It’s that time of year again! For a decade, I rang in each New Year with a trip around the world. But since Delta discontinued its award Round-the-World ticket in 2015, I’ve had to get a little more creative. For the past few years, that’s meant a lengthy visit to Southeast Asia instead, one of my favorite parts of the world and a terrific place to escape the US winter.
This year, we decided to mix things up a bit. We wanted to visit Vietnam and return to Thailand, but I wasn’t keen on a repeat of my last visit to Vietnam (which involved a rather unpleasant 36-hour train ride).
So, I went in search of a more convenient and relaxed way to see the country and discovered that, lo and behold, cruise ships visit Vietnam these days. Yes, an Asia cruise, now that just might be the way to go!
I had never cruised until 5 or 6 years ago (and Dave had never cruised before last year) but it’s becoming one of our favorite ways to travel. Apparently, there comes a time in every adventure traveler’s life when you begin to prefer the simple pleasures of a more luxurious means of travel over the prop-planes, packed trains, rocking ferries, camels, elephants and auto-rickshaws that defined your youth.
Finding the Perfect Asia Cruise
After diligent research, we discovered an itinerary that sounded perfect for us. A 2-week Holland America sailing from Hong Kong to Singapore with four stops in Vietnam (Halong Bay, Da Nang, Nha Trang and Saigon), one stop in Cambodia and two in Thailand (Bangkok and Koh Samui). As a bonus, the itinerary boasted plenty of relaxing sea days sandwiched in between exotic ports-of-call.
It sounded like exactly what we wanted – lots of Vietnam plus Cambodia and Thailand – and all for the incredibly reasonable (last minute) price of $999/person for an ocean-view cabin. Though Asia is a very inexpensive destination, just the ease of not having to book flights or trains between cities, hotels, airport transfers, etc. was well worth the price of the cruise. Not to mention you only have to unpack once (a high priority on my husband’s list), all your meals are included and you let the ship’s captain worry about transporting you safely to each destination while you relax at the spa (a high priority on my list).
So we booked the 2-week cruise and flights to Hong Kong. And then decided to add on a 10-day stay in Bali, Indonesia followed by a few more days in Malaysia to round out the trip (I mean, if you don’t visit at least 5 countries per holiday are you really maximizing your time?). When all was said and done, we had a fantastic and wildly-inexpensive 5-week trip planned in just a matter of days.
A Weekend in Hong Kong
We arrived in Hong Kong with 3 nights to see the city before sailing away. It was the perfect amount of time to rest and recover from the long flight and begin to adjust to the local time zone (a challenge when you’ve traveled to exactly the opposite from your home time zone – day is now night and night is now day).
The weather in Hong Kong didn’t cooperate especially well but we did manage to enjoy a trip up to the peak for some misty skyscraper views, the nightly Symphony of Lights show across Victoria Harbor and a lot of great walks around Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
Cruising with Holland America
Dave and I had never cruised with Holland America before so we weren’t sure what to expect. On the day of our ship’s departure, our boarding time was listed as 1pm for an 11pm departure. All-aboard was 7pm but we chose to arrive early so that we had plenty of time to settle in and get to know our home for the next 14 nights, the MS Volendam.
We arrived to the port a few minutes before 1pm and were amazed by the efficiency of the check-in, security and boarding process. In less than 30 minutes we were unpacking in our cabin aboard the Volendam. I’ve been on a lot of cruises in the past few years and a boarding process that efficient was a first for me and a pleasant surprise!
The cabin was roomy (as far as cruise ship cabins go) and we were especially impressed by the amount of storage space. The bathroom was also a nice surprise featuring a large tiled shower, plenty of vanity space and luxurious Elemis spa bath products. Holland America is known for its spacious suites and veranda cabins (which were already sold-out when we booked) but for us, this ocean-view cabin would do just fine for our 2-week voyage.
We settled into our cabin and then spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the ship before having our first of many delightful dinners in the main dining room. The next day was a relaxing day at sea spent mostly by the pool as we cruised our way toward our first stop in Vietnam.
First Port-of-Call: Halong Bay, Vietnam
The next morning we awoke in a dream. I looked out our window to discover we were surrounded by the emerald green waters and spectacular limestone cliffs of Halong Bay. To fully appreciate this moment, you’d have to know a little more about my last visit to Vietnam (on Round-the World #3). After the aforementioned 36-hour train ride from Saigon to Hanoi, I’d woken up at 6am for a 2 ½ hour drive from Hanoi to Halong and then boarded a junk boat to finally have the opportunity to enjoy this view.
