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Plan your shore excursions before you leave home

BY ROBERT SELWITZ Published: June 11, 2012

Once you've chosen a cruise and itinerary, don't assume your homework is done. Although you know when and where your ship is heading, you've still got to decide how best to experience each port of call.

Should you explore on your own, rely on local drivers at a given pier, pay for ship-sponsored excursions or book something from a tour company not affiliated with your carrier?

These decisions can often determine whether a visit ashore is satisfying and enjoyable or a frustrating waste of time and money.

My wife and I recently took a 14-day Singapore-Hong Kong trip in which Holland America Line's 1,432-passenger Zaandam called at six ports in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China.

Before we left, she and I weighed our choices and decided how to handle each stop. Ultimately we chose to mix and match our options.

The hands-down winner for best offshore excursion was our three-hour-long float among the roughly 3,000 surreal, starkly eroded limestone islands and islets of Vietnam's Halong Bay.

This is part of the famous Tonkin Gulf, where a 1964 North Vietnamese-U.S. naval encounter sparked a major upsurge in U.S. participation in the Vietnam War.

Since the islands — designated a UNESCO World Heritage site — are the prime draw here, the Zaandam provided the best possible option.

The ship was anchored offshore, so the tour featured a direct transfer to a Chinese-junk-appearing motor craft that used an intermediate dock as a transfer point. Once onboard, we moved between rock formations whose widely differing shapes were fascinating.

There were constantly exciting photo opportunities with landscapes ranging from sand to vegetation-covered, plus occasional sightings of fishermen pursuing their catch or repairing their nets.

The trip was made even more enjoyable by a last-minute schedule change. Originally part of the trip was described as a visit to the famous Thien Cung limestone cave.

But several passengers who either didn't want to climb over 100 steep and reputedly treacherous steps to reach the cave or who just wanted more time to experience the bay itself asked if a bay-only trip could be arranged.

Ultimately, a single craft was designated to skip the cave and spend all its time traversing the islands.

After the bay excursion a free tender ride and long walk into town proved to be a fine change of pace. There we found an interesting marketplace, bustling commercial quarter and — for a change of pace from shipboard dining — restaurants serving authentic Asian food.

Ship-provided bus transfers between the port of Phu My and Saigon were also invaluable. For roughly $45 each we got a ticket to ride a comfortable bus from the pier to the Rex Hotel in the heart of downtown Saigon.

(The rooftop bar of the Rex was a famous hangout for Vietnam War reporters, some of whom reputedly covered the war from there with a drink in one hand and binoculars in the other.)

The critical point of the ship-sponsored bus ride was that we got a guaranteed return time, ensuring that we would not miss the ship's departure. While there were plenty of local taxis at the pier, we felt much more comfortable relying on the ship-arranged bus rather than local drivers

Though we had just four hours in the city (it was something less than a two-hour drive from the pier), it was sufficient to see the historic post office, the cathedral and the presidential palace. We could also have opted to see one of several museums depicting the war from Vietnam's perspective.

We found time to enjoy a tasty lunch, but we wished we had more time in Saigon.

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