I had visited Hong Kong on R&R during the Vietnam War and frequently talked to my wife about how much I enjoyed the trip. Subsequently, my wife expressed an interest in visiting Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. I arranged this cruise on ... Read More
I had visited Hong Kong on R&R during the Vietnam War and frequently talked to my wife about how much I enjoyed the trip. Subsequently, my wife expressed an interest in visiting Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. I arranged this cruise on Holland America (our 4th Holland America cruise) to satisfy her wishes. Due to my wife's bad back, I made the travel arrangements accordingly. I booked all of the airline and hotel reservations through my travel agent and I will not be reviewing them. If you want information on them, please post a comment and I will respond. I insured the trip with Allianz through my travel agent.
Here was the itinerary:
Mar 9 - Flew United Airlines economy from Baltimore to Los Angeles (layover in Denver) and spent the night at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel.
Mar 10-11 - Flew United Airlines business class to Narita Airport, Tokyo, Japan, and spent the night at the Hilton Narita hotel.
Mar 12 - Flew Singapore Airlines business class to Singapore.
May 13-16 - Spent 5 nights at the Conrad Centennial Hotel and toured Singapore.
May 17 - Embarked on Holland America ship ms Volendam for 14 day Asia Explorer cruise.
May 18 - Sea day.
Mar 19 - Nathon (Koh Samui), Thailand.
Mar 20-21 - Loem Chabang (Bangkok), Thailand.
Mar 22 - Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Mar 23 - Sea day.
Mar 24 - Phu My (Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon), Vietnam.
Mar 25 - Nha Trang, Vietnam.
Mar 26 - Sea day.
Mar 27 - Danang, Vietnam.
Mar 28 - Sea day.
Mar 29 - Halong Bay, Vietnam.
Mar 30 - Sea day.
Mar 31 - Debarked ms Volendam in Hong Kong.
Mar 31 - Apr 4 - Spent 5 nights at Habour Grand hotel (Hong Kong Island) and toured Hong Kong.
Apr 5 - Flew Japan Airlines economy to Narita Airport, Tokyo, Japan, and spent the night at the Hilton Narita hotel.
Apr 6 - Flew United Airlines business class to San Francisco.
Apr 6-11 - Visited relatives and toured San Francisco. Stayed 2 nights at Holiday Inn Express Fishermans Wharf.
Apr 12 - Flew United Airlines economy to Baltimore (layover in Chicago).
It was a memorable trip and I would definitely recommend the cruise. Our cruise was actually part of an extended repositioning cruise that eventually ended in Vancouver, BC. The Volendam is currently sailing out of Vancouver on Alaskan cruises.
One thing I was concerned about before the cruise was obtaining visas for Cambodia and Vietnam (US citizens only need a valid passport for Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong). Our travel agent had checked with Holland America beforehand and was told the visas could be obtained onboard and charged to our ship account. She was correct. The process is as follows:
1. Arrive at embarkation and fill out paperwork indicating which countries you require visas for.
2. The appropriate visa application paperwork is delivered to your cabin (Warning - It is a lot of paperwork but easy to fill out).
3. Deliver the completed paperwork to the Purser's office. Exception: You must retain the Vietnam landing pass - it must be presented and stamped by Vietnamese officials at each Vietnam port. DO NOT deliver it to the Purser's office. One of our shipmates did this and had to make a mad dash to the Purser's office to get it back just prior to departing on a shore excursion to Ho Chi Minh City.
4. The visa charges will show up on your ship account the next day.
NOTE: We were required to turn in our passports at embarkation. They were retained for the cruise entirety. We had to return to the Purser's office the day before debarkatiln to get them back.
Cabin: We stayed in a Verandah Suite, cabin 6145 (midship on starboard side). We have stayed in Varandah Suites on prior cruises and always get that cabin type. We had the best set of cabin stewards ever on a Holland America cruise. The only minor problem was some noise during noontime hour two times from the shops below our cabin (they were playing music and had a loudspeaker during a promotion). It only lasted about 20 minutes but was annoying since I was trying to take a nap on one occasion. Otherwise, this cabin location was excellent.
Luggage: We decided for this cruise to have Luggage Forward deliver a 29 inch suitcase to our cabin and pick it up at debarkation and deliver it back home. We packed all of our cruise clothes in it. It worked out well although I must warn you it is very expensive, especially if luggage is being delivered halfway around the world. However, if you tally up the excess airline baggage charges you would incur, it is not such a bad deal. Here is the process:
1. Sign up on the Luggage Forward web site. You will have to prepare a detailed packing list (it can be posted later but before your pickup date) and give them your ship cabin info, and pickup and return addresses (they can be different). You will also have to scan the title page of your passport so they can verify your identify (for customs purposes). You will schedule a pickup date/time. We scheduled a Mar 4 pickup for a Mar 17 delivery to the ship.
2. Prior to the scheduled pickup day Luggage Forward will mail you a packet of information. It will contain two big envelopes. One for luggage forwarding (Leg 1) and one for the return (Leg 2). Each will contain a big luggage tag containing a plastic envelope with a packing list (I.e the one you entered online), delivery and customs forms. Note: Put a copy of your title passport page with the paperwork in each luggage tag. You will attach the Leg 1 tag to your luggage. Warning: The Luggage Forward tag is very large and fits over your luggage handle. Do not put your Holland America luggage tag on the handle - tape it securely elsewhere on the luggage. Take the Leg 2 paperwork with you on the cruise. You will have to remove the Leg 1 tag and put the Leg 2 tag on prior to the luggage being returned.
2. You will receive timely emails at each step of the process (e.g. when they are scheduled pick up the luggage, when they actually picked it up, when it was delivered to the ship, when it was picked up from the ship, when it was delivered to the return address, etc.).
3. I had several questions and the customer service rep was very helpful (he was a former travel agent).
4. FedEx picked up our luggage at the designated date/time. Our luggage was waiting in our cabin when we boarded (it arrived before our other luggage),
5. I delivered the luggage to the Purser's office at 7 AM on debarkation day and it was subsequently picked up and safely delivered home.
6. Luggage Forward coordinates forwarding and return with the cruise line. Holland America knows you are using Luggage Forward.
7. Luggage Forward had told me if we were not home when the luggage was returned, they would come back the next day since they needed a signature. This was not the case. FedEx actually delivered it to my neighbor who was watching my house, picking up mail/newspapers, etc.
Dining: It was an easy walk from our cabin to the aft stairs and one deck down to our assigned seats in the main dining room on deck 5 (we prefer fixed dining, table for 4, at 8 PM). We had a lovely Israeli couple as seat mates and enjoyed their company. The dining room food was good to excellent (on a par with our previous Holland America cruises). Service was excellent and our wine steward was attentive and knowledgable.
We booked dinner reservations at the Pinnacle Grill and Canaletto Restautant prior to the cruise. Surprise! When we boarded we found out our travel agent had comped us the same reservations. So, we had 2 dinners at Pinnacle and 2 at the Canaletto. We have been to the Pinncle Grill many times and have never had a bad meal or service. The Canaletto was a new experience. They specialize in serving Italian food family style (I.e. shared dishes). Warning: They serve huge portions. If it is just you and your mate, order a large plate and share it. A normal person will not be able to finish a large plate. I highly recommend the Zuppa Di Pesce appetizer. It consists of a tomato saffron broth with mussels, clams, shrimps, scallops, cod, and vegetables. Really delicious. We ordered it both times we ate there. The first night we shared the spaghetti and meatballs and we shared the sautéed veal picatta the second night. Both were very good. We had pistachio gelato for dessert both nights.
Entertainment: No reviews.
Activities: The Volendam has a live 10-person poker table for those interested. They have a live Texas Holdem tournament every afternoon at 2:30 while at sea, and a live $1 - $2 Texas Holdem cash game every night at 9 PM while at sea. The dealers were excellent and the games are managed very well. We always had a full table for the afternoon tournaments and several times a second tournament was played immediately following the first. Entry fee is $30 and the top 5 of 10 players are in the money (payout is different if less than 10 players). 1st place gets $100, 2nd gets $60, and the remaining 3 get their $30 entry fee back. I won one tournament and finished in the money every time but two. I came out $40 to the good. Of course I probably spend that much or more on drinks during the games. Great fun. Note: Sign up for the tournament at the casino cashier cage when it opens at 9 AM to insure a place at the table. Oddly, interest in the cash game at night was non-existent. I went down to the casino every sea night and only 1 or 2 people had signed up. I don't think they ever had a game. This was completely opposite to my experience on two cruises on the ms Noordam. Hardly anybody showed up for the afternoon tournaments, but the nightly cash games had a full table (even though it was an electronic poker table - no dealer and virtual chips).
