My wife and I took the full 16 night tour starting in Hanoi and finishing in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) with an extra on our own at either end (March 5 to 22, 2012).
We flew from Vancouver to Hanoi with China Airlines. Just one word of warning: bring your own food! Just think solid like a rock blue scrambled eggs - and they were probably among the better food.
I will not go into any detail about all the things we did and all the excursions because they have been very well described elsewhere. I'd rather concentrate on the aspects of the trip that reflect AMA Waterways.
Hanoi is a fabulous city and well worth the visit and if nothing else, you will learn how to cross the most uncrossable street: nobody gives an inch, and neither should you!
Sofitel Hotels in Hanoi, Siem Riep and Saigon were first class. OK, one minor draw back: after having had a lovely dinner and entertainment on our first night in Siem Reap, close to half of our group came down with an illness which caused fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea. Well, one explanation offered was that people may have drank too much cold water on such a hot day. Another was that people must have been carrying this form a flu and that it just happened to break out at that point in our trip. Great miracle that Brits, Aussies, Cannucks and Yanks can synchronize their illness so well. And no, it could not have been food poisoning; shouldn't have that affected all of us? This also meant that my wife and I had to cancel our dinner reservation in Siem Reap which we had been looking forward to. Yes, that's the risk you take travelling to exotic countries.
We spent two full days seeing all the temples and holy sites of Anchor. On the third day we took off on a five hour bus ride to meet the ship because the water level in the Tonle Sap Lake was too shallow for the AMALotus. We expected that to be the case, although we would have preferred to embark at Siem Reap. Can't blame anyone here. Can't blame AMA either for the fact that we had to drive almost to Phnom Penh to meet the boat for lack of roads to a point further up-river.
The docking location was a sight to behold: the bow of the ship rammed into the river bank and the stern tied onto a bush. Two planks were laid out to meet the bank to form a gangway adorned with rope rails on either side. We were welcomed by half the ship's crew with big smiles on their faces, received our keys and went to our staterooms. There was a strong smell of creosote (the smell of railway ties or power poles, the wooden ones).
The staterooms were spacious and the bed was comfortable, even the bath room, especially the shower, was bigger than I had seen on other ships. However, there was no place to put anything. One wardrobe is all - and that is shared with the safe and the water heater (which I had to turn on first incidentally - I know I could have called to have that done but I figured it out myself). There is a small balcony with one chair screwed onto the floor and a little side table. There was room for a second chair which would have been nice. The air conditioning worked non-stop which means it was inadequate. There is a card slot by the entrance which controls power, including air conditioning for the stateroom. You do not need to have a room key in that slot; your Airmiles card will work just fine. And before I g=forget: someone mentioned that the stateroom is tastefully all clad in wood. That is true for the floor. The rest is cheap laminate.
Try and get a stateroom as far forward on the boat as you can get because engine, shaft and propeller make an enormous racket while the boat is in motion, the further back, the worse. All that disturbs you up front is the raising and lowering of the anchor (don't worry, the boat is not breaking apart, although it does sound like it).
Lets get to the ship: Someone mentioned tasteful artwork adorns the walls - you know who you are and if you took it, please bring it back! Anyway, we had nothing but bare walls.
So, at our orientation we were warned again to use sanitizers since some of our group were obviously infectious with (food borne) illness. Also, we were proudly told that there is a guest to crew ratio of 2:1. That means since there are 124 guests there have to be 62 crew, right? Now lets count: two at reception, two bartenders in the lounge, one bartender at the sundeck, approximately 8 servers at dinner, the purser and of course, Sigi, the hotel manager. Add to that six for housekeeping (two per floor). Yes, and we need cooks, say six, and one spa lady. That leaves That leaves 34 people to operate the boat - WOW!!!
Sigi, the hotel manager used to work on the big ocean going ships. That has become too much work for him. He prefers the small boats now. I call it semi-retirement. I don't think he worked more than an hour a day, though he was always the first one having his meal in the restaurant, guess quality assurance. Anyway, with such a favorable guest to crew ratio, you would expect stellar service, you would, wouldn't you? OK, let's try something easy like phoning for some ice. Sorry, there is no room service - and no ice bucket in your room either even if you occupy suite.
Yes, and we need to eat too. For lunch you have a buffet for starters, salads and dessert (choices don't change throughout the cruise - unless they run out of something, of course). You also have the activity station where you can get the stir fry or pho of the day. The main course is a la carte: one meat dish (mostly western) one fish dish (local) and one vegetarian dish and for lunch there you can also have a choice of burger and two other fast food things I don't remember. Dinner is fully a la carte with the same plethora of menu choices, except no fast food. Thanks, AMA for making the choice so easy, any more and I would never be able to make up my mind. The service at meal time is best described as totally disorganized. While the staff are very friendly and very willing to please, they would surely benefit from a bit of supervision, direction and training. The most noticeable were staff searching for empty plates to take away of which there weren't any while they could have been serving coffee or drinks. It was like everybody was doing the same things at the same time and other things had to wait their turn.
Did I tell you there is wine with lunch and dinner, totally free, not a penny. Needless to say, it isn't worth any more than that. