Thoroughly enjoyed this cruise and would do it again. Very convenient way to get a taste of the ports visited. My previous cruises in Europe have been very busy with port visits almost every day. This one with its good ratio of port to sea days (appx 1:1) was much more relaxing, and the ports being exotic were of course very interesting. One did get a bit Buddha/temple saturated towards the end, although it was interesting to compare the different cultures and way of life in these ports. I have only done three cruises in total now, all on Princess vessels, so i am not in a position to compare the way they do things to other lines. However, if I hadn't been satisfied I wouldn't go back on their ships. Other companies may well be better though. This cruise sounded like excellent value for money, and had interesting ports of call at a convenient time for me. Being out of summer holiday periods on either hemisphere and of a duration of more than 2 weeks militated more towards an older cruise age range than I have been accustomed to, but with it, more old-fashioned manners and mutual consideration although I have to say the few honeymooners, and relative youngsters were all charming and the 25 or so minors on board were without exception delightful in the opinion of this author.
Near 75% of the passengers in approximately equal numbers were domiciled in the US, UK, Australia and Canada, some of whom had joined in North America as the ship repositioned from its North West American season to South East Asia with the former's impending Winter.
The weather was excellent, especially in the more temperate cities (Beijing, Busan, Nagasaki, Shanghai and Hong Kong). It rained heavily in Nha Trang, and again on the day of our arrival in Singapore, and there was a brief heavy shower or two on two of the sea days, but even I who tans with difficulty arrived back acceptably bronzed.
The public areas, and cabins were comfortable and clean, and I personally had no problems with the services provided by various staff members. The cruise directors team, led by Director Dan Styne (Australian) was excellent [I understand he left the ship following our cruise which is unlucky for subsequent cruisers in this season- unless you were unforturnate enough to turn up late to one of the evening shows he was hosting, when you would more than likely become the subject of a relatively good-natured comedy routine (if you were not too hypersensitive!). The rest of the team made their presence felt with a pleasant "hello, how are you" more than I have experienced in past cruises.
The food was good and plentiful as you would expect on a Cruise Ship. In honesty, though, the food wasn't quite as good as on my previous cruises with tougher red meat, when it came to Western Cuisine staples, although some of the Asian food offered on special regional cuisine nights e.g. Thai chicken soup and Tandoori chicken outstanding, and the best of each dish I have personally ever tasted. The puddings (desserts/sweets) were unfortunately up to Princess standards - sound and look good but lack any taste - they could do with employing a French, British or Australian consultant to provide recipes for this course. It was somewhat surprising that prior to our arrival in Bangkok the ship had run out of all reasonably priced bottles of wines, and jam to have with scones for afternoon tea. They offered marmalade instead(- poor form, what, old chap? The cream could do with being thicker also, rather than the inferior ethereal stuff they serve if they are going to the trouble of putting on a traditional English cream tea), but I am starting to sound like most of the professional complainers that write these reviews and blow a single unfortunate event out of all proportion. In general the food was perfectly acceptable.
There were two guest lecturers. Mr J. Snyder's style was dry but he gave extremely interesting and informative talks on the politics history and culture of the various countries of South East Asia and for me was one of the highlights of the cruise. The Port Lecturer was OK, but was introduced by a moniker in the spirit of latter-day celebrity (or maybe he just wanted to keep his identity a secret lest there were Inland Revenue personnel amongst the cruisers). His style was more animated, and whilst fulfilling his remit I found his usage of English annoying (felt like presenting him with a dictionary and thesaurus to enable him to learn some synonyms of "beautiful", and the correct usage of "aspects". I also found him rather pompous on the one occasion after a talk when I approached him during the time allocated for "Meet the speaker" - seemed more interested on something he was looking at and working on on his computer than my question and I felt very much that I was inconveniencing him.
The organisation on board the ship was very good, and from my experience as an independent traveller (apart from one port (Ho Chi Minh City) where I availed myself of a Princess transfer [this being the one exception where the organisation wasn't quite so good] I had no major delays getting on or off the ship.
I would do this cruise again.
The Ports and what we did:
I write this for the benefit of anyone else going on this cruise THIS SEASON with ideas and suggestions to help them plan way to do. I am writing it in this section as Cruise Critic won't let me enter Beijing/Tianjin, Busan, or Nha Trang as specific ports of call as they seem to be unaware that the Diamond Princess cruises there.
