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Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009

a travel blog by mohicanfan


This is my travel journal from our trip to Asia in Dec 2009. My husband and I, both in our late 20s, spent 3 days in Beijing, 2 days in Shanghai and then boarded a Princess cruise ship (the Ocean Princess) for a 17-day, 8-city tour of Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Just a warning - my journals are detailed and quite long!

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Day 11: 5th cruise day - Day at Sea

Taipei, Taiwan


Day 11: Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

5th cruise day: Day at Sea

We woke up again at 6am but dozed until 7am and then watched CNN and Headline News until 8am when we left for the Panorama Buffet breakfast. There was no line at the omelet station so I had an egg white omelet with extra cheese, bell pepper and tomato. Coupled with chocolate chip muffins and watermelon, it was a good breakfast. Hunter had another egg and bacon and cheese on an english muffin with some other foods. The weather was still a bit cool (55 degrees) but the sun was finally shining! We decided it would be warm enough to lay outside in the afternoon. We did a quick tour around the ship to see if we could spot a good place to sit and type on our netbooks, but most rooms were ready for the activities of the day, so we decided to stay in the cabin and catch up on programming and journal entries until it was time for our first activity at 10:30am – the Ballroom Dance “Rumba” lesson with Ruth and Chris (the head dancers). We hadn't met that crew yet (so far we have the “in” with only Shane, Chantel, and Anna) so we thought it would be great to go and meet new friends :) Back in the room I got a call from Lynne who invited us up to the Elite Lounge (tonight in Sabatini's) to meet the rest of the CruiseCritic.com posters.

The Rumba lesson was a lot of fun and Hunter and I did a pretty good job and did not embarrass ourselves by falling down like another couple did! We then raced to the Casino Lounge for the Martini Mixer demonstration. That was great fun as we got to meet some fun bartenders and got to shake martinis and dance in order to win free drinks. Hunter won a free “Blue Eyes” drink and I got a free Orange martini that I can't remember the name of. Shane was running the session and made sure we each were called on to participate! We were pretty tipsy after that drink and were glad it was time for lunch.

The same food that is served in the main dining room is served up in the buffet so it is more efficient to eat in the buffet. We had chicken wings, lasagna, 6 sausage pizza and spare ribs. Yum! We then went outside on deck 9 to grab a lounge chair by the pool. Princess was handing out free blankets but the sun was out making it quite warm during the day. We grabbed chairs that were right next to the couple from South Carolina and they started talking up a storm to me about cruising, their 401(k) plans and retirement and other stuff. Finally they left to walk around the deck and I realized it was past the 2:15pm start time for our shuffleboard tournament. We hurried up to the 11th deck bow and found the tournament. Two couples were already playing and we challenged the winner of their match but then lost. Oh well – we have to get them next time. We loved Deck 11 and decided to come up there to sunbathe as it was sun everywhere and the shade didn't shift with the sun. We grabbed chairs, took out our netbooks and enjoyed our first stretch of warm(er) weather and midday sun! At 3:30pm we went to the buffet for our daily ice cream sundae, but then later regretted it as it made us so full. Around 4:10pm it became too cold to lay outside anymore and we headed back to the cabin to relax before getting ready to meet Lynne and Tong and the rest of the Cruisecritic.com posters.

We met Lynne in the hallway walking towards the elevators for our get-together. On the ride up in the elevator we met Alan and John, posters from NJ – who are actually living in London but have a house in Montclair, NJ – and then inside Sabatinis we met Heather and Ed. The elite lounge was nothing special at all – it is available to platinum and elite members on select days of the cruise and really just had a small spread of cheese and crackers and breads and veggie crudités. Members still had to pay for drinks. We sat for about an hour at a table talking with everyone.

At 7:10pm we all split up and Hunter and I went back to the cabin where I fell asleep I was so tired. We were more full than ever because we snacked at the lounge, so we decided to skip dinner once again and instead see the musical dance show at 8:15pm and then grab something from the buffet. The show was very good, although they didn't sing the most common Broadway showtunes. The dancing choreography was really good and I felt bad the dance company didn't have more of a stage! It was funny to see the crew staff that we have gotten friendly with these past few days up there in bright sequin encrusted costumes smiling stage smiles, etc. After the nearly 1-hour show, we went up to the buffet and had some dessert as it was only Pizza and dessert night at the buffet. We think they only have the full dinner buffet when we are in port and they think more people would use the buffet. On sea days, it seems like the full buffet is always closed. Hunter ordered a club sandwich from room service and we spent the rest of the night on our netbooks and preparing for our long day in Hong Kong tomorrow!

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 22, 2009 from Taipei, Taiwan
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia and Cruise

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Day 12: Hong Kong, China (6th cruise day)

Hong Kong, Hong Kong


Day 12: Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

6th cruise day: Hong Kong, China

Wow! What a day in Hong Kong! Just as everyone predicted, Hong Kong is our favorite city so far on this trip. It is remarkable with its beautiful city skyline, picturesque green mountains and pretty beaches. Plus, the city is one big shopping mall after another – we thought Beijing and Shanghai had a lot of malls, but this was unbelievable. We seriously went into 5 giant shopping malls yesterday and didn't cover even a ¼ of all there is in Hong Kong. They are serious shoppers! Luckily the prices are so high – especially electronics – that we aren't buying anything here because we can get the same stuff much cheaper in the US. And the things that are really cheap – stuff they sell in the local markets – is of such poor quality that we're not even bothering to do any real shopping. It looks like we won't need to buy another suitcase after all as we didn't buy a lot in China thinking we would get stuff in Hong Kong, and then realized Hong Kong was too expensive!

Our day started early and we were off the ship by 8:30am after a quick continental breakfast from the buffet. Princess docked in Kowloon, at the Ocean Terminal, which is of course connected to a giant shopping center. We walked towards the Star Ferry terminal through one floor of the shopping center that was nothing but children's stores of all high end brands, like Burberry. We didn't even know that these designers make children's clothes! There was an information booth at the Star Ferry and we found out we could only buy a transportation “octupus card” from a metro station so we used cash to get a token for our first ferry ride over to Hong Kong Island. It was a very fast ferry ride and we were amazed to see so many boats in the small harbor...this made the water very chopping as all these ferries and fishing boats passed back and forth, but luckily Hunter didn't get sea sick because it was only a 10 min ride. The ferry dropped us off at Central and we made a detour into the nearby metro station to buy the octopus card so we could have a “fast pass” for paying for all the bus rides we were going to take. Each card cost $150 HKD with $100 in transportation and $50 as a deposit. If you return the card within 30 days for a refund, they assess a $7 HKD fee. We then walked to Exchange Square and passed IFC I and II, two giant glistening glass buildings, one of which used to be the world's tallest in the late 1990s. One of those buildings housed the Capital Group offices. Exchange Square is the main bus terminal and we easily found Express Bus 260 which took us to Stanley Market.

The bus ride to Stanley Market made it worth the trip just in and of itself. The bus system is amazing in Hong Kong. Most are double-deckers, with giant widows and comfortable seats, like the ones you would find on the coach buses in the US. But the buses are really narrow in width, which we found out is needed because the country roads are so narrow! These bus drivers give the NYC taxi drivers a run for their money in daring driving. Hunter and I sat in the front two seats on the top deck so we had great views of the trip, and we were holding our breaths as the bus would stop at a stoplight literally inches behind the bus in front of it! There were buses EVERYWHERE in the city and getting out of the Central district to the roads leading to the southern end of the island was a bit chaotic. But we got to see the Central district as the bus drove through the crowded streets of skyscrapers and shopping malls. Then, once out of the busy section, we got to enjoy the beautiful scenery. The bus route to Stanley Market took us up over the mountains, past Repulse Bay, where we got to enjoy incredible vistas of the crescent shaped beach with smooth sand and blue water. We couldn't believe such a fast-paced NYC-like city could also have the advantages of such nice beaches! The roads twisted and turned and the bus crisscrossed lanes whenever it felt like it, but made sure it got back to the left side of the road before the oncoming jaguars and bentleys and mercedes benz cars came zooming past us on the other side. The bus drivers actually have speed reader boxes handing from the ceilings so passengers can see how fast they are going – I guess it's to allow passengers to complain if they're going too fast?

