A trip to the fascinating Far East is a bucket list favorite, and a cruise is a convenient way to get around a part of the world that stretches across several time zones and two hemispheres.
The growing numbers of both Asians and non-Asians cruising in the Far East is proof that the region is a booming cruise destination.
According to the Singapore-based Asia Cruise Association, 1.2 million passengers of all nationalities cruised in Asia last year, and the association projects that number will double by 2020.
CLIA statistics also show that the numbers of Americans cruising in Asia is on the rise.
While the allure is clearly there, the heavy traffic and long distances between some Asia ports and main attractions pose challenges for both lines and passengers.
For instance, in Laemchabang, Thailand (the port of entry for Bangkok); Phu My, Vietnam (for Ho Chi Minh City); Tianjin, China (for Beijing); and Port Klang, Malaysia (for Kuala Lumpur), most cruise ships must dock in unattractive container ports that are hours away from the marquee sights. (Smaller, luxury ships can dock closer to the centers of Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.)
On a recent port call aboard a big ship in Phu My, the drive to Ho Chi Minh City was an agonizingly slow three-hour crawl along dusty highways jam-packed with hundreds of trucks carrying big loads back and forth to the port.
And if passengers choose not to go all the way to those cities, there are no attractions within walking distance of the docks, unlike cruise ports in Europe and the Caribbean.
With cruising being a relatively new concept in the Far East, most of the port infrastructure supports commercial shipping. Cranes, gantries and stacks of containers are the view from many a cruise ship cabin balcony when docked in the region.
On a cruise aboard Royal Caribbean International's 3,114-passenger Voyager of the Seas in October out of Tianjin, China, for instance, all of the six port calls were made at container ship facilities, with the exception of Xiamen, China, and Singapore, where the cruise ended.
Similarly, aboard Holland America Line's 1,440-passenger Volendam in January between Hong Kong and Singapore, even though the ship is half the size of the Voyager, it also tied up in container ports in five of seven ports, including in Sanya, China; Halong Bay, Da Nang, Nha Trang and Phu My, Vietnam; Sihanoukville, Cambodia; and Laemchabang, Thailand.
Michael LeMarbre, the Volendam's assistant shore excursion manager, told me that while people are eager to cruise in the Far East, not all of them do much research first. They're disappointed with the heavy traffic, poverty and chaos in some Asian ports and cities.
"If they've done an Alaska cruise, for example, where everything is easy, they expect Asia to be the same, and it isn't," LeMarbre said. "In our port talks on board, we tell passengers it's full volume in places like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Hong Kong."
Another issue is the inability of some popular attractions in Asia to accommodate large numbers of visitors in one day.
For instance, the popular Vietnam War site of Cu Chi Tunnels, an hour or so from Ho Chi Minh City and about two hours from Phu My, is too small to physically handle thousands of visitors a day. LeMarbre said another challenge in Asia is finding professional guides with good training and language skills.
In some cases, there is not a solution; it's a matter of managing expectations and accepting a port's limitations. Just as Florence, Italy, is as much as a two-hour drive or train ride from Livorno no matter how you slice it, if you want to see Beijing or Hanoi, Vietnam, on a cruise, the drive there will be a long one.
To give guests more time, many cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Crystal Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises and Seabourn Cruises, will overnight in the ports for these cities.
Despite the challenges, the future remains bright for cruising in Asia, as governments are starting to put time and resources into making improvements.
"Malaysia and Indonesia are looking at multiple cruise ports opening in the years ahead," said Kevin Leong, general manager of the Singapore-based Asia Cruise Association. "They have ambitions to designate hub and turnaround ports, which will require investments in cruise terminals."
He added that China has opened a host of cruise ports, Singapore opened its Marina Bay Cruise Centre last year, and Hong Kong is planning a new cruise terminal to accommodate Voyager-size ships.
Some Asia cruise ports have always been largely hassle-free, especially those on itineraries out of Singapore to the western coast of Malaysia and Thailand. Royal Caribbean, Costa and Star Cruises spend lots of time in these waters, calling on Penang, Malacca and Langkawi, Malaysia, as well as Phuket, Thailand — all offering attractions, including beaches, close to the cruise docks.
At the end of the day, for many cruise passengers Asia's exotic cultural and historical appeal more than make up for the hassles. The excitement, color and intensity of the Orient is exactly why they're there.