Military Living Reader Dale Esperante shares his experience on a COVID19 diverted Asian cruise with his wife, Melita.
About 50 years ago, as an 18-year-old airman at Ellsworth AFB, SD, in the dead of winter, I decided to escape the frozen north. I filled out my Air Force “Dream Sheet” listing Vietnam as my number one choice of assignment, followed by the Philippines. I figured my chances of getting Vietnam were pretty good thinking that not too many of my peers would volunteer for it. To my surprise, the Air Force decided to send me to the Rock–Andersen AFB in Guam. Though disappointed, I later appreciated the decision not to send this naïve 18-year-old to a war zone. Ever since I’ve promised myself that someday I will see Vietnam under better circumstances.
On 6 Feb 2020, that dream came true as we sailed from Singapore on Norwegian Jade’s 11 Day Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-Hong Kong cruise. Onboard, a fellow traveler asked us if we’d heard the news that the cruise is no longer culminating in Hong Kong. Surprised and puzzled, we headed straight to Guest Services. There we found that the itinerary was indeed changed due to news of recent travelers in mainland China, including Hong Kong and Macau, were found to have tested positive with the Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID19). Thus began our adventure as victims of a COVID19 Diverted Asian cruise.
Guests of this cruise were given 30 minutes of free internet access in order to change flight plans to get home. Instead of a flight out of Hong Kong, we prepared to book a flight out of Singapore, our new final port. In addition to the free internet, we were given a free satellite phone call to contact airlines, if necessary.
A long line of guests on the first day hoping to get help in rebooking flight plans. Photo courtesy of Dale Esperante.
I should have expected a problem with any airline departing Hong Kong. Months ago, we booked a return flight from Hong Kong-MNL-SFO via Philippine Airlines (PAL). A day before leaving Singapore for our cruise, we received an email from PAL canceling our flight from Hong Kong. With help from the concierge of the Fairmont Hotel, we were able to make a free long-distance call to Travelocity. Travelocity confirmed the cancellation and made a request to PAL to refund the cost of the flight from HKG-MNL-SFO. The hotel concierge allowed us another free call to contact EVA Air for a flight home via HKG-TPE-SFO, which we managed to procure. At that time, we had not received any communication from the Norwegian Cruise Line that Hong Kong was no longer our debarkation port, and that we were returning to Singapore to end the cruise.
After a day at sea, we reached Laem Chabang, Thailand, where the ship docked for two days. During breakfast, the Cruise Director made an announcement that everyone must disembark immediately, and their passport must be screened at the request of the Thai immigration officials. Another announcement was made asking all those who had recently visited China, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, to report to a specific location. After the immigration officials completed screening our passports, the Norwegian staff collected our passports for safekeeping. Some travelers made a fuss and questioned this unusual procedure. They were told that the passports would be returned one day before we ended the cruise in Singapore. Some suspected that this procedure was designed to prevent passengers from curtailing their vacation to head home before being cleared as virus-free.
Melita, as we enjoy an evening at sea. Photo courtesy Dale Esperante
After clearing immigration, my wife and I decided to take it easy and stay close to the ship. We browsed the souvenir stalls in the terminal. Some passengers indulged themselves with a foot or whole-body massage offered by the locals: $19 for an hour of foot massage, and $28 for a whole-body massage. Others arranged to go on an excursion through Norwegian or through a local agency. A local shuttle bus offered a scheduled round trip service to Pattaya Beach for a reasonable fee. The beach is about a 40 minute-drive one way from the cruise terminal. I decided to just use the terminal’s internet café to cancel our HKG-TPE-SFO flight.
I had to pay $3 for 3 hours of hot-spot internet, with a free beverage included. I spent two hours using the internet, sitting among other passengers and crew members of the ship. I couldn’t cancel the HKG flight because of an “error message” every time I tried, so I decided to take care of it when we got back to the Singapore airport and planned to ask the EVA airline staff for assistance.
Upon returning to the ship, the cruise’s staff used a thermometer gun to check our temperature. Anyone having an elevated temperature had to be cleared by the ship’s nurse. Some folks who wore headgear (hat, bandana) ended up seeing the nurse because of their elevated temperature. After uncovering their head and waiting under a shade, their temperature returned to normal, and they were cleared to proceed back to the ship.
Emerald Buddha Temple at the Great Palace, Bangkok, Thailand. Photo courtesy Dale Esperante
On the second day in Thailand, we joined an excursion to tour Bangkok’s Great Palace and see the Emerald Buddha. I was awestruck by Thailand’s palaces and temples. I have seen many other countries’ royal and religious edifices. I have seen Versailles, the Vatican, St. Paul’s, Buckingham Palace, Germany’s palaces and castles, St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace and Catherine the Great’s Palace, Beijing’s Forbidden City, Japan’s palaces, castles, and temples, etc. But Thailand’s Great Palace and Emerald Buddha left an impression on me as the most gilded and ornate I have ever seen. Thailand is a must-see if royal and religious architecture is your thing!
