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Home > Member Reviews > DrKoob's Port Reviews of Singapore, Bangkok (Laem Chabang), Da Nang, Hanoi, Hong Kong

DrKoob's Port Reviews of Singapore, Bangkok (Laem Chabang), Da Nang, Hanoi, Hong Kong
Azamara Quest cruise in February 2010
Member Name: DrKoob
Cruise Date: February 2010
Embarkation: Singapore
Destination: Asia
Member Review: DrKoob's Azamara Quest Review
Singapore
Port Rating: 4.0 out of 5+
Our Singapore Experience We arrived in Singapore, if not bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, certainly no worse for wear. After clearing passport control, (A quick note here. They will stamp your passport and give you a small sheet of paper which is part of what you already filled out. DO NOT LOSE THAT PAPER! You will need it to exit Singapore, or so we have been told) we grabbed our luggage and took a $S7 (That S is for Singapore dollars which at the time were $1.37 to $1 US dollar) cab ride into the city. The cabs in Singapore are AMAZINGLY cheap. We never took a cab ride for more than $S8. Many times that was for four of us. That means most were under $5 US. Cabs were all clean and cab drivers were very nice folks many of whom kept up a running patter while driving. Being tall, if we went anywhere, I was usually in the front seat. We checked into our hotel, The Intercontinental, by 2:30 and both grabbed quick showers before heading out to sightsee. A few words about the hotel. It is the epitome of class. We were very impressed with the service and the public areas. Our room was outstanding with a king size bed and lots of room. It was very well appointed and centrally located to just about anything we wanted to do. Our friends Mike and Carol and Debi and Jack were also staying there and had a similar experience. The best part for us was that it was a real bargain as we had found the room on Hotels.com for under $150 US. For that price it was a steal. The hotel is connected to the Burgis Shopping Mall which also has its own subway station as well. After our showers we decided to walk through the mall to get a local feel for the sights and sounds. It was your typical mall experience, only cleaner. Singapore is probably the cleanest city I have ever been in. I fully realize that it is their autocratic government that keeps it this way but it does make for an outstanding tourism experience. After a short walk through the mall, we decided we needed to get a little more personal with Singapore so we headed outside into their local market and hawker food areas. It was packed with locals shopping for their evening meal or eating it right there on the street. It was a virtual feast of picture taking for me (but little did I know how much I would be blown away in Bangkok) and a plethora of smells and sights. Check out the rest of my Singapore photos for the best visual effect. By 4:00 we were back at the hotel where we ran into Mike. It was great seeing him (always fun to run into one of your best friends thousands of miles from home) and after a little confab about later plans we went upstairs to dress for dinner. Before dinner we had planned to meet with a bunch of our Cruise Critic friends at Raffles Long Bar and a grab an original Singapore Sling. If you haven't heard of the Long Bar or Raffles Hotel it is THE historic hotel and bar/restaurant of colonial Singapore as well as where the Singapore Sling (a disgustingly sweet and EXPENSIVE drink) was invented. We had heard that the Slings at the Long Bar were notoriously expensive and that proved to be the case as two of them were in excess of $S60. But this was one of those experiences that you "have to have." From the Intercontinental, Raffles is just a short five minute walk away. That was super. We stayed about an hour and got to know all the fine folks from our Cruise Critic roll call. We were amazed that more than 25 of the 40 so on the thread showed up. After drinks, eight of us who were traveling together headed by taxi to an Asian restaurant that I had found pre-cruise through a marvelous blog about Singapore food called A Love Affair with Singapore Food. They had raved about Indochine's Madame Butterfly Restaurant at Clark Quay and after a crazy taxi ride and losing four of our party, we finally figured out where the place was and had a wonderful dinner. It was served family style so we all got to try a little bit of everything and Kathleen's Harmonious Melody which had red dates, strawberries, papaya, green apples, carrots, pork, and much more in it was easily the best thing we ate. After dinner and a short stroll on Clark Quay for picture taking we headed back to the hotel for a good night's sleep, our first in a bed in more than 40 hours of travel. Amazingly we were still moving. The next morning I woke up early and decided to take a walk instead of doing a workout. Who should I meet in the lobby at 6:00 am but Mike with the same idea. We started off in search of closeup pictures of the Merlion, Singapore's symbol. I found it with my iPhone on Google maps and quickly got walking directions. We figured we could be there and back in an hour so off we went. The only problem was that after 30 minutes of walking, I rechecked the Google map application and found that I had been walking in the wrong direction. We headed back to the other way but but only got as far as the War Memorial before we ran out of time. We were rewarded with some great, pre-dawn pics of Raffles but that was about it. No Merlion until later. After a quick shower, we met the group for breakfast in the hotel's dining room, ate quick and were off with Mike and Carol to do the Singapore Flyer. The Flyer is a giant carousel (there are five like it in the world) much like the London Eye that we had ridden on during one of our European trips. You take a half hour ride in an air-conditioned capsule that can hold up to 30 people (luckily ours had only 8) and you get amazing views of the entire city. It was stupendous. After the Flyer we grabbed a cab so Mike and I could get some quick pictures of the Singapore Merlion. The Merlion is the official symbol of Singapore. A combination of a mermaid and a lion which has water coming out of its mouth. It is set on the riverside and thousands come to take their picture with it. After the Merlion pictures, it was back to the hotel to pack as we wanted to get to our ship in hopes of boarding and getting settled in our cabin before a hurried dinner and a bus ride we had preplanned with 18 other Cruise Critic friends to see the world famous Singapore Night Safari. But the quick boarding and escort to our cabin was not to be. Find out more when you click on our Azamara Adventure begins.



