Tuesday, November 8
I decided to stay in this morning rather than take the short walking tour excursion at 8:30am. I asked my wife take pictures and fill me in on the sights.
At 9am, my wife disembarked to take a walking tour of Peam Chi Kang, a river village. I hung out in the lounge and checked email and browsed the Internet. After an hour, the walking tour group returned to the ship. The weather this morning was hot and humid and the returning travelers looked a bit wilted. Regardless, within minutes we gathered for a safety drill and then a presentation on Cambodia from the tour guides.
Lunch was at 12:30pm and included salad, a “hot item action station” item (sweet and sour prawns with rice), main course and dessert selections. At 3pm, the next stop was a walking tour of Chong Koh. I was feeling better and participated in the activity. Part way through the walking tour, a heavy rain fell, making the mud slippery. Nonetheless, we waited under cover for the downpour to stop and then continued where the mud was less dangerous for walking. The side benefit of the rain was that the weather became cloudy and cooler as we were protected from the sun. We watched a couple of silk weavers and saw sights around the village. This had to be a previous stop along the river, as children and their mothers were pressing for visitors to purchase scarves and cloths. We purchased a couple to help the families out as we could see that life is hard and tourist dollars really assist these families with their lives.
We returned to the ship at 4:30pm, swapping our muddy shoes for slippers at the gangway, and decided to take showers and clean up for dinner. These afternoon showers have been a good way to remove the daily dose of deet spray, as well. Our cleaned shoes were later returned to us at the registration desk.
Wednesday, November 9
Today it’s off to visit the Royal Palace at Phenom Penh, Cambodia and,later, a killing field and prison of the Khmer Rouge.
The bus departed the port and within 15 minutes, we arrived at the Royal Palace for a photo opportunity. There was an issue with the schedule, so we moved to the National Museum as our first formal stop. At the museum, a guide discussed a number of major exhibit pieces. The visit was somewhat rushed to permit us to visit the Royal Palace. Apparently, the King is in residence and this alters the time when the palace grounds are open. The grounds were beautiful and we stopped to visit the interiors of the throne room and silver pagoda.
Our afternoon trip was to a killing field and, a Khmer Rouge prison, known as S21. Both were rather gruesome to visit and it was difficult to grasp how such atrocities could occur and what happened to the high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials. We started to read “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,” during the trip to learn more about this time in Cambodia.
We returned back to the ship by 5:45pm, which left us enough time to shower up and catch up on some Internet updates.
Thursday, November 10
We decided to stay in rather than take the organized morning tour to a pagoda and oxcart ride. This made for a leisurely breakfast and time to catch-up on email and Internet browsing. During the morning, we took a short walk on our own to Wat Phnom. We couldn’t always find the street name signs, so following the ship provided map was not easy. A few tuk-tuk drivers followed us around, hoping to get a fare.
We stayed in after lunch for the rest of the afternoon.
Friday, November 11
Today was our rest day as we cruised the Mekong River and were not making any port stops. We got up a little later and went down to breakfast at 7am. There were fewer passengers at breakfast as they were likely sleeping in. We watched our departure from Phnom Penh from the upper deck and then moved to the lounge to read and use the Internet service. During the morning, we used Skype to make a family call. The connection was pretty good. For about 10 minutes of conversation, the Skype charge was only $0.32. Before we knew it, lunch time arrived.
After lunch, my wife read on the sundeck and I read in the room (much cooler there). At 3pm, we gathered in the lounge to watch the cooking demonstration. There, we learned how to make pho soup and cold rice rolls. An ice cream social in the lounge followed afterwards.
Saturday, November 12
We arrived at Tan Chau this morning and we had a bicycle rickshaw ride into town, with stops at a mechanized silk factory and rattan factory. Departing at 8:30, we got our excursion cards and entered a tender to go to shore. On the shore, we were met by our Xe Loi drivers. On the ride through town, on roads too narrow for cars or buses, we were able to view the town and residential life. We saw a broad range of residences ” from shelters to very well maintained houses.
The silk factory was an interesting site. The equipment seemed almost historic but was fully functional and provided the town residents with needed commercial industry. The second stop at a rattan mat factory that gave a similar feeling ” almost historic machinery with manual reed dyeing but fully functional and successful. After the rattan factory stop, we transferred to the pier, where we boarded a small tender to floating fish farm and walking tour of the village.
We returned to the boat for lunch by 12noon. This afternoon we cruised 90 km to Sa Dec. This part of the cruise took take the better part of the afternoon, so we had a relaxing afternoon to read and use the Internet for messaging.