Dale and Melita at the Big Buddha on Koh Samui, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Dale Esperante
We were happy with the Thailand tour. The next port-of-call is Sihanoukville, Cambodia. After reading and hearing the reviews of the city and the immediate area, we decided to stay put. We spent the day on board, working out, joining games, dining, resting, and dancing. Returning excursion passengers told us they were disappointed by the local tour because Sihanoukville is still in a construction phase, so it was dusty, dirty, and way behind in the projected completion of modernization.
Dale and his wife Melita stayed on board while docked in Cambodia. Photo courtesy Dale Esperante
During dinner, we heard another announcement that instead of one day at sea before Vietnam, we would be at sea for two days before we reach Vietnam. Instead of the four ports we signed up for, we would just be visiting three ports – Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Nha Trang, and Chan May. The beautiful Halong Bay, near Hanoi, was scratched from the itinerary. Silent screams of passengers’ disappointment spread all around. However, my wife and I put on a calm face and decided to just make the best of it.
The Facebook Group Page for the passengers disappointed with the itinerary change. Photo courtesy Dale Esperante
When we finally arrived in the waters of Vietnam two days later, we woke to the news that Vietnamese officials had decided to close all its ports to our cruise ship, so we could no longer enter the country. This sparked an active movement among international passengers. Meetings were scheduled, petitions signed, a Facebook page and email lists were created. Passengers made vocal demands for refunds, and a passenger experienced in legal matters wrote a letter to Norwegian Cruise Lines.
When we docked in Thailand, we discovered that 110 passengers who traveled recently in/through China (including layover flights in Hong Kong and Macau) had been refunded their travel expenses and directed to return.
A letter dated 13 Feb 2020 signed by the ship’s captain stated, “As you may know, some countries throughout Asia are revising their rules, regulations, and requirements for visiting their ports without much advance notice to cruise lines. Vietnam is one of these countries. We have been communicating regularly with the port and we disembarked 110 passengers in Thailand earlier in the cruise to ensure we followed Vietnam’s adjusted requirements put in place on February 7. We have very strict protocols in place, there is no illness on board the ship and no guests or crew members on the ship who hold Chinese, Macau, or Hong Kong passports or have visited or transited through any of these areas. Still, the port (Vietnam) has proven to be unreasonable during this process and late last night informed us that despite previously approving our calls and despite the actions we’ve taken to accommodate their new protocols, that they are denying our upcoming calls.”
Yes, we were all disappointed by our COVID19 diverted Asian cruise, but some more than others. Many bought this cruise months ago, saving their resources to have a memorable holiday at sea and to visit exotic ports, including Vietnam’s and Hong Kong’s. We’ve met whole families (grandparents, mom, dad, children) disappointed by not being able to visit Vietnam after being away for 20 or more years. As for us, Vietnam was the main reason we joined this cruise. However, I really couldn’t blame the local officials for their brave decision to close their ports, after learning of the increasing cases of COVID 19 globally. We also learned from the news of three cruise ships being quarantined for days off the ports of Yokohama, Hong Kong, and New Jersey. As of this writing, I learned of another ship being quarantined at one of the ports we visited: Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
The news of another cruise line agreeing to pay a 100% refund to its passengers for canceled or modified cruise itineraries became a battle cry for the movement among the activist passengers onboard our cruise ship.
The Norwegian Jade as we were being tendered to Koh Samui Island, Thailand. Photo courtesy Dale Esperante
Was it all a waste of time, money, and opportunity? Physically and mentally draining? Were we fortunate to be in an unfortunate situation where ports-of-call were canceled to avoid being eventually quarantined? Norwegian Cruise Line offered a 10% discount to all the passengers on this cruise and a 50% discount for the next cruise. During our time at sea, we made new friends, joined fun games, and ate good food. We were spoiled by our housekeeper who cleaned our room morning and evening. We sang karaoke, danced to the beautiful music of bands (Prelude Duo and The Sirius Four), received game prizes from the Cruise Entertainment Staff (Katerina from Macedonia, Marcella from Brazil, and our favorite, Marc Solidum). We watched concerts or world-class stage shows every evening, visited O’ Sheehan Restaurant at almost midnight every night for our warm milk and apple pie before returning to our stateroom, and worked out almost daily at the ship’s gym with a million-dollar view of the scenic sea. Would all the positive amenities and experiences onboard make up for the disappointing modified itinerary caused by the COVID19 scare? Let me sleep on this for now. We’ll know the answer after the next cruise, with our expected, significant 50% discount.
For now, we feel blessed to make it home without being quarantined for a few days on a ship or at a nearby military base. I will try to visit Vietnam again. Hopefully, I can declare my third attempt as a mission accomplished. ~ Article by Dale Esperante