Loved this place and was surprised at how many people disliked it when we got on board the ship. We stayed in a Hutong hotel (Courtyard 7), located new the Drum Tower (Gulou) and Lakes in North Beijing within the second Ring Road. We loved it. Very quiet, with loads of space (admittedly we did opt for a deluxe room) and just off from the main pedestrianised (almost) tourist drag Nanluogu Xiang. It is a small hotel, on one level and was an old Chinese merchant's residence, and so you do get to be known by the very attentive front desk staff. The only down side is that taxis don't like negotiating the narrow Hutongs to get there and you may have to wheel your luggage down the last alley. It is also a bit of a walk to the nearest metro underground station, but only a very short walk to a trolley bus (no 107) which will take you there for the princely sum of 1RMB (10 pence/15 cents) - exact money needed which is deposited in a box in front of the driver when you get in. Taxis are in general honest (use a two-toned taxi and you choose a taxi rather than a taxi tout offering his services to you) and very cheap and plentiful once you walk the short distance to the main road where you get the trolley bus. The fare starts at 10 RMB (Â£1/$1.50) for the first 2 km, but the problems are potential traffic jams and making yourself understood. For this I recommend getting a map in Chinese as well as English or preferably a map that has both Chinese and English on it. They sell a good one for 10 RMB at the tourist information kiosk just as you enter the arrivals hall at Beijing Airport. Otherwise your hotel will certainly have free commercial ones. Unless you speak Chinese well, point where you want to go to the taxi driver on the map, or get your hotel to write down your destinations for the day before you leave in the morning, or get them to say the destinations for you in Mandarin and practice them. Don't leave especially without a cad from your hotel to show taxi driver on the way back, and learn to say your hotel or street in Mandarin. Believe me, the way it looks in Pinyin and the way it sounds with subtle differences in sounds, can be poles apart. If you have the time and inclination, are reasonably good with languages and want to make the most of your holiday for both Shanghai and Beijing, I really would recommend a book/CD combination called "Easy Peasy Chinese" (Dorling Kindersley ISBN 978-1-40531-863-1). Just listen to each chapter again and again, using word associations and getting the intonation right. I amazed myself at making myself understood, and got smiles and encouragement for my efforts - even if you only manage the basics- hello, thank you, goodbye, sorry, and where is the toilet? (all in the first conversational lesson -no 7). Unfortunately, English is not that widely spoken outside the tourist industry, markets aimed at Westerners, and shops in tourist areas. The underground/metro system is very easy to use with signs in English as well as Mandarin and an English option on using automatic ticket machines (ATMs at banks too). The fare for a ride on the Metro is 2 RMB including line changes where necessary (you punch in your ultimate destination on an on-screen tube map when you purchase your ticket at the automatic machines). The trains get a bit crowded and claustrophobic at times, but the system is clean and efficient, and beats getting caught up in traffic jams. You need to have carry ons/backpacks etc scanned by an X-ray machine before you go through the barrier into the station proper.
On arrival at the airport, although I know there is a cheap 35 RMB/person direct rail line to Dong Zhimen metro stop, I really recommend with all your cases and tiredness after a long flight to get a taxi from the airport, which depending where in Beijing your hotel is will cost 75-120 RMB (ours was 80).
We did our touring independently using tour guides. We found "the Rough Guide to Beijing" the most informative (ISBN 978-1-84836-656-5); admission prices etc. accurate still when we travelled , and also Beijing Day to Day (Frommers - ISBN 978-0-470-63006-8) , written by a local and a foody (she runs a cooking school in Beijing staffed by Sino-American repatriates) helpful. Because the cruise goes to Shanghai as well, also got the DK Beijing and Shanghai (ISBN 978-1-4053-5895-8) for the pretty pictures, although the Beijing section not as informative as the others.
What with jet-lag, the huge area of Beijing- don't let the maps fool you!- and the amount of things to see and do I'd suggest 4 days pre-cruise to see things comfortably, although you can do whistle-stop tours of the sites with guided tours in fewer days I guess.
On day 1, after depositing our stuff in our room by 1130 am, we walked about our neighbourhood to get our bearings, and then walked to the nearest metro (where we realised the scale of the map we were using) and took it to Yonghegong station and the adjacent temple (Tibetan Buddhism). From there took a taxi to the Houhai and Qianhai lakes and a visit to the palace of Prince Gong. Then had dinner.
Day 2. Jet lagged, got up rather early and went wandering around the neighbourhood at dawn. Lots of dog walkers with appropriately Pekingese (decorated with bows), Shi Tsus and Chow-Chows but surprisingly little in the way of dog droppings to negotiate (vs France), Chinese in pyjamas on their way to a plethora of communal toilets, breakfasts being prepared on street corners for commuters - pancakes with a fried egg on top along with spring onions and other greens, all folded up- they were queuing up to get these, local keys hard at work and vans and carts laden with melons or turnips and when I got to the lakes, fisherman with very long poles by the lakeside, fishing for what I assume was the "crap" I saw misspelled on numerous menus, and elderly Chinese folk doing Tai Chi and other stretching and strengthening exercises and groups of four kicking about to each other like a football, a weighted small feathered shuttlecock type device. Fascinating. After breakfast at hotel took metro to Hepingmen station, and thence to Liu Li Chang Street, heading NorthEast along Dazhalan Jie to Quianmen and to Tian An Men Square, and thence to the Forbidden City. We climbed Quianmen gate for a view of Tian an Men Square, before joining the throng in the Square. Then avoiding all the touts offering to take us to the Wall, but agreeing to buy bottled water for 2 or 3 RMB, walked across the road to the Forbidden City. Fascinating. but not as impressive or as beautiful as the Summer Palace we visited 2 days later. Not enough time to do museums and other things we planned for the day, so took a motorised rickshaw back to the hotel and dinner
Day 3. Woke at a more reasonable hour. Went shopping after a late breakfast and took a taxi to Yashow "Market". Really a large building containing 5 floors of stalls selling clothes, bags, jewellery, hats, accessories and where bespoke clothing can also be made had time allowed it. I believe it is similar to the Pearl Market and Silk Market, but the traders keep their hands to themselves and only use their voice to encourage you to examine their wares. This is where to buy your "Gucci", "Chanel"," Mulberry"s etc at a fraction of the price they sell for in the West. How do they do it? Surely they can't be fakes??????. On the exterior right hand wall of the building (facing the front) is a DVD shop again selling films and TV series for very little. Surely these aren't pirated copies too????? If you are going to buy stuff from the stallholders at Yashow you need to bargain hard. I am not especially good at this, but apparently you start off at 10% of the vendor's initial asking price, increase each of your offers by 20%, and aim ultimately to pay 25-33% of the initial asking price (although maybe you can get it for even less if you are interested in this sort of thing). Never appear too interested and mention that it isn't quite what you are looking for (not quite the right colour, but if the price is very good you just might take it anyway etc) Be aware that Customs Officers on your way back home have the right to seize counterfeit goods, but some of these copied goods are very very good indeed. Did I buy any? Would I?? They speak good English at these places (and I heard them speaking good German, French and I think even Hebrew! as I was wandering around). The Chinese really are remarkable. In the afternoon my wife was booked into a Chinese cooking lesson at Black Sesame kitchen, around the corner from our hotel. Cost 300 RMB (www.blacksesamekitchen.com) - you need to book these in advance; she thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Dinner in the evening. Early night.
