Southeast Asia Cruise on the Azamara Quest - Page 2

2/20/10 to 3/6/10


Page 1:  Pre-Cruise in Singapore; Ship Information

Page 2:  Bangkok, Thailand; Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Page 3:  Danang, Vietnam; Hanoi, Vietnam; Hong Kong, China


Ports of Call

Southeast Asia is a part of the world we really knew very little about and didn’t know what to expect.  We knew that people that had been on similar cruises raved about their experiences; but we didn’t expect to enjoy these ports as much as we did. 


Bangkok, Thailand

DAY 1 -

Bangkok was the port we were most excited about on this cruise.  Thailand, formerly Siam, has a mystique that makes it a special destination.  We have both longed to visit there ever since we first saw the movie The King and I

After two days at sea, we would be docking at the port of Klong Toey, which is very close to downtown Bangkok.  This is a major advantage of cruising on a smaller ship.  The larger cruise ships have to port at Laem Chabang, which is about a 2 hour drive into the city.  It is also fun to be able to see the Quest act like a river boat moving up the river to Bangkok.  There are lots of sites to see along the way, which provided us with a preview of coming attractions.



Soon after we entered the river, a photographer’s tragedy happened to me.  My main lens stopped functioning.  I was getting an error message that could only be fixed by the factory.  I still had my wide angle lens and telephoto lens; but my main midrange lens that I normally use about 75% of the time would not be useable for the rest of the trip.  This would prevent me from getting a lot of photos that I really wanted to take, and it limited the variety of photos that I would have liked to use in this review.

We passed under a bridge that had a Thai look to it as we approached town.  We pulled up right along side the white port building, which provided us a very nice view of downtown Bangkok.


As soon as we were able, our group of eight left the ship to meet our tour guide for the next two days, Tong, of Tour with Tong (  Because I had booked this tour about 15 months early, I was able to get Tong herself to be our personal guide.  What a great decision this turned out to be.  Some of the other people on our roll call had booked with Tong, and they were thrilled with the guides Tong provided for them also.

Tong was waiting for us just outside the terminal.  Since I had been emailing her for over a year and had talked to her a couple of times on the phone, I felt like I was meeting an old friend.  She was just precious, with a very bubbly outgoing personality.  There was no doubt that we were in for a fun two days.


Tong had been very helpful in arranging our itinerary.  Our cruise schedule was changed and reduced our time in Bangkok by two hours on the second day due to tidal issues.  Before arriving there, my main desire was to see lots of temples and other beautiful structures.  Tong kept trying to persuade me to go to some of the markets she was recommending us to see, since they would be a lot of fun and a different experience.  Markets weren’t that appealing to me; but I told her that we would see how our timing was going and decide later.  My main goal was to see the Grand Palace, which Tong had told us closes at 3:30 PM.  Since we were just getting off the ship at 2:00 PM, I was very concerned that we wouldn’t be able to see much of the palace, or if they would even let us in to see it.


Tong’s van was just awesome.  It was large and roomy with very comfortable seats.  It was a very plush van, and was even equipped with strobe lights.  On our drive to the Palace, Tong entertained us with jokes, songs and lots of information about what we would be seeing.  For most of the two days, she would be leaning over the front seat doing everything she could to make this a great tour.  She succeeded.


It took about 45 minutes to get to the Grand Palace, so we were there early enough to get in.  The traffic in Bangkok is the worst that we had in any port on this cruise.  But we were there, and I couldn’t wait to walk around the palace grounds.  This was the only place where we had to wear long pants or a skirt and have covered shoulders.  This was a bit uncomfortable due to the high heat, but it was a small sacrifice to make to see this place.  Tong provided umbrellas to shield us from the sun. 


From a distance, we recognized the famous gold stupa stretching above the palace walls.  I was so excited, since I had seen so many photos of this ornate palace. 


When we got into the walls, we were just blown away by the beauty.  We were very fortunate to be there on a bright sunny day so that photos would look better; but it has to be seen in person to be able to appreciate the intricate beauty and detail of the amazing structures in this palace.  It is just indescribable.  I apologize for putting in too many photos of the palace in the review, but I couldn't bear not to show as much of the beauty as possible.












The holiest part of the palace is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  I had originally been disappointed to learn that photos were only allowed outside of the buildings; but since this was the only building we could go into anyway, it really wasn’t a big issue. 