Sunday, November 13
This was a busy day with a tour in the morning at Sa Dec and in Cai Be in the late afternoon. However, the tour start times were pushed back 30 minutes to 9am and 3pm, respectively. We started our tour with a stop at the Sa Dec market via a tender to shore. During the tender ride, we could see a brick factory along the shore. After disembarking the tender, it was a short walk to visit a Chinese temple. We backtracked a bit and stopped at Huynh Thuy Le’s house. This was a small house amid the busy water front area. We returned to the boat by walking through an open-air whole sale market. At the market, we saw fruits, vegetables, seafood, poultry, snakes and rat.
After lunch, we disembarked the ship via a tender for our Cai Be visit, at 3pm. Along the way, we saw the floating markets. In this area, individual boats display their wholesale item on a long bamboo pole in the front of the ship. Shoppers negotiate their wholesale purchase ship to ship. We didn’t linger in this area of the river and continued to dock near a food preparation factory. At the factory, we watched popped rice candy, rice sheets, rice wine, a local toffee and salt being manufactured for retail sale. We walked along a river pathway and found ourselves at the oldest Catholic Church in Vietnam. Service had just completed so we could peek in a see the interior.
After returning to the AMALotus, we cleaned up and starting packing for our departure from the ship the following day. Reaching a packing point for which we couldn’t proceed much further, we retired to the lounge to relax, have a drink and use the Internet.
For dinner, we joined our travel companion and new friends for our farewell ship dinner. It was interesting to learn about their experiences and reflections on board, as well as everyone’s past travel activities. We shared many common recent observations. It was a fun evening and a great was to end the river cruise with newly made travel acquaintances.
Note that your bill is settled on this last cruise date. You can add a gratuity for the ship crew and/or cruise manager to this bill ” which is helpful if you wanted to pay tips via your credit card. You can also settle your bill with cash.
Monday, November 14
The ship pulled anchor from Cai Be at 5am, started its engine and made its way to the Saigon port. The anchor pulling is a noisy activity and the diesel engines tend to vibrate the ship. Thus, we were awake at 5am and finished packing our check-in luggage. At 6:30am, we placed our luggage out the door and went to an early breakfast (breakfast is usually starts at 7am, but on departure day opens at 6:30am).
Once our luggage was placed in the hall, we felt that this portion of the trip was really over and ready to move to Saigon. We had a light breakfast, packed our carry-on and gathered in the Saigon Lounge to be called to our bus, at 8:30am.
The bus ride provided familiar views of rural farms and countryside and took about two hours to reach town. We stopped at a Chinese pagoda, Reunification Palace, lacquer manufacture/store and reached the Indochine Restaurant, by 1pm, for lunch. We shared a table again with our previous dinner companions and had an enjoyable time discussing travel. Our cruise manager gave us our Sofitel room keys at the restaurant and the bus ride from the restaurant to the hotel was only about five minutes.
After a brief rest, we walked over to the Hard Rock Cafe and returned to the lacquer store for purchases. Both were within a couple of blocks from the Sofitel. We bought a large 22-inch contemporary plate at the workshop and hand carried it on our return flights.
Dinner was on our own and, with the late lunch, we decided to eat dinner at the Sofitel’s casual restaurant.
Tuesday, November 15
This morning, we met Zoom in the lobby at 8:30am for our first city tour of Saigon. This was a busy day with over a dozen stops.
We started our tour with a stop at the Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral. The cathedral was rather simple in decorations. Both buildings were constructed in the early 1800s. Our next stop required a drive to Chinatown to visit the Giac Lam Pagoda, the oldest pagoda in Saigon. Established in the 1700s, we visited the exterior gardens and then entered the temple. The interior was ornately carved and contained funerary displays. From the pagoda, we drove to the Chinatown market, where Zoom assisted our travel companion to purchase a suitcase ($60 down to $20) and we toured the large wholesale market area. We continued our drive back to the downtown area and had lunch at Pho2000 and, afterwards visited, Ben Thanh market. We really didn’t need anything, but purchased a small bottle of snake wine (very touristy). We then drove by Westmoreland’s and Ambassador Cabot-Lodge’s residences on our way to Dong Choi Street, the Opera House and the Khai Silk store. We shopped for about an hour, acquiring a shirt and sweater and then drove to the Rex Hotel. At the Rex Hotel, we refreshed ourselves with coffee, iced coffee and a glass of wine on the rooftop lounge. It was in this lounge that the 5pm daily US armed forces briefings were held. Zoom mentioned that the Rex, Majestic, Caravelle and Continental Hotels (historic properties) are government owned. The iced coffee was terrific at the Rex and is recommended.
