. If you are a Captain's Club member, you can call in advance and make one of your reservations which I did for six of us. I was told by the folk on the phone that there were no tables for eight (there were eight in our group) but we learned when we got on board that there are a number of tables in Prime C that will hold eight or more and there are at least two in Aqualina that will, so if you are making reservations for a party that big and they will only let you reserve for six on the phone, go directly to the restaurants when you board and change it to eight. We had read on Cruise Critic that most people preferred Prime C so we made our phone-in reservation there for our first day at sea. Prime C is basically a steak house. When we are at home we NEVER go to steakhouses. My feeling is that if I want steak (or pretty much any other meat, I can make it better at home on my grille. Prime C proved me right again. Steaks, chops, a fish entree and that was about it. I was unimpressed. And unimpressed with service there as well. It was a very forgettable dinner and we pretty much decided we would not be going back there. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful room with great atmosphere but the food wasn't "interesting." We also made a reservation for our next day at sea at Aqualina which describes itself as "Mediterranean cuisine." That must be interesting to me because we loved it and immediately booked two more nights. We would have gone more if they could have squeezed us in. The food was outstanding, the service wonderful and the entire experience grand. I had baked brie, a seafood appetizer platter that was to die for, three outstanding entrees as well as Grand Marnier souffle for dessert. All for a $5 service charge. Dining doesn't get any better than that.
The Buffet Or maybe it does. I can't believe that after that description of Aqualina that I am about to type that the best meal I had on board was at the buffet. In fact, I can state unequivocally that the best meal I have ever had on a ship was in Quest's buffet and I have had some pretty great meals on ships. Was it the best service? No, that would be in the United States Dining Room on Infinity. The best experience? No, that would be in the same place. But it was the best food, ever. That meal took place on our first night in Bangkok. We came back late after getting stuck in traffic and missing eating in Thailand to find that our chef had scheduled a Thai buffet. There was some discussion about skipping it and going to the dining room but thankfully that was overruled and we headed up to the buffet. Thank God we did. I was in heaven. From the spicy Thai steak salad to the soft shell crabs done Thai it was all good. I especially loved the calamari done in curry. And there was so much more. And you could go back as many times as you liked. Yikes. I am getting hungry just thinking about it. But I won't be able to top it here locally (well maybe by eating Vietnamese food at Long in Seattle). Just suffice it to say it was great. And great was a word that would describe most of the other meals we had at the buffet. They did a spicy Indian night which was outstanding as well as an outdoor BBQ and a British Pub buffet (we missed that one to go to Aqualina). Pretty much every dish I had at the buffet was excellent and "interesting." We have read some Cruise Critic comments that the buffet did not have enough "choices" or "variety." But again that is a matter of what kind of food you like to eat. For instance, at lunch every day you had your choice of the following: at least four speciality salads, a green salad bar, a sandwich bar (made to order), cheeses, three kinds of pizza, at least four and often six entrees (interesting food) and a carving station with turkey, ham, roast beef, etc. If that wasn't enough you could go just outside the buffet to the grille where they would make you a made-to-order hot dog, sausage of the day, hamburger, veggie stir fry, lamb and at least two other grille specials of the day. And after all of this there was dessert. Cakes, cookies, soft-serve ice cream and at least 12 flavors of scooped ice cream (including coffee ice cream most days for Barbara), often more. If that's not enough variety for you for lunch then I want to come to your house or local restaurant and see what you get there because it must be amazing. And at dinner they had all that on the regular buffet but added a complete sushi bar as well. The buffet was also our usual place for breakfast and they had all the usual stuff but they also had one person I had never encountered before, "Chef Perfect Omelet." I wish I could remember his name but he made me 13 omelets and everyone was perfect. I mean perfect on the outside and on the inside. They rocked. And I am sure if my doctor knew I was taking in that much cholesterol he would shoot me, but these were just too good to pass up. All the other usual breakfast stuff was very good. Kathleen had her muesli, there was fruit and yes Texed, there were really good waffles. But I fell in love with the omelets on the second day and never went back. It was one of those and a brand muffin or sticky bun for me and that was breakfast. And Kathleen just reminded me that they had fresh squeezed OJ every morning as well. If you would like to see photos of the menus and more food photos, click here to go to Mike & Carol's incredible website.