The palace was closed to people entering at 3:30 PM, but the guards didn’t start shooing us out until about 4:00 PM, so we were able to have a pretty decent visit.  The last thing we saw was some artists that were working on painting and applying gold leaf to some wall murals.  I am sure that renovations are going on constantly.


Tong took us out a different way and we passed by some beautiful buildings and gardens.  After this visit, I can appreciate how much in awe that guests of the King of Siam must have been when they came here.  Of all the places we have ever visited, this has to be one of the best. 




Walking back to the van, we passed by many tuk tuks. These are small three wheeled taxis that are very popular in Bangkok.  They get their name from the sound of the small motors that run them.


Even though it was already 4:30 PM, our touring had just begun.  Our next stop was to do a canal boat ride in a long-tail boat.  These are the boats that I first saw in a James Bond movie that have a large automobile motor mounted so that it can be turned 180 degrees. The propeller is at the end of a long drive shaft.  So with the combination of the motor mount and the long drive shaft, the propeller can easily be pulled out of the water and moved around to make maneuvering easier. 


We went through a busy market to get to the boat launch site.  Like many of the boat trips we would take during this trip, getting into the boat was a challenge due to widely varying water levels.  As the brightly colored boat moved down the river we could see the magnificent Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, in the distance. 



Getting off the main river and cruising down the canals was much more peaceful.  There were all types of houses lining the canals, from shacks to elegant mansions.


The canals are the reason that Bangkok is referred to as the Venice of the East.  It certainly doesn’t look like Venice, but there is a similarity in how people live along the canals.  It is quite an interesting trip and well worth taking the time to do.


A unique experience in Bangkok is to stop at a temple with a fish feeding station.  Apparently these are common in Bangkok.  Tong had the boat stop along the canal, where she bought some loaves of bread from some kids.  She gave us each a loaf and told us to break off pieces and feed the fish.  When we threw a piece of bread into the water, the water started churning and masses of large catfish would break the surface to get the bread.  It was like the piranha feeding frenzies I have seen on TV, but with a much nicer ending.


After the fish feeding, we cruised a bit more and then headed back to the main river.  We saw some absolutely massive barges moving down the river.  They reminded me of some large transport vehicles I had seen in the movie Star Wars.  I was not particularly comfortable when we went right beside one of them.  I would have preferred a bit safer distance.

Once again we could see Wat Arun, but this time we were much closer.  It was difficult to look at due to the sun being behind it.  It was an impressive sight.  It must be something when it is lit up at night.


We climbed out of the boat and Tong took us back to the van for a trip to Wat Pho to go to the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  When we arrived I was surprised to see that there were many temples on the grounds. It was almost like visiting the Grand Palace again, but not quite as grand.




The grounds were just marvelous.  So many beautiful temples.


The highlight was the actual Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  This statue is 50 yards or half a football field long.  Quite an amazing sight.   I had seen many photos of the temple and wondered why it was such a big deal.  I know why now.  It is a very big deal.


The statue is quite beautiful and most impressive.  The reclining position represents Buddha’s travel to Nirvana.  To appreciate the size of this statue, notice that there is a girl standing near the statue's feet on the photo on the left.


There were so many beautiful Buddha statues in this complex.  It must be quite a treat for a Buddhist to visit Bangkok and come to the temples.


The last temple we went into for the day was by far the most beautiful interior we had seen.  I don’t know the name of it, but I certainly won’t ever forget it.  Just amazing.


We had planned on eating dinner in Bangkok, but we were all quite exhausted and ready to get back to the ship.  Plus the Quest was having a Thai Buffet that night.  It turned out to be one of the best dinners of the cruise.  When we got into the van, Tong passed out some prepackaged wash cloths that had been in the ice chest. The cool damp cloth against our hot faces and necks was so refreshing. Tong had the driver take us through the night Flower Market on the way back.  It was quite colorful, but I couldn’t take photos due to the combination of the movement, dark van windows and low light.  The traffic at 7:00 PM in Bangkok on Saturday night was just terrible.  I felt sorry for Tong, since she would have an hour and a half drive home after dropping us back at the ship.  We had had an absolutely amazing tour and we were looking forward to the next day.


DAY 2 -

Tong picked us up early since we had a long drive to get to the markets we were going to visit.  After seeing all the beautiful temples the day before, Tong was very smart in scheduling something different for the second day.  And wow, would this day be different!  She knew that any other temples would pale in comparison to what we had already seen, so we were going to go to the Train Market and the Floating Market.  Since it was Sunday morning the traffic was great and we got there faster than expected.