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Bangkok (Laem Chabang)
Port Rating: 5+ out of 5+
Our Bangkok Experience Our first port of call after sailing from Singapore was the amazing Bangkok, Thailand. As this is my first page reporting about a port of call, I need to mention here that we did not use any of the ship’s shore excursions on this cruise. That’s because we were traveling with our Martini Mate buddies, Mike and Carol Preisman. Mike is the god of private tours. We have used tour guides Mike has researched and used in France, Italy, Alaska and beyond and never had a bad experience. This was the first time we had actually traveled with Mike and Carol on a foreign cruise with so many superb ports of call so we did the logical thing and just told Mike to book the tours and let us know how much money we needed to bring along to pay for them. (That’s Mike and Carol at the Grand Palace below. And seriously, besides being great friends, they know tours!) Once we were on the cruise all we had to do was ask Mike what time we needed to meet and where and we were all set. I should tell you here that every guide Mike booked on this cruise as well as every itinerary he planned was perfect (with one minor glitch--see my report on Danang--not his fault) and we had a superb (if not sweaty) time on all of them. It made the cruise as well as the planning so much easier for us. If you need more info on any port of call in the world and what tours to take you can do no better than going to their website and reading what they did in each city and then doing that. You can get to his and Carol’s website by going to www.thepreismans.com Day 1 in Bangkok All of that needed to be said before I moved on to describing Bangkok. We arrived midday on the fourth day of the cruise and were met at the pier by Tong of Tong’s Tours. You can see her website by going to http://www.tourwithtong.com. Tong has six or seven guides and a variety of tours she can take you to throughout Thailand. Mike had booked her far enough in advance that he was able to secure her personal services for the eight of us. (We traveled on all shore tours in a group of eight. They included ourselves, Mike and Carol, their neighbors Hans and Barbara and Jack and Debi, friends we had sailed with before.) Tong greeted us and we jumped into her beautiful van they was easily the best land transport we had on this trip and headed directly to the Bangkok Grand Palace. A few words about the absolutely delightful Tong. She is by far the most outstanding tour guide we had on this trip. Easily the equivalent of the best tour guides we have ever had in Europe. But more than that, she is hilarious, fun to be around and totally knowledgeable about her country. She is always on-time and kept us on-task and moving forward, but in a good way. She was flexible and did an excellent job of adapting to our needs dependent on weather, wanting to shop or just calling it a day. To truly experience Tong you need to see her in action. On our second day with her I realized I had to have a movie of her to help you understand the “Tong” experience. So if you click here, you will see a short film I made of her in the van as we headed out on day two to the Train and Floating markets. Suffice it to say that both our days with Tong were outstanding. Back to our first stop, the Grand Palace. I would love to put into words the magnificence that is the Bangkok Grand Palace but words just can’t do it justice. It is the most incredible set of buildings, temples, statues and so much more that I have ever seen. And despite the fact that it was near 90ƒ in the shade with 95% humidity, (I am sure it was well over 100ƒ in the sun) we trudged through the entire palace with our mouths hanging open in awe. We had seen pictures before we got there and you can certainly see mine but until you actually go there and see it for yourself, you won’t understand what I mean. We spent about two and a half hours touring the Grand Palace and to be honest, had it been early morning and about 25 degrees cooler I could have stayed there much longer. As it was, we felt we certainly got our money’s worth. Speaking of money, the entrance to the Grand Palace was not included in the cost of our tour so be prepared and