Shore Excursions. I prefer to use ratings of Poor, Average, Good, and Excellent instead of star ratings.
Nathon (Koh Samui), Thailand: Samui Sights with Lunch (5 1/2 hrs):
Bus tour. First stop was a local village where they demonstrate coconut shucking and the local coconut industry. Drink from a fresh coconut. Next, visit a fishing village and later see a trained monkey picking coconuts from a tree. Next stop is a seated Buddha in a temple complex that sits at top of about a hundred steps. Warning: The dress code is enforced. We saw a monk confront a man with a tank top and he was denied entrance. Final stop is lunch at a beach. Food was average. This was the only bad tour I experienced. The bus was really bouncy and had uncomfortable skinny seats. Also, the PA system in the bus kept experiencing feedback. That, combined with the guide's barely passable English, was not a pleasant experience. Rating: Poor.
Loem Chabang (Bangkok):
Day 1: Ayutthaya: A UNESCO World Heritage Sight (11 hrs):
Nice tour except for 3 hour bus trip going and returning. The first stop was the Bang Pa Summer Palace. This is a beautiful venue with lots of photo ops. However, there is a lot of walking involved. You visit a Chinese palace on the grounds (no shoes allowed). The next stop was one of the Ayutthaya sites. Supposedly it is a smaller version of Angkor Wat. I cannot judge that because I have not been to Angkor Wat. Interesting architecture, good photo ops. Lots of walking involved. We visited three different venues interrupted by lunch at a local resort, which was local food and very good. There was time to relax before the tour continued. Then there was the elephant ride! It was was interesting but if I had to do it again I would ride an elephant by myself. My wife and I rode together and it was very uncomfortable trying to use the camera (wife) and video (me) while holding on to the seating/canopy. I am 6'2" and 225 lbs. The ride isn't very long (15-20 minutes). The mahouts will take some pictures with your camera halfway through the ride for a couple of dollars. The elephants appeared to be treated well - lots of water and shade at the departure point. After that it was time to return to the ship. Rating: Good.
Day 2: Sanctuary of Truth. Fascinating tour of all wooden pagoda that is still a work in progress (kind of like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona). The highlight of this tour for me was the fantastic view of Pattaya Bay at he next stop (great photo op). Rating: Good.
Sihanoukville' Cambodia: Sihanouk like & Environs (3 1/2 hrs):
Bus tour of the Sihanoukvill port and surrounding area. Visit a pagoda, beach, fishing village, and local market. Kind of boring to me. The wife was more interested. Rating: Average.
Phu My (Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon): Sensational Saigon (8 hrs):
About a 2 hour bus trip from Phu My port to Saigon. You drive through the port town then out to countryside with lots of rice paddies until nearing Saigon. The skyline of Saigon looks like a modern Asian city, nothing like when I was stationed here 45 years ago. For instance, the tallest building in Saigon when I was there was probably 8 stories. Now, they have 50 story buildings and loads of 20-30 story buildings. New construction is everywhere. The tour visited the tallest building in Saigon and we took an elevator to the viewing deck (for $20 extra - a ripoff in my opinion). The view was spectacular but there was some haze that precluded a view of the airport (where I had neen sationed - kind of a bummer). The highlight of this tour for me was a visit to the former Presidential Palace which has been renamed Independence Palace. Very interesting to tour the basement bunker and see all the discarded U.S. Communications equipment. The tour also visited a museum (not great), and stopped at the Notre Dame cathedral downtown. We got to get off the bus and walk around the plaza and visit the Post Office across the street. Lunch was served mid-tour in a very nice hotel (Windsor Plaza). The food was local but was average to me. If you wanted to tour Saigon on your own it could be quite an ordeal getting transportation to and from the port to Saigon. You would probably have to take cyclos or taxis to get around Saigon. I am not familiar with the buses. I did not see any hop-on hop-off tour buses like I did on Singapore, and later in Hong Kong. The local merchants accepted U.S. dollars although they aren't supposed to. Rating: Good.