Day 4. Booked a car with driver for the day (you can't rent a car without a driver in Beijing unless you have a Chinese Driving licence; the way most of them drive it's a wonder that such things exist. Cars and bicycles, many without headlights/lamps and someone with silent electric motors just to add to the danger pay no heed to inconveniences like pedestrians, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings and do their own things. To cross a road try and find a relative break in the traffic, look every possible way, grit your teeth, say a short prayer and off you go). Did it through tour-beijing (www.tour-beijing.com) for 676 RMB (including credit card processing fee). Worth it. Best driver of all we used in China (i.e. all other taxis). Calm, never beeped his horn, steady speed with no sharp accelerations and decelerations, very comfortable air-conditioned vehicle. At our request he took us first of all to the Olympic Games complex (Bird Nest and Water Cube). We opted to do the closest section of restored Great Wall to Beijing, Juyong Guan, after a stop at The Commune, an upmarket holiday home complex, with homes designed by award winning architects. They have a segment of private unrestored Great Wall there, but access is supposed to be only available to their residents. On the day we arrived there was no official guide to show us around on an official tour, so we were allowed to wander about on our own, came across a path heading past a building and up a steep hill through bushland which appeared to be in the direction of the wall in the far distance on top of said hill. Sure enough, after a climb we were alone on original wall. Great experience but pure fortune in the circumstances that day. Would not recommend it unless you are relatively fit. There are odd rocks rather than fashioned stairs/stones to climb. We had morning tea in a smart bar in the main hotel/admin block, and then our driver took us to the more commercial Juyong Guan. Most tourists go slightly further to Badaling Great Wall which has I believe, some form of mechanised transport to get people up to the wall, and hence is more crowded. Juyong Guan is restored and easy to climb, but has no lifts or gondolas to get people to the top of the wall. You therefore have to be fit to manage the many and often significant steps here too, but there weren't too many people at all doing this section, especially the Eastern section over the road and canyon, and our photos have no other people in the background. Unfortunately the day was try hazy, which spoilt the views a little, but it was a great experience nonetheless.
We located our driver in the parking area following our descent, and he then as arranged took us to the magnificent Summer Palace (where he left us). This is far more picturesque than the Forbidden City. and if you are limited for time I would recommend this over the other royal residence complex. We walked in by the main East exit, and left by the North exit, believing metro station to be almost adjacent to this exit. It isn't- it's the scale of those Beijing maps again! A long steep climb up many steps brings you to the Tower of Buddhist Incense, and beyond that, the Sea of Wisdom Hall, then it is rather a long walk slightly downhill to a lake and then the North gate out, before having to walk all the way back outside the palace wall along a road with no taxis until you each the end, which is within sight of the metro station.
We got up early and visited the Temple of Heaven- again the park surrounding it was buzzing with activity with mainly elderly people doing Tai Chi , playing cards, dominoes, and doing stretching exercises. We had breakfast on our return, and packed up.
We chose to join the ship in Tianjin International cruise port Terminal by Bullet train from Beijing SOUTH railway station to Tang Gu and thence a taxi to the terminal. Provided you are happy with the mild inconvenience of having to unload and load your luggage twice I would recommend this means of doing it. It is faster, "green"er, statistically safer and significantly cheaper than road transport. The important thing is to make sure you get your seat on the train. Once the seats are gone, that's it - unlike the British experience of packing people in like sardines standing on their intercity trains, the Chinese appear to respect their passengers. They open bookings 10 days before the date of travel, and the cost with commission and delivery of tickets to your hotel is 100 RMB per person for a first class ticket - comparative peanuts. The first class carriage(s) will be filled with other Princess passengers as ours was, but there was still enough room for all our respective pieces of luggage.