have 350 Thai Baht (about $11) per person with you for admission. While I am on the subject of money, in Thailand you need their currency so make sure to change money on the ship into Baht. In Vietnam we were fine with US dollars but in Thailand they only want Baht. We were able to change dollars into Baht on the ship the day before until the ship ran out but they also bring a Thai tourism representative on board as soon as we dock and they have plenty of money to exchange. And if you have a great deal left when you return to the ship, they (the purser) will exchange it back for you at the same rate they sold it to you originally. We thought that was a great perk. And do not plan to rely on ATMs in Thailand as they were not really plentiful. In fact we only saw a rare few in the areas that we toured. After we finished our tour of the Grand Palace we jumped back into the van and headed to the river for our dragon boat ride. If you have never seen a dragon boat, imagine a long, thin boat that holds up to 10 people (two to a seat, side-by-side) with the driver at the rear. The main featured of the boat is the engine. A dragon boat will usually have an eight-cylinder car engine literally bolted on to the rear of the boat powering a single propeller on a very long pole that the driver dips into the water. It is an one-of-a-kind experience. Bangkok is known as the Venice of Asia and for good reason. There are hundreds of miles of canals and once we had boarded our dragon boat we set off to tour them. On our journey we got to see how many of the Thai people live. There were homes along the canals and they varied from the incredibly beautiful and expensive to one room shanties. In many cases, those two would be right next to each other. We saw all kinds of incredible sights including other small boats that were literally floating restaurants where one person would have an entire kitchen sitting in front of them. They would be hailed by someone on shore, pull up to that person(s) and sell them their meal. At one point, Tong had our boat driver, pull up to a house where she purchased four or five packs of what I can best describe as old-style cafeteria-type dinner rolls. For a few minutes this was a mystery to us as to why she was buying all this bread. She told us to look on the other side of the boat and we discovered we were completely surrounded by a huge school of some of the biggest catfish you have ever seen. She told us to break up the bread and throw it in the water to the fish and watch what happens. Two words---FEEDING FRENZY! It was was amazing watching these fish (which she told us were considered holy and were protected) attack the bread and each other to get to the bread. I took far too many pictures of them but thankfully I only include a small percentage of those in my photo albums. After feeding the fish we continued on until we got back to the river once again (check out all the pictures for the balance of what we saw) and disembarked for a short walk through a small marketplace until we reached the temple housing the incredible Reclining Buddha. If you are not aware of the Reclining Buddha then you just have to see the pictures and know that this Buddha is probably the longest Buddha in the world, that it is made entirely of gold, that it is laying down and at almost the length of a half a football field. The face are a work of art as are the feet and the entire statue is awe inspiring. The photo at right is Kathleen standing near the Buddha’s feet. It will almost give you an idea of the size and scale of this magnificent work of art. After our Reclining Buddha experience the next stop was supposed to have been downtown for dinner at a restaurant we had picked out in advance but some of our party had suffered through difficulties with Singapore food and were in favor of returning to the ship at this point. Having seen the sanitary conditions of the food markets, we were inclined to agree so we were off to the ship. I should add that we were very glad we did as the ship was serving their Thai buffet that evening and it ended up being what I consider the best meal I have ever had on a cruise ship. Check out the part of my review on food for more about it.

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.


