Vietnam and Cambodia Land/Cruise November 2011
This is a rather long journal of our AMA Waterways land/cruise to Vietnam and Cambodia. The trip was taken in November 2011. Within the daily entries are some dining suggestions, travel hints and information about the sites that were visited.
Friday, October 28
We left from San Francisco (SFO) as this airport, even though 90 minutes away, permitted us to use our Oneworld frequent flier miles for business class travel. We arrived at the airport around 10pm and checked in at the EVA counter. We were a bit apprehensive about our luggage moving through different airlines and airports with a final arrival in Hanoi. The EVA counter staff indicated that the bags should arrive with our plane in Hanoi as there was sufficient time between flights. Our flights would take us from SFO to Taipei to Hong Kong and, finally, to Hanoi.
With our business class tickets, we were able to use the EVA platinum lounge. The lounge is a nice way to kill time while waiting for your flight. The lounge served drinks and a number of Chinese food selections ” soup, sandwiches and was relatively full of travelers waiting for the 1:30am flight.
Sunday, October 30
Disembarking in Taipei was a breeze. We had a couple of hours to wait and then it was off on flight #2, to Hong Kong. The flight duration was a little over an hour.
In Hong Kong, we had a four hour layover before our final flight to Hanoi. The air quality was very hazy and smoggy and reminded us of Shanghai. You couldn’t see the hills surrounding the airport ” each disappeared in a foggy haze. We hoped that the air quality would be better in Vietnam.
We finally arrived in Hanoi around 4pm. A bus took us from the plane to the terminal. At the terminal, we quickly passed through a visa check and to the luggage carousel. With bags in hand, we found an ATM to withdraw Dong . There are several bank ATMs at the Hanoi airport. We used the formal taxi stand near Vietnam Airlines for our transfer to the Sofitel. Be aware of taxi driver approaches from inside the terminal or at the information desk. The taxi stand near Vietnam Airlines was $16 one-way compared to $30 one-way for independent taxi drivers for a downtown trip. The Sofitel will provide a limo pick-up but the fee is even higher.
The roads from the airport to hotel were filled with scooters, cars and trucks, each of which weaving in and out of lanes to move forward. It was surprising that we didn’t see more accidents. We arrived at our hotel after a 30 minute drive. At the Sofitel, a receptionist met us at the taxi door and checked us in ” no need to wait at the counter. On our way to our room, we were given a brief tour through the old and new hotel sections. Our room was in the newer wing. The hotel had very plush decor and the service was very good, right from the start.
We ended our long day of travel with drinks and bowls of Pho from the hotel’s Bamboo Bar, near the pool, and then headed in to take showers, read a bit and get some sleep.
Monday, October 31
Despite being tired and going to sleep early, we found ourselves up at 4am. We reviewed plans for our day tour during the early hours. We walked a few blocks around the Metropole before breakfast to check the weather and see what was around our hotel. At 7:30, we had breakfast at the buffet in Spices, an on-site restaurant. It was a great breakfast, combining western and Asian foods with particularly sweet local watermelon, papayas and mangos.
After breakfast, we returned to our room to get ready for our day of touring. We met Kien and Yien, from Hanoikids, in the Sofitel lobby and started our walk to the Old Quarter. The first site we viewed was the Hanoi Opera House. Along the walk, we observed a growing number of scooters zooming along the city surface streets. Crossing the streets in the Old Quarter was an exercise of both caution and confidence. We stopped at several stores and temples in the Old Quarter and at a communal house at Ma May Street. We also stopped for egg coffee (that is, whipped eggs in the coffee) at an obscure second floor location in the Quarter, likely only known by local city residents. Our guides said that the recipe is a secret and only two stores in the Quarter serve this drink. Leaving the Old Quarter, our guides called for a taxi to Hao Lo Prison, or the Hanoi Hilton. This was a bleak prison, run first by the French to incarcerate and torture Vietnamese political detainees. The fate of American prisoners was perhaps only slightly better. In contrast, the prison’s history displays reflected humane treatment for the American prisoners. For lunch, we stopped at Quan An Ngon, a local #2 rated restaurant in Tripadvisor, for traditional Vietnamese food. Our guides selected the dishes and they were very tasty but it is hard to recall the names of any of the dishes we ate. With lunch and beverages for five, it cost us about $15.