To book, use an agent (e.g. www. beijingchina.net.cn/transportation/train/ft-tanggu.html) at least 10 days before your date of travel or ask your hotel (by e-mail) if they can get the tickets for you and have them ready when you arrive (as we did). Remember to ask for first class tickets, and stipulate he day and the train number- I would recommend C2275 if like us your cruise sails from the Home Cruise Port Terminal at 6 pm or thereabouts. This train leaves Beijing South station at 11.45 am and after a stop at Tianjin, then makes its way to TangGu (next and final stop) at 12.42 pm. on current timetable. Beijing South Station, like Beijing airport is architecturally interesting, and for a train station, light, airy and pleasing on the eye. You need to have your luggage go through security X-ray screening, and then make your way to your gate, listed on a screen next to your train number, and await boarding. Your carriage and seat number are printed on your ticket and depending which carriage you are on, you go through one of two sides in the terminal to board the train when boarding starts., showing your ticket to the train hostess as you do so. Once in the carriage, the train leaves punctually and arrives punctually. It flashes up the speed of travel as you are on your journey. Its maximum was 284 km/hour on our trip.
At Tang Gu, there was a mad scramble to get off the train and be the first one to the ship. Not quite sure why. I almost lost my wife in the melee. There is a sea of Chinese trying to get out through the barriers and it's a bit difficult to get through with one's luggage as one's pre-ordered tickets don't work on the automatic machines to get out. You need to keep left as you exit where there is a wider manned barrier and the man will let you through and the passage is wide enough for your baggage. I would strongly recommend holding back to the end when the scrum has all gone out, and then leave calmly. One of my worries was that there would be no taxis to take me to the port. On the day we travelled, there were loads and I estimate each Diamond Princess cruiser could have had four and there would still be some left over. They were like hungry zoo animals waiting for their daily food and we were the food. Touts galore will approach you and offer to take you to the port, but head for one of the official light blue taxis who will use a meter- the fare for the cavalcade of taxis which arrived at the port (including ours) was around 80RMB +/-5. We arrived just after 1 pm. You leave your heavy luggage with your cabin tag as instructed just outside the terminal, and enter with your carry-ons. No queue. You fill in the usual form to declare that you haven't had the squits despite your exposure to Beijing food, hand over your passport and e-ticket, and receive your cruise card. Impress the check-in girls by reeling off your cabin number in Chinese (Easy Peasy Chinese Lessons 17-18). We were on board at 1.15pm- 90 minutes Beijing South station to ship. Just to be on safe side carry with you a copy of Princess's instructions (in Mandarin) for Beijing drivers to find their way to the dock (see www.princess.com/downloads/pdf/embarkation_port_guides/Beijing_Tianjin-Info.pdf I think it very unlikely that the TangGu taxi drivers won't know where to go, but just in case...
The ship berths at the International Cruise Terminal, a 15-20 minute drive south of the nearest subway station, and the Jagalchi area of town where the famous seafood market (the largest in the world apparently) and other markets are sited. The port lays on Shuttle buses ferrying passengers to and from a hotel near a subway station, which is also close enough to the Jagalchi market where you can select fish/ fruits de mer to be cooked for you in an upstairs restaurant. The bus gets there by first of all driving up a hill to Yongdusan Park with an Observation Tower at its centre. Our shuttle virtually emptied at this point. Going back down the road to the hotel meting point, took another 15 minutes with shuttle buses gingerly passing one another on this relatively narrow road. The Shuttles take a while before they start setting off. If you have a plan of things to do in Busan, you should consider taking a taxi, which are not allowed into the port area but are within easy walking distance just outside. It costs about Â£5/$8 to take a taxi to the nearest subway and would be worth the time saved. It is a pretty port with hills surrounding the bay, and South Korean people are in general gentle and very pleasant. If all you want to do is mooch about the fish market and nearby general shopping markets then the Shuttle is ideal for you. You could go up the observatory as well. We planned to go to the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, and do something typically Korean and visit Spaland., and then see the fish market time permitting We got on the subway system near the shuttle drop-off point. This metro system is again very cheap and easy to negotiate. Unfortunately, there are stops every few hundred yards, and it took much longer than I figured to get near this temple. In fact, it wasn't until 11.30 am by the time we got to the Temple (got off at JungDong station and hailed a taxi from there). Unlike China there was no charge to visit this temple on the sea. Certainly very curious and interesting if not the most beautiful temple in the world. After the temple we caught a taxi to Shinsegae Department Store in Centum City, said to be the largest in the world, and which contains Spaland, a Korean Spa (Jimjilbang). It was quite an experience. Unfortunately, worrying about getting back to the ship on time (it was then 2 pm) took away a lot of the whole point of a relaxing experience. We paid our 9,500 Korean Won (about Â£5.50 each) which entitled us to 4 hours in the spa. It is a 5 star facility. You first have to remove your shoes in a locker, and then get another locker in a sex-segregated area where you first get undressed, and then thoroughly clean yourself in a shower before entering a series of communal pools and jacuzzis of various temperatures from very cold to just tolerably hot, although most of them are wonderfully warm. You and the other indulgers are all in your birthday suit. Having soaked your day's anxieties away, you dry off, change into provided spa pyjamas and join your other half in the non-sex segregated area where you walk through a foot pool with stones on the floor to massage your feet, before entering a series of sauna rooms each purporting to offer differing health benefits. On the upper floors are relaxation chairs when yo can lie and watch TV or a movie, grab a snack or have a massage or beauty treatment (at extra cost). Time flew quickly, but we made it back to the ship on time. unfortunately seeing a lot less of Busan than I had planned.