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Da Nang
Port Rating: 5+ out of 5+
Hoi Ann and Danang: Our favorite stop in Vietnam with one bad hour. This was a kind of strange day due to the guide who arrived to escort us in the morning. I would say that this was the worst day we had touring and since it was also our favorite day I guess this means it wasn’t really that bad. We arrived in Danang early in the morning and were off the ship at 7:00 am to meet our guide, Minh (as in Ho Chi Minh). Minh was great at the start of the day. A really great guy. He knew a ton and spoke great English. We were very pleased with the first hour of our tour. We headed off to the ruins at My Son. These ruins are more than 1000 years old and truly incredible. It took us about an hour to get to the ruins and once we arrived there we had to get out and walk quite a ways to get to the actual ruins. The “road” you walk on soon becomes a trail made up of stones and dirt. If you aren’t a decent walker this is not the tour for you. My general impression of most of the places we went in Asia is that it would be very difficult to be handicapped here. As the eight of us walked to the ruins it was getting very warm. First Debi decided that she couldn’t walk the whole way and turned back. When we arrived at the ruins/relics Barbara and Carol went to sit in the shade and get out of the heat while Mike went off to take pictures. Jack, Kathleen, Hans and I were with Minh who got very upset that the others were not there to listen to his talk about the ruins. Minh had us standing in the sun telling us about the ruins and relics for about 30 minutes. That’s him doing his speech at right. He kept repeating basically the same thing. Finally Barbara and Carol had moved closer to us and we needed to get back to the car so that they (or any of us) didn’t pass out from the heat. I finally had to interrupt Minh and tell him that we needed to leave and get back to the van and get into some air conditioning. Minh went ballistic. He accused us of not caring about his culture because we would not all listen to his entire lecture. We tried to explain that to us it was more important that we make sure that we didn’t have to call an ambulance for one of us due to heat stroke but he would have none of it. He set off towards the van at a very fast pace, leaving us in his dust. He only stopped long enough to point out another relic that had large holes on either side of it and said, “This is where you Americans tried to bomb our precious relics.” It was the most anti-American spirit we had heard on the trip. He then set off towards the van again at a high rate of speed. When we got back to the van, he told us that he could no longer be our guide and that he would call ahead to Ha and make sure that there was a new guide waiting for us in Hoi Ann. We tried to explain to him that we were pleased with his services up to the point when he decided to object to us favoring our wives over his culture. He said that he didn’t care about money or anything else, he just thought we hated his culture. So back in the van we had a long, silent trip to Hoi Ann and on the way, we had to listen to Minh on the phone talking to Ha. He actually started to cry. After this awkward trip, we arrived back in Hoi Ann where we picked up our new guide, Thanh who was excellent for the rest of the day. His picture is below. What a great guy to step in like that and a total professional. The first place Thanh took us to in Hoi Ann was a silk factory. He dropped us off and the folks at the factory took over and showed how the process went from worms to silk and then of course tried to sell us their products. Usually this is where we resist. We had so far not purchased anything really but the quality of the goods was amazing as was the price. There was a huge room where a number of women sat doing silk embroidery that was then framed and hung on the wall. It was amazing to look at. When I first saw it I thought I was seeing photographs hung on the wall. When I saw that it was embroidery I was totally flabbergasted. We purchased one of them for our bedroom. Others bought embroidered table linens and pictures as well. Then we were ushered into a wonderfully air-conditioned studio that was full of beautiful, silk and silk blend clothing. Coats, scarves, purses, ties and more. Almost everyone bought something. We later to talked to others on the ship who had purchased clothing that they had custom-made for them. They were of amazing quality and fit. We did not hear one person who had clothes made for them that didn’t love what they got. We got purses for Kathleen, Michelle and Jenna as well as two silk ties for me. As many of you reading this know, I don’t wear ties that often but at $3 for a silk tie it was hard to pass them up. After this buying spree we were off to walk through the center of the village on our way to lunch. It was a great walk and Hoi Ann is beautiful. We passed all kinds of shops including a number of art galleries. As we walked by one, I saw this oil painting I loved. I called Kathleen back and showed it to her and she loved it as much as I did. Long story short, it is being shipped to us. Mike and Carol liked the artist as well as they purchased an even larger painting from his collection. Painting purchased and shipped (we hope) it was off to lunch at a nice little cafe called Tam Tam. Most of us ordered the same thing, carmelized pork and a spring roll appetizer. Kathleen tried a pork tenderloin dish that she thought wasn’t as good. Jack got what every one agreed was the best. A really good stir fry. It was great. A lukewarm coke for me (hard to get good ice in Vietnam) and cold beers and ice tea for everyone else and we were on our way. One more pagoda/temple combo right there in Hoi Ann and then back in the van for two more quick stops. The first stop was at the Marble Mountains. These are a group of five small mountains (here in Washington they would be hills) that each represent a different Buddhist deity. The big draw here is that the mountains are really made of marble and there are (it seems like) hundreds of shops that carve marble and sell statuary. We drove the small village past multiple statuary shops to stop at one that I am sure was getting a nice kickback from our guide company. It was really nice though and we got to see actual carving done. After a 30 minute tour and restroom visits (many stops are about shopping and clean restrooms) we were almost ready to go but Barbara and Hans found they had to have a particular sculpture. They did a little bargaining and ended up with it going into a box for shipment to Boynton Beach. Kind of an abstract piece that I really liked. Good choice. One more stop at the famous or infamous China Beach. If you have never seen the 1980s television series or read much history of the Vietnam war, China Beach was the main liberty spot for thousands of American GIs during the war. The beach was beautiful but our stop was more about the history. While we were there we were met by the illustrious Ha Long who owned the tour company we were using in all the ports in Vietnam. Her website can be found at http://www.discovervietnam.com.vn/Eng/index.php and except for the bad experience with Minh here in Danang, her guides were outstanding. She wanted to touch base with us about the Minh problem, pick up payment for all five days of tours and give the ladies all a beautiful Vietnamese silk scarf. It was a great ending to a day when we had seen some great sights and had half a day of excellent touring.



