I've waited a few months to write this review; I didn't want to overreact, but rather give some time for reflection.
We have sailed with HAL 13 times, and once each with Windstar and Paul Gauguin. We like great service, good food, dancing, and pleasant surroundings. We normally book Neptune suites on HAL, and an upscale cabin on other lines. We booked a Penthouse Junior Suite on this Viking cruise.
We were intrigued with Viking Ocean. First, it lacks all the cruise features we want a ship to lack! No children, no casino, no art show, and no nickel-and-diming. And we didn't miss any of these on our Viking Cruise!
We booked our cruise, Far East Discovery, on the Viking Orion in October 2019, about 18 months before sailing. We had read some pretty bad reviews of this cruise in 2108 - after we booked - so I sent a letter to the Viking chairman, Torstein Hagen, asking what assurance we could have that these problems would not reoccur. Six weeks later, I had no response, so I called and spoke, eventually, to a customer service supervisor. She assured me that these problems had been noted and would not be repeated. The problems centered primarily around terrible shore excursions (why else would you go to China?). So we kept our booking.
It wasn't until a few weeks before we left that we realized that the first week of the cruise coincided with National Week, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, when most of China, it seems, come into the cities for massive congestion. Why would Viking choose this time for a cruise that is necessarily port-intensive?
Arriving and getting around Beijing was a nightmare. Our tour of the Forbidden City involved the tour members locking arms to stay together in the mass of humanity. One day.
The tours were, with a few exceptions, awful, just as they apparently were the year before. The guides were woefully inexperienced, apparently mostly college students who had learned to sort of speak English, but not to understand English. It was at though we had human "audio guides" who were able to memorize a script and repeat it - in broken English at best. They had no idea how to answer questions that you asked them. They just didn't understand English. Also, few had any experience in keep a tour group together. People would wander off, and we would spend time try to find the lost members. Once we did, we usually had to line up 2 x 2 as in kindergarten so the guide could count.
Food on the tours was simply inedible. We consider ourselves adventurous eaters, having traveled and eaten in a large part of the world. Food at lunch on the all-day tours was cold, as though it had been sitting out forever, and just plain unappetizing. You wondered how long it had sat out. Ans there was no one in each restaurant to tell you what you were being served - no one spoke English!
We took one all-day tour to the Great Wall outside Beijing. It was supposed to be 7 hours - 2 1/2 hours each way plus two hours at the wall. Because of National Week, the roads were horribly congested, and it took close to 4 hours of travel each way, so the guide gave us 45 minutes at the wall. And, by the way, she didn't take us to the wall itself, but just pointed to the entrance and said "You go in there." We asked if she would be guiding us, and she said "I've seen the wall before"! Can you believe this??
In the cities, the guides would give us anywhere from a hour to two hours to wander aimlessly and return to the bus. Nothing guided. Remember that China has very little translations from Mandarin to English, so all you would see is Chinese characters and wonder what they meant.
So the tours were, almost universally a waste of money. I spoke to the Shore Excursions Manager aboard, and it seemed that he spent his day apologizing to the passengers and refunding part or all of their tour fees. We didn't want money returned - we just wanted the quality of tours that Viking - supposedly - is known for. This was probably our only tour of China and we were upset about missing a real Chinese experience. I mentioned my contacting Viking to him and being assured that all would be fixed, and he said that they had no way of addressing the issues - they were stuck with whatever the tour company wanted to give us. I do note, that Viking has removed the itinerary from future years - long before the corona virus appeared! They knew from the prior year that is was a disaster, but didn't have the decency of canceling the itinerary, since people like us has already signed up.
The ship itself was clean and neat. The minimalist nature that Viking is known for left us cold. The design was interesting, but after a while we got tired of everything being bland.
Our cabin stewards were superb. they couldn't do enough for us - they were the real highlight of the cruise.
The food was perplexing - we had seen the Conde Nast and Travel and Leisure ratings that showed Viking WAY above all the other lines, even the premium lines. We didn't see it. The breakfasts were the highlight of the day. Lunch and especially dinner were disappointing. Food was never hot; it apparently has to come up an escalator and they must have some delays. The menu made the offerings sound fabulous, but when delivered, they were often just disappointing. On the other cruise lines we've sailed, food presentation was consistently great - almost ready to be photographed. On the Orion, the food was just put haphazardly on the plate, the way you might do at home if you were at a rush. It also appears that the menu planning was inconsistent with the delivery. If you are going to coat a fish, either remove all the skin and coat it - who ever heard of leaving the skin on and putting a coating on TOP of the skin??
The only tablecloths on the ship were in the main Restaurant. In Manfredi's and the Chef's Table, the specialty restaurants, there were no tablecloths! It certainly doesn't make you feel special dining with rattan table mats. By the way, they used these same mats in the Lido (World Café) - and didn't change them when people vacated a atble - they just put fresh silverware wrapped in a clean napkin right on top of a dirty mat. You wonder if they ever clean those mats?? Can't imagine that this would pass a health inspection!
The ship was like a morgue after 8:30pm. The common areas were empty. A few people were at the bars, but very few. They had dancing in one lounge that started at 10:30pm (!) - we love to dance and stayed up one night to give it a try. The music was SO LOUD that you couldn't bear to stay in the room. And for the 15 minutes we stayed, played played basically undanceable music - music for teenagers. this makes no sense based on the demographic of the seniors on the ship.
In summary, we can't understand why people rate Viking Ocean so highly. Perhaps their customers haven't cruised on other lines? Again, we like the offerings that Viking does make (no children, casinos, etc.), but what is left if food, cabin, and shore excursions, especially in a place as foreign as China.
We'd been looking for a better experience than what Holland America has turned into in the last several years. Viking Ocean was a real disappointment - we won't be sailing with them again.