The Activities & Entertainment For us, this cruise was all about the ports and cruising with friends (both new and old) so we weren't too interested in the entertainers or activities but I do want to mention a few things. Port & Destination Talks There was an excellent presenter on board, John Fleming who lectured on each port two or three days prior to our arrival. (His name is a link to his blog where I swiped his pic.) Unlike the shore excursion lectures, his talks were more about what we would see, the people and history of the area than about what shore excursion to take or what jewelry store to shop in. I can't tell you how much we appreciated John's talks. In fact we liked them so much that when the Activities Department forgot to schedule his Hong Kong talk we held a mini-uprising to get it reinstated.
After Dinner Entertainment To be honest after any day in port we pretty much just wanted to eat, shower and collapse (not always in that order) but on sea days we sometimes watched a show. Mike went to most of the headliners but we only caught one, a magician. As magicians go, I am sure he was just fine but I wasn't overly impressed. We did take in the pianist, Jim Badger in the Looking Glass on a couple of nights. He wasn't the best pianist or vocalist ever but he was a lot of fun and that's what we were looking for. One last thing that I find almost too much to forgive and was definitely the low point of the cruise. On our first night at sea, the featured entertainer was a (are you ready for this?) MIME! A mime! OMG. Good thing I didn't go see him. My son and I have a deal. We assassinate all mimes. Just kidding but seriously folks, a mime?
Daytime Activities Other than the aforementioned Port and Destination talks, there was all the usual cruise ship stuff on sea days. Lots of trivia, classes, cooking demos, wine tastings, coffee tastings and more. There were computer classes and ping pong tournaments and all kinds of other fun things to do. We did some and skipped some and had a great time just talking with friends we had come with and those new ones that we made. We were never bored. Just relaxed. One other thing about the daily entertainment and activities. I was just reviewing the Azamara Pursuits (the daily newsletter) and it really needs improvement. Because of the way they print it, some of it is unreadable. To many places with dark blue writing on a dark blue background. I am a graphic design professional so this really bugs me because you can do great design no matter what you use to output your final product, this just needs improvement.
Cruise Critic Meet and Mingle One thing I am always asked about on the Cruise Critic message boards is how, when and where was the Meet and Mingle. The CC M & M is a reception hosted by the ship for those of us on Cruise Critic. We had a very strong group on this cruise and we had all met before either on the web or the night before the cruise when many of us met at Raffles in Singapore. The ship provided us with a great reception at 11:30 am on the first sea day in the Looking Glass Lounge hosted by Cruise Director John Howell and attended by just about every senior officer including Captain Smith who talked at length about the cruise. The ship served us mimosa, champagne and pastries as well as coffee and tea. It was a really nice reception and you can see pictures from it on our website at www.jkbellomo.com.
Service Service is a huge deal to us cruise fans. We know people who sail with one cruise line or another based solely on the quality of the service. Believe me, it is important. And I thought that even though it was a different service that we were used to on Celebrity, it was still pretty good service. Our cabin attendant (Melvin) was pretty much invisible. For us, that's a good thing. We love coming and going to a clean cabin. While I am on that subject, Azamara has a wonderful card that fits in a holder just inside the cabin door. One side says "Do Not Disturb" and the other says, "Please Make Up Our Room." When you went out, you left it one way or the other or not at all in the holder on the outside of the door. What a great idea. It meant that we pretty much never came back from breakfast and found our cabin being cleaned and it meant that not once on the cruise did our "butler" ever knock on our door unless we had called and asked him to bring us something. Every request we made was handled quickly and efficiently and he was outstanding and as I said, we never saw him. Well a couple of times in the hallway but not that often. The other major part of service on a ship is food service. The Azamara section of the Cruise Critic boards is full of threads about the service on the two ships, especially in the dining room. We found it uneven. Some nights we got great service, others nights, not so much. But I have a theory about the service in the dining room and here it is. First, Azamara has "anytime dining." That means you can just show up whenever you want and they seat you. We are early eaters. We usually go to the MDR around 6:00 or at the latest 6:30. I can give you a bunch of reasons we eat at that time but just take my word for it, they are valid and that is when we eat. Most nights the dining room was pretty empty when we were first seated and we got great service to start our meal; but, as the majority of passengers started coming to dinner at 7:00, 7:30 and 8:00, service went down hill fast. Getting our appetizers was easy, getting dessert not so great. Good thing we didn't have to wait for the check or we would still be there. I should add that we (or anyone else we heard of) were never delayed or turned away because the dining room was full. Another service factor in the MDR is that I believe there are just too few waiters to accommodate the number of people and tables. Given, if they improved their system, they could do better with what they have but there are still too few to handle the big dinner rush. Some of have put forth the idea that since tips are now automatic, the waiters have no reason to provide good service, but I do not believe that to be the case. I watched our waiter Ramses (who we requested on many nights) struggle to deal with his workload even though he was an excellent server. The problem is, they really can't hire anymore waiters as there is just no place for them to sleep on a ship this size. All that said, I would trade the relaxed atmosphere of the anytime dining (especially on a cruise that is as port-intensive as many of Azamara's are) for a little slower service. I think that those who complain about it just need to relax and enjoy the time spent in the dining room. We were usually having so much fun at our table that we didn't notice that things were taking a little longer than normal. Except one night where it was 55 minutes from ordering to appetizer but we had only ourselves to blame as we had asked for escargot and it was not on the menu but the maitre' d said we would have it and we did. I might add that special orders (we had one person in our party who always seemed to have a "special order") usually slowed things down as well.