The ship docks within walking distance of the town, and the local sights can all be done independently and easily within the day. Buy a one-day tram pass at the tourist information stand just beyond passport control in the Cruise termini (you can't buy these on board the trams). The tram stops within 100 metres of the cruise terminal. We took a tram to the Atomic Bomb museum and adjacent Peace Park (you need to change trams at one station). The former was harrowing but very interesting, nonetheless, but unfortunately I came away pretty convinced that the main reason they were dropped was to determine the extent of their destructive power on a predominantly civilian population. I think when in Nagasaki it is a must-see thing to do. We then rode the ropeway up to the top of Mt Inasa. The base is a moderate (about 10 minutes) walk from the Takara-Machi stop, and at the top you get great views of the town, and even better views from the adjacent observatory (free. The ropeway was 1200 yen pp for the return trip [appx Â£10.00 US$15.00]. They bow when you get on and off the gondola to say thank you for using their service. You bow back. Taxis in Japan are very expensive but unnecessary for the reasonably fit independent tourist. The trams run frequently and cover most of the town. In both Korea and Japan, the drivers obey road signs and pedestrian crossings so you can cross a road safely. There is no honking of horns, and the Japanese are very patient and polite. It is so hard to believe them capable of the atrocities they committed in WW2 but that's people for you. We continued our tour to the city centre where we went to a Pachinko parlour. Had a go, on one of these slot-pinball amalgam machines. Only started to get the hang of what you are supposed to do when my last few balls were being played. Lost overall, but still managed to win a small prize by some fluke. Found a supermarket and an upmarket bakery where the employees appeared to be singing a jingle all the time as they were moving about the shop, offering freebee samples of the various goods on sale. Used up my residual yen here (leaving enough to visit Glover Garden, just up the road from where the ship docks). Japan is very civilised: they drive on the correct side of the road and dress their schoolchildren in school uniform. Some youngsters put on some entertainment onboard ship in the afternoon, and there was some drumming on the pier side on departure followed by a very impressive mini-concert by a highly competent school orchestra, playing quite complex pieces of various genres.
You do need Yen in Japan. US dollars apparently aren't accepted about town.
The ship docks a long way out from the centre of town. The nearest subway stop is Baoyang Road, but it is some distance from the pier.Taxis are not allowed on the pier area, and one would need to walk about half a mile to a mile to the pier gates and hail a taxi beyond there. I don't think it is necessary. A shuttle is provided, presumably by the owners of a Silk Museum where they drop off and collect passengers. and which is situated a little down the road from the Bund, the main drag on the West Bank of the Huangpu River. When the buses stop and disgorge their passengers, people are herded into the Silk Museum. Everyone on our Shuttle bar us went in. We instead headed straight for The Old town ad Yu Gardens by walking to a collection of waiting taxis just on the main road. Taxis are cheap once again in Shanghai, but the flag fall is more expensive here-14 RMB instead of the 10 in Beijing ( a whole 40 pence more!). After spending time at Yu Gardens an the old City we caught a taxi to the Bund. Unfortunately it was a Saturday so we couldn't go into any of the old buildings and banks/Government Offices to inspect their foyers with allegedly impressive internal decorations, so after traipsing about a bit, caught the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel (under the river to the oppose bank (Pudong) with all its impressive skyscrapers) - a bit of a misnomer as all you see is a light show; the sightseeing would be on the surface on one of the cross-bank ferryboats. We toured the Shjanghai History Museum at the bottom of the impressive Oriental Pearl Tower which was interesting with lots of models of early Shanghai street scenes. WE didn't go up to the observatory her but instead walked down the road on this Eastern bank to the Shanghai World Financial Centre building (the one that looks like a bottle opener) which is the second tallest building in the world and has the highest observatory- which naturally we visited for its views overlooking Shanghai. We then caught a cab for some shopping at Shanghai's equivalent of Beijng's Yashow market (v.s.) (Preferred the Yashow Market myself) at 580 West Nanjing Road. Then returned to the Shuttle pick-up point. Princess provides you with a list of common tourist places in Chinese, including the port, and the Silk Museum shuttle drop off point to show to taxi drivers. It was useful and a pity they didn't do one for the other ports.
We had both been to Hong Kong before (in 1993) and were impressed at the continuing growth of the place . The ship docked in a container area- a familiar story on this cruise- but a free shuttle was provided to take independent passengers to the back entrance of an upmarket mall, Harbour City, which was also the pick-up point. We decided to do something we hadn't done on our earlier visit (I think because it wasn't developed then) and determined to pay a visit to Lantau Island to see the Giant Buddha statue. Looks easy to do on the map, and it is , except.....
We made use of Hong Kong's efficient public transport system - walked the short distance to the main Star ferry terminal and took a ferry to Central on Hong Kong Island, whence took a subway to Tung Chung station on Lantau Island. The fare is cheap, and if you are over 65 it is half price (free for over 65s to go across the harbour on the star ferry). It took a fair while to get to Tung Chung and en route when the train went overground we passed the Diamond Princess sitting in its berth. At Tung Chung there is only a very short walk across a forecourt, and there is the Gong Ping 360 Gondola ride, which goes across a bay and two mountain peaks before landing near a tacky Disneyland-type shopping village that leads to the Giant Buddha .