We made the bus ride in one piece and got off at Stanley market. It was still early, around 10am and the market stalls were just setting up. There were a few toy stores in there and a lot of the same goods we've seen elsewhere – chinese scarves, shirts, ties, etc. Surprisingly we were never hassled to come in and look around – they left us alone as we walked up and down the stalls. We then ventured down to the promenade, then started to walk towards St. Stephen's beach until we could peer down from the top of the hill to see the view. We then walked through Stanley Plaza, another shopping center, where we visited the ATM and pharmacy. We ended up at the bus stop, but we didn't see signs for bus 73 which we wanted, so we asked a young British man if any of the buses went to Aberdeen. We found a few and then boarded a minibus (#52) that pulled up. The minibus ride was also fun – he sped along down the winding roads until someone ran the bell to stop and they got off.

The area around Stanley Market is home to some beautiful and very expensive apartments because the views of the water are so incredible. We passed some real estate stores and saw that even the rundown apartments of less than 1,000 sq ft were going for over $1 million USD. There were a lot of international people (mainly British) in the area, walking their dogs in the morning and eating in cafes, and all of the signs were in Cantonese and English so it was very easy to get around.

We got off the minibus at Aberdeen, which is also on the south end of the island and is where the local fishing people live in their boats. We walked along the riverfront promenade and found a sampan ride which took us for 30 min around the harbor area past all the boats. This was a unique experience. We picked a sampan operator that was run by a very old woman with tons of wrinkles and a funny pointed hat, like what you see in the old movies. She looked like something right out of a picture of Hong Kong 30 years ago. Her partner in crime was a one-eyed Chinese man who spoke almost no English and just yelled at passer-bys to hop in the boat. Or at least we think that is what he was yelling about! The sampan itself was cool – it was an old wooden motorboat that could probably hold a good 25 people sitting on the hard wooden benches around the side of the boat and on a strip up the middle. ¾ of the boat was covered in a canvas roof, offering shade protection. The keel was covered in side by side rubber tires. There were lots of tires everywhere, held together by thick rope so the boats could crash into things without damaging anything. The boat ride took us around the Jumbo, the famous floating restaurant, and we saw the beautiful red/green/black chinese decor-ed front, and then the decrepit, falling down, moldy section of the back! Talk about fake appearances! The boat then drove past hundreds of wooden boats, from large fishing boats, to smaller houseboats, to canoe-like boats with 3 people. Some of these boats are where people live full time. We could see lines of clothes and pots and pans hanging out to dry. Our favorite boat was a medium sized one that had two rows of dead fish drying out clipped to the clothes lines, and then a third clothes line of men's and women's clothes. Yum – how good those shirts must smell after they are dried out! One thing that really surprised us was that the water was actually pretty clear. We expected to be floating in dark, murky brown water, like you would see in the Atlantic, because of the pollution from all the motor boats, but surprisingly the water was a clear turquoise with very few pieces of garbage floating in it.

After the interesting boat ride, we took another boat that dropped us off at the Jumbo restaurant. We decided to splurge on an authentic chinese lunch of dim sum as the restaurant is very famous. The inside was exquisite. Everything was very fancy with hard wooden slabs that served as charter plate, and heavy carved chopsticks. The chairs were arranged in groups around the table. We had a table for 4 and two chairs were placed side by side on the pointed ends of the table. They moved two of them to the side so we could sit down facing the flat part of the table, but Hunter went to move another chair back to its side of the table and they promptly moved it back to the pointy end of the table. That was the first of probably several taboos we made in the restaurant. We figured out how to order dim sum and then just picked at it with our chopsticks, and only later realized they gave us a third set of chopsticks to use to remove the pieces from the platters onto our plates. The waiters hovered over us so as soon as the last morsel left the serving plate, they whisked it away and plopped down the next dim sum dish. The food was very, very, good, although it gave us our fill of dim sum for a while! We stuck to pork and shrimp dishes. The restaurant had very high end food on the dinner menu and we saw one dish of a very rare fish that was sold at $15,000 HKD, ~2,000 USD! That must be some tasty fish!

After the boat ride back from the restaurant to the promenade, we walked to the bus terminal and found one that took us to Causeway Bay, probably the largest shopping area on Hong Kong Island. This place was unbelievable! There were literally 10 giant shopping malls all in the same area. We walked through 4 or 5 of them, wide-eyed, counting all the different stores we saw. Many were the American brands, and we spotted several Starbucks cafes, crepe shops, gelato stands, and even Toys 'R Us. As we said before, the prices were much higher compared to the US, so we didn't buy anything, which saved us a lot of money!

It was well after 4pm by the time we finished up with the shopping malls and we took the metro to another district called Wan Chai, where we visited a “computer mall” which was nothing but tiny shops selling computers, camcorders, cameras, flash drives, etc. There was one really cool store selling spy gear with hidden video cameras! Luckily everything was too expensive so we didn't buy yet another computer! We then hopped on another bus which drove towards the Central District. The bus driver spoke English (as it seems everyone does in Hong Kong and their English is very, very good, too. We had forgotten it was under British authority before passing to China and you can definitely see the western influences the most in HK than in the other cities we've visited so far). We asked the driver to point out which stop was closest to the Victoria Peak tram, and he did, and it was only a short 5 min walk uphill to the tram. The tram is a very old cable-car transportation system that takes you up to the top of Victoria's Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong island. It was very crowded with people as it was getting to be around sunset and people were going up to the top for the nighttime views and for the eating in one of the many restaurants housed in the shopping complex at the top. One restaurant was Bubba Gump's Shrimp Company! We got there after 5pm and it took about 40 minutes of waiting in line and the tram ride included to get to the top. It was well worth the wait and the money to see those views! Unfortunately the nighttime fog was starting to set in, but it was still breathtaking to peer down on the tall skyscrapers twinkling with white and colored lights, and to watch all the boats in the harbor and the ferries making their crossings back and forth from the island. There is a lot of history on the peak tram and its role in WWII and we saw a display that had an actual newspaper from 1941 with articles about Hong Kong Island's surrender to the Japanese. We took a lot of photos and some video and then waited in line to take the tram back down.

Our timing was perfect and we caught the Express bus (15C) back to the Central ferry pier to take the Star Ferry back to Kowloon, where we walked to the riverfront promenade. It was 7:45pm at this point and the place was packed with throngs of people waiting to see the 8pm light show. Everyone had told us to be in Kowloon for the light show, as the lights on the buildings on HK Island are much nicer than the buildings on the Kowloon side. We found an opening near the front and were able to hear the narration and the music as the lights danced and flashed in synchronization to the music. What a fun light show! It was like seeing the 4th of July fireworks, but you can see this every night! It was only a 10-min show, but worth the trouble of seeing it from the promenade.

After the light show, we were STILL GOING (like little energizer bunnies) but decided we needed food to keep moving. We started walking down the famous Nathan Road in search of a restaurant. Most of the street was flanked by stores and yes, you guessed it, more shopping malls so it took us a while to find a restaurant (which we found in the i-Square shopping mall). It was a cafe that sold American and Chinese food. Hunter ordered a bacon cheeseburger and
I had spaghetti bolognese which came covered in melted cheese like a ziti.

Nathan Road area reminds us of Time Square and is what we pictured Tokyo would be like. There are huge neon flashing billboards that are suspended over the street or attached to the large shopping complexes. And there are crowds of people everywhere! It was like walking down the Strip in Las Vegas at 10pm and being amazed at how many people are still up and walking around. Even the side streets off Nathan Road were glowing with neon signs and filled with people. We wonder if it is always this crowded, or if it is especially so since it is one day before Christmas Eve. It is also Winterfest, a 5-week celebration in Hong Kong where the city is adorned with Christmas displays of brightly lit christmas trees and giant bells and snow flakes, etc., so we saw a lot of families and groups of teenagers taking pictures in front of the displays.

We managed to walk all the way to Temple Street without our legs giving way and started the long market walk. There were stalls upon stalls of the same stuff – mostly junk – so we didn't buy anything but thought it was fun to just watch all the people combing over the hair ties and bracelets and fake watches and leather belts and broken electronics. Surrounding the market stalls were two rows of local cooking stands. Temple Street Night Market is supposed to be a good place to try local delicacies, but after our dim sum lunch, we thought we had enough local flavor for the day! We then passed by streets of jade sellers, near where the jade market was, which was closed at night. We are glad we made it to the temple market because the busy activity was something to see.

