Warning, if you're not a foodie the first few paragraphs will bore you!
FOOD & DINING VENUES
I am a lowly two-star mariner, but know the ropes of HAL cruising and had been going to the specialty restaurants to reduce my meals in the MDR on past cruises. After reading so much about HAL's cost-cutting measures I thought I'd be disappointed with my meals, but instead was pleasantly surprised. Certainly the portions are small, but not when it counts. On steak and lobster nights, it was more then enough (though I think some were ordering a second lobster tail -- and good for them!). My steak was perfectly medium-rare, and this was the first cruise it came out perfectly. Most of the lunches in the MDR, were even better than dinners. I was surprised to like even the chicken strips which appeared to be hand-breaded with a coating containing crispy almond slices. I loved them so much and knew my (12 year old) daughter would actually want to eat in the MDR if she could have them, so asked for it to be arranged, and no problem -- she had them for dinner that same evening. Curries, were mild and the lamb was fork-tender, and delicious. I usually don't order any ethnic food on HAL, because I mistakenly thought it would be food-fair quality. Shame on me!
As for the paid dining venues, we had 3 dinners in Canaletto, 2 dinners and 2 lunches in Pinnacle Grill. Pinnacle was excellent (as had been our previous experience), and the menu also included a page of selections from Tamarind (which I had tried on the Eurodam previously). I had not liked Canaletto on a past cruise, but due to recent reviews here gave it a try again. It was really tasty. Not every dish was to my liking, but we did get to try most of the selections over the 3 meals, as there were 3 people sharing -- lots of food to choose from each evening. The service in Canaletto was just as attentive and kind as I've had in Tamarind, and I feel like I'm getting better value as the price has crept up over the years for PG.
Breakfasts for us were primarily in the Lido. I liked the quiet atmosphere of MDR breakfasts, but the hours didn't always work. With my jetlag I was up early and waiting for Lido to open most mornings. I also seemed to have a better chance of getting my eggs done perfectly (for eggs benedict) as they were made to order instead of having the poached eggs reheated. I think the food in the Lido starts out very good, but if it sits there it tastes terrible. There was a huge difference between getting french toast made to order, vs. them taking it out of the warming drawer. The waffles also suffer under the heat lamp, so my main trick to the Lido was to pick anything they would make in front of me.
Prime lido breakfast times were terrible to get a seat. People were circling watching for any sign that you might be finishing, and if you were 4 people (at a table of 6 for instance), you could bet another couple would come to sit with you. Next cruise I think I will take those extra steps out to the pool deck -- it is such a quiet spacious atmosphere in comparison.
Tea time wasn't as good as I remembered, they serve Bigelow teas (English Breakfast, Darjeeling and Early Grey primarily -- not sure if they have herbal choices) and can't really manage to get you milk for your tea like they do the silver cream jugs. They will bring milk in a juice glass (which you can then spill all over the table when aiming for your teacup). The hot water comes to you in small metal-ish pots, but is often not quite hot enough to really brew well (which is done in your cup not a teapot). That aside, there were a couple of tasty deserts and sandwiches -- most were rather bland but pretty. My husband and daughter raved about the tuna salad sandwich, so when I asked for one they were already done. The next batch of sandwiches to come out did not include the tuna -- so be warned, they are a good thing and will be gobbled up!
Despite the great onboard food, don't fill up on a big breakfast for your days in port on this itinerary. Vietnam (in particular) is a treasure of AMAZING food! Eat in the lido on your day in Cambodia (you'll understand when you go!). Okay, enough about food.
ENTERTAINMENT (or lack thereof)
I will start by admitting my husband and I are in our mid 40's and do not fit the HAL demographic they are trying to serve. We LOVE Trivia and pretty much centered our schedule around it. The BBC Earth presentation to music and EXC talks about the ports you're seeing are also very good. The mainstage shows were often cringe-worthy (as my daughter and husband decided), and we walked out of many. Those talented Volendam dancers and singers are poorly choreographed, have old music, boring sets and some awfully ugly costumes to deal with. I hate to be negative, but only one of the 3 special acts they brought in were really enjoyable right to the end and kept me in my seat. I don't really want to mention the acts I didn't like, everyone needs to form their own opinion.
The venues often did not hold the crowd adequately -- standing room only (uncomfortably crowded) at the Test Kitchen presentations, the one good movie they showed we couldn't get a seat at. There were scheduling blunders so trivia got moved to a bar (yes, people had to leave the crows nest and head to The Mix, and there were hardly any seats for everyone.