So, you walk across the forecourt and go up the steps to the ticket office. The queue to the ticket office was very short. They offer a standard gondola ride, and for a premium a transparent floor gondola too. If you want to fork out even more there are some additional attractions in the village, geared mainly for children I think. I opted for the standard return ride . Big mistake. You get your tickets, turn the corner and get presented with a queue of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, Florida, proportions, except they don't have acquired that U.S. Theme park flair for maximising capacity on each of the Gondolas to minimise queuing time. With preference being given to tour groups who jumped straight to the front of the line, and pre-arranged private groups, it was very slow progress before we got onto the thing. The views were worth the wait though, and going back there was hardly any wait at all. My suggestion is to check on the length of the queue before you buy your ticket, by sticking your head round the corner. Get the glass-bottomed Gondola ticket, even though you don't need it, if the queue looks long- that queue was shorter and seemed to progress faster. Most importantly, get there early.By the time we returned the queue to the ticket office was getting as long as the Gondola ride queue. On the way back we went to he Ladies market in Kowloon but weren't impressed by the tat on offer. Found a cafe to have a quick drink in, had enough, and went back to Harbour City via the Apple store at Central to compare prices on I-Pads vs home (not that much better to make it worthwhile). In summary the Giant Buddha visit took up much more time than I had reckoned on, mainly due to having to queue for over an hour to get on the Gondola. If, like us, that is all you want to do in Hong Kong, then you'll be OK. Otherwise, consider doing an organised tour (get priority going on Gondola) along with the other things you might want to do. I never quite worked out why there were so few people coming back the other way. Maybe the lines for this build up much later in the day. Having said that we did manage to visit the Ladies market, and wander aimlessly about taking in the sights sounds and smells for couple of hours before we took our transfer back.
Hong Kong is extremely easy to get about in. The signs are in English as well as Mandarin. They drive on the correct side of the road, and adhere to traffic lights and crossings.
The Subway is very easy to use, and ticket machines are the same as elsewhere in Asia, with an option for the automatic screen to display information in English. The fare varies with the distance travelled. For convenience (although we ended paying a bit more) we opted for an all day pass to avoid having to buy a ticket for each trip. We didn't get the pre-paid card that you pay a deposit for as well, as we didn't need the HK Dollars at the end of the day when we returned the card to get our deposit back.
See my posting of 29 October 2011 in the Diamond Princess Cruise Critic Roll Call for the Beijing-Singapore Cruise starting mid-November 2011
All the stalls, shops and taxi drivers both here and in Saigon will gladly take US dollars but the admission fees for Government museums and tourist spots require Vietnamese Dong. Princess themselves don't deal in Dong, and I also couldn't buy any in the U.K. before I left for Beijing, but on the morning of disembarkation in the Atrium on board a team of Vietnamese ladies who boarded mysteriously with the pilot and appeared, changed all major currencies for Dong at not too bad a rate actually, in addition to also selling pretty Vietnamese stamps and postcards and the usual tat souvenirs.
HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON)
This was the only excursion we didn't do independently. I tried to organise a transfer in advance but without success, and chickened out and got the Princess transfer instead. I had planned to get a cab into Saigon, wander about, catch the hydrofoil down the river to Vung Tau, and get a cab back from there to the ship, but our celebrity Port lecturer thought it was a bit risky, the risky bit being the hydrofoil which hesaid doesn't run to a fixed timetable. So I booked a Princess transfer at $69 per person. Assembling at the pre-determined time we got herded into the Wheelhouse bar, which was way too small for the accumulated throng, and from there, herded again in groups to the Princess Theatre, where you got your badge of honour sticker with your bus number as you entered. HINT: stay near the forward doors to the Wheelhouse bar if you are desperate to be in the first bus- these people were herded out first. We were about the fourth group out.
They call bus by bus from the theatre, and that bit was pretty smooth. Our guide on board was a very pleasant perenially smiling local but whose English was barely intelligible owing to his thick Vietnamese accent. It took some time to realise that his oft-used "Wreck au terre" which was near where our return shuttle bus would pick us up from was as it turned out a well known Saigon establishment known in English as the Rex Hotel.
Phu My, where the ship docks, is out in the middle of nowhere. No taxis are allowed beyond a gate some 600 metres from the pier but the cruise buses are there. 2 or 3 basic taxis optimistically sat waiting beyond this gate, I noticed as the bus commenced its journey. I regret that I can't tell you how much it would have cost to take one of those. A bumpy dirt road then leads after about 1 km to a narrow tarmac road, then a main tarmac road with potholes, until eventually you come to the highway- all of two lanes each way, and very busy and which they have the audacity to charge a toll for using. It took some time for us to get to this bit as we had a puncture which took about a hour to sort out. I had visions of passing magnificent countryside as I had been told how beautiful Vietnam was. Not on this stretch of roadway I have to say, although you do see people wearing conical hats in the fields, overloaded motorcycles (motorcycles and motorcycles everywhere), and the occasional temple. The bus has a toilet stop in a food market with a large model mascot cow at the entrance. It would appear to be relevant as lots of milk and milk based products are sold. Unfortunately the bus didn't stop here on the return leg as I wouldn't have minded getting some fresh milk (rather than the apparent UHT on the ship) for tea but anyway... By the time we arrived near the Wreck au terre it was about 11.30 am. We started walking towards the erstwhile Presidential Palace for a visit, but it was closed for lunch. Further on we got to the War Remnants Museum for a Vietnamese take on what they call the American War. They close for lunch at 12.30 pm so we hardly got to see anything there (although you can use your ticket after they re-open at 2 pm). Took our lives in our hands crossing the roads, and found a recommended restaurant opposite and slightly down the road from the still closed Presidential Palace where we had a lunchtime snack, then stumbled on yet another market (the main one in HCMC), which we could have done without, saw the post office, designed by Eiffel and by then it was time to rejoin the coach at "the Wreck" for our trip back to the ship.