At 11:05pm we flagged down a taxi, thinking our busy day was over and we were on our way safely home to the ship. But we had one more fun adventure. We told our taxi diver to take us to Ocean Terminal where the cruise ship was and showed him the spot on the map. He said, “oh, ok, Ocean Center” and we thought Center and Terminal could be interchangeable so we said ok. He then proceeded to drive us to the outskirts of the city, which didn't look right, and then stopped in a parking lot full of cars and teenagers sitting on the cars. He brought us to a drifting challenge! We immediately said, “no, no, this isn't right” and took out the map again. He took a more careful look and then laughed and said he knew where that was. Thank goodness! We didn't want to get abandoned at a drifting challenge! Luckily, we made no more detours and we got back on the ship in one piece, a little after 11:30pm. What a day! We crashed immediately and didn't wake up even once during the night.



permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 23, 2009 from Hong Kong, Hong Kong
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged HongKong, Asia and Cruise

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Day 13: Hong Kong / Macau, China (7th cruise day)

Hong Kong, Hong Kong


Day 13: Thursday, December 24th, 2009

7th cruise day: Hong Kong, China (side trip to Macau, China)

We slept soundly for a good 7 hours and then got up to do it all again! We decided that because we did more than expected the first day, and that we weren't happy with the shopping in Hong Kong, that we didn't need to spend another day poking in computer centers and shopping malls, and that instead we would try to figure out a trip to Macau. We got a late start (9am off the ship) as we had breakfast in the buffet with Lynne and Tong from cruisecritic and heard about their adventure in Macau (a lost taxi driver who had their bags). We had a little detour when trying to figure out how to get the Macau ferry terminal, and first stopped at the information center at the Star ferry terminal to get information. They told us to buy the tickets at Hong Kong City Center which was north of the pier. We started walking up Canton Road and then didn't think we were making much ground so we hopped in a taxi at a nearby hotel and when we showed him on the map where he wanted to go, he pointed down the road and said “you walk”. It turned out we were only 1 block away from where we needed to go. And so started our adventurous day! At the terminal, we bought our roundtrip tickets to the island ($540 HKD?). We had gotten our passports last night from the purser's desk. It was a little after 9:30am and we had a 10am ferry, so we sat in Starbucks to check email. At 9:54am we went to the departing dock and saw the gates closed already! We didn't realize there would be a wait or a line! We got out tickets changed for the 10:30am ferry and then waited in line. They quickly opened the line and we had to pass through immigration. The guy didn't like me as I didn't have the right deportation card and had to fill one out, and then he saw we were on the Princess Cruise and called over another immigration official who told us we better make sure we would be back on the boat in time! We promised we would, and they let us through.

The ferry ride was pleasant and fast. We had comfortable airplane-like seats and the high speed ferry took only 1 hour to reach Macau. There was a long line to clear immigration, but it took only 15 minutes and we got another stamp in our passport. We then went upstairs to departures to double-check the ferry times and found out the ferries leave every 15 min and there was one at 1:45pm. We left the terminal and took the long walkway that dropped us off at Fisherman's Wharf which was a very cute Disneyesque playground area for kids with a fake volcano, Aladdin's Castle, bumper cards and a military war-game escapade. We took some pictures and then realized the casinos were too far to walk – Macau is so much larger than we thought – and took a taxi to the Wynn hotel. We got there in time to see the water and fire show out front and then walked through. The casino was very nice – we haven't been to the Wynn in Vegas so couldn't compare it. We walked to the back and exited, then crossed the street to the MGM Grand which was really nice! It was more upscale than the Wynn, but the card tables had lower limits. I gambled about $40 USD and didn't win anything but liked the slot machines as they played lots of music and had lots of flashing lights :) We only had about 1 hour 15 min total in Macau, but it was just enough to get a feel of the island. Hunter bought a $25 poker chip to add to his collection.

Around 1:10pm, we hopped in a taxi at the MGM and told the driver we wanted to go to the ferry terminal. He didn't speak any English and called a valet over from the hotel to translate. I explained to the guy that we wanted to take the ferry home to Hong Kong and he nodded and told the driver the destination then told us “Tapai ferry.” We couldn't understand what he was saying because his English wasn't clear due to the heavy accent, so we just agreed. The driver then started off. Within 5 min he pulled onto the very long white bridge that extends from Macau to a smaller island called Tapai. As soon as we got on the bridge we knew it was the totally wrong direction but couldn't communicate with the driver. We kept pointing backwards toward Macau, and he kept pointing off to the side and saying “Ferry”. There was no way to turn around on the bridge so we had to keep going. He then started rounding the island in a circle and got closer to a terminal which we knew was very wrong as we had to cross the bridge again. We tried different words “Sands hotel” “fisherman's wharf” but he kept shaking his head he didn't understand. We were starting to panic this time b/c we needed to make the 2pm ferry to ensure we were back at the ship by 4pm b/c the ship had to clear immigration too. Finally Hunter said, “Macau Ferry” and the guy said “OOOHH, Macau! Macau ferry!” and we nodded vigorously. He made a quick turnaround and crossed another bridge, close to the correct ferry terminal, and we were confident he finally knew where to go. He was very nice about it at the end and didn't accept the full fare for the ride.

Then, in the terminal, we went to pass through the first gate and were told our tickets needed to be exchanged. It took us a while to figure out what they meant and then saw we only had return coupons for the ferry back, not tickets. After 2 tries with speaking with the attendant as his English was also very limited, we found the place to get tickets and luckily got put on the 2pm ferry. It turned out there was no 1:45pm ferry, so we don't know what that attendant earlier was talking about! We got so used to everyone in Hong Kong speaking such good English that we forgot that we were back in mainland China where very few people speak English and so we really weren't prepared. If we had known we would be doing Macau, I would have had maps and time schedules with us to better communicate with the taxi drivers! Anyway, we finally got through the gate, cleared immigration on the Macau side and made it with plenty of time to spare to the ferry waiting room.

Without any further problems, we took the 2pm ferry and made it back a little after 3pm. There was no waiting line for the immigration on the Hong Kong side. We didn't have time to get a refund on our Octopus transportation card because Hunter wanted to be back on the ship by 4pm in case the immigration officials that needed to stamp our passports were waiting for us. We will keep the cards in case any friends or coworkers travel to Hong Kong and can use it!

Overall, we had a fantastic two days in Hong Kong. It really is our favorite city so far and are glad we had such mild weather to be able to experience everything outside, with all the walking and sight-seeing we did. Today was the first day we didn't need jackets! It is only going to get warmer from here as the next port of call, Chan May / the city of Hue, Vietnam, is running around 82 degrees. Pool day tomorrow! Macau was larger and not as flashy as we thought it would be – it is a much tamer version of Las Vegas in terms of the number and size of the casinos, but it probably has more vices (there were two huge signs in the taxi to call a hotline number to help stop human trafficking, which was sponsored by a women's association of Macau). There were many flashy cars and female hostesses dressed up in ridiculous costumes in one hotel.

Back on the ship, we crashed in the cabin and laid in bed watching the Hong Kong skyline through our window as we pulled out of the harbor. For the first time ever, as the Captain announced, he took his “beautiful white lady” out of Hong Kong through a channel which afforded spectacular views of the Hong Kong skyline. Hunter played on his netbook while I napped. Then it was time for the Christmas Carols at 7:30pm! Most of the choir were members of the crew and we were shocked to see front and center, Captain Stefano Ravera singing away! The crew were all dressed in their dress blues and had handed out booklets of the carols that would be sung. The carols took place on the grand staircase, just outside our room, which connected Decks 4 and 5. The banisters were all decorated with garland and holly and lights and the crew wore santa hats. The caroling definitely put us more in the holiday spirit as we didn't feel like Christmas was approaching. We then went to dinner, where there was another night of fancy foods, this time escargot and frog legs. We stuck to the veal scaloppini cordon blue and the angel hair lobster pasta in tomato sauce. Our dinner companions, Connie and Tony, showed up and were so thankful to see us. They told us last night in Hong Kong was open dinner seating, because most people were away from ship in the city, They got stuck with a “nearly dead” couple from Britain who told horror stories about past cruises, including the last time they sailed on the Ocean Princess and 9 people died and they ran out of room to preserve the bodies and had to take the ice cream out of the freezer to make room for the bodies! Tony said they kept looking for us saying, “man, where's Hunter when I need him!” We had such a fun time sharing stories with them at dinner and it was nice to hear that they enjoy our company as much as we do theirs, and that both couples are satisfied with the seating arrangements! Our waiter showed us the special Christmas breakfast ($32/couple) and dinner menu for tomorrow and suggested we pre-order wine because it gets so busy in the bar on Christmas that sometimes it can take 40 minutes to get a coke. We instead used mom's $20 wine coupon (which we later learned she never ordered or paid for) to order a bottle of chardonnay (Woodbridge - $22) and drank half of it and had the rest bottled up to be served the next night.

