Getting there: We left Dallas at 8:30 on Monday, January 22. Thanks to frequent flyer miles we were able to fly executive class, which makes it so much easier on long flights. We flew Dallas to Tokyo, had a layover in Tokyo, and then continued to Hong Kong. We arrived in Hong Kong about midnight, caught a quick shuttle bus into town to the Holiday Inn Express Golden Mile, and nearly 24 hours after leaving home, we were in bed again.
Embarkation: The next morning we walked around Hong Kong for a few hours, and then at 11:30, made the 15 minute walk to the ship, where we had the fastest embarkation we had ever experienced. As quickly as we could fill out a few forms, we went directly to a check in station, and were on the ship eating lunch in the Lido before noon. Just after noon they announced that the rooms were ready, and we went down, dropped off our carry on, and went off for a day of exploration that included the Chinese New Year's flower garden in Victoria Park, and a display of floats and illuminated laterns in the area near the Star Ferry. Since Chinese New Year is a week long celebration, we saw these decorations at every port we were visited, with the exception of Cambodia. We were back on the ship by 4:00, and went down for our open seating dinner. Only one show that night, at 7:30,a welcome aboard show, so one show and early to bed.
We were fortunate to be in Hong Kong for Chinese New Years. We had obtained tickets by booking a tour through Gray Line, so after sleeping in and having breakfast in the MDR the next morning, we met the tour, and spent the day with them, culminating with grandstand viewing seats in the television taping area of the parade. This was HAL's first sailing from Hong Kong, and I don't think they realized that there would be a conflict between the passengers attending the Chinese New Year's parade , the lifeboat drill at 5:00 p.m.and a required face-to-face inspection by Chinese immigration prior to sailing. We sailed at 11:00, but and the all-aboard was at 7:00. Since the parade didn't start until 8:00, people with parade tickets had problems. I to the main desk,and was told not to worry about it, just to be back on board by 10:30 or so to go through immigration. Luckily the grandstand seats were just about 10 minutes from the ship, so we left just as the parade ended and rushed back aboard to meet with immigration. We got there about 10:15, and were no where near being the last on board. After clearing the face to face immigration, we found a note on our bed asking us to show up in the atrium for a mandatory lifeboat briefing the next morning. It was pretty crowded, as a large number of passengers had gone to the parade. Passengers took the briefing seriously, as did the crew, who at one point yelled at passengers who were laughing and talking during the safety drill.
The ship: Yes, the ship certainly is ready for dry dock, but it certainly is not falling apart. Some stained carpeting, windows that seemed to be salt etched, rather than dirty, and a few rust stains here and there, did not detract from the fact that this is a beautiful ship. We were disappointed that the room did not contain a refrigerator. The biggest problem we had was with the room was a strange delay in the flushing of the toilet after you pushed the button. The first time it happened I called down and reported it, and then in a few minutes it flushed. The second time I called, I was told it was a ship-wide problem, and would be fixed shortly. This became a daily situation, and we finally stopped calling, because it seemed to fix itself in a few minutes. We also had a fire alarm go off due to a problem in the laundry, and a 24-hour red alert due to a 7 person outbreak of stomach virus. The ship seemed very empty, even though I know that this cruise was sold out. Both my husband and I commented on how empty the lounges and public rooms were.
Food and Entertainment: The entertainment was as good as any I have seen on a ship. We especially enjoyed Preston Coe, a tenor from Texas with a beautiful voice. We also enjoyed the comedian, the Viet Namese cultural show, a classically trained hammer zither player and all of the shows done by the ships singers and dancers. There was a magician, but we did not go to that show. The passengers were a mix of north Americans, Brits, Aussies, Asians and Europeans. Americans actually seemed to be in the minority. The food seemed to be designed to meet the needs of the more eclectic passenger list, but over all was as good as you usually get on a cruise ship. I ate a lot of beef, all of which was prepared well. My husband was disappointed that the variety of fresh seafood, was not better, but did enjoy what he had. There were four formal nights, and it seemed to me that people were dressed less formally than usual. It actually seemed that there were more men in tuxes, but the wives were less formal, wearing more after-five outfits and dressy pants suits than long gowns.
Excursions: We did a mixture of independent and HAL shore excursions. In every port we found people who spoke English, so going out on our own was never a problem. Our first stop was Ha Long Bay, a tendered port. We took the Red River Delta excursion which took us to Hai Phong, where we visited a pagoda, and a traditional Vietnamese home, and walked around the downtown area before a lunch buffet at a local hotel.
At Sanya, we were not sure that we would even get off of the ship, as we were not sure that we could get off without a Chinese visa. The day before we got to Sanya, I went down to the excursion desk and talked to them about getting off. They said that HAL had obtained a group visa, and that everyone would be able to get off of the boat. In addition, HAL provided a free shuttle service to a shopping area in town. We rode the bus to the shopping area, and walked to 2 to 3 miles back to the boat, visiting shops and malls along the way.