After lunch, we decided to call it a day ” it was around 3:30pm. After a five minute taxi ride back to the hotel, we separated from our guides.
Dinner was at the Green Tangerine. We considered walking to the restaurant but, upon advice from the hotel, took a cab. It was a good suggestion and we’re glad we took it. The walk looked short on paper but was seemed longer. However, the taxi ride was only $1. The restaurant was on a ‘shoe’ street on the edge of the Old Quarter. A two-story building, it was nicely furnished and appeared to attract tourists, rather than locals. The price, although moderate for us, could have been the reason. We ate at the first floor table and quickly read through a menu that reflected a French influenced creative menu. I ordered the boneless chicken legs stuffed with currants, almonds and black mushrooms, served with artichoke and lotus root. My wife ordered the duck breast covered with roasted mushrooms, cep and tamarind sauce, with a tartlet of asparagus, crÃ¨me patisserie of cardamom and ricard. Our traveling companion ordered the rack of lamb in spicy couscous broth, with surprise balls, and a polenta made with tiny lotus seeds and raisins. Quite creative dinner dishes were available. We shared a dessert of mango cake and ended the day with a cab ride back to the hotel. Dinner was about $75 for the three of us.
Tuesday, November 1
We were joined by Lin, from Hanoikids, and jumped into a taxi to see the Ho Chi Minh residence and HCM museum. The first stop was Ba Dinh Square, where we viewed the external of the HCM mausoleum building. It was large and built to be very imposing. Unfortunately, it was still closed ” opens after 11/5 – so we continued our walk to the Presidential Palace. Built by the French government, it too was imposing and painted a royal yellow. This building is used for offices currently. We continued our walk past HCM’s vehicles towards his more humble wooden residence. Built for his birthday, the residence is constructed from stained wood planks. Underneath the structure is a meeting table, fish tank and resting chair. Above this area, were a small study and a bedroom. We learned that as HCM became unable to climb the stairs, he moved to a one-story concrete building. It was there he died in 1969.
We continued our walk towards the HCM museum. The first floor of the museum contained numerous photographs of HCM and his peers. Walking up the stairs to the second floor, were more contemporary displays. After leaving the museum, we caught a taxi to the National Museum of Fine Arts. There, we toured several floors of early to current paintings and sculptures. One interesting observation was how war time experiences affected many of the more current art paintings. There were so many paintings, we soon were walking a bit faster ” the amount of art works was overwhelming. Exiting the art museum, we decided to have lunch. We were taken to a restaurant, Quon Chim Sao, that is known for countryside cooking. There we took off our shoes and headed upstairs to the second floor. The square tables were about three inches off the floor and there were cushions for us to sit down on the floor. With creaking limbs, we edged down. Lunch included a soup dish with rice and noodles, pork pieces, papaya salad and rice paper wrapped cold spring rolls. After lunch, we took a taxi to the hotel and there we remained for the afternoon. The lunch (about $22) for four was more expensive than the yesterday’s lunch. We also agreed that the food was tastier the day before at Quan An Ngon ” perhaps we enjoy more of the city street food selections. Overall, we recommend engaging Hanoikids for guide services and learning about life in Hanoi. As there were no fees for the assistance (other than snacks, lunch and entry fees), we purchased t-shirts from the research university where I work to give to the student guides.
With an earlier return to the Sofitel, I visited the hotel gym. Later at the Bamboo Bar, we learned that a bunker was found under the Bamboo Bar and two wine bottles were pulled up. While sitting at the bar, hotel and news representatives were going into a hole in the ground. Two news teams were present to interview a Sofitel executive. Interesting find ” we later learned that the bunker was used in the Vietnam War but the exact location was unclear over the past 30 years.