After dinner, we walked through the ship to check on the entertainment and saw the casinos were very busy. We stopped to chat at the Cabaret Lounge with Shane, said hi to Ruth and Chantal, and felt like we were regular members of the Ocean Princess! Hunter then went back to the room and I attended the last 35 min of the piano concert of a Philippino man who was very famous in the 1980s and 1990s but was still a young guy, probably no older than mid-40s. I got back a little after 11:10pm and then read for a while until it was time for us to go back to the Cabaret Lounge for midnight mass. Shane had told us it was the only Catholic service to be held for Christmas as the 9:30am service the next day was a nondenominational service conducted by the Captain. The mass was pretty well attended, including the Captain himself. We went back to our cabin after mass and didn't get to sleep until after 1:30am! It was a very good thing I had taken that late afternoon nap!

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 24, 2009 from Hong Kong, Hong Kong
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged HongKong, Asia, Cruise and Macau

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Day 14: 8th cruise day - Day at Sea

Hong Kong, Hong Kong


Day 14: Friday, December 25th, 2009

8th cruise day: Day at Sea

Merry Christmas! Hunter set the alarm for 7am but we quickly turned it off and fell back into a deep sleep until 9:30am. We were slow to get up and watched some tv and realized the channel that shows the weather was broken as it was much warmer today than 10 degrees C. We ate a light breakfast in the buffet and then grabbed lounge chairs on the 11th deck sundeck and lathered up with lotion for the day. The ship had just passed through storm clouds and the afternoon was bright and sunny. We stayed up there the whole day, mainly sleeping and writing journal entries, and getting up for the occasional shipboard activity. We missed the signup for the gingerbread house making activity but thought it would be too crowded anyway to get a good house. The houses from last cruise were on display in the Club Lounge (right outside the dining room) and they were very nice! Others were spread around the buffet, adding additional Christmas cheer. Oh – before breakfast, at 10:30am, we swung by the Club Lounge to watch Santa Claus hand out presents to the junior cruisers. They all got Princess Cruise teddy bears! It was very cute to see them running around with their teddy bears and wrapped gifts. I watched the Pastry and Turkey Carving demonstration, but we were too comfortable by the pool to get up to learn the Waltz with Ruth and Chris. We also skipped the gingerbread making house because we thought we would have to share a house with a big group. Later, we saw photos of the event and it looked like fun!

Dinner at night was still weird (frog legs) but they had roast turkey and ham and we talked about our plans for Da Nang. We attended the Christmas variety show, which was a compilation of acts with the lead singers from the dance troupe, Claude Eric, and the guy from the piano lounge. They sang traditional Christmas songs and some other tunes. Susan Rawlings announced that it was Claude Eric's last time on stage as he was leaving the ship for Montreal when we pull into Da Nang. That was too bad as we really liked him! We came back to the room and called our families to wish them a Merry Christmas. We went to bed around midnight.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 25, 2009 from Hong Kong, Hong Kong
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia and Cruise

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Day 15: Hue, Vietnam (9th cruise day)

Hue, Vietnam


Day 15: Saturday, December 26th, 2009

9th cruise day: Hue, Vietnam

Our first day in Vietnam! We pulled into port before 6:30am and passed by many small fishing boats in the harbor. The view was beautiful as there were beautiful, tall, green mountains near the pier, which we later learned were the mountains separating Vietnam and Laos. The captain said they were late docking because the pilot boat met them late, but they quickly got immigration officials on board to clear us. Hunter and I ran into two of them in the hallway and they were SCARY! They were dressed in their green military uniforms and looked ominous as they weren't smiling. We grabbed a quick breakfast and then packed up for the day for our tour of Hue and the Perfume River Cruise. We met in the Cabaret Lounge and were released for the bus 10 min early.

We were in the B2 tour group that had less than 40 people. Our shuffleboard partner-in-crime, Jim, was on board, and we finally introduced ourselves as we keep running into each other throughout the cruise ship. We had a very pleasant tour guide who spoke a lot of English, but was difficult to understand sometimes as she couldn't pronounce “c” or “r” in her words. She was a petite young woman, probably no more than 30-ish and was originally from Saigon before moving to Hue. She told us a lot of interesting facts about Hue and the Vietnamese and proved the benefit of taking an organized tour instead of going off on your own.

Our tour started with a bumpy bus ride to Hue. The guide said the ride would take one hour, but it was more like 1 ½ hours each way. The main road leading out of the pier was a dirt road and we passed by more scary looking police at booth stations exiting the pier. The bus ride to Hue took us past many small villages, which were really just one road with shanty tin-roof houses (with sand bags holding down the roofs) . There were small boxes that looked like oversized open-faced mailboxes that were shrines where family members would pray for deceased parents and grandparents. Then each village had multiple large shrines which were places to worship 3rd and 4th generation ancestors. Only 2 generations of family members could be worshiped in the home. It is difficult to know who is related to who across all these villages, so once a year in the beginning of the new year, all relatives make a pilgrimage to the large family shrine, at which point you look around to see who you are related to, so that, as our tour guide said, “you don't fall in love with your relative,” The villages were very rundown and looked very 3rd world. In between villages were acres and acres of rice paddie fields with workers plowing the field. Even though a few rich farmers can afford motorized plows, most of the farmers we passed on the journey were literally plowing their fields with a wooden plow pulled by 2 water buffalo. The water buffalo were everywhere! We don't know how the farmers keep track of them as they wander into the roads and munch on grass growing in the cemeteries. The bus stopped once off the side of the road so everyone could get out and take pictures of the rice farmers plowing nearby. There was a small boy on the road, balancing on one foot on top of a water buffalo, hand outstretched for money. Another little boy in a ragged t-shirt walked up to people, poking them, begging for money. We saw little kids everywhere, and so many of them! Our tour guide later told us that 5 and 9 are very lucky numbers to the Vietnamese and each farming family tries to have 5 or 9 children. Only 20% of children go to school and the rest help their families on the rice paddies. We also think the parents exploit the children for money and we saw several mothers parading their babies and young children in front of tourists begging for money. It was very sad.

We also passed eucalyptus trees in the fields and learned that eucalyptus oil is a very popular remedy for pregnant women. The rub it on their bellies all during pregnancy and for three years after the birth of the child. Kem never said what it was for, (prevents stretch marks or promotes fertility!) but said the men hate the smell but the women wear it anyway. I'll have to look for a big bottle to take home for Liz! We also learned that the Vietnamese want at least 1 son with their huge family and if after 9 children they don't get any sons, they blame the wife and the husband is allowed to go out and have an extramarital affair with another woman to try to produce a son. Nice thought – after giving birth to 9 children you still have to watch your husband dally with another woman!

The mountain range was so beautiful and a great backdrop to the wide murky rivers carrying the motorized dragon boats and fishing boats and sand boats. The trees were tall and green, although we weren't in the “jungle” area that you hear about when talking about the jungle warfare of the Vietnam war. However, Vietnam was exactly like what we pictured and we don't think much changed in the 40 or so years since the start of the Vietnam War. There is a lot of road construction being done on the route to Hue, and even in the city, but instead of Caterpillar bulldozers and forklifts, the construction is predominantly done by men with shovels and pointed hats – and sometimes working barefoot! At this rate, the construction will never be done! Our tour guide told us that one of the fancy hotels in Hue took 10 years to complete because the sponsors kept pulling out and the government delayed the project many times in hope of finally getting financial aid from Unesco and other agencies. The hotel opened just 1 month ago and looked very nice – it had a lot of French architectural influences to it, which could be seen in many buildings in Hue. Kem also talked about corruption and said it is EVERYWHERE. Each time we crossed a bridge, we were stopped by policeman who made the driver turn over $10 or $20 USD as “payment” for crossing the bridge because we were a large van with many passengers. That money, Kem said, goes straight into their pockets. The chairman of the city makes only $500 USD per month on his government salary but takes home a total of $10,000 USD per month when you factor in all the bribes and special payments he receives from his dominant position in the city. The average city resident (60% of the Hue city residents work in the tourism industry) take home on average $300 per month. Government employees take home an average of $500/month while rice farmers earn only $50-$100/month.

The bus ride pulled into the city of Hue, and we thought it was more like a larger town than an actual city, but it is the 3rd largest city in Vietnam behind Saigon and Hanoi. Hue maintained its pro-US sentiments and the tour guide made many disparaging remarks about the NVA and talked about the heroics of the US soldiers during the fighting in Hue. We passed several markets and street vendors selling scarfs and ceramics and china and touristy items like t-shirts and pointed hats.

