This was my second HAL cruise, and I have to say from the top my biggest disappointment was that there were no Educational lectures like I had my first cruise. If this is not a regular HAL experience, I apologize, but my first cruise had college professors in Geology and History that packed the theater with their amazing quality. We also had short language classes before ports to practice how to say hello and thank you. I started to tell people that HAL was "cruising for smart people". I asked several HAL veterans on board and they told me that what I experienced the first time is the norm. When asking the crew on the Westerdam about this, I had several different responses. One was that "HAL has changed", another said, "We had professors booked but because of the holidays they cancelled". I was really disappointed to find out that I would not be learning much history or language basics which would have been awesome for this itinerary.
I was on the Westerdam for 28 nights- Hong Kong north to China/ Japan/ Taiwan then from Hong Kong to Singapore via Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand. This itinerary is fascinating, though it became tiresome toward the end, mostly because these ports are often far from the main sites and involved a daily haggling with taxi drivers that is perpetually a pain in the butt. In the few ports that we could walk off the ship into an actual town, they became most people's favorites. Independence and simplicity leads to more exploration and happiness.
My favorite part of the ship would be the people. The "Cruise Director" now called "EXC something", was a very friendly and informative host named Jeremy who gave the port talks to a packed audience and was great at this. He also hosted a book club which was nice, but HAL has screwed this up by calling it "Oprah's Reading Room" which is not at all obvious that it is a book club discussion. My first 2 weeks I just happened to see it because I wanted a quiet place to read, and so I joined for the 2nd 2 weeks and only 2 passengers showed up for the discussion.
Small compared to other ships I have been on. Besides the bed, there was a small desk where the TV is, and then a table in the corner without a chair. The closet space was more than abundant for me. Bathroom felt large though it had a shower curtain which I think adds space.
Noise was minimal in this cabin- only a few times did I hear people next door. The curtain by the closets kept hallway noise down really well.
I spent 5 days in Hong Kong prior to the cruise and I loved it. My favorite was the day spent at the Big Buddha, going up the Ngong Ping Cable Car. I did a 2 day HoHo bus that was decent and this included Victoria Peak which I recommend even though the mall-like setting at the top was disconcerting. The port itself is not well connected via public transportation which is a shame because the MRT is such a great way to get around. Because of the protests, taxis were hard to come by, so while I took an Uber to get to the port for embarkation, I did not end up leaving the port when we returned for 1 day.
Loved this port! I did not take an excursion, there was not even one offered for what I did. As soon as we docked, I disembarked, walked 2 minutes to the ferry desk and went to Gulangyu Island. It was a magical day of walking around in a lush beautiful place without cars. It was a little strange not having google maps to guide me (China) but the island is small enough to not get lost.
My disappointment was with the shuttle offered by HAL. The cost of it was just about the price of a taxi one way- so if you shared with others it was better to taxi. However, in Shanghai the taxis also tried to cheat you if leaving the port. Also, the HAL shuttle hours were ridiculous. We were there overnight, and the last shuttle was at 430pm. Which meant that people missed out on the colorful night time lighting of the Bund, which was a highlight for me. Without a tour I felt like I saw a lot and it was great not being in a large group. Walking the Bund in day and night was the best, then Yu Garden, then Shanghai Museum. Wandering little streets and eating dumplings with locals, that's the fun stuff!
I loved that this port had a great location- just across the street was the train station that could take you to Taipei. Super easy, don't take a tour! I would have liked to go to Jeifun for the day, but there was no excursion there, and taxis were spendy. Taipei was interesting, I went to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial and that was gorgeous. Otherwise I wandered into the old town of Taipei, used the easy metro to get around. The only hard part was making sure I got the correct train back to port, and the ship left early in the afternoon, which was disappointing.
I don't know, I think HAL could skip this port. They hype it up saying that most of the crew are coming here to visit their family and meet their babies, etc. That is nice, but for those of us getting off the ship it was not too pleasant. It was super hot, even as I was the first to walk off the ship, then the walk to the old town involved a dirty and uneven trip through the port, and then being harassed by beggers and tuk-tuks for the 30 minute walk to town. Locals were friendly, but persistent. Intramuros had some nice parts- I enjoyed the fort, but I didn't expect the rest of it to be jam packed full of beeping cars with no sidewalks. The old buildings were few and not too exciting (including the cathedral). The highlight for most of us, sadly, was "The Manila Hotel" which was an oasis of AC, pretty decor, decent food, and slow Wifi. I felt like the whole ship was there, including the crew. It was a bit too crowded honestly, with people slumped everywhere leaching wifi. But, I got a table with lunch and it was relaxing.