Our first stop was the Train Market.  We had no idea what to expect, but we quickly learned why it is called the Train Market.  It is a market that is set right along the tracks of an active train line.  Some of the vendors have their wares set up on wheeled displays with moveable awnings, so that they can be moved back when the train comes through eight times during the day.  Others have their items directly on the ground up against the track, and have to move it back manually.  The market itself is quite interesting with all the unusual items for sale.  They have very different foods along with a very colorful array of vegetables, spices, flowers, etc.  The customers have to walk along the track between the rails to get to the different vendors.





The highlight of the visit was to watch the beehive of activity just before and after the train passed through.  Awnings and displays were pulled back, while items that were low remained where they were, since the train could pass right over them.  Even disregarding the sanitary issues, it is quite a sight to behold.



This is another one of those things that we did on this trip that we will never forget.  I am so glad that Tong convinced me to visit there rather than see more temples.  It is a once in a lifetime experience that I am so glad that we got to do.

From there, we got back in the van and headed for the Floating Market.  Once again we were getting into a boat.  This time it was a real challenge due to the water level being particularly low when we got to the boat.  But everyone made it and no one hurt themselves.  We were in two boats, and they didn’t seem as stable as we would have liked.




This was one unusual market.  We were shoppers in a boat that was manually powered, kind of like a gondola.  Other shoppers were in long tail boats, which seemed rather dangerous with the boats being so close together.  I could imagine one of those propellers coming out of the water and aiming for my head.  There were also vendors riding around in boats selling their wares, and vendors on land all along the canal selling all sorts of stuff.  Simply stated, it was a mad house. 


I don’t know how anyone could buy anything.  All we could do was watch all of the craziness going on.  This was another of those never forget type experiences.



Back on the van, Tong once again passed out the refreshing cool wash cloths.  With the great Sunday morning traffic, we were able to get back to the Quest by noon.  We had had an absolutely wonderful two days with Tong.  It was sad to have to say good bye to her.  She had provided us with a very comprehensive itinerary, a lot of information about what we were going to see and just a very fun experience.  She is an outstanding tour guide, and we highly recommend her if you ever go to Bangkok.  You’ll thank us for that tip. 

As the ship was leaving Bangkok, the cruise line tour guides had picked up on the big-hand waves and were waving good bye to the Quest.  So far this had been a great cruise.



Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

DAY 1 -

After a day and a half at sea, we finally came to the mouth of the Saigon River.  Once again we would be traveling up a river.  This would save us about 3 hours of driving that larger ship passengers would have to take to get to Ho Chi Minh City.  The pilot boat met us and the pilots climbed up on the Quest.  The Saigon River ride would be rather unusual in that we would be taking 16 sharp turns.  With all these turns, Snake River would be a more appropriate name.  Captain Smith refers to this trip as the Ho Chi Minh Slalom.  It was quite an appropriate description, especially since the stabilizers couldn’t be used while navigating the river.  We would take a sharp turn about every ten minutes as the ship would lean from one side to the next.  It was not at all scary, and the Captain’s enthusiasm was shared by all.


There were many types of boats on the river.  As we got closer to HCMC, we came to more civilization.  The Quest was quite an attraction for the residents along the river.




We were surprised at the large number of high speed passenger boats we saw.  We were told by the port lecturer that HCMC was a very active city with an energized economy.  We could see what he was talking about the closer we got to town.


We were also surprised at how many barges we saw that were loaded down with what appeared to be sand.  I don’t know what it was going to be used for, but there must be a large demand for the sand somewhere.


A new bridge was just completed last year that allowed us to be able to dock even closer to town than had been possible last year.  Waiting for us at the dock were ten girls in colorful clothes and conical hats with a welcome sign for the Quest.  A very nice welcome indeed.


For the five tours we would have in the three Vietnam ports I had arranged for guides through Ha of Vietland Discovery (  As with Tong, I had communicated with Ha for over 15 months and was looking forward to finally meeting with her later in the cruise in Danang, where she lives.  She had been so helpful in arranging the various schedules and was very prompt in replying to emails.  I had been very concerned for her safety when a major typhoon hit the Danang - Hoi An area last year.  As usual, she replied quickly once electricity was restored to keep me posted on what was going on.  We appreciated knowing that she and her family were okay.  Looking at the news photos showing the flooding and destruction in the area, I was glad to know ahead of time, that everything would be back to normal for our visit.