Our first stop was at an embroidery factory next to the Century Hotel that later served us lunch. We were ushered into stuffy rooms where very young woman in long beautiful silk gowns were hunched over sheets of silk, embroidering patterns by hand. They encouraged us to take pictures, which made them seem like the workers themselves were on display. Throughout this whole trip, we felt bad taking pictures as every place we went, the tour operators treated the locals like items in a zoo, there for our amusement and picture taking. More on that later....the embroidery was gorgeous and so inexpensive! We would have loved to buy a framed print but have limited room. We later saw many much simpler patterns being sold in the markets for $1-$5 USD. We picked up the Perfume Riverboat cruise at the pier near the embroidery shops. On board, older women and men were eagerly ready to sell us silk pajamas, robes, and embroidery prints. Our tour guide passed around a binder that contained old photos of the wartime in Hue in 1968 and we saw American soldiers rescuing local people, wounded soldiers being helped to safety, and other pictures of the city of Hue during the war.

The riverboat cruise lasted only 30 minutes but gave us great views of the tourist dragon boats and of the canoes paddled by the locals. We also passed several sandboats, which were large flat motorboats with holes in the bottom from which a worker would shovel out heaps of sand from the bottom of the river. We learned that after they pay off the policeman guarding the river banks, a boat operator can sell a boatload of sand to construction companies for $10-$50 per boat. Unfortunately, this drains the river of the rich sand that allows the microorganisms to survive and which used to give the river its fragrant perfume smell. Now the river is just murky and smelly in a not-so-good way.

As we pulled in to the dock to end our tour, we passed a canoe boat with a very old woman, hunched over, covered in wrinkles, wearing a pointed hat, just like you would see in the old pictures of Vietnam. She paddled right up to the side of our boat and tried to squeeze in between our boat and another dragon boat, as the passengers on our boat shouted “look out, you are going to crush her!” She then tried to leap from her boat onto our boat, trying to get up so she could see us and beg for money. Our boat driver kind of just pushed her boat aside, preventing her from climbing up. She was so desperate for money she was willing to crush her boat!

The perfume river boat stopped at the Thien Mu Pagoda, also known as the Temple of the Heavenly Lady Pagoda. We got a lot of good history on it and then proceeded further into the temple area to see the monks. Each family tries to send one son to the temple to become a monk, either for financial reasons as they can't support all their children, or because they think it is lucky to have a religious son. The monks start as early as 10 years old and get special haircuts to show they are novice monks until they pass all exams. Our tour guide pulled over one novice monk and made him answer questions for us and pose for pictures. Again, we felt like we were at a zoo gawking at unusual things and felt very bad for the monks who were trying to go about their day, interrupted by picture-snapping people.

We continued the tour by driving back across a white bridge that had its own lane for motorcycles as EVERYONE rode motorcycles instead of bikes. We then went back to the Century hotel for a big buffet lunch of lots of kinds of rice and noodles, beef satays, pork and different shrimp dishes, with a few cakes and fruits as desserts. They basically ran out of food once our tour group got there – the last one out of many Princess tours that stopped there – and we got the bottom of the barrel. Surprisingly the food was good and luckily didn't make us sick! We had free soft drinks, waters and beers, and the waters all came with protective plastic wrap over the top so you know it was unopened. I kept flashing back to the movie Slumdog Millionaire where the restaurant waiters refilled plastic water bottles with tap water and then resealed the caps with glue. I felt much safer that there was unbroken plastic seal covering the main plastic seal. There was a wedding going on in the hotel with a beautiful young bride and the guests were all dressed in fancy outfits.

We were supposed to have an hour and a half for lunch and more shopping at the embroidery factory, but most people finished their shopping early and so we headed out by 2pm, a half hour ahead of schedule. This gave us time to stop at the busiest food market in Hue, which was unbelievable. We passed by market stalls selling fully chopped up pigs – they sold platters of giant pig ears and calfs with the black hoof still on the foot/leg! We also saw pig intestines, pig hearts and so many kinds of fish, all chopped up and sliced open so you could see the insides. You should see the kinds of photos we got – it was truly disgusting from our point of view, as we would never buy food like that – just sitting out exposed to the air for all those hours – and the food parts were so unbutchered and distinguishable that you felt as though you were buying an actual body part of the pig. But these are delicacies to the Vietnamese and they were buying this stuff in bag-fulls!

After the eye-opening trip to the market we drove to the Royal Ruins to see the tomb of the second king of the last Vietnamese Dynasty. We couldn't see the actual tomb as the stone wall that enclosed it was locked since a fire broke out there several years ago as a result of teenager negligence lighting a camp fire nearby. But we saw the beautiful imperial grounds with waterways for the king's canoe. The lush park-lake hectare was a great contrast to the dusty impoverished streets of Hue. On the walk from the bus to the imperial grounds, we had to walk down a dirt road which was bordered to the left by a barbed wire fence. There were mothers and children on the other side and the little boys climbed through holes in the barbed wire with platters of bananas singing “have a banana. Won't you buy our bananas?” and the mothers held up their babies with distended bellies begging us to buy the bananas to help their babies. Everything was on sale for one dollar – as soon as you got off the bus there were old 70-ish year old women selling coins on a chain for $1 dollar. We again had that impression we were walking through a zoo just gawking at people. It was not a pleasant feeling.

The sightseeing aspect of the tour ended at 3:45pm and we started our bus ride back, which didn't take an hour as the tour guide planned, but more like 1 ½ hours. We avoided collisions with wooden log-bearing trucks more than once although Hunter didn't think we would make it home alive. There was constant horn honking as our bus driver swerved into the on-coming traffic lane in order to pass the truck or motorbike in front of him. It was a ride to remember! We got back to the ship with 10 minutes to spare and were the last tour bus.

We are glad we did the Princess tour as our guide was very informative about Vietnamese life and we got some basic sightseeing in. The city of Hue is not impressive and we really weren't interested in the pagoda or imperial tomb, but the drive through the small towns, and seeing the boats on the wide murky rivers surrounded by the mountain range was worth the trip. Vietnam has not changed very much in 40 years and we can't wait to see what Saigon looks like!

The rest of the night was uneventful. We quickly showered and attended the entertainment show, which was scheduled tonight before dinner at 7pm. It was the comedian, Mike Newman from Ireland, who was probably in his early 70s and did a basic comedy routine with some raunchy humor but mostly puns. We then ate dinner with Connie and Tony and had beef short ribs, before heading to the Tahitian Lounge for Wii Sports night with Chantal and Ian. Only our new friend Jim was there playing (playing Wii for the first time!) and so Hunter got to play a lot of rounds of Mario Kart. Everyone was having such a great time that we past the ending time and other cruise passengers had to send over a waiter to ask Chantal when they were finishing so the dancing could begin! I was wiped out and hit the pillow as soon as we got back to the room.



permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 26, 2009 from Hue, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia, Vietnam and Cruise

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Day 16: 10th cruise day - Day at Sea

Hue, Vietnam


Day 16: Sunday, December 27th, 2009

10th cruise day: Day at Sea

I woke up to a feeling of deep naseau and thought it was from the bad swaying and rolling of the ship. We expected the ride along the coastline from Chan May to Phu May to be less rocky because we were hugging the coastline, but the winds on the open sea were strong, which cause the boat to sway. We slept in late until 8:45am when I got up to get ready for 9am mass. The table holding the hosts and chalice wasn't level and kept swaying back and forth with the ship! We grabbed breakfast around 10am and then set up our lounge chairs on the 11th deck sun deck. At 11am, we walked down to the Club Lounge for the CruiseCritic.com gathering, set up by Heather and Ed. We met another nice couple Nayla and Igor, from Toronto, and Suzie and Bob from Seattle, and spent almost a good hour chatting about different cruises and the various tours we have taken through Princess. It was good to meet and interact with people. We then headed back to the sun deck where we remained for the next 4 hours, stopping briefly for lunch.