If you like classical violin, the couple who plays in the Explorers Lounge are excellent. As for our beloved Crow's Nest, the DJ request nights were awkward. When you have such a spread in ages wanting to dance, each song could have a whole new set of people going to the dance-floor or not at all. The disco set got a few tunes and was getting in their groove, when all of a sudden a ballroom dancing type song comes on and there is a complete change of the demographic. Same with 80s-now music -- a whole new crowd would come on. It made for a disjointed evening, and who wants to sit around and listen to 10 songs from a decade they don't related to, just to get to the ones they do like. They need another dance club on this ship and have a theme IMO.
I'm not sure if wine-tasting counts as entertainment -- it was a paid event. It was a fun enough event but mostly mediocre wines. There was only one that I ended up purchasing for dinner, but it was a good way to spend a bit of the afternoon. People were relaxed and chatty -- it was quite social even though I attended solo.
I love them. I had a list of names at the end of the cruise to make sure they got formally recognized in my review sent to HAL. I hope it helps them -- they are a wonderful crew. My room steward San, was amazing and predicted my every need.
This is the first cruise I purchased the unlimited laundry. OH MY WORD. Lovely and clean pressed clothing, bagged and folded neatly. It was almost the highlight of the day to get my clothes back! Also with this hot itinerary, I really needed those linen shirts more than I thought -- it was fantastic to have the laundry and I won't go without it on future cruises.
I had 3 HAL excursions, and only one of the guides had fluent enough English that he was great to listen to. One of them practically shouted and kept spelling out words (to make up for her accent no doubt). It was very slow with such a large bus of people. I highly recommend going to the Sanctuary of Truth (it is stunningly beautiful, a marvel). However, I would have been much happier taking it at my own pace and hiring someone to get me there and back. The ships tour was too long and the guide appointed to us was loud and annoying to be around.
I had 1 excursion with a group from Cruise Critic, and it was a smaller group for Ha Long Bay. I think that was much better, the smaller group made it more relaxed and this tour included an amazing seafood lunch.
Three other tours we did were arranged privately for our family of 3. Now I know this is absolutely the way to go. We had amazing fun with our guides in Vietnam. On the back of scooters in Saigon, with insane traffic, driving into districts where they rarely see foreigners is really fun. They were very curious about us. It was food/sightseeing tours we had arranged and we had the most amazing food experiences. Things I can't get at my local Vietnamese restaurant for sure. And the ones I had tried at home were different there, and so delicious. It is shockingly cheap outside the tourist areas, we had a feast at lunch for 6 of us (3 guides and 3 in our family) and it came to the equivalent of $12 CDN. Getting off the beaten track, in to back-alleys and cooked in front of you almost primitively. Not something I would have experienced without a local guide for sure. Do not miss Hoi An. It is an absolute treasure and not to be missed. If you can stay into the evening, it is very beautifuol and atmospheric with the lanterns lit throughout the streets. Great shopping there too. If you need souvenirs in Vietnam, they are much classier in Hoi An.
Overall, we loved this cruise. It was an amazing itinerary, the ship was in good enough shape for us, food was great as were the kind gracious staff. I had a good book and a deck of cards so can entertain myself anywhere -- I didn't need HAL to do that in the end.
First off this is a handicapped/accessible room so it was a non-standard layout. The twin or queen bed is near the window, and the sofa which is also a bed is to the left (port side) of the room past the bathroom. There is a small table and dining chairs in the centre of the room with plenty of space to get around everything. I'm going to give the cabin a 4 out of 5 because I was so grateful for a huge oceanview room, when I had booked an interior cabin. However, even though Volendam had come out of dry-dock, this room has not been updated and it has filler to patch the vanity and some odd cosmetic patching in the shower tile. This is not a pretty room, but the carpets looked fresh as did the bedding, and it was spotlessly clean. The shower was amazing, great pressure and a fantastic valve. We had smells in the room twice, once on embarkation of a STRONG curry smell (spray took care of that), and later in the cruise we awoke to the smell of a varnish or paint thinner. I'm not sure if the HVAC system was functioning properly, the smells were only in my room and not in the hallway. Four nights were very rocky and we didn't sleep well. I have not had a forward cabin before, and this is a higher deck. This was probably the biggest issue with the location. I should also mention this is over top the mainstage so you will hear them perform at 10PM and for rehearsals too. It never bothered us, we found it kind of amusing.