For our two days in HCMC, Ha had set us up with a very nice young man named Nghia (pronounced like Near).  He spoke very good English and was very knowledgeable about Vietnam’s history and culture. 

Our first stop on our tour was to the Saigon Central Post Office.  This is a major tourist destination due in part to its being constructed by famous architect Gustave Eiffel, who built the Eiffel Tower.  It is a pretty building and it has a nice portrait of Ho Chi Minh in it.   We recently saw this building when it was a stop on the Amazing Race TV show.



Across from the post office is the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Visitors are not permitted to go into it.


Our next stop was to the Reunification Hall, which was at one time the Presidential Palace.  There are some tanks on the grounds, probably because this was the site where North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates in 1975 to end the US involvement in the Vietnam War.


The building is quite attractive and has some lovely rooms; but it isn’t air conditioned.  The hallways and most of the rooms are open to the outside to allow for fresh air to freely pass through.  We were here in the winter and it was pretty hot.  It would really uncomfortable to visit here in the summer.  We were also fortunate in that we had a very good breeze for both of the days we were in this port, which made the heat more tolerable.





Another down side to this building is that we had to climb up four very high sets of stair cases to get through the whole building and to the roof where helicopters landed.


A most interesting part of a visit to HCMC is the traffic with all the motorcycles.  Over 70% of the vehicles on the road are motorcycles and they are everywhere.  It is amazing to watch how they just flow through the streets, like flocks of birds smoothly moving around all obstacles.  It is surprising how much stuff can be put on a motorcycle.  We noticed this all throughout Vietnam.




The use of masks to protect from pollution is very common also.  I wish I had gotten one, since it would have come in handy later in the trip.  Our guide told us that women used the masks to keep their skin white.  However both men and women were wearing them; which seemed to me that pollution was the more popular reason for wearing them.


We next drove to the Emperor Jade Pagoda.  This was a very popular place, with lots of visitors.  There was so much burning incense both outside and inside that it was overwhelming and I had to get back outside to get some fresh air.  It was quite unhealthy to breathe in that much smoke. I think it started my coughing and upper respiratory issues I had for most of the rest of the trip.  Both there and at most of the pagodas we visited later in the trip, worshippers would walk around with handfuls of burning incense.  It’s part of their worship and culture, so they are used to it; but it certainly plays havoc with a visitor. 



The statues and figurines in the pagoda were quite impressive.  I would have liked to be able to check them out longer, but the smoke was just too much for me.


Our next stop was to the Ben Thanh Market.  It is a huge indoor market.  Nghia made sure that we noted the entrance location, so that we wouldn’t get lost and be unable to find the van when we were ready to leave.  He told us that in the areas where the clerks wore the blue uniform shirts, the items were a fixed price.  In the other sections of the market, vendors would negotiate the price.  This was a great shopping spot with a large selection and very good prices.  We all came back to the van with numerous bags in our hands.  The economy was improved in HCMC that day.



Our drive back to the ship was entertaining as we watched the motorcycles zip through the streets.  Once again we had a rain free day and a most enjoyable experience touring.


DAY 2 -

On our second day in Vietnam, we would be going to the Mekong Delta.  I had read that it is a 2 to 2.5 drive there, but Ha had only allowed an hour and a half on the schedule.  I was glad that the ride would be shorter; but was concerned that there could be an issue getting back to the boat on time, since we were departing at 4:00 PM.  When I asked Nghia about how long it would take to get to the delta, he confirmed Ha’s 1.5 hours and explained that it used to take a lot longer before a new highway was recently completed.  That sounded great to me.  Shorter rides are a good thing.  Leaving HCMC we once again were surrounded by the masses of motorcycles.  It really is amazing how much stuff and people can be carried on a motorcycle; and even on a bicycle.



While driving through the countryside, we were fascinated by the numerous above ground graves.  Families buried their deceased right there on their property.  The tombs came in all different styles and colors.


This was also the first time that we were seeing rice fields with workers in conical hats.


When we arrived in My Tho City, on the Mekong River, we realized that it was a pretty big city with lots of activity going on.  We knew that it would be a touristy type visit, since we didn’t have the time to be able to get further up the river away from all of the commercial activities.  But there are compromises that had to be made when time was short.  There were lots of tourist boats. 