At Nha Trang we did the Nha Trang Highlights. We visited the Po Nagar Cham Towers, the Long Son Pagoda, an embroidery shop and a beach front cafe. Then on to Phu My, which is the port for Saigon. Those of us on the tour referred to it by the new name of Ho Chi Minh City, until we noticed that the tour guide was calling it Saigon. Someone asked if the name hadn't been changed, and he said that it had, but that the name was just too long and hard to say, so that the locals now call it Saigon again. HAL has an excursion that drives you the 2 hours into Saigon from the port, drops you off at the Rex Hotel downtown, and picks you up about 4 hours later. You are free to explore on your own, and there is plenty to see within walking distance. We visited the market and the reunification hall (the old presidential palace) and walked around the town seeing things such as the city hall, the opera house and the market. There are a number of buildings that show the French influence on the town, and in places the architecture reminded us of New Orleans.
Then it was on to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. It is never a good sign when part of the shore talk deals with the fact that "you may see things that make you uncomfortable" as far as the level of living goes. This was by far the least economically developed area we visited. There were only 2 ship's excursions offered at this port, and they both involved beach time. Not being beach people, we took the ship's free transfer into the market area of the town. Before the bus stopped the guide gave us a warning about the aggressive tuk-tuk drivers and tour guides who would assail you as you got off of the bus, and he didn't exaggerate. We finally pushed our way through the crowd and made it to the main street, where we walked around just looking at the town. At the shore talk, Michael had mentioned that French wines were well priced in Cambodia, so we stopped at a grocery store and bought several bottles of wine to replenish our supply, and then found an unbelievably cheap internet cafe to supplement the time we had bought aboard ship. The town's market is well worth a visit to get a sense of how the people live, however it deals mostly in the day to day needs of the people, and is not much of a souvenir shopping area.
I could hardly wait to reach Laem Chabang, as we had made independent arrangements to spend the night in Bangkok. We found that we could make our own arrangements for less money, and have more time to spend in Bangkok, if we did it ourselves. There was one small glitch in our plans. HAL takes your passport before you reach Laem Chabang, and Thai immigration officials come on board and process all of the visas on the sea day before you reach Thailand. You don't get your passport back for a couple of days, and we realized that we would need documentation to check into our hotel in Bangkok. I checked with the front desk, and they told us that we would not be able to access our passport until late in the day on the first day in Thailand. They did offer to get us a copy of our entry card early on the first port day, and we had the photocopy of our passport that HAL gives you. We checked with our hotel, and they were willing to accept these as documentation for check in. Our limo service was waiting in Laem Chabang when we left the boat at 9:00, and 2 hours later we checked into our hotel in Bangkok. We stayed in Chinatown, because of its proximity to the water taxis, which we utilized frequently as we toured the wats, temples and the Grand Palace. A dinner cruise on a restored antique rice barge, with wonderful Thai food, followed by an exhilarating tuk-tuk ride back to our hotel rounded out the evening. The next morning we spent a few more hours exploring the town, until our limo service picked us up and took us back to the ship.
Koh Samui was our last Thailand port. It was a tendered port. None of the excursions interested us, so we walked around town, stopping at a waterside cafe for a local beer. As we were walking, we turned down a small road and walked out into the countryside. We came upon a coconut plantation, and stood and watched the trained monkeys climbing the trees to throw down the ripe coconuts.
Disembarkation: Like embarkation, disembarkation was the best I have ever experienced. You turned in a card requesting a disembarkation group. We asked for and, received, group 1. Within 10 minutes of the captain's announcing that we could leave the ship, we had disembarked, claimed our luggage, and cleared customs. We took the metro to the airport, about a 25 minute ride, where we stayed at the Omni Hotel which is attached to the airport. We were there before 10:00 a.m., and they allowed us to check in and go to our room. We caught the metro back out, and spent the day exploring Singapore. We went to Raffles, and then to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, where we ate lunch, visited the Sky Tower, looked at the shops, and walked around the casino. Back at the hotel, we walked around the airport, a destination in itself with a full shopping center and numerous entertainment options.
It was early to bed, and then up early to catch a flight back Tokyo, and then on to Dallas. It was really great to have only a 15 minute walk from our hotel to the gate area of the airport.
Final Thoughts: I truly enjoyed this cruise. I felt that some of the ports, such as Sanya and Shinoukville had been put in just to give another port stop, but even though there were not a lot of touristy things, i.e. temples, palaces, etc., to see, you could still see the culture and observe how the people lived. To a person, the people at the ports in which we stopped seemed glad to have us there, and were friendly and welcoming.