Our next stop was at the Trung Nguyen coffee store to purchase Vietnamese coffee beans for gifts to bring home. These roasted coffee beans are grown in the central highlands ($35 for 2,000 grams of whole beans). Note that weasel coffee is available in Vietnam but the cost remains prohibitive. We learned that the weasel coffee sold in the local markets is likely chemically treated at best.
Our final tour stop was at the War Remnants Museum, with displays and photos largely from the Vietnam War, but a few exhibits from the war leading to Vietnam’s independence from France. The photos were hard to view, at times grisly and raised questions about the advance knowledge about the danger from dioxin. Given our understanding of the hot, humid, swampy rural landscape, it is hard to imagine fighting and survival in such a harsh environment. The photo journalist entries in the museum reflected a pictorial history of the Vietnam War.
After the last stop, it was now 5pm and time to wind down. We returned to the hotel for showers and a dinner at Cuc Gach Quan, at 7pm. The cab ride was about $2 and it was hard to determine where exactly we were. Regardless, the traditional Vietnamese dinner was very good, with menu selections by the waiter. We had family style servings of pork in claypot, crispy sea bass in passion fruit sauce, stir-fried zucchini buds, fried soft-shelled crabs, steamed rice and fried tofu. We also tried a mango juice with honey drink. This was definitely not a purely tourist restaurant as we could tell it was popular with local residents. Dinner for three, with drinks, ran about $50. With dinner complete, we returned to the hotel for the evening.
Wednesday, November 16
The 8:30am drive out to the Cu Chi tunnels with Zoom seemed to hit morning traffic and took about 90 minutes. The trip started on city roads and shifted to a single lane country road through several small farming villages. The tunnel parking lot contained several buses but the site was not crowded. We saw demonstrations of lethal traps, B52 bomb craters, lookout spots, cooking areas and techniques to permit air to the tunnels. My wife and our travel companion walked through a small section of the tunnels. Afterwards, we watched a short video that discussed the ‘crazy American devils’ and the havoc they wrought on the Cu Chi village area and the valiant fight waged by young village women and men. Most surprising to me was the close proximity of a former US base to the tunnel system.
The bus ride back found less traffic and took about 70 minutes to return to the hotel. We had a light lunch at the hotel at 2pm. Since our room still needed a housekeeping visit, we walked down Dong Choi to view a few retail shops and peek into the Continental and Caravelle Hotels.
By 3:45pm, we returned to the hotel and our room was ready. I jumped in the pool for about 30 minutes to cool off and talk with some folks from our AMA trip that were out on the 18th floor pool deck.
For our last evening dinner, we went to Quan An Ngon for dinner. The menu contained photos of many of the dishes. The food was great but a little different that the food we had in Hanoi (at a similar restaurant). The shrimp and sweet potato pancakes weren’t served with rice paper ” not sure if this was due to our ordering. We also ordered water spinach with garlic, beef in five spices, spring rolls, steamed rice, beer and a coconut drink. The entire dinner for two, with small tip, ran $17. The cab fare each way cost about $1. After dinner, we met our travel companion for a drink on the Sofitel pool deck (18th floor) overlooking the city and then finished packing for our flight the next day at 11:30am.
Thursday, November 17
This day was a long day of travel, starting with a cab ride to the Ho Chi Minh International airport and ending at LAX for today and a short flight to northern California on Friday. We had breakfast at the hotel and departed for the airport at 8am. My wife was concerned about the traffic and wanted to start off early. Surprisingly, traffic was light and only took about 20 minutes (the ride was estimated at 30 to 40 minutes, depending on traffic). The taxi from the hotel was $10, which was considerably lower than reserving a Sofitel car, at $50.
Starting the final return from our travels to Vietnam and Cambodia, we felt that the trip was over despite the need to complete three flights. We’ll have great memories of this Asia visit.
Of all the hotels we stayed in, the most memorable were the Metropole and Siem Reap Sofitels. The Sofitel Saigon Plaza was more of a business hotel and somewhat indistinguishable from the many hotels that I use for domestic business travel. The junk and AMALotus accommodations were fine.
AMA did a great job at organizing the overall trip and daily activities and supporting travelers in the group. We also recommend contacting Zoom if you’d like to use a knowledgeable local guide with vehicle support in Saigon as well as contacting Hanoikids when visiting Hanoi.