A bit of a frustrating day. Probably would have enjoyed it more on the ship, but at least I can say that I have been there and done it, even though really didn't do very much; although my wife managed to have a manicure and her nails polished by a Vietnamese in her own country for a change, and at a fraction of the cost in the UK although she was perturbed that the instruments weren't sterilised.
Were I to do this port again I think I would do the Mekong Delta tour in preference. It was sold out early though, and the cruisers who did it seemed to enjoy it (unlike me)
There is apparently a free shuttle to a small town close to the ship. I think other than browsing the shops there is not very much to do, but some of the cruisers I spoke to who did it seemed to enjoy their day
Princess scares you with this one too. Again you are docked a long way from Bangkok in Laem Chabang. I was intending to bite the bullet again (in advance) and use the Princess shuttle to get in and out of Bangkok until I determined that they left Bangkok at about 3 pm, leaving you only appx 4 hours in the city taking into account the transit time each way. As the ship didn't leave until midnight I though this a bit of a waste and organised my own minibus transfer of like-minded C.C. patrons via the roll call. We were planning to leave at 7.30 am and leave Bangkok at 8.30 pm. Despite good email communication and confirmation with the taxi company (Pattaya 4 leisure) no-one showed up-be warned! Fortunately to save my bacon there is no shortage of transport in the port facility, and a taxi company stand -BR taxis, also based in Pattaya, but they don't have a web site, were able to accommodate us instead for only marginally more than I had expected to pay the other company. Princess wanted $69 per person for their transfer. It worked out at about $23 pp return using the minibus and would have been even less if I had wanted to make the return trip 3 hours earlier or only accepted one drop off point and pick up point in each direction. I would recommend using cruise critic roll calls to get together a group of 8-9 similarly independent people, arrange to get off the ship together early (although they seemed to have a fair few of these 9 seater vans available) and negotiate with the people at the BR taxi desk in the terminal (near the exit door - they assure me they are there every time a Cruise Ship is in port). Unlike Phu My, the roads are great, and they also drive on the correct side of the road. We were travelling on a Sunday, and traffic was very light in contrast to the stories of doom and gloom I heard about Bangkok traffic. It took just under 2 hours to get in , and just under 1.75 hours to return at night (left at 8.15 pm and returned at just before 10 pm). We arranged to meet at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Bangkok Centre which is both close to a Skytrain station and the expressway to Laem Chabang and where people could relax with a drink in air-conditioned comfort while waiting for fellow passengers. I understand on weekdays the traffic is worse but I figure that if YOU get held up in traffic, so will the Princess coach. Just leave plenty of time for a potential breakdown.
The minibus can accommodate 9 people + driver. The latter was an excellent driver, and turned up well on time for the return journey
5 of us decided to go to the Chatachuk weekend market by Skytrain (again very easy to negotiate) which was fun. They sell EVERYTHING here, even pets, but it is only open on Weekends. There are 15000 stalls in the open air, but do it early as it gets hotter after midday. We left around then and caught a couple of tuktuks (motorised three wheel bike) to a pier to catch a long-tail boat for a river cruise. The riverbank had flooded somewhat and there were planks to negotiate above the water to get to the pier. You go down a canal tributary to the river from where you see temples, and the flooded (currently) houses, kids going for swims. ravenous fish devouring bread and a woman rows up in her barge to sell you a bottle of cold and much-appreciated Singha beer (80 Bhat= Â£1.60). The boat which you hire by the hour (800 Bhat = Â£16) went intentionally slower than usual so as not to cause too much of a wake in the already flooded houses, but it was still interesting and a good way to cool off in the Bangkok heat and humidity. We asked the boat driver to drop us off at the pier near the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo. You have to pay a landing fee (initially I thought it was a scam until I got an official receipt) of 20 Bhat for our party. We then made our way to the Palace down the road. The last entry is at 3.30 pm and they start to kick you out at 4. It really is magnificent and worth the relatively (by S.E. Asian standards) high admission fee of 400 Bhat pp. You need to wear long trousers and have your shoulders covered and no open toed sandals. The long trousers makes walking about Bangkok the rest of the day oppressive, so I opted to wear shorts, and take advantage of their loan of light tracksuit bottoms which I wore over the shorts while visiting the complex. You pay a returnable deposit of 400 Bhat pp for this facility.