The Crew I have never added a section on "the crew" before but a cruise on Quest is just as much about the crew as it is about all the other things that make up a cruise. On Quest the crew is like family. And they did their best to make you feel like part of that family. First, they were younger than just about any crew we have ever sailed with. I mean the Captain is only a few years older than my son. And there weren't a lot of crew members older than he was. And that's a good place to start. I had mentioned earlier about Captain Smith coming out to the boarding area while we were waiting. I was amazed once I found out it was him. But then I wasn't surprised anymore at his actions that day once we got to be around him. This was our 13th cruise. From all of those I can name one other captain. From none of those can I say I ever had a conversation with any of the other captains. With Captain Smith, I can tell you I left feeling like I had made a friend. And I wasn't the only one who felt that way (although I did get some extra time on the bridge). He was everywhere. His announcements were looked forward to by the entire ship. He attended numerous functions including our Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle and it was obvious he loved doing it. We would see him in the buffet eating with different passengers each day and he encouraged his other senior officers to do this as well. We got to know Hotel Director Anton, Food and Beverage Manager Ken, Staff Captain (second in command) Jason and other crew members very well. When we saw them around the ship, they often stopped to talk. I can remember being with Mike taking pictures on the upper deck as we sailed into Bangkok and having Anton giving just the two of us a running narration of what we were seeing. He was just out there on the deck, watching us come in. For those of you who don't cruise, this may not seem like a big thing but for those of us who are big-ship cruisers, this is AMAZING! The activity staff was wonderful as well. We had heard before sailing about Sue the Cruise Director, but alas when we went on board she had gone home for vacation to be replaced by an old friend. We had sailed with John Howell on Infinity before when he was covering for another CD on vacation, even though he didn't remember us from that experience, I can guarantee he will remember us from this one. We got to know him very well, and in fact became a kind of a thorn in his side (in a good way). He and his staff did a superb job on this cruise. All of them went out of their way to get to know the passengers and to be responsive to their needs. Example: on the night before, the last sea day when our Daily Bulletin arrived at our stateroom we were shocked to see that they had not scheduled a port/destination talk by the aforementioned John Fleming on Hong Kong. Now we relied on his talks and wanted the chance to ask John questions as well as to comment on our visit the day before to Hanoi. I immediately called and left John Howell a message about how disappointed we (and I am sure others) were that there was no port talk scheduled. The next morning I ran into John Howell and he told me it was a total scheduling snafu by this staff and that he would fix it immediately, which he did. Sure enough, at 4:00 that afternoon we gathered in the Looking Glass to hear John Fleming talk about Hong Kong. Now that's what I call being responsive. And that's what I meant about being a thorn in John Howell's side. Our visit to the bridge--I blow the ship's horn I am not sure if this has been done before but on the film I have of it, Captain Smith says it is the first time it has been done. Him saying that is right at the end of the movie so I have to believe him. And since I very rarely win anything, this is just icing on the cake for me. At the disembarkation talk that John Howell gave they held a raffle. We almost didn't go but wanted to be there for the crew send off. There was only one prize in the raffle. The winner got to join the Captain and the Cruise Director on the bridge, make part of the noon announcements and then blow the ship's horn. Much to the chagrin of John Howell, guess which thorn in his side won? That would be me. So at noon that day, Kathleen and I met John in reception, took the elevator to the bridge and I got to make part of the noon announcements and then go out onto the bridge wing (in the open air, nine decks above the water) and blow the ships's horn. I know, big deal right? Well for me it was. It was beyond cool. I want a horn like that in my car. I told Captain Carl that it was the first time I had ever heard the ship's horn when it didn't make me jump. What power! I loved it. Can you tell?