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Hanoi
Port Rating: 4.0 out of 5+
Hanoi and Halong Bay:Slow junk ride, long car ride and incredible cyclo ride After leaving Danang we sailed until midday the next day when we entered Halong Bay. If you have not heard of Halong Bay before it is a UNESCO World Heritage site composed of thousands of limestone rocks and islands that jut out of the sea. It is a truly amazing place and as we sailed in on a cloudy but humid day the rocks and islands appeared out of the mist. We sailed about three hours through those rocks and islands with quite a lot of nearby shipping traffic before we docked in Halong for the first of our two days in this part of northern Vietnam. Mike had signed us up with the illustrious Ha for a junk ride for three to four hours which would include a tour of one of the major caves on one of the islands. We left the ship and were met by our guide, Tuan who turned out to be outstanding in his knowledge and his service. We were thrilled to find out that Ha had arranged for pick up inside the port. If you are booking a private tour in this port, please make sure that you specify to the guide you hire that you want to be picked up INSIDE the port. As we left the port we passed a whole group of folks who were making a very long walk to the port entrance pulling suitcases for an overnight stay on a junk in the bay. Once we were in the van it was off to the junk port. I had a hard time trying to figure out what to call this port. You just have to imagine arriving at a place where there were hundreds and hundreds of junks. Most could carry 50-60 people if fully loaded but many (like ours) embarked on their “three-hour tours” with only 8, 6 or in some cases only 2 people on board. There were a huge numbers of these junks and most were sitting empty waiting for work. We sailed to our first and only stop as soon as we cast off, the Thien Cung grotto, an incredible cave that words just cannot describe as much as I would like to. And the real problem is that pictures don’t do it justice either. I doubt a movie would as well. When we got done climbing the very steep stairs and got into the cave all I could say was “WOW” and “Holy Cow” over and over again. I kept shooting pictures hoping they would come out. On the back of the camera they looked wonderful and when I got them back to the computer, some were even fairly in focus (considering how dark it had been in the cave) but not a single one of them really showed you the awesomeness that was the cave. They (not sure who “they” is) have put up a bunch of colored spotlights throughout the entire cave and it makes for an incredible place but like I said, pictures and words just can’t do it justice. It was probably one of the most beautiful places I saw on this trip. I guess you will just have to go there to see it. In the meantime I will just say, WOW! After the cave it was just a leisurely boat ride all around Halong Bay. It was relaxing and a great time for photography. After about two more hours of cruising, it was back to the junk port, into the van and back to the ship for dinner and a good night’s sleep as tomorrow would be a VERY long day. The next morning we met Tuan at 7:00 am and we were off to Hanoi. Unfortunately Hanoi is a solid 3.5 hours from Halong Bay by car. (There were lots of great rice paddies to go through on this long drive but how many can you see.) And in case you haven’t read this before, Vietnamese traffic is nuts! This very long trip would be accomplished on two lane roads that went through something like 15 villages and towns on the way there. If there had been a highway or freeway, the same trip would have taken about 90 minutes (my estimate) but as it was, we never got much over 45 mph and often were going much slower. One thing I want to note about driving in Vietnam is that even though there are no highways or freeways Vietnamese drivers hardly ever stop. They may slow down but I can tell you that once I figured this out and started watching it we did the entire three and a half hour trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay through all those towns and villages and we only stopped three times. Can you imagine that? All those miles and only three stops. It’s amazing. Once we reached Hanoi we had a short tour since most of the day was spent driving. Our first stop was the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. We had been told in advance that we would probably not be able to enter the tomb due to the long lines so we hadn’t come prepared to go in the tomb. Inside is displayed the actual body of Ho Chi Minh, perfectly embalmed for all to see. When we got there we found no crowds and Tuan told us we would be able to go inside the tomb except for the fact that all but two of us weren’t dressed for it. You cannot wear shorts or sandals and still enter the actual mausoleum so we were all (except two of us) out of luck. Since we didn’t want those two people to hold up the rest of the group, it was decided no one would go inside. This didn’t sit well with one of those who was dressed enough to go in but that was that. After taking pictures of us in front of the tomb we walked behind it to view the Presidential Palace and the famous House on Stilts where Ho Chi Minh had lived during the Vietnamese war with the U.S. After that you also see his car collection, the pond in front of his home as well as the house where he died. Then it was a click walk to the “One Pillar Pagoda,” an old pagoda