Nha Trang, Vietnam: Nha Trang by Rickshaw & Shopping (4 hrs):
This was the second best tour we went on with the exception of Halong Bay. Nha Trang harbor is absolutely stunning and beautiful. There is a cable car that travels from the town to a resort island across the harbor. The cable car stanchions are shaped like the Eiffel Tower and are colorfully lit at night. The cable cars pass very close to the ship. Do not miss viewing this at night. The tour visited a silk embroidery factory which was fascinating. You get to see the Vietnamese artisans (all were women) weaving intimate designs using different colored silk threads. They look like actual oil paintings. Absolutely amazing artwork. Several people bought one and had it shipped home. They wrapped it at the factory. Across the street from the factory was an array of rickshaws. We all got in a rickshaw (about 25-30 people were in our tour group) and we're off on a 2-3 mile ride to the next stop.The rickshaws are all one seaters (rider in front) and only have one bicycle gear, although I noticed two of them had electric assist. They just barrel through intersections and it is quite harrowing. About 3/4 through the trip, they had to climb a bridge with a moderate incline over an inlet. They all dismounted and stated pushing the rickshaws! After getting to the top, they remounted, went downhill for a quarter mile and u-turned to approach the stop. By this time I had passed my wife. When I dismounted, she was nowhere to be seen. I told the tour guide and then went out in the street and zoomed in with my video camera and I finally saw her coming on. Her rickshaw had been hit in the back on the bridge by a woman on a motorbike! My wife was OK and things were sorted out by the locals and she went on her way. We visited the Long San Pagoda complex which has a huge white Buddha sitting at the top of 208 steep steps. There was a reclining Buddha about 1/3 of the way up. I climbed all the way up (I used a walking stick) but my wife decided to sit down and rest. I took the camera and got some great photos (my video camera battery had died earlier). The final stop was a visit to a local market. My wife and I were tired so we stayed on the bus. Rating: Excellent.
Danang, Vietnam: Imperial Hue (8 1/2 hrs):
About a 2 1/2 hour bus ride to the Imperial Citadel in Hue. The scenery is outstanding. You travel through Danang (going over the dragon bridge although photo op is poor) before approaching the mountains and sometimes the cloud cover is at your level. It had been raining this day although it had stopped by the time we got to Hue. You travel through a tunnel built through the mountains. The Hue citadel is hiuge and provides some good photo ops. Our tour guide was excellent and spoke good Emglish. Warning: Lots of walking involved but not much climbing. Lunch was provided at a local hotel with local cuisine and was quite good. We also visited a tomb (not impressed) before returning to the ship. Rating: Good.
Halong Bay, Vietnam: Halong Nay Cruise & Thien Kung Cave (3 1/2 hrs):
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is not to be missed. The pictures you have seen of Halong Bay and the rock formations cannot do it justice. Absolutely the most beautiful scenery of the entire cruise. You board a fishing junk at the rear of the ship and cruise approximately 30 minutes to the cave. You get off the junk and walk up probably 50-75 steps to reach the entrance to the cave. The day we toured there it was a zoo. There were 20-30 junks vying for docking space and a huge snaking line up the steps to the entrance, although it moved at a good pace. Inside the cave is very interesting. You are walking on uneven surfaces up and down, although there are steps provided. The inside is lit up with different colored lights. Warning: It was very warm in the cave (at least 20 degrees warmer than outside). Take your windbreaker off before entering and be sure to hydrate beforehand. Depending on the pace of the crowd, the cave tour takes about 20-30 minutes. After exiting (not where you entered), you walk down a series of steps to the dock and get back on your junk. Next, you cruise through the rock formations of Halong Bay, The junks move at a slow pace and there is plenty of time for pictures. You spend about 45 minutes cruising and this is the highlight of the tour. Then you cruise for another 30 minutes and return to the ship. Rating: Good. I would rate this Excellent except for the crowds. We took the morning tour. There was an afternoon tour at 1 PM which may be less crowded. Read Less