A little after 4pm, we went back to the room to the shower. I really wasn't feeling well at all and was getting nervous that I had contracted another weird bacterial infection, and decided to go to the doctor. He spent a good amount of time with me and listened well and then said I was probably suffering from an acid reflux flare up as I didn't show any symptoms of a bacterial or viral infection as I wasn't vomiting or running a fever. That made me feel a little better and so I got back to the room and changed for dinner. I made it through the meal – salmon steak – but then we left before dessert as I was feeling very nauseus with stomach pains. I spent the rest of the evening typing up my email from Hue and sending an email to our tour operator in Bangkok to see if we could change our port pick-up. I fell asleep pretty early and didn't have a great night. I woke up close to midnight and could barely pick up my head to sip water and felt feverish (but wasn't running a fever). I began to think that the doctor may have misdiagnosed me and that I had H1N1 or something else and would have to be airlifted from Singapore. I was worried I would miss Saigon the next day and Hunter was really worried about me. Somehow I made it through the night.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 27, 2009 from Hue, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia and Cruise

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Day 17: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (11th cruise day)

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


Monday, December 28th, 2009

11th cruise day: Ho Chi Ming City / Saigon, Vietnam

After a fitful sleep, and dozing after the alarm went off, we got up by 7am and I decided I was stronger in the knees and could make it through the day. Laying in bed was not comfortable as all I could think about were the stomach pains, so I decided I would rather be distracted by the sights of Saigon.

And so our adventure began early in the morning with a 8am bus ride departure to Saigon. We had decided the day before to cancel the “shopping excursion” tour we had pre-booked and instead to book the shuttle tour which allowed us to do Saigon on our own, since we didn't want to spend an hour touring an overpriced toy lacquer factory. After speaking with people on the ship, we were comfortable we could navigate Saigon on our own. And so back to the bus ride -- the roads were paved highways, but the paved roads were full of potholes and loose pebbles and rocks, so the ride was pretty bumpy. Luckily the air conditioner worked well so we were comfortable and slept most of the whole way. We stopped once for a bathroom break at the half way point since the coach buses in Asia, although very comfortable with reclining seats, don't have restrooms on-board. At last we got to the outskirts of the city, and the traffic began. There were lots of buses and construction vehicles on the roads as construction was everywhere!! But unlike Hue, this construction was being done by bulldozers. We were amazed at how many bulldozers there were....really, the construction was everywhere on the outskirts of the city – and then even in the city itself as new tall skyscrapers are going up.

We were surprised to see an actual skyline of Saigon. We had set our impressions of Vietnam on the city of Hue, and we were unprepared at how huge and modern Saigon had become! We were expecting dusty roads and a lot of short, older buildings in the French architecture, but instead we pulled into a huge bustling city that had just as much activity as New York! There were new, gleaming skyscrapers that were mega-complexes of restaurants and high-end shops. Signs for new skyscrapers even taller were located at construction sites around the city. There was just as much traffic, but it was always moving – we never saw the standstill gridlock of New York. Our first impression was “wow – look at all the motorcycles!” Our tour guide on the bus told us there are 4 million registered motorcycles in the city alone. Luckily, these riders all rode helmets, but they still rode dangerously. We saw a family of three all packed together on one bike – dad and mom, with mom holding a baby covered in mesh netting! A lot of people wore face masks to keep the dust out of their mouths. The surprising thing about the traffic was that there were very few traffic lights or stop signs which made crossing the road impossible! Saigon traffic makes Jaywalking a must-have survival skill. Since we've spent lots of time in NYC, jaywalking wasn't a problem for us, but in the beginning, we tailed a few locals as they ran into the street amidst the on-coming motorcycles and small vans and we figured if the cars stop for them, they'll stop for us too! You literally had to walk into on-coming traffic or else you would be stuck on the corner forever! There were many large circles in the city which helped the traffic continue moving, but those were the most difficult ones to cross!

The shuttle bus dropped us off at a shopping mall directly across the intersection from the famous Rex Hotel. We got a map from the tour guide and planned out our route. It was very hot and humid, reaching 91 degrees. We walked two streets over to the famous Dong Khoi street (formerly known as the Rue Catinat or Tudor Street) and came face to face with the National Theater (very well maintained) and the Caravelle hotel. Dad had given me a photo taken in 1965 of him in front of the hotel and we set out to recreate the photo. However, our tour guide had told us that the hotel had been completely rebuilt, and so it was. It is now a huge complex, with a tall tower of rooms that probably went up 20 floors. Attached to the base of the hotel, off to the left of the lobby was a huge Gucci store. And across the street, diagonal from the National Theater was a flagship Louis Vitton store! Imagine that – Gucci and Louis Vitton in Saigon! We saw the original pavement in front of the hotel, and tried to imagine the old outline of the hotel. After picture taking, we retraced our steps and walked down Le Lui street, past the Rex Hotel to the Ben Thanh Central Market.

The Ben Thanh Market was the ultimate flea market. Out of all the market shopping we have done in Asia, this was by far the most jam-packed market. Stalls upon stalls were arranged in a giant square, with handfuls of rows running up and down the middle of the square. There were so many stalls that the aisles between them could barely accommodate two people walking side by side. You had to shove your way through and avoid the women carrying platters of food and soup back from the attached food market. It was much cooler on the outside ring of the market so we did most of our shopping at those stalls. But we did venture into the middle of the market for some of the jewelry and shoes. And so many shoes!!! We didn't know that shoes were a specialty production item in Vietnam but there were mounds and mounds of shoes at these stalls. Mainly many fancy flip-flops and dress shoes. Meredith bought a pair and said it was the most comfortable pair of flip flops she's ever owned. The best part of the market was that everything was inexpensive. Unlike China, where the prices start very high and you have to bargain them down by 50-75%, at this market, the starting price was so reasonable you felt guilty bargaining! And most of the shops were “fixed price” so they wouldn't bargain at all. However, that didn't stop Meredith, who wanted to bargain out of principle! We got some good deals, and thought the quality of the goods being sold in the markets was just as good as department store quality, unlike in China and Hong Kong where the markets sold only junk.

After a good time in the market, we decided to walk outside to get some air. We had been guzzling water in the market as it was so hot and sticky. We only had a total of 4 hours in Saigon before we had to head back on the long bus ride, so we couldn't see much but decided to walk the streets (and run across the intersections!) We found some more little items in the side stores and found it easy to bargain there. It was so hot and I wasn't feeling well so we ended our day by going in to the Rex Hotel and walking around (but you couldn't get up to the roof where the war correspondents would gather) and in the department store where the bus would pick us up – both were air conditioned. The Rex Hotel was beautiful inside, which wasn't surprising as it was a 5-star hotel. According to our tour guide, there are only 5-star hotels in all of Saigon. The department store had a marketplace inside of it, and they were selling old military cigarette lighters that had the location of the place and the year (ie. 1968-1969) but we didn't recognize any of the bases that were inscribed on there.

We were sad that we didn't feel better and have more time in Saigon, but we got the general feeling of it. Dong Khoi street, which was the main street in the 1960s, was still one of the main attractions of Saigon, but we didn't spend time walking up and down it as it was now filled with all International and American high-end brand stores, like Gucci. The streets were all decorated for the holidays. There were huge arches placed at the start of the busiest streets, sparkling Happy New Year type of signs. Santa Clauses adorned store windows and you could tell the city was in a festive mode. There were tons of tourists abound. Besides all the cruise passengers, we saw many small parties of tourists from Europe who were walking up and down the busy streets with guidebooks. Who knew that Saigon was a hot spot tourist destination? Everyone spoke very good English and Saigon is winning so far out of the cities we've visited on this trip for most accessible locals!

If it weren't for all the communist flags waving about, and some billboards with pictures of soldiers hailing the President, we would have thought we were in a large European city (it doesn't have much of an American feel to it because of all the motorcycles). Almost every building, and every street block had the two red and yellow flags of the star and the sickle/hammer. Coming in to the city, the bus passed by the American Consulate and then stopped in front because of traffic. Hunter and several other bus passengers took out their cameras to take a photo and the guards outside of the consulate were watching the bus windows closely and made wild gestures to us that no picture-taking was allowed. We couldn't believe that the guards would be watching tour bus windows to stop harmless photos!

The main streets had lane dividers that were filled with beautiful palm trees, which reminded Hunter of Savannah – sort of a dirty, built-up city with streets adorned with palm trees. The other thing that caught our eye were the massive coils of cable wire that were strung from each telephone tower. Rows and rows of wire were strung together, forming giant nests of wire. We hope one of the wires doesn't short or else it would be a mess trying to get in and repair one of those! We are guessing the roads and infrastructure are still too bad for all the wiring to be run underground and so it's just hanging there in the air.