that had been rebuilt in the middle of a small pond on a single pillar. After that it was back in the van for a quick trip to the Temple of Literature. Not really a temple as much as the original university in Vietnam. It dates from early in the 10th century and consists of five separate sections each one created for a different reason. It was a quick (45 minute) and fairly interesting part of our tour but what followed by another short and sweet stop at the Hanoi Hilton. For those of you who don’t know your Vietnam war history, the Hanoi Hilton is most widely known here in the United States as the prison where our pilots who were POWs during the Vietnam war were held. Among those held there was presidential candidate John McCain. The focus at the prison though is on the period before the war with the US as the site had been a prison long before that time. Most of the exhibits had to do with that era and the freedom fighters who were fighting the colonial powers long before it was used to house our POWs. It too is a fairly interesting and short part of the tour but we could have easily skipped it if there had been less time. I would recommend it if you have the time but don’t sweat it if you miss it. But I would sweat missing what we did after we left the Hanoi Hilton. I would not only sweat it but I would cry about it. We did a one hour cyclo tour of the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It’s a tour that really made the day worthwhile and for me it was an incredible photographic experience. A cyclo is a three-wheeled bicycle that has a seat for a passenger in front of a the cyclo-pedaler who is sitting on a bike seat and pedaling. Think of it as a three wheeled rickshaw with the propulsion from the rear. And the draw here is the up-close and personal look at Hanoi traffic and street life. It was an incredible hour and if you check out my Best of Asia photo album you will see that much of it comes from this one hour ride. It was truly amazing. Some of the group were a little worried about facing the traffic sitting out there in the open but those of us who just let if flow and enjoyed the ride had an incredible time. Check out the pictures to see what I mean. After this wonderful ride around the Old Quarter we walked across the street from where the cyclo drivers dropped us to see the Ngoc Son pagoda. I’ll be honest, at this point most of us really didn’t want to see another pagoda, we just wanted to head back to the ship as we had that very long drive ahead of us. But see the pagoda we did and then it was off to the ship. We arrived back after 7:00 pm and were met by John, our cruise director as well as the ship’s band and a bunch of folks with champagne and drinks to welcome us back. What a nice surprise and a great end to a very long day.



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Hong Kong
Port Rating: 5+ out of 5+
Hong Kong: Our final destination—3 days and on our way home The end. I hate facing the end of a vacation. One of the great things about this cruise had been the overnight stays in all but one of the ports and that made it a little easier to end this cruise than normal. We arrived in Hong Kong on Friday and thankfully, we didn’t have to be off the ship until Saturday. This meant we had an entire day to tour and treat Quest as our hotel in the harbor. We sailed into Hong Kong harbor early on Friday morning. Mike and I were up on the deck to take early morning photos. Sailing into Hong Kong harbor is an unforgettable experience. The harbor is amazingly busy with Kowloon on the mainland side and Hong Kong island opposite. Quest docks at the cruise terminal which is right on the waterfront in Kowloon next to the famous Star Ferry terminal. And when you get off the gangplank, strangely, you go directly into a mall. A mall with free WiFi for us techie geek types but not a single place to sit. Kind of a strange way to get off and on the ship but kind of cool too. One of the great things about being in Hong Kong overnight as opposed to when we started the cruise in Singapore is that in Singapore, every time you get on and off the ship you had to go through customs and passport control. For that reason our evening trip to the Night Safari in Singapore was a real pain and it’s not a very big encouragement to get off and on the ship there. But in Hong Kong, it’s walk off and walk on. You just let the ship’s people buzz your seapass card and you are off or on. Hong Kong knows how to do it right. In Hong Kong we had two goals. We wanted to go to the top of Victoria Peak and we wanted to go to Lantau Island and see the Big Buddha. We had decided we would do both, one on Friday and one on Saturday and we would decide which based on weather. If we got up on Friday and the peak that we could see from the ship was shrouded in clouds, we would head for Lantau Island. Especially if the weather forecast for the next day was better than for Friday. That’s exactly what happened so we were off to Lantau to see the Big Buddha. There are two ways to get there. One is to take a ferry and a bus. The other is to take the MTR, Hong Kong’s wonderful mass transit system. We talked to some people who had been there before and everyone said, “take the MTR.” So at around 8:30 am we walked off the ship and headed over to the Visitor Info Center next to the Star Ferry terminal. If you need any help, these people are right there and easy to find, very knowledgeable and just great people. They directed us to the Tsim Sha Tsui station