What could be improved? Kathleen and I were trying to think of something that we would improve on this cruise. Besides the uneven service in the dining room only one thing comes to mind and there is absolutely nothing that Azamara or anyone else for that matter can do about it---the heat. That part of the world is just darned hot. No, damned hot. And it made for some exhausted people. I would love to have seen all those places without the humidity but that will never be. I kept joking to Kathleen that the one room I hated on Quest was the sauna. The one I found every time I opened a door that went outside.
Crazy Sights, Sounds and Unbelievable Traffic? Day 1 in Ho Chi Minh City Two days after leaving Bangkok (after a restful day at sea) we arrived around midday in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). It is our first stop of three in Vietnam. It is also the first of our tours with tour guides who work for Ha Long, who runs one of Vietnam's biggest tour companies. The sail into Ho Chi Minh City is what Captain Smith calls the "Saigon Slalom" as he has to sail up the Mekong River through parts of the Mekong Delta and the river is a total zig zag. To do this, he pulls in the stabilizers and leans the ship from side to side as he heads up river at quite a bit of speed. It is a truly interesting trip prior to his docking the ship at the cruise terminal which is about 20 minutes drive from downtown Ho Chi Minh City. After docking we were met by our guide Nghia. It is pronounced here Near. Nghia was an excellent guide, he just had the misfortune of following the illustrious Tong who toured us around Bangkok. Nghia first took us to the Ho Chi Minh City post office, one of the most historical buildings in this fairly new city (when compared to other places we were visiting on this trip) as well as to see the Catholic cathedral of Notre Dame which is modeled after the original Notre Dame in Paris as well as being built entirely from bricks brought from France. It is a beautiful church and we wish we had been able to see the inside but it is only open two hours a day from ten to eleven in the morning and three to four in the afternoon. After a quick stop at the post office and cathedral we were off to the Reunification Palace (right) which was the seat of the South Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War. It is a four story building with a lot of history from the war and not much else. To be honest if we went again and I had read what I am about to write, I would skip it. Skip it. It's four stories up and one underground of a modern building with some relics from the 1960s. Not even good Vietnam war history. Speaking of that war, the war we call the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese refer to as the War with the United States. Once you have seen the pictures I bet you will agree that this looks like a hotel with nice meeting rooms, a few historical pictures and a helicopter on a roof. After our palace trip it was off to the Jade Pagoda (left). Again we were disappointed. After seeing the pagodas in Bangkok, this one was just sad. It was dirty, run down and because of both fish and turtles that were placed in ponds as offerings as well as a huge amount of incense, it truly was vile smelling. We took some pictures and jumped back in the van for a quick trip to the Ben Thanh market. It is one large building ringed by a section where everything is a fixed price. Inside of that there is a huge open room where you can bargain for anything they are selling. Only problem was, there was very little anyone wanted to buy. We had originally told Nghia that we wanted to spend 30-40 minutes there but once we got there we actually felt like spending about 20 minutes there if that. My recommendation again is, skip it. Bangkok markets two days ago and Hoi An markets two days later were MUCH better. After our market experience, it was back to the ship for dinner, a good nights sleep and another day in the port of Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow.