At 2:15pm we met up with the other Princess passengers and boarded the bus and navigated traffic out of the city. We had some near-collisions with buses in the adjoining lane, but made it back to the ship unscathed and with 5 minutes to spare. Our tour guide was very nice and tried to teach the bus passengers some Vietnamese phrases and a Happy Family song, which was kind of weird. The tour guide was only 24 years old but had a much older face. However, his body looked like that of an 11 year-old. He was the skinniest man we have ever seen. In both Hue and Saigon, all of the locals are on the short side and painfully thin, like they look malnourished. It must be their genetic disposition and diet, but everyone looks so frail. And despite the presence of the high end fashion boutiques, we could not say that they were well dressed. In all other Asia cities – especially Shanghai and Hong Kong – the locals were dressed to the nines, wearing expensive clothes and fashionable shoes. But here in Vietnam, the clothes were cheap button-down cotton shirts and tiny tight-fitting pants, or loose cotton sheathes on the old beggars.

We got back to the ship by 4:25pm and everyone was supposed to be on deck by 4:30pm. At 5pm, the Captain announced to the ship that all paperwork was completed for our departure but that one of the Princess tours was stuck in traffic and wasn't yet here. It wasn't until 5:30pm that the small tourist van dropped off the last 5 passengers! It turned out to be the group that sits next to us during dinner.

We skipped the sit-down dinner again because the food was too fancy again and I didn't feel like eating, and it was a good thing, because we heard that one passenger got sick in the dining room from motion sickness and it was a mess. Hunter got some sandwiches and snacks at the buffet as soon as we got onboard at 4:30pm and then ate a cheeseburger from the Grill once we realized it was open until 6pm. I ordered a room service sandwich around 7pm and he got one around 8:30pm, at which point I was fast asleep. I was so drained from the day and had a lot of stomach pains, I just crashed! Hunter stayed up until midnight, watching tv with the volume low and typing on his netbook. I slept right through it all.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 28, 2009 from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia, Vietnam and Cruise

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Day 18: 12th cruise day

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


Day 18: Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

12th cruise day: Day at Sea

Our day started early with Hunter waking up at 5am and me at 6am, but we then dozed back to sleep until around 9am. I got started on the laundry, which was packed! I picked the wrong day to do laundry – or the wrong time. It only opened at 9am so I couldn't have gone at 6am if I wanted. Hunter and I grabbed breakfast a little after 10am and then got set up by the lounge chairs. I ran back and forth to the 7th floor laundromat a few times as I only have dibs on one washer and then later on one dryer and I had 2 separate loads to do. I was finally done with the laundry and back up on the 11th deck by 12pm. While I folded laundry on the bed, I watched Twilight in the room, which was playing on a loop for the last two days. It would be nice to reach elite status with Princess as they have free laundry! Now I realize why that is such a perk – most of the elite passengers take very long cruises and they must have to do laundry several times.

Hunter and I grabbed lunch separately at different times and then spent the rest of the cruise suntanning. It was nice and hot, but there were intermittent clouds and a light breeze to keep us cool. I wore my pointed hat which I bargained for $1 at the market stand outside the ship in Phu May. We are on our 3rd bottle of suntan lotion because this sun is strong, and we are heading closer to the equator every day. We have our 4th time zone change tonight (we keep jumping ahead an hour, than back 1-2 hours, than forward again) and I think we'll go through a 5th time change before the trip is over. We have another day at sea tomorrow and are looking forward to more sun before a busy sightseeing day in Singapore. After 4pm, Hunter and I went back to our stateroom and typed on our laptops and showered. Hunter checked out the dinner menu and thought there would be some edible and light dishes, so we decided to try and make it to the sit-down dinner. I was feeling guilty that I was sick and we weren't spending time at the activities, like trivia or dancing. We did check out “bar wars” today by the pool and watched the ice carving demonstration, but “bar wars” wasn't as fun as the martini demonstration, so we left after the ice carving was finished. We made it to dinner with Connie and Tony but had to leave before dessert as I wasn't feeling well. I think tonight was the champagne waterfall, but I just stayed in bed and fell asleep quite early. We skipped the show, which was the lead male performer singing a set.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 29, 2009 from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia and Cruise

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Day 19: 13th cruise day - Day at Sea

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


Day 19: Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

13th cruise day: Day at Sea

We had another relaxing day at sea today! We didn't do any activities except the shuffleboard tournament at 2:15pm and only Jim showed up so we played a 3-man tournament, which I won! It was overcast all day, with an occasional sprinkle, so Hunter stayed in the room most of the day to program, while I laid out on the lounge chair on the 11th sundeck and read most of my book. I had had a very bad night of stomach pains which had awoken me several times, so I didn't think having a late night dinner sat well with me. We slept in until 10am and I stopped at the doctor to ask him to change our dinner seating to the 6pm early seating. We were sad to abandon Connie and Tony and hoped to see them during the day to explain! I decided to start to drink milk, using it as a coating for my stomach and that seemed to work miracles.

At 6pm we showed up for dinner and got our new seat assignments at a table for 6 that was always empty. It was Italian night, one of the first fully edible dinners, although Hunter ordered the wrong thing of spaghetti and meatballs. We went to the show at night, which was a “Ports of Call” extravaganza, the most racist cabaret show we've ever seen! We exchanged a library book upstairs and then headed in for an early night.

permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 30, 2009 from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Asia and Cruise

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Day 20: Singapore (14th cruise day)

Singapore, Singapore


Day 20: Thursday, December 31st, 2009

14th cruise day: Singapore

Happy New Year's Eve!

Today was a busy day as we started our adventure in Singapore at 7:45am and walked and explored different districts, and shopped until 5 min before the “all aboard” time of 4:30pm. Boy, is it getting harder and harder to pick our favorite cities! Several people had told us prior to our trip that we would love Singapore as it is a very livable city with much to do. And the city certainly didn't disappoint. However, it was a very different city from the others that we've toured on the cruise as it reminded us of a big American city. The whole day we did not feel like we were in Asia, but rather back in America. For this reason, I am ranking the city below Shanghai but above Taipei.

Singapore was the only city that we didn't plan out thoroughly in advance because I was tired of all my trip planning by time I got to that city, and because the city is so large we thought we would ride the Hop On-Hop Off bus around the different districts to get a feel of the city before starting our exploring. But after listening to our port lecturer and talking with other passengers, we decided the Hop On bus might have too many delays and that we would be better off taking the metro. So during one of our days at sea, we took out our guidebook and a map and planned an ambitious walking tour.

Our day started early and we were cleared from the ship at 7:45am vs. the 7am docking plan originally scheduled. Princess has been off about a half hour for disembarking at every one of their ports and has also requested passengers to be on board 30 min earlier than the original schedule in every port. We got off the ship at HarborFront, which is a big shopping complex at the southern tip of the city. We found the attached Metro easily and bought a single-trip pass as the ticket office (where you buy the all day pass) was closed until 10am. We were a little disappointed in the metro. Everyone said Singapore is the cleanest large city in the world because of all the heavy fines they enforce on littering and graffiti and spitting and chewing gum, so we expected the city and the metro system to be sparkling clean. It was pretty neat – especially compared to the NYC subway – but we wouldn't say the metro sparkled. The cars were modern and fast and had signs that told you when the next train would pull in, and we never had to wait more than 5 min for the next subway. The ride was smooth, but we hated the ticketing system. Because Singapore doesn't want littering or garbage, they issue metro cards that have to be returned/fed back into the machine in order to get back a $1.00 deposit. This was a pain, because every time we wanted to buy a new ticket, we couldn't add value to the card but had to take the time to first return the card to get our money back and then purchase a new card. This created long lines at the ticket booth. As an alternative, we could have bought an all day metro pass for $18, which had a $10 deposit, but the ticket booths were never open for us to buy one, and for some unknown reason, the ticket machines didn't sell all day passes. We are actually glad we never purchased one as the line at the ticket booth to return the all day pass was so long by the end of the day that we would have missed our ship if we had to stay in line. Singapore is so modern we expected it to have a much more efficient metro system and were surprised at the problems their metro ticket issuing system caused. But the metro was fast and could take us to any part of the city, so it was the best form of transportation.