While Nghia was getting everything arranged we checked out the market area at the docks.  We were thrilled to find a nice selection of snake wine.  Not! 


Once again the water level was low.  Some boats were totally out of the water.  Fortunately by walking on other boats, it was pretty easy to get to ours.


Our first stop would be to Phung Island.  As we approached our dock we were very concerned, since the first step looked to be a bit treacherous due to the low water level.  Actually all of the steps looked a bit treacherous, and the pier didn’t look particularly safe either.  We asked Nghia to see if there was another dock we could use. 


The boat “captain” said there was, and we could go there.  As he was backing away, we got stuck on a sand bar and couldn’t get free.  We could wait for the tides to rise or some of us could get off to lighten the boat.  I was not thrilled about this, but since I was the heaviest object in the boat, I had to be one of the people to go.  The steps turned out to be easier to navigate than expected.  My bigger concern was that there were no hand rails for a narrow section from the stairs to land.  It was not something I would like to do again.


With a much lighter load, the boat was able to back away and take the rest our crew to a dock that was easier for them to navigate.  After a short walk we arrived at a thatch roofed pavilion.  Not too long after we arrived the rest of the crew came walking in from a different direction.   Various cut up fruits were brought out for us to sample.  Some of us tried them, but since we were concerned about getting any type of stomach distress and having to leave the ship, not too much of it was eaten. 


Then three musicians with local instruments and a female singer came out to perform some Vietnamese music.  It was actually rather pleasant, except for a loud snapping sound that was coming from a foot operated instrument. 


To return to our boat, we took the longer walk to get to the better dock.  It was a much safer dock and I was glad there was an alternative to the first one.  Another boat load of happy tourists were getting ready to take our place at this dock so they could have some fruit and hear some music.  As I had mentioned earlier, this was to be a very touristy type tour.


We took a short boat ride over to our next stop, Unicorn Island.  We entered at a cocoanut candy manufacturing plant.  Everything was being produced by hand.  There was a beehive of activity going on as some people were making the candy, others were cutting it up and others wrapping the finished product.  It was quite a production line.  They also had a large bottle of snake wine, I guess to reward the workers with.



Upon leaving the candy plant, we passed by a woman making rice paper.  Our guide explained the manual process to us.


We walked over a small bridge that crossed a canal that we would be traveling on later. 


At the end of the bridge we boarded some small horse drawn wagons to take us to the canal boats.  We really felt sorry for the horses, since there were three of us in each wagon and they did appear to be overworked and underfed.


At the end of the ride was another little market.  They did seem to be everywhere. 


Next to the market was the boat launch for our third boat ride of the morning.  This one had a lot of steep steps.  We were starting to get good at this.  This boat however wasn’t as stable as the others, so we had to be more cautious about moving around.



This time it was a very narrow canal.  It was also very muddy.  We passed by numerous fish traps.  It actually was a pretty nice ride.


When finished, we were happy to get back to our larger boat to return to My Tho City to get back in the air conditioned van.  There was a lot of traffic on the Mekong River with all kinds of barges and boats.


Our last stop for the day would be at the Vinh Trang Pagoda.  Since we had seen many pagodas already on the trip, did we really need to go to another one after all the different activities we had done that morning?  In researching this tour, I had seen a few photos of this particular pagoda and it looked very nice, so I wanted to visit it.  As we approached the pagoda from the road we were shocked to see two massive white statues.  One was a standing Buddha and the other a seated Happy Buddha.


I was not expecting to see something like this.  They were so beautiful.  The pagoda itself was a very different style from those we had previously seen and it was just gorgeous.



There were many other statues and structures on the grounds also.


Like other pagodas we had entered, there was an assortment of religious statues.  Fortunately there was less incense being burned there and the airflow was better.


Since the pagoda was about halfway to the ship, the ride back didn’t take that long.  We got back before 2:00 PM with plenty of time to spare.  We were quite exhausted from the four boat rides and lots of walking we had done.  We were ready to relax and enjoy the upcoming sea day. 

The return ride down the Ho Chi Minh Slalom was once again a fascinating journey.  There was a lot to look at.  In addition, a cruise ship left the dock about 15 minutes before us, so it was interesting to see the path we would be going.  As the Quest was heading east, the other ship was heading west further down the river.  It really was a curvy river.



Click Button to Continue to Part 2 of the Review for the remaining ports.




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