Day 2 in Ho Chi Minh City-The Mekong Delta Up at 6:00 the next morning and off to the Mekong Delta. The Mekong is the delta area of the Mekong River and Mike had booked us a day full of fun. First up was a ride to My Tho City where we jumped in a small boat (right) and headed off to visit two small islands where we would partake in some very differing activities. First up was a visit to Thoi San Island where we were to have a lunch of local fruit during which we would hear a selection of Vietnamese folk songs and opera from a small, local ensemble. The trip there was almost the most eventful part of the day. To get on the island our boat approached a dock that looked like it was long since abandoned. It was falling apart and the bottom step was tilted at quite an angle. As we approached it we joked that it was the dock we would be getting off the boat onto. Lo and behold to our amazement, it was. We immediately told Nghia that for the ladies on board, this was unacceptable. Both Kathleen and Carol have bad knees and hips and it would have been impossible for them got get off on that dock. The only problem was that in pulling up to that dock the boatman had run aground and could not back off the mud he was stuck in. After trying for about 20 minutes by throwing his anchor far out behind him and trying to drag the boat backwards we had not moved an inch. We were afraid we were going to have to wait for high tide which was three hours away. Finally us guys decided we could make it up on that dock and then perhaps with that much weight out of the boat, the boatman would be able to back off the dock. We got off (a very scary proposition) and he was able to do back the boat off, sail it around the island and get the ladies off at dock that was slightly less tilted. Once we were all on shore, we walked a little ways to a nicely covered area where fresh fruit was set out and the music was played. It was a very nice break, especially after thinking we were going to be on that little boat until high tide. After our musical/fruit experience we were back on the boat and headed to Phung Island where we first saw a coconut candy making operation (somewhat interesting). After the candy operation, we boarded carts pulled by ponies (three of us to a cart) which took us about a mile to where we met up with some even smaller boats (four of us per boat-at right) which were rowed/poled by women for about half a mile on a muddy, shallow, fetid canal. It was mildly interesting and a somewhat trepidatious ride as the boats tipped from side to side with every movement of the rower/poller. We finally got to the end of this boat ride, just to board our original boat and head back to the mainland. Now this may have sounded like I did not enjoy this entire adventures but that would be far from the truth as it was an enjoyable day, much better than the day before. And the best was yet to come. After we returned to the mainland, Nghia said we had one more stop at the Vinh Trang, the most ancient pagoda in the delta. After the pagoda we had seen yesterday we almost told him to skip it and take us back to the ship but we were very glad we hadn't when we saw the two amazing Buddhas at this pagoda. (Below) The skies were beautiful and it made for some astounding photos. I would really have hated to miss this and I highly recommend seeing it. After the pagoda it was back in the van, back to the ship and off down the Mekong River doing the Saigon Slalom in reverse with Captain Carl. I just realized that I mentioned crazy and incredible traffic in my headline but didn't mention it in my text. All of Vietnam had the most incredible traffic. Most of it was due to two things. First there we were told that there are 12 million people in Vietnam and 8 million motor cycles/scooters. We believe it. Second, Vietnamese drivers don't believe in stopping. I can tell you we drove from Halong Bay to Hanoi through 20 or 30 villages and only came to a complete stop three times. Even in the cities, there is very little stopping. People merge, slow, swerve and more but never stop. I have put together a short film of the traffic in Vietnam.
Day 2 in Bangkok Early the next morning we left the ship to meet Tong for our second day in Bangkok. Today was to be Market day as she had planned visits to the Train Market and the world-famous Floating Market as well as some time for shopping. I love markets (especially food markets) as they usually provide me with great picture taking opportunities. Our first stop was the not-as-famous Train Market. They don’t sell trains at this market. It takes its name from the fact that the entire market (which is predominately a food market) is situated on train tracks. Not near the train tracks but ON THE TRAIN TRACKS. And not abandoned train tracks but tracks that carry a rather large passenger train, 16 times a day. Before entering the market, Tong warned us to stay single file, to follow her closely and if a train started coming through to follow her lead and get off to the side quickly. The market was a claustrophobic cacophony of sights, sounds and smells. More types of fruit, fish, meat and vegetables than I believe I have ever seen. Maybe even more than La Boqueria, the main market in Barcelona which is the most incredible market I had been in until this one. And unlike other markets, this one is not organized. It is a free market (since it is on train tracks) and the vendors pay no rent and have no permanent stalls. They just show up with their products each morning and stake out a place for the day, perhaps, cover it with an awning, layout out what they are selling and sell. When the train comes through, they literally remove their goods and themselves from the track and then within seconds of it passing, they put it all back together again and are back in business. It is a wondrous site to see. After we finished at the Train Market we were off to the more well known Floating Market. This market is one that has been famous in Bangkok for many years. To see it you take a boat ride (five to a boat and driver) and get paddled around to hundreds (if not more) open stalls along the canals. These are less about food than the Train market was and more about crafts, art and other touristy type items. As you floated by the vendors would attempt to hook you in and sell you something. We pretty much were able to resist and kept our boats moving. The ride around the Floating Market took about 90 minutes and by the time we were done and did a few more pictures and a few minutes of shopping it was time to head back to the ship which sailed at 2:00 pm to make high tide at the Bangkok river bar. Sail out was as cool as sailing in had been as the river is full of crazy twists and turns that our captain loved to run at as high a speed as possible. The only other thing I want to mention before I close the book on Bangkok is the traffic. This was true for most of the Asian cities we visited but I think the worst traffic we saw on the whole trip may have been here in Bangkok. In Vietnam most of the traffic is motor bikes while in Bangkok, most of the traffic is full-sized cars. Bangkok is the only city where we found ourselves sitting in traffic for long periods of time. In Vietnamese cities it seemed to constantly flow but not in Bangkok.