This morning, all I had to do was wake up and look out the window. I’m starting to gain a whole new appreciation for the joy of cruising.
Covering more than 580 square miles, the 3,000 island formations of Halong Bay stretch all the way to the Chinese border. Halong means “descending dragon,” a reference to the folklore of the archipelago’s creation by an enormous beast cutting the bay from the rocks.
For our day in Halong Bay, we’d booked a junk boat cruise through a fellow passenger we’d met on CruiseCritic.com. Thanks to my friend Autumn, I was introduced to the benefits of joining the Cruise Critic “Roll Call” for your particular sailing several years back. It’s a terrific way to connect with other passengers on your ship and combine resources for booking excursions in port or just to make a few new friends on board.
There were just 17 of us from the Cruise Critic site who had joined the independently-organized tour (booked through Mrs. Li Thi Ngoan at www.travelauthenticasia.com) and it was a magical day.
We cruised through the islands for an hour or so before arriving at our first stop, the Hang Sung Sot cave. Known as the “Cave of Surprises,” Hang Sung Sot got its name from the reaction of the first tourists who visited. The cave is massive in size and a path leads up a hill to its entrance and winds through the interior for nearly half a mile. Stalactites and stalagmites decorate the magnificent interior accented by colorful lighting. Upon exiting the cave, the bird’s eye view over the bay was like something out of a painting.
Next, we stopped at Ti Top Island, named for the Russian astronaut Gherman Titop on the occasion of his first visit to Halong Bay in 1962. Ti Top Island is one of the few islands in the bay with a sandy beach for sunbathing, but Dave and I decided to spend our time making the climb up 400+ steps to a palapa with 360° views over all of Halong Bay. It was a spectacular view and well worth the climb.
When we returned to the boat, a delicious Vietnamese lunch was waiting and we savored a terrific meal as we continued our sail among the islands. We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging on the boat’s rooftop deck and taking in the majestic views surrounding us. It was an absolutely wonderful day.
Second Port-of-Call: Da Nang, Vietnam
After another day at sea that included sleeping in, reading by the pool and a blissful couples massage at the ship’s Greenhouse Spa, we docked in Vietnam’s third largest port in the early morning hours of day four.
For Da Nang, we’d done something I rarely do, we’d booked a shore excursion through the ship. Our goal for this stop was to see the ancient mercantile town of Hoi An and the ship offered a convenient and reasonably priced “Highlights of Hoi An” tour.
Known for its tranquil riverside setting and colorful lanterns, Hoi An is the center of the region’s clothing and silk trade. The town’s most famous landmark is the Japanese covered bridge, believed to have been built by the Japanese in the 16th century.
We spent a lovely morning walking the streets of Hoi An before continuing on to My Khe beach, known by Americans as “China Beach.” During the war, soldiers from bases all over the country were sent here for R&R. The public area of the beach wasn’t especially impressive but from what I could tell the beachfront enjoyed by the high-end resorts in the area was considerably better.
Despite the challenges of a large group size, the tour was well done and we were easily able to see everything we had hoped to while in Da Nang. And, of course, the #1 benefit of booking a shore excursion with the ship…you know for sure you’ll be back on-board on time.
Third Port-of-Call: Nha Trang, Vietnam
After leaving port in Da Nang, the captain informed us that we would be increasing our speed in order to get ahead of the persistent weather system that had been tracking us since Hong Kong and causing higher than usual swells.
The next day was another full day at sea and while it was much rougher than the previous two, it didn’t seem to bother too many folks on board. I have to admit I actually enjoyed the extra “motion in the ocean” as I tend to sleep better with the ship rocking me to sleep at night!
Due to the increased speed, we arrived in our next port-of-call, Nha Trang, 12 hours ahead of schedule. We were originally scheduled to dock at 6am and instead arrived at 6pm the night before. Passengers were allowed to disembark and go into town for the evening if they wished to but we elected to stay on board.
Since we hadn’t really planned on the extra time, we never managed to come up with a good plan of what to do with it. So we just enjoyed the view from the ship which included half a dozen Eiffel Towers across the bay leading to the local amusement park, Vinpearl Land.
