I recently had the pleasure of experiencing AmaWaterway’s Vietnam, Cambodia & The Riches of the Mekong river cruise and it was absolutely incredible! Words and pictures really can’t do the experience justice, but here are some highlights.AmaWaterways offers a 15-night itinerary that includes a pre-cruise package to Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Siem Reap and a post-cruise tour in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on top of the 7-night cruise. I wasn’t able to take advantage of the 15-night itinerary, but I wish I had. I didn’t arrive in Siem Reap until late the night before cruise departure. We were greeted at the airport by an AmaWaterways representative and taken by private transfer to the stunningly beautiful Hotel Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort.
Not wanting to miss out on visiting Angkor Wat, the 7th wonder and largest religious monument in the world, my husband and I arranged for a tuk tuk (motor rickshaw) to pick us up at 5am at the hotel so that we would be at Angkor Wat when it opened. We were able to spend a couple of hours exploring Angkor Wat and still be back at the hotel in time to enjoy the best breakfast buffet I have ever had before departing for the cruise.
The ship itself was wonderful. The Cruise Manager was fantastic and the staff was excellent as well. The food was outstanding, the accommodations were attractive and comfortable, and the entertainment on board included local musical and dance performances.
One of the best advantages of travelling via river cruise in this region is the ability to see life along the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers from your balcony and to be able to visit small villages that would be inaccessible any other way. Often, we anchored in the middle of the river and hopped on to tender boats that could take us through the floating villages or pull right up to the bank of a village where we could get off and explore. Seeing how the people (mostly immigrant Vietnamese) live in the floating villages in Cambodia (pictured in the top photo below) is pretty heart-wrenching as it is a starkly impoverished life-style though the people seem happy and are able to live off the water. Due to escalating pollution resulting from the lack of plumbing, the Cambodian government is eliminating all the floating villages in the next couple of years. The people will be relocated, ending a life-style that they have known for generations and removing them from their only livelihood.
We were able to visit several villages including Koh Chen in Cambodia where the people specialize in crafting silver and copper items and we visited a school, as well as Evergreen Island in Vietnam where the people still live much as their ancestors did.
I loved walking through the market in Sa Dec where the array of fish, shell fish, vegetables and varieties of rice for sale was amazing. In Cai Be we were able to visit a rice paper mill and candy making workshop where we sampled the candy. Those of us who were brave enough also tasted the snake wine!
Visiting the temples and monasteries was definitely a highlight. We were able to participate in a Budda Blessing as well as an Alms Offering where we spooned rice in to the bowls of the monks.
We experienced so much, I can’t cover it all. Some other highlights include a tuk tuk tour of the city of Phnom Penh and visits to the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and National Museum. We had tea at the old European-style house of Marguerite Duras’ lover in Sa Dec. We even rode ox carts through a village in Kampong Tralach. One thing worth mentioning is the preponderance of motor bikes as the main means of transportation. Cars are heavily taxed and thus extremely expensive in both Cambodia and Vietnam. It’s amazing to see what people transport on their motor bikes.
The people of Cambodia and Vietnam are open, happy and friendly. Our tour guides, besides being extremely knowledgeable about history, the local economy and culture, were very open about their own personal lives and personal history, sharing, for example, what happened to their families during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. There is a culture of forgiveness and in Cambodia, in particular, the Buddhist influence is very evident in the attitudes of the people. Everywhere we went, people came out of their homes to wave and children came up to us and held our hands and wanted to practice their English. In the villages, the homes are open-air so you can see inside them. The people are used to being close together. Extended families live together, often in one-room dwellings. Privacy just isn’t a consideration like it is here.
The people of Cambodia suffered one of the most horrific genocides in history, with deaths numbering in the millions – more than a quarter of the entire population. The Khmer Rouge tortured and murdered anyone considered to be intellectual, devastating the country and setting development back decades. Visiting the S21 prison and Killing Fields is a very emotional experience but it’s important to remember what happened there. When we visited, there were 2 survivors at S21 telling their stories. It’s hard to fathom what they went through.
Remnants of the Vietnam War are still prominent in Vietnam. In Xeo Quyt, we walked on trails through the dense forest and swampy land that was a Viet Cong command post during the war. Vietnam bunkers remain and bomb craters are still evident.
Since we had not opted for the post-cruise extension and we only had one day in Ho Chi Minh City (our flight was leaving that night), we arranged for a private tour to pick us up early morning at the port and take us first to the Chu Chi Tunnels and then to tour the city. The private tour was awesome. We were able to see a lot driving through towns on the way to the Chu Chi Tunnels. The Chu Chi Tunnels are a must-see. It’s just impossible to envision what the tunnels are like and understand what it must have been like to hide out in them until you crawl into one. After touring the tunnels, the tour guide took us to a beautiful restaurant with a private table in a small pagoda alongside a river. What was really amazing was the access we had once we got to the city. The tour guide had an “arrangement” with the security guard who mans the lobby at the old CIA building (famous for the pictures of the last helicopter leaving at the fall of Saigon as pictured below top right). The building is now a fully occupied yet decrepit office building likely to be demolished in the next year or so, but we were able to go up onto the roof and even climb up to the top. We also toured the Re-unification Palace and Central Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City.
We packed a lot into our last day so a shower and quick rest before the long flight back to the U.S. was definitely warranted. The transfer to the airport was from the beautiful Sofitel Saigon Plaza (where those who were staying for the post-cruise tour were lodging). The hotel offers a day rate, so we were able to check in for a few hours to shower and relax before heading off to the airport.I would HIGHLY recommend this trip. The only thing I would have changed would be to have stayed for longer. That just wasn’t feasible for me, but if possible I would recommend at least doing the 3 night pre-cruise tour in Siem Reap and the 2 night post-cruise tour in Ho Chi Minh City. It is important to be in good physical condition for this cruise. The walks aren’t long or strenuous, but you must be able to do stairs, climb on and off the tender boats, and walk on uneven surfaces (including narrow bridges) that are on an incline. Also of note, the food onboard was excellent and varied. Outstanding local cuisine was an option at every meal, but there were also American choices for the pickier eaters and well as vegetarian options, etc.