I had been to Halong Bay before and took an overnight junk trip, so I had decided not to take a boat ride unless weather conditions were good. It was sprinkling a little when we docked, pretty cloudy so I decided to wait until afternoon to see how the weather changed. I took a taxi into the town of Hong Gai, across the bridge and I really enjoyed my time there. Went to the local wet market and since I beat the tour groups I wandered around looking at the interesting foods without crowds. Went to the adjacent mall for coffee, and then to the Provincial Museum. This museum was really nice except that it closed for lunch so I was a bit rushed. The historical parts upstairs were interesting, but I totally did not expect a lesson on coal mines and walk through a reproduction! The museum cafe was disappointing for lunch- my salad rolls included some still frozen meat so I sent it back and walked away. The port building itself is very nice with an awesome coffee shop run by a local who roasts his own beans and loved to teach people about Vietnamese coffee. Unfortunately, I was surprised to find that by noon, the afternoon boat trips were either sold out or maybe they cancelled some because of cloudy conditions, but after talking to other people, I think the sailing in and out of this port from the cruise ship was enough to catch the beauty of this area. Just get up early to do it!
I hired a local driver for this port. The first day we drove to Hue- 2.5 hours north- and he took me around to the historical sites. Hue was the capital of Vietnam in the past, and despite the destruction during the war, the citadel is really great to see. I think because it includes some nice gardens and the some of the buildings have a classic beauty, it made for a nice day, though I probably did not get as much as I could out of it without a guide. I also visited the "Royal tombs" which were basically nice parks to walk around in. In the evening I visited DaNang to see the Cathedral, market, and then river promenade where the Dragon Bridge is.
Day 2 I went to BaNa Hills, famous for the Golden Hands Bridge. The bridge is indeed spectacular, but I had no idea the rest of the place was a bizarre Korean theme park with most of it replicating famous French castles and buildings. There aren't that many rides for families, but if you want to walk through a fake Notre Dame, ride some very nice cable cars, and then just scratch your head at the bizzareness of this place... it was entertaining but eventually the fakeness and selfie-posers get to you.
I will say that I later returned to Danang to spend a few days and nights in Hoi An- this should be everyone's top pick. It is the cutest little place. If only it wasn't full of tourists...
and MyKhe beach- a pretty place, I spent a few nights here but the town itself was a strange ghost town, the restaurants and night life are better in DaNang.
I could not get off of the tender boat because at low tide dock was 1 meter higher than the boat. It is a shame that this is now a tender port because of the construction of a cable car. I am sure most people were able to get off of the tender but I didn't want to take the risk especially since winds were an issue that day- the tendering was very slow in general- and huge lines later formed to get back to the ship. Our captain pointed out that the dock was the responsibility of the port, and he had asked them to build a floating one to avoid this issue. If you can limbo at the same time as stepping up 1 meter, you could get off during this time!
I had been to Bangkok recently, so I didn't want to take the trek there and be in a hurry. I had not been to Pattaya so I concentrated on this area. My big disappointment with this port was the location and transportation options. It took almost 2 hours to get to Pattaya the first day (it was New Years Eve, so maybe more traffic), and it was slow and painful. I took a bus that is sponsored by a mall, and it was 1/4 the price of HAL's shuttle which also came back to the ship really early for an overnight stay (last shuttle at 430). This bus wasn't so bad, it had AC and it placed us right in the middle of Pattaya's shopping and beach area. So, from there, I had ideas of going to the Sanctuary of Truth, to the Floating Market, to the Nong Nooch Gardens. I was on the first shuttle, then had to buy a SIM card, and after that I took a Grab taxi to the Sanctuary of Truth (bought a ticket on Klook and saved some money). This stop was amazing, I really enjoyed it. The staff there was super nice, they saw that I walked with a cane and had a driver take me down the hill to the temple and dropped me off right at the little temple elevator- which was super cute and made of wood. I didn't take a guided tour, but just walked around the temple inside and out, there were staff members that liked to point out things, educate me about the place. From the covered cafe I watched the poor elephants taking tourists around, and had some coffee. Then, I realized by checking taxi times, etc, that I really did not have time in the day to be able to see any other hot spots and then getting back to the shuttle in time (530 was the last mall shuttle). Traffic here is so bad, and the Grab price back to the ship was $50. So, i spent the rest of the afternoon walking the beach in Pattaya, looking at stores. The second day I just didn't feel I was up to the hassle of the shuttle then taxi plan. So, I guess if there is a place at this port you really want to go to, consider an excursion, or just don't set your heights too high on seeing much if you want to take the shuttle. Otherwise, if you have seen one Thai beach town, you have seen them all, Pattaya town could just be Phuket for all I could tell.
by this point in the cruise, I was tired of negotiating taxis, public transport, and the idea of a giant bus excursion didn't sound nice.
So, I tendered to shore first thing possible and while the town was waking up I sat on a tiny beach next to the hectic port and watched the birds and little beach crabs for a while. Then I found a coffee shop to chill at. I walked through town past the usual "same-same" of souvenirs and clothing and did find a cute temple that I enjoyed. It was a Hainan shrine and interestingly, the local policemen came here to ask for protection. While sitting outside of the shrine watching a rooster and a cat taunt each other a local explained this to me.
I walked back through town and found a pleasant place to have some delicious mango sticky rice and a smoothie. Very laid back and chill, just what I needed for this day. To make me smile even more, when I got back to the tender port, the Westerdam crew was handing out ice cream to help us keep cool. Very sweet. I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon watching a storm pass over the tropical island.