The most un-asian city. Pristinely clean, modern architecture, high standard of living and no scammers out to get you! Ha. Loved it and would be happy to route through there again some time. Fantastic food.
Got our fill of temples this first day. If you are planning on doing temples the next day in Bangkok, I would choose to do something else here.View All undefined undefined Reviews
We did two tours here. Independently we booked a driver to/from Bangkok, returning to the ship later in the evening. We did Bangkok on our own. In hindsight, my time would have been better spent if I took a private guide for the day. We got to do a riverboat ride, go through Chinatown and the area around the Palace and another Wat. However, getting around was challenging and not as many people spoke English as I thought they would. So we were on our own for directions. Now, for Sanctuary of Truth -- it is a must see and the reason we didn't overnight in Bangkok. I took a HAL tour but wish we got a ride privately so we could see this at our own pace.View All 16 Wooden Pavilion at Sanctuary of Truth Reviews
I'm glad I took this to get an overview. It was well balanced in that you see beach, temple, market life and the fishing village. I would have not wanted to travel these areas alone and the distances were long. Begging children and dogs with broken legs and mange were hard to see but not unexpected.View All 20 Highlights of Silhanoukville Reviews
We took the Nha Trang Rickshaw and Shopping tour through HAL. It was enjoyable being part of the parade of Rickshaws along the waterfront and town, but was not exciting or scary. The traffic here is not crazy, and any ability can relax and take the ride on a rickshaw. The shopping portion wasn't interesting -- we took off from the group and met up at the arranged time. Grabbed a coffee in a fantastic cafe and looked at the sights on the street. I wouldn't go back to this town, very taken over by Russians, didn't seem like an authentic slice of life in Vietnam. The Dam Market was the last stop and it wasn't very interesting compared to the other markets visited on this trip. I didn't buy a thing. So sad!
We booked a sightseeing and food tour with Saigon Adventure (we used them for Ho Chi Minh city as well as this port). This was a private tour for myself, my husband and 12 year old daughter. We started by Van to My Son ruins and spent the morning there. This is the "Angkor Wat" of Vietnam. It is beautiful, and stunning in its antiquity, but they all start looking the same after awhile so I didn't need a whole morning there. We cut it a little short, which we had the option to do, given it was a private tour. We then moved on to Hoi An, and the weather cleared so we moved on to scooters. This helped us get our food tour underway outside of the old city. We visited an organic farm that provides food for Hoi An, it is beautiful and peaceful, buffalo and kids riding bikes. Like being in the countryside though you're just on the edge of the city. Getting into the old centre of Hoi An was beautiful. Yes, it's packed full of tourists, but the buildings are beautiful, the shops actually have very nice stuff and it's very lively. This would be an easy place to go out on your own, but we loved our tour guides -- having a local with you made it more fun, we learned a lot, ate the best food and got the best bargains. The guides we had from Saigon Adventure were fantastic!View All 35 Hoi An Walking Tour Reviews
Highlights above. We had from early AM into the evening with our guides, so we really had two to three tours combined in this one day.View All undefined undefined Reviews
We got together with other folks from Cruise Critic to take a boat tour to Ha Long Bay and the Caves. We had a fantastic seafood lunch on board. It was a long, full day. We actually had very cold weather this day, so be prepared with your wardrobe. We weren't and only had very lightweight jackets. Being on the water made it even colder. This is beautiful but a very busy waterway. Boats jockeying for position is eye opening. Things are different here, that's for sure!
Phu My was the first port in Vietnam -- it is the gateway to get to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). We booked with Saigon Adventure for our family to take a food & scooter tour. We were picked up first by van, as it is about an hour to the city. Getting on scooters in the craziest busy city may not be for the faint of heart but boy is it fun! This was a sightseeing and food tour we asked them to put together for our family. I gave them a list of local foods I was interested in trying, and they planned what restaurants to go to. We really got out into the 'real' Vietnam into areas that don't usually see caucasians. We had beautiful food and such a fun time. This is a busy crazy city, but the people are kind and the food is lovely. This was the highlight of the whole trip for our family. This day and the evening in Hoi An with our new friends from Saigon Tours were the best memories of our trip. Truly.View All undefined undefined Reviews