The first hotspot on our list was to check out the Chinatown district. Singapore is a melting pot of cultures and has many Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Arab influences. As such, there is a district representative of each culture – Chinatown, Little India, Arab Street, etc. – similar to such little districts in NYC. We decided to check out each one to get the full flavor of the city. The metro dropped us off in Chinatown and we followed one of the walking tours detailed in our tour book. It was a nice walk and we could see how busy the area would be, but all the market stalls were still closed because it was still before 9am. We really liked the setup and thought it would have been the least hectic, and most easily navigable of all the Chinatown districts we've seen as each market vendor and food vendor had its own distinct space, not just movable carts. We visited the flashiest temple in Singapore which had a room with 1000 mini Buddhas, organized around larger Buddha shrines. It was very pretty and reminded us of the prayer candles that are organized around statues of Mary in a Catholic Church. Someone could purchase a mini Buddha for $88 Singapore Dollars (~$68 USD). We also visited a Muslim mosque, and we had to wrap shawls around our bare legs or wear a robe provided by the mosque and also remove our shoes before entering. We heard we will have to do this a lot in Thailand too.

One of the highlights of the Chinatown area was stopping at the free admission City Planning Center. We walked through a 3-floor exhibit that showed the history of Singapore and how the modern city was developed. The exhibit included several miniature models of the whole city so we could gaze at the skyline and different districts and see how much of the land was covered in beautiful parks and water ways. This helped form our overall impression of Singapore as a very “balanced city.” There are tons of shopping malls, different culture districts, official “city centers” with government buildings, but despite all the concrete buildings, the city has a beautiful, relaxed feel to it because interwoven among all these buildings are peaceful, green parks and lots of trees and flowers planted on walkways and around the buildings. The other reason we think it is “balanced” is that even the architecture is a great mixture of old Colonial and new, modern chic. Shanghai was all modern, slick “wow factor” buildings, but Singapore has the nice balance of the Old English Colonial presence with its columns and shuttered windows.

Leaving Chinatown, we took the metro up to Little India and followed a walking tour from our guidebook. We were pretty disappointed in Little India as it was more rundown than the other parts of Singapore and we saw a lot more street garbage and rough roads – potholes, narrow street sidewalks, etc. The district was filled with eateries and markets and had a distinct aroma of Indian cuisine. However, we felt that there was a much more vibrant Indian community in other cities, like NYC, and this was a small one. The buildings that house these food markets had apartments above which were brightly colored blues and oranges and had brightly painted window shutters which made them look so pretty! We then walked from Little India to Kampong Glam, which was the Arab section of town. There we walked through rows and rows of tailor shops and silk merchants that made us wish we had more days in Singapore so we could get some dresses and suits tailor-made. The materials were gorgeous – we can see how Holly got such a beautiful wedding gown made here!

From Kampong Glam, we were able to walk down to Raffles Hotel as the distances in the city are quite close. We had a good map and were afraid things were very far, but it was all walkable if you had the time. The weather was holding up although it always looked like a downpour would start any moment. The thick humidity made the heat seem much worse, as it was only 86 F but felt like over 100 F with the humidity. Because Singapore is so hot all year round, the shops all have large awnings and the streets are covered in huge arching trees to provide shade, so even when the sun peaked out, we always felt protected from the intense rays. It is just another example of how the city is so well planned!

We LOVED Raffles Hotel! I wanted to sit there all day as I felt like I was in a movie, transported back to the early 1900s, living in the tropics under colonial rule. The hotel is still as beautiful as it probably was at its debut. It is a large crystal-white building complex with pointed roofs and large window shudders and colonial columns. There is a shopping arcade around the hotel with high end stores and boutique shops, but they were all closed as it wasn't quite noon yet. We ate our sandwiches in the Garden, sitting in white painted cast iron garden lattice chairs, facing the fountain. We then went up to the 2nd floor Long Bar and had a famous Singapore Sling drink ($24 Singapore dollars!), which was created by a bartender at that bar. It was sweet but very refreshing in the hot climate! It was such a romanticized atmosphere, sitting in the room covered in dark wood panels, sitting under spade-shaped bamboo fans moving rhythmically from the motorized poles suspended from the ceiling. Again, you felt like you went back in time. It was my favorite spot in Singapore!

After the short break, we kept moving and walked to Orchard Road, the busiest shopping street in Singapore. This one major thorough-fare had no less than 10 distinct shopping malls! Of course we went into one of them and were amazed at this 9-story mall as it was all decked out in glittery sparkling streamers to celebrate the New Year. The whole Orchard Road was covered in New Years lights and red and orange decorations. Inside the mall, there was not one great toy store for Hunter, but 6 in a row! However, we didn't buy much in Singapore as the prices were extremely high. We talked to another cruise passenger who was in Singapore 4 years ago and was shocked at how high prices for everything had risen – from hotel rooms to food to clothes. It is a very expensive city. We'll keep our money reserved for Thailand!

We continued walking down Orchard Road until the next metro stop, which we took to Clark Quay. This was Hunter's favorite spot in Singapore! It was a riverfront promenade that was filled with outdoor cafes and gelato stands and shops. The shops were brightly painted in pastel colors and there were large overhangs the provide shade on the outdoor eateries. It was so nice to just walk up and down both sides of the river – the Boat Quay and Clark Quay. On the Clark Quay side, one block in from the river was a pedestrian only street of more restaurants and cafes, with a big musical stage in the center. If we lived in Singapore, we would come here to eat all the time and listen to the music! We walked down the river to the Raffles Landing Site, where the founder of Singapore landed. After the requisite photo opp, we headed north to the “Civic Center” to see the Supreme Court building and St. Andrew's Cathedral – the first church we've entered in these last three weeks! It was pretty but stark compared to the cathedrals of Western Europe. By this time, it was approaching 4pm and we decided we needed to get back to clear immigration, so we took the metro back to Harbor Front and poked around the market stalls before heading back on the ship.

Overall, we really enjoyed Singapore and think it is a beautiful, balanced, city. It doesn't have the impressive skyline of Shanghai, but has old world charm mixed with modern comforts. Aunt Kathleen remembered a big disparity between the rich and poor sections of Singapore, but in all our walking, we did not come upon any portion of the city that we would consider to be “poor”. Perhaps the city planning department has really cleaned up those areas, and if the rising prices in the city are any indication, Singapore is only going to get more upscale as the years go by. Granted, there was still so much of the city we couldn't see in one day and we would enjoy a second visit, adding the Botanical Gardens/Orchid Garden and Sentosa Island. We would love to come back on business! The city had so much of an American feel to it because English was everywhere, English chain restaurants were everywhere (remember Swenson's ice cream shops?), and the locals dressed and acted more American than any other city.

It is probably a good time to recap our list of favorite cities, from our favorite to our least favorite. We are both in agreement with this: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Taipei, Beijing, Saigon. Okinawa and Hue aren't included because they were such small ports of call. We are looking forward to seeing where Bangkok slots in to this list! Hunter later changed his list to tie Shanghai and Singapore in second place.

We had a really fun New Year's Eve, once back on the ship. We attended the 6pm dinner seating and actually enjoyed the New Year's Eve menu and then retired to the stateroom for a quick 1-hour nap before returning to the Cabaret Lounge to watch the “Motor City” motown dance show (fun!) Then it was time for my 2nd nap, until 11:45pm when we went back to the Cabaret Lounge and ordered champagne-based drinks just in time to clink our glasses and toast to the New Year. They had a large screen projecting a countdown clock, and we all threw confetti and streamers all over. Shane was dressed as Old Man Time an Ian as the baby in a full fledged diaper. We stayed there watching the dancing until 12:30am when we switched to the Tahitian Lounge and realized that was where the real action was. We stayed there until 2:30am, dancing the night away with the crew and Jim and others and also enjoyed a second drink. We packed it in right as the Captain was heading out – he was there partying alongside us into the wee hours of the night! Side note on our captain, Stefano Rivera. He is great and a lot of fun. He is always out and about, mingling with passengers, and every day makes a shipboard announcement that he hopes we have a pleasant day on board “the beautiful white lady, your home away from home, the Ocean Princess.” We and our other passenger friends joke that the Captain never takes command of the ship as he is too busy socializing with the passengers!

We had such a great time today – it was the best New Year's Eve we have ever celebrated! How are we going to top this next year? We crawled into bed after 2:30am and watched a little TV to try to unwind and then turned off the lights at 3:15am!!



permalink written by  mohicanfan on December 31, 2009 from Singapore, Singapore
from the travel blog: Beijing/Shanghai and a Princess Southeast Asia Cruise - Dec 2009
tagged Singapore, Asia and Cruise

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At the time I am writing this bio (Jan 2010), I, Meredith, am a 28-year old woman living in Virginia Beach, VA with my husband of almost 6 years, who works in New York 4 days a week. We are both avid travelers and beach lovers and I enjoy writing and reading. I am also a fastidious recorder of...

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