Just down the road from here (although I admit we lazily took another tuk-tuk to get there is Wat Pho another temple complex, which closes at 6 pm, and was only 50 Bhat to visit. It is home to the great reclining Buddha and you have to remove your shoes (but not socks) to enter this temple building, although not the rest of the site's grounds. From here we found a place to have an afternoon cocktail while watching the sun set about Wat Arun on the opposite bank. It had free Wi Fi but with infinitely more reliability and speed compared to the ship.
We took a taxi to have dinner next. The driver spoke excellent English but declined to take me to a recommended Thai restaurant which he said was affected by the flooding and was closed to traffic, and took us instead to restaurant he recommended (and probably owned by his family). It was OK, but nothing special, and I feel a bit cheated, but was too tired (the humidiy does take it out of you) to find another taxi to get a second opinion about my initial recommendation and the ease of getting there. After dinner took a taxi to Pantip Plaza downtown. They sell electronic media (DVDs/CDs/ Video games) of somewhat dubious authenticity along with electronics at prices better than Hong Kong or Singapore if you're interested in that sort of thing.
As I say we got back to the Holiday Inn and when we had our full complement set off. We made it back to the ship to see a special performance of Folkloric arts by guest Thais they brought on board. If you enjoyed hearing your children practising to play the recorder before they got good at it, or other dissonant music, you might enjoy this traditional piphat ensemble. As it is you won't have a clue whether the obviously talented oboe-like performer playing his pi has played a bum note or not. I think I'll stick to Italian Baroque Oboe pieces myself. The dancing is good though- observe the feet and supple hyperextension of the wrists and fingers, but if you're used to Western music take some ear plugs with you.
I understand from the fellow cruisers who went on it that the evening show tour in Bangkok organised by Princess including acrobats and elephant stunts was enjoyable. Mixed and polarised reports about the daytime elephant tour though. Some people loved it and some didn't at all. Those that went on the standard Princess Bangkok excursion weren't over impressed but I enjoyed myself.
Unfortunately the taxis and tuk tuk entrepreneurs aren't that honest. It took me a while to find a taxi driver willing to use a meter. Hail a passing taxi rather than using those waiting outside tourist spots for a better chance of getting an honest taxi driver, and until you travel a bit with a taxi you will know what a fair price is to pay a tuk-tuk driver for a journey. You WILL pay over the top for your first ride, but if you think it is reasonable and it gets you conveniently from A to B so what? Beware of tuk-tuk drivers who offer reasonable fares but want to take you to their "sponsors".
There is a free shuttle from the ship to Pattaya, but I didn't pay to much heed to the times.
The ship docks- you guessed it- at a huge container terminal miles from the city that only tour buses have access to.
Although Princess was flogging transfers to the airport+/- tours en route at the usual inflated prices, for independents like me we were bussed to a rather modern cruise terminal building 20 minutes away where we collected our tagged baggage (kept indoors- air conditioned). If you go through the building at the far end without needing to go outside there is the subway with a direct link to the airport for 2.20 Singapore dollars (= Â£1.10) per person (+ $1 refunded for the magnetised plastic ticket). Somewhat cheaper than the $36.00 pp Princess charges. However you do have to change subway lines twice (one involving a bit of a walk, the other extremely easy- across a platform), and it is probably a bit slower. We had time to kill however with a night flight at 11 pm back to Heathrow, We disembarked the ship at 11.00 am (they were running uncharacteristically late (vs a scheduled time of 10 .15 am), and didn't get to the airport until just before 1 pm. We have been to Singapore before and have "done" it. We placed our luggage at a left luggage facility ((Singapore $5.00 per bag) where it was safely looked after, and travelled back into town. We met up with new friends we had met on board who were staying at the new amazing Marina Bay Sands Hotel and had a drink with them at a bar overlooking the infinity pool on the top floor with stunning views over all of Singapore and the harbour. Then took our leave and wandered about Chinatown for a while, had dinner at a Hawker stall market, and caught the subway back to the airport. retrieved our luggage, Changed from our light Singapore kit to our heavy UK kit (now in the air-conditioned comfort of the airport terminal) which we packed at the top of our bags in preparation, and checked-in.
Hope some of this long-winded novel is of help to someone doing this trip. I have no doubt you will enjoy it if you have any spirit of adventure.
We took about Â£50.00 worth of Japanese Yen, Korean Won, and Singapore Dollars, slightly less Hong Kong Dollars Â£250 of Thai Bhat (but I knew I had to pay for the van, and the Longboat, and expected to do some shopping in the market ) and lots more Chinese RMB, but we were staying a few days there. I exchanged some pounds for Vietnamese Dong on board ship, and took spare low denomination US dollars (the ship will change high denominations for you) which are invaluable to carry about if you run out + a credit card for emergency use. For UK folk there are lots of on-line foreign exchange brokers who will deliver your foreign exchange to you free if you spend enough- in my case that was no problem. Saves the hassle of finding someone to change your money on shore (easier is some places than others), or accepting Princess's or shop keepers lousy exchange rates. Some FE traders will buy back your unused exchange commission free - use a comparison website (e.g. moneysupermarket.com). I have used both AceFX (free delivery with orders over Â£1000 and will buy back unused foreign currency commission free) and TravelFX (free delivery with orders over Â£400 but won't buy back unused notes) and have found both very reliable.