This stop in Vietnam was probably my least favorite, but that was likely more the fault of the weather than the destination itself. Nha Trang is best known for its clear waters and beautiful beaches but on the day of our visit the skies were dark and surf was high causing rough, turbid waters. From what I could tell, Nha Trang was your basic overbuilt beach resort town with the high-rise hotels and horn-blaring traffic to match.
The ship provided shuttles to transfer passengers not booked on a tour to and from town easily. We decided to take advantage of the shuttle and spent the morning walking along the beach and visiting some of the shops before returning to the ship by mid-afternoon. I wish we’d had the opportunity to see the beautiful beaches I’d seen in pictures but I suppose that will have to wait for another visit.
Fourth Port-of-Call: Phu My (Saigon), Vietnam
The next day, we arrived in our final Vietnamese port, Phu My. Of course, the real destination was not Phu My itself but nearby Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), about a 90-minute drive away. We had arranged to share a car & driver for the day with Ian & Audrey, a British couple we’d met through Cruise Critic and by 9am we were in the car and on our way.
As Vietnam’s largest city, Saigon is the country’s foremost industrial and commercial center with a population of more than 6 million – most of whom are traversing the city streets on a motorbike at any given time.
I’d discovered on my last visit that crossing the street in Saigon is a hair-raising adventure in itself so this time I was more than happy to have the benefit of a car and driver.
We began our day with a visit to the Jade Emperor Pagoda just outside of town and the Notre Dame Cathedral before continuing on to the heart of the city, Lam Son Square. Dominated by the French colonial-style City Hall, Lam Son Square is a magnet for shoppers, tourists and thousands of Saigon’s ubiquitous motorcyclists.
Our next stop was the infamous Rex Hotel, location of the daily press briefings during the Vietnam war known as the Five O’Clock Follies. The landmark hotel has been beautifully restored and we headed straight to the rooftop bar for a cold beer and a terrific view of the city.
From there we took a walk over to the Opera House and stopped for lunch before getting back in the car to head to Cholon, Saigon’s China Town. In Cholon, we visited a few more temples and then spent a few hours navigating the narrow alleys of the Binh Tay market.
By 5pm, we’d seen everything on our wish list and began the journey back to the ship.
Fifth Port-of Call: Sihanoukville, Cambodia
After 4 stops in Vietnam, the next day it was time to sail on to our next country…Cambodia!
I’d visited Siem Reap, Cambodia on Round-the-World #4 and was mesmerized by the temples of Angkor Wat (especially sunrise!) so I was looking forward to seeing what the country’s coastline had to offer.
As Cambodia’s only port, the town of Sihanoukville is primarily a large fishing village. But with beaches rivaling those in some parts of Thailand, Sihanoukville is also quickly becoming an up and coming luxury beach resort destination.
In our pre-cruise discussions with other passengers via Cruise Critic, we’d discovered a local hotel school that provided day tours of the area. Their tour came very highly recommended by previous passengers and sounded like the perfect way to make the most of our limited time in the country.
The Don Bosco Hotel School is a 2-year program that trains students in English and the many facets of hospitality including culinary, front office, rooms, etc. Their students come primarily from orphanages and the poorest families in Cambodia. Students are selected through an interview process and entrance examination. Once selected, their tuition is paid from the operation of the school (they run a hotel, restaurant, ice cream shop & do tours like ours) and by donations.
After graduation, the school boasts a 100% placement rate with the 4 & 5-star hotels throughout Cambodia. It’s a win-win scenario for the hotels and the students since there is a great demand for qualified hotel staff as Cambodia’s tourism industry continues to flourish.
It was a terrific day exploring the temples, waterfalls & beaches of the town but the highlight was definitely touring the school and meeting all of the smiling students at Don Bosco. They served us a wonderful lunch and some of the students even performed a traditional dance for us afterward.
The Don Bosco Hotel School provides a much-needed service to the local community and a real career opportunity to so many youth who would otherwise have limited earning potential. If you’re interested in donating to this worthwhile program, you can find more information here.
Sixth Port-of-Call: Laem Chabang (Bangkok), Thailand
After departing Cambodia, we had yet another relaxing day at sea (I’m starting to really enjoy these!) before arriving in our first Thai port, Laem Chabang, on the eve of the Chinese New Year. At this stop, we would have our only (scheduled) overnight stay in port.