This evening we headed out to The Verticale for dinner via a short taxi ride to the Old Quarter. The Verticale is located in a side alley, not far from the Metropole, in the Hoa Kiem District. We noticed that many of the restaurants are located amidst other retail offerings, many of them offering moderate to low priced goods, such as shoes, clothing items, bike parts and plumbing goods. For visitors, it would be hard to find a restaurant without a taxi as street names were hard to find and, when found, difficult for us to read.
Master Chef Didier Corlou, the Sofitel chef for many years, owns and operates The Verticale. Our table was located on the first floor, a short walk up the exterior stairs. We were the first diners, arriving at 6:30. Soon, more customers trickled and all the tables on the first floor were occupied. We started with a small plate with a small container of liquid tasting a bit like rice vinegar and celery pieces. Next were small soup servings, our appetizer, sorbet and our main entrees (I had the seabass wrapped in banana leaves). We pre-ordered an apple dessert so that it would be done after we completed our dinner. For the three of us, the bill, with wine and dessert ran about $125. Try this restaurant for wonderful food selections, beautiful presentation and good service.
Wednesday, November 2
We joined our AMALotus fellow passengers for an 8:30am orientation briefing in the morning and, shortly afterwards (around 9:30am), started our morning city tour. We loaded onto a bus and stopped at Ba Dinh Square and toured the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum area, Presidential Palace and HCM residence. Afterwards, we stopped at the One Pillar Pagoda and Temple of Literature. There were several high school graduates at the Temple, celebrating their graduation. Some of these stops were duplicates of our previous tour with Hanoikids. This occurred as reading the AMA brochure we were unsure of actual AMA stops versus a bus drive-by view.
We returned back to the Sofitel for lunch. We decided that we would rejoin the tour group at the water puppet show, at 4:50pm, and miss the Old Quarter walking tour and rickshaw ride since we had already visited the Old Quarter. This made the afternoon more relaxed. We arrived at the puppet show a bit early and met our tour group as they were walking through the quarter. It was an interesting sight to see such a large group move through the crowded Old Quarter streets. After the puppet show, we had a light dinner on our own at the Bamboo Bar and returned to our room to complete our packing for the motor coach ride to Ha Long Bay.
Thursday, November 3, 2011
We were up at 5am, showered and completed the packing of our larger bags. We placed them outside our door at 6:45am, for the bellman, and then went down to breakfast. On the bus at 8am, we were on our way to Ha Long Bay. The bus trip was part way on a highway, but much of the time was spent driving through small towns, on a two lane road. Faster vehicles periodically passed us with a honk. We stopped half-way for a bathroom break after two hours. The stop was a large retail operation that appeared to cater to tourist and travelers. We purchased a number of lacquer plates for gifts and boarded the bus after a 45 minute stop. (Note the tour stops at a high-quality lacquer shop in Saigon). The remainder of the drive took about 90 minutes and we arrived at Ha Long Bay at 12:30. We grabbed our carry-on luggage and walked onto a small tender that brought us to the larger junk.
The interior of our junk cabin was quite nice. A moderate sized room, with marble shower and bathroom. After a short briefing, we dropped our luggage in the cabin and had lunch. Although described as a buffet, the lunch was actually served by wait staff. Lunch was several courses, starting with a pumpkin soup, papaya salad, cooked vegetables, sea bass and rice. Dessert was fresh fruit with yogurt.
Right after lunch, the junk stopped at Ti Top island for a short, but steep hike, to a look-out point. It was a bit warm and humid, and resulted in a bit of deep breaths and perspiration to reach the top. As we only had 45 minutes for this stop, we rested for a few minutes, took a few pictures and then headed back down. The tender met us within ten minutes and we were shortly back on the junk. We were pleased to see some blue sky during our bay cruise and hike.
We now had about an hour to rest before our next activity, a sampan visit to a floating village. We transferred from a ship tender to a sampan in groups of four. A woman manned the sampan oars and guided us through her village. We were able to view fishing platforms, a school, fishing boats and floating houses. There were electric generators for the floating houses and we were told that fresh water is delivered to each house on a daily basis. We wondered what the village thought of us ” 80 or so visitors with cameras in hand. Regardless, we realized that our visit was helping the economy of the village. Remember to bring a few $1 bills for if you would like to tip the sampan guide.