and told us which trains to take. I will admit that finding our way through the underground tunnels to get to the right train was a bit of challenge but we did make it. Once you find your train and where it boards, buying your ticket is a piece of cake. There are route maps on the wall and you touch your destination on a map attached to the ticketing machine. It instantly tells you how much to put in (this was especially fun on some machines which only took coins) and once you put in the money, it prints your ticket, you board and you are on the way on the cleanest, most efficient, quietest, safest mass transit system I have ever seen. It makes just about every other mass transit system we have ever been on look sick. Everyone should use this one as their model when they want to build mass transit. In no time at all we were standing on Lantau Island waiting to board the gondola ride to the top of the mountain to see the Big Buddha. You need to know that I am not a big fan of heights. Some bother me a little (like the Singapore Flyer) others are a little worse (like the float plane trip we took in Alaska) and some totally freak me out. This gondola ride was just on the far side of totally freaking me out. You sit in a little gondola that the signs say can hold up to 20 people (YIKES!) but should really hold a max of 10 and you start up the hill. The first part of the ride looks a lot like the gondola ride they used to have (they may still have it) at Disneyland. It was long and flat and I could see the other end (or what I thought was the other end) and not very high. The problem was that once the gondolas got to where I had originally thought was the end of the line, the car clicks over onto another line and heads up the mountain. On the way to the top of the mountain the car takes you high (guessing more than 1000 feet but at that point it looked like about two miles) over water and then over the mountains as it goes up. I think I could have handled it without a problem if it hadn’t been for the high winds that day. My guess is the wind was blowing from right to left at about 30-40 mph. About that time Kathleen was getting marks on her legs from my grip. I was totally freaked out. If we hadn’t had a gentlemen in the car with us who went up every day (he worked at the top) and told us that that much wind was normal, I might have been even worse. As it was, I count it as one of the WORST experiences of my life and definitely the one part of the entire trip I would not want to do again. That said, Mike loved it and Kathleen, Barbara and Hans were OK with it. Only my good buddy Carol was almost as freaked as I was. She more from the noise than the heights but both got to me. Kathleen, Carol and I took the bus back down as we refused to get back on the gondolas. The Buddha was very cool even if shrouded in mist. There is a little village of tourist-type shops (where isn’t there?) on the way to the actual Buddha. Another thing we had read about and planned to do while on Lantau was to have the vegetarian lunch at the Lin Po Monastery. If you are thinking about doing that and you are not a vegan and don’t like “slimy” (as Hans called it) food, the don’t eat there. It was an interesting experience but I certainly would not do it again. After lunch a tour of the temple (another temple???) we headed back down the mountain (three of us on the gondola and three on the bus) to meet back at the MTR station for the ride back into the city. Our second trip on the MTR was just as good as the first one. Then it was back to the ship for most of the gang who were tired out from their long day but for Mike and I it was a walk on the sea wall and down the Hong Kong Hollywood Walk of Fame. This is a walk of fame that is much like the Hollywood Blvd. version with stars in the sidewalk honoring the best of Hollywood film stars including Jackie Chan, Chow Yung Fat and Bruce Lee among others. After our walk we went back to the ship, got dressed for dinner and met in Aqualina for our final dinner onboard. By 8:00 pm we were done eating and standing at the rail waiting for the Hong Kong Laser Show that takes place each and every night on the Kowloon and Hong Kong waterfront. It is a coordinated laser-light show as well as coordinating the lights on the fronts of buildings all along the waterfront. I want to say right now that the best place in all of the Hong Kong area to see this show is on the top deck of any ship moored at the Hong Kong cruise terminal. It’s the proverbial 50 yard line. The show is awesome but in talking to others later one, they were disappointed and said that maybe it had been over-sold and could not live up to their expectations. Many expected fireworks but there are only fireworks on special occasions like Chinese New Year, etc. I still liked it. It’s coordinated to music and it’s a great visual feast but if you are expecting something that will knock your socks off you will probably be disappointed too. Early the next morning we had to disembark Quest (they made us get off!!!!). While Mike, Carol, Hans and Barbara went to drop their luggage with Airport Express at the Kowloon MTR station, we checked into our hotel, The Langham. First lets talk about the Airport Express. It is the BEST way ever to get to the airport. Not just in Kowloon but anywhere in the world. I have never seen a better and less expensive way to get to the airport. Anytime during the day of your flight, you can go to an Airport Express MTR station (I think there are two or