Laem Chabang is primarily a major shipping port but the real destination for most passengers at this stop was Bangkok, just under a 2-hour drive from the port. The ship offered several options for overnighting in Bangkok from full day tours with hotel accommodations to a simple transfer to and from. Since Dave and I had been to Bangkok several times we decided to stay a little closer to port and visit the bustling beach resort area of Pattaya – just 30 minutes away.
Again, we teamed up with fellow Cruise Critic passengers to arrange for a shuttle to and from Pattaya. The plan for the day was to take the local ferry from Pattaya’s Bali Hai pier to a lovely little island called Koh Larn. The rest of our group would return to the ship that evening but Dave and I had booked a room in Pattaya to ring in the Year of the Rooster on dry land.
Due to the holiday, the ferry to Koh Larn was absolutely packed but at just 30 Thai baht (about $1 US), it was an incredible bargain. Forty minutes later we arrived in the town of Koh Larn and took a shared “baht bus” (basically, an open-air truck) to Samae Beach.
The beach was absolutely stunning with white sand and crystal blue waters but, like the ferry, it was packed with beach-goers. Not quite the unspoiled bliss of Koh Lanta or Koh Lipe like last year but a relaxing day nonetheless.
That evening we joined in the New Year festivities on Pattaya’s energetic “Walking Street” before returning to the ship in time for lunch the next day. It was an enjoyable stop but with Pattaya’s traffic and frenetic pace we actually found that we missed the zen of the ship and were quite ready to return to our cabin by morning.
Seventh Port-of-Call: Koh Samui, Thailand
For our last stop in Thailand, we visited the lovely island of Koh Samui. I’d been to Koh Samui on RTW #7, but I hadn’t actually seen much of it other than the W Resort & Spa where I stayed. I remembered Koh Samui as a gorgeous island but it was also memorable to me for the exorbitant taxi fares to get around – likely due to the many high-end luxury resorts that now populate the island (unlike much of Thailand, this island is not geared toward the backpacker set).
This stop was just our second requiring a tender to reach the island (the first was Halong Bay) which, while managed in a very orderly way, complicates the disembarkation process a bit. The original plan for the day was to visit Lamai Beach but after realizing that the drive from the Nathon Pier would be nearly an hour each way (and require a taxi fare bordering on highway robbery) we decided to scrap that plan and stick to a short visit to town. Not the most exciting way to spend the day but since I’d been there before I didn’t really mind. And with an all-aboard time of 2:30pm, spending an amount of time on a beach that was worthy of the taxi fare was nearly impossible.
If I had it to do over again, this is probably a port where I would have considered one of the ship’s excursions to maximize time, especially factoring in the tender process.
After departing Koh Samui, we spent the next day and a half leisurely cruising through the South China Sea on our way to Singapore and enjoying a couple of fabulous sunsets at sea.
Last stop, Singapore!
After 14 wonderful nights at sea, we arrived in Singapore at sunrise on our final day. But it wasn’t the last day for everyone; nearly a third of our fellow guests would be remaining on-board for another two weeks to cruise the islands of Indonesia (which actually had an amazing itinerary including some of my favorite places in Indonesia – Bali, Lombok and Borobudur).
I was sure that after 2 weeks on a ship we would be anxious to get off and continue our trip on land but I was wrong! We were actually a little sad to leave and regretted not giving stronger consideration to booking the full 28-day cruise instead. We said our goodbyes to our fabulous cabin stewards who took amazing care of us during the voyage and made our way off the ship and into the heat and humidity of Singapore.
Big thanks to Holland America and the crew of the Volendam for an incredible Asian journey. It was a superb experience and we’ve already found ourselves researching some of HAL’s other fascinating extended itineraries around the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if longer cruises became a regular addition to our future travels. And if you’re looking for a low-hassle way to visit Asia, I’d highly recommend an Asia cruise.
But as sad as we are to leave the Volendam, our trip is not over yet! Next, we fly to Bali for 10 days of island-hopping between Bali and Lombok before heading on to our last stop in Malaysia. Thanks, as always, for following along on our journey…next stop, Bali and Nusa Lembongan!
Disclaimer: An on-board credit was graciously provided by Holland America Lines.