The buffet dinner offered a number of Vietnamese dishes. During dinner, a ship director stopped by and chatted for a few minutes. It seems that Indochina Sails, a private company, owns the junk service and also owns/leases the AMALotus and AMAMarguerite to AMA. He mentioned that some of the Ha Long Bay fishing village members are now working as Indochina Sails staff. In particular, these local employees are very familiar with the Ha Long Bay waterways.
Friday, November 4
Coffee and pastries were available at 6:30am in the junk, with full breakfast at 9:30am, after a visit to the Surprise Cave. After breakfast, we will be departing Ha Long Bay by bus to the airport. This could very well be a multiple shower day ” after our cave visit and this evening. The warmth and humidity seems to encourage showering ” plus the use of insecticide also is a factor. Note that during our trip we never saw any mosquitoes but still applied deet before many stops ” particularly near still water.
We went up to the third deck at 6:30am for coffee and breakfast pastries. The junk pulled up its anchor around 7am and we enjoyed our slow cruise through the limestone islands. At 8am, we boarded a tender with about 22 fellow passengers to visit the Surprise Cave. The ride took about ten minutes and soon we were mesmerized by each of the three large caves, each one leading to a larger cave and each separated by narrow passageways. The guides pointed out rock structures that appeared to resemble animals and religious icons. At 9am, we were exiting the caves and back on the tender.
Upon arriving at the junk, we quickly showered (the caves were warm/humid). We had about 30 minutes to shower, complete packing our hand-carry luggage and meet for breakfast at 9:45am. (Note that our check-in luggage remained locked overnight on the bus). Breakfast was a typical buffet with Vietnamese and western fare. After brunch, we had time to relax and settle our drink bill ” only $18. We vacated our cabin before breakfast so that the crew could start preparing for the next group of junk cruisers.
At 11:30am, we departed the junk on a tender. Upon landing we quickly boarded the bus and were on our way to the Hanoi airport. About two hours into the drive, we stopped at a large private golf course for lunch. There was a large restaurant at the course and this provided a good opportunity for serving the approximately 100 individuals traveling with AMA. After lunch, we boarded the bus and finally arrived at the airport at 4pm. There we quickly passed through immigration and the airport security check. The flight was delayed a few minutes and experienced one gate change. With only an hour flight, Vietnam Airlines still found time to serve drinks and a meal.
AMA collected our passports during the flight to Siem Reap. AMA used the passports to arrange a quick entry into Cambodia, so we didn’t need to stop at immigration. We simply picked up our luggage and headed for the bus that would take us to the Sofitel hotel in Siem Reap. During the bus ride, we received some basic information from Savon, our local guide. When we arrived at the hotel, we were met by musicians, cold towels, and a ginger drink. We also received our keys and dropped off our hand-carry luggage in our room before dinner. Dinner was a large buffet, with local dishes. Despite the food selections, we weren’t too hungry after snacking on the plane.
With the return to our room, we showered and did a few hand wash items. In general, we rarely wore any of the long-sleeved shirts or long pants we packed during this trip. Wearing light weight clothes that could dry overnight was a big advantage.
Saturday, November 5
We had an early breakfast and headed out to the buses at 8:30am. The hotel is located close to the Angkor Wat area, so the ride was about 15 minutes long. As the road that continues to Angkor Thom passes through narrow gates, we transferred from our larger bus to two smaller vans. At this transfer location, we were able to walk up and view the gates, wall and river surrounding the road into the city of Angkor Thom. Shortly arriving at Angkor Thom, we saw a large city structure, with remnants of several tall towers with faces. At the highest tower was what was left of a lotus flower. We were told that several of the pieces were stolen over time and the structures were originally covered with gold and silver leaf. The tour of the city area required climbing over several steps. It was quite warm in the areas unprotected from the sun. Every so often, we passed through an area in which cool breezes could be felt. Many of the wall carvings could still be seen quite clearly. The tour lasted about 45 minutes and we found ourselves on the van to Te Prohm.