three) and check all your luggage. This is great if like Mike and Carol you are flying late at night (their flight left at midnight) and want to tour for the day. Then after touring, you return to the station and using the MTR ticket you purchased when you checked your luggage, you get on the train and head to the airport. The train is clean and has airplane like seats. The cost to the airport is less than $10 and you are there in less than 30 minutes. When I compare it to the light rail that was recently opened in Seattle it’s a wonder. A real wonder. We took it ourselves two days later. As to our hotel, The Langham, it was one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in my life. The service was wonderful and started from the minute we walked in. First, the hotel is 53 steps from the mall that houses the Cruise Terminal so that made it closer than any other hotel other than the one in the mall itself. We walked there from the cruise terminal and unless you have little or no luggage I would not suggest doing this. From the ship itself it was not that far to the hotel but from the area where they let you pick up your luggage it is quite a bit further. By the time we had made the very long walk, I was soaked in sweat from dragging our biggest bags and my computer bag while Kathleen dragged our carry-ons. But once we got there we were met by bellman who walked us up the stairs and got us to check in. We had not expected our room to be ready for us to check in at 9:00 am but the wonderful woman at the desk checked us in and said they would store our luggage for about an hour and our room would be ready by then. By 9:30! WOW! And to top it off, the wonderful young lady at the desk walked us to the lounge, got us complimentary coffee and told us she would come and get us when our room was ready. And sure enough by 9:30 we were dropping everyone’s carry-ons in our gorgeous room and we were off to see Victoria Peak with Mike and Carol. Hans and Barbara had already been to the peak on a previous visit to Hong Kong so they decided to head off to do some serious jewelry shopping. We took the Star Ferry to the Hong Kong side and then grabbed a cab to the Peak tram and headed to the top of the peak. From below the Peak looked covered in clouds but it did look better than it had the day before. But when we got to Peak we found that the view, though obscured by clouds, wasn’t too bad. When you go up the tram you have the opportunity to buy a ticket that includes both your tram ticket and admission to the top of the Peak. When you get off the tram you head up to the very top of the building to an observation deck that has the best views down to the harbor below. We did just that and the views were great. After about 40 minutes of viewing we were getting kind of hungry (comes from being starved on Quest for two weeks--that was sarcasm folks) so we decided to have lunch at a very authentic Hong Kong restaurant, Bubba Gump’s. Okay, so it isn’t authentic but it did have great views and we really felt like a burger and they had a good one. After a great lunch we headed downstairs for some souvenir shopping before taking a tram trip back down, and then a cab ride all the way from the tram station, through the tunnel to the Kowloon side and back to our hotel. After a short rest we were back out walking to Nathan Road (Kowloon’s biggest shopping street) so Carol and Kathleen could look for jade and Mike and I could snap pictures. A great time was had by all. Later we met Barbara and Hans had a quick dinner at the famous Jimmy’s Kitchen and then sent the four of them off to the airport for their midnight flight home. The next morning Kathleen and I slept in and went for a little jade shopping of our own at the Jade Market. If you are looking for low-priced jade, this is the place. It was a little bit of a walk but worth it. On the way back we got to walk through a great food market which was another interesting market experience. We had almost had as many of those on this trip as we had temple experiences. That was about it for us in Hong Kong except for a wonderful dinner to finish up the entire trip with Merabeth and Anne at the wonderful Hu Tong, a Cantonese restaurant in the building at 1 Peking Place (across the street from our hotel) on the 23rd floor. The restaurant is glass on one entire side and has an incredible view of the harbor so we got to see the laser show again, this time from above it. Besides that, the food was superb and the service excellent not to mention the great company. This was the second time we had finished up a vacation with a meal with Merabeth and Anne (we had previously in Rome in 2007) and we think it’s the best way to finish a trip. The next morning we were up and packed and left the hotel around 10:00 am for the Kowloon MTR station where we boarded the aforementioned Airport Express and headed out to the airport. Our flight left right on time but not before we got to experience the improved security for flights going into the USA from outside. Not only did we go through regular security before getting to the gate but once we were in the jetway there were at least 20 security people who went through our bags one more time and then frisked us thoroughly. So thoroughly that I almost needed a cigarette after. Thankfully Kathleen was frisked by a lady officer. Then it was on to the plane and home. Home from our best cruise ever and a vacation to rival our first trip to Italy.



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