During our van ride, Savon mentioned that about half of the 4 million land mines have been cleared from Cambodia. These mines placed as defensive measures have been found in areas long forgotten. In fact, some of the individuals reportedly forget where they placed their mines and, ironically, lost their lives from their own mines. Mines were found/removed near the checkpoint area where we received our temple visit badge.
The Te Prohm temple is often known as the “Tomb Raider” temple. It was the site of the filming of this movie. The buses parked in an area with small souvenir stands. After departing from the vans, we walked along a dusty path to the temple. The first sight was a small moat or pond and the first external wall. We entered a small courtyard and soon could see areas where the roots of the trees extended to become part of the building structures. We couldn’t determine if the roots strengthened the wall with support or were destructive. As we walked through the temple, paths were cleared but there were crumbled fragments of the structure in jumbled formations. Again, the temperature was warm and shady areas were popular as well as the stops where a cool breeze could be experienced.
With our tour completed, we walked back to the vans along the same path we used to enter the temple area. There we boarded our buses to return back to the hotel for lunch and a short rest. We stopped for an a la carte lunch at the hotel bar. Meal service at the Sofitel was extremely slow and we were glad we decided to have lunch first and then return back to our hotel room.
At 2:30, we boarded a bus to Banteay Srei, a smaller temple about 20 miles outsite of Siem Reap. Along the ride, we saw rice fields and small villages with houses raised on stilts. We were told that the raised housing protected the inhabitants from wild animals. The tigers and wild pigs were more prevalent before loss of the dense forest.
At Banteay Srei we could see surrounding reconstructed pieces of temple walls but less formed that the previous larger structures at Te Prohm or Angkor Thom. The entrances into BS were intricately carved. It was surprising to us that the carvings were so clear. The temple walkway led us through three (as I recall) areas. Small, shallow pools were seen along the pathways. Towards the rear, we could see smaller building structures. Exiting the temple area, we walked along the path that led us to the parking lot and small stalls selling food and crafts. We purchased some silk scarves and a young boy offered to run and purchase a cold beer ($2 each, regular price $1) for us. This offer was welcome and taken.
On our return to the hotel, we stopped by a small orphanage that helped about 25 young boys and girls to acquire life skills and learn English reading and writing. Given the relatively young age that adults live to (52 men and 55 for women) and the large number of children each couple may have, you could see that there is a strong need for this type of social service. This particular school is financed without public dollars and only with support from some of the larger tour companies and visitors to the school.
We watched a short dance presentation by the girls and boys and then visited the gift area, where student artwork was offered for sale. We purchased some hand painted postcards and delivered some writing supplies we brought from the US.
The bus returned us to the hotel at 6pm. We had about an hour to clean up and rest before a fixed course dinner, hosted by AMA. The dinner service was extremely slow and we finished at 9:45pm. A very long time for a hotel dinner with fixed menu items.
Sunday, November 6
Today it’s off to Angkor Wat and then back to the hotel by 12noon. We will then have the afternoon to ourselves in Siem Reap. We were looking forward to going into town for an unstructured visit.
It was a familiar bus ride to Angkor Wat as we had passed this temple yesterday on our drive to Angkor Thom. We started our tour along the walkway over the moat surrounding the outer walls of the temple. Angkor Wat has three levels and we visited each. The first level was surrounded by a moat, which served as a cleansing area for the public to wash before entering the temple. At the higher levels, there were pools, but these pools were reserved for the monks and high officials. The last level was reached by a number of steep wooden stairs. These stairs, unlike many others, had a handrail which helped ensure steady footing. At the top level, there was a broad area in which visitors could walk and see the view from several window areas. With the heat and humidity, our clothes and bodies were sticky.
At the base of the first level, there were many local villagers selling scarves, shirts and other tourist items. We purchased several additional scarves for office gifts. It was almost walking through a gauntlet of local sellers as we returned to our group meeting location.
We returned to the hotel at 11:30. This permitted us to grab a quick shower and change into some dry/clean clothes. We also met with our cruise manager to pick-up luggage tags for the morning.
During our free afternoon, we took a tuk-tuk ride from the Sofitel to town. We stopped for lunch at the Blue Pumpkin and explored Pub Street, Old Market, FCC stores, and the McDermott gallery. At the gallery, we purchased a photograph of five faces at Bayon, Angkor Thom. As it was close to 3:30pm and our travel companion had a helicopter ride planned (about $100), we returned via tuk-tuk back to the hotel.
At the market areas we visited during the trip, you can purchase jewelry and stones at ‘bargain’ prices. Some vendors will use some type of meter to confirm the authenticity of the stone. One of our local guides mentioned that these meters should not be trusted. I also saw several watches (marked as Omega, Rolex, Piguet, etc) at these open-air markets. In regards to shopping for locally produced items, we purchased lacquer ware, silk scarves and silk table-runners to bring back as gifts. We also purchased a few silk clothing items for ourselves.
Before our 7pm dinner, we stopped at Garden of Desire, a downtown jewelry store, where my wife purchased a ring and earrings. Dinner reservations were next door at the AHA Bar and Restaurant. I ordered a taro based soup that had a split pea flavor, salmon encrusted with jasmine rice and we shared three desserts ” a chocolate cake with raspberry sorbet, ginger ice cream and a banana fritter with palm ice cream. After dinner, we looked around local shops and the night market. My wife purchased purse along the way. Ending our evening out, we flagged a tuk-tuk to take us back to the Sofitel ($1 per person).
We returned to hotel at 9:30pm to finish our luggage packing.
Monday, November 7
A morning bus ride was necessary as the high water levels prevented the AMALotus from picking us up in Siem Reap. The bus ride took about 4.5 hours, with a bathroom break two hours later around 10:30. Along the way our local guide shared his knowledge of the sights we could see from the road and life in Cambodia. We could see that life along the drive was hard – aged wood houses on stilts and transit largely limited to scooter and pedal bicycles. Often times, dirt from the sides of the road covered the center of the road, giving the appearance of a dirt road. The break area was wet and required walking over several feet of narrow wood planks. The planks took some careful steps, though the mud below the planks wasn’t very deep. A few individuals walked carefully through a packed muddy path. Once we arrived at the structure, the rest area had a large bathroom area and a small gift store. Apparently, there weren’t too many bathroom break areas along the road to Kamchong as there were many buses that pulled over at this stop.
As we drove through Kamchong Cham town, the AMALotus soon appeared in sight. Although the boat has stopped at this port previously, it is hard to imagine the thoughts of the local town residents about the luxury boat appointments and the passengers on the boat. Lunch was served after we boarded and we received cabin keys thereafter. The standard cabin was a bit larger than the junk cabin and nicely accented with dark woods. Storage space within the cabin was sufficient. The cabin storage area included a safe. The stateroom balcony was small and contained a single chair and table. The public lounges and sundeck were nicely decorated and there was a small fitness room with one treadmill and one elliptical. The cabins were well-insulated from noises generated within adjoining units.
A brief introductory safety and itinerary discussion was held at 4:30pm. With dinner at 7pm, we had a quiet evening. Dinner selections included a pineapple ” shrimp salad, broccoli cream soup, swordfish and a cheese plate for dessert. Dinner was similar to other river/cruise ships ” hotel quality food selections. Local wines and well drinks were provided without additional fees.
What was intended for a quiet evening didn’t quite turn out that way. I must have picked up some intestinal bacteria that didn’t agree with me. I ended up taking four Pepto Bismal tablets, spaced through the evening, which seemed to help. Although I had Azithromycin in my bag of packed drugs, I decided the issue wasn’t severe enough to use it. On a side note, I was aware of several people on the tour that became afflicted with some gastric distress during the trip. Where the problem was picked up was completely unknown as bottled water was used throughout the trip. We were alerted not to drink the cabin tap or shower water. At the end of the trip, one of the travelers in our group was brought to a local hospital ($75) for a check-up due to a continuing bout of intestinal upset ” I heard it was possibly a parasite infection. AMA was very helpful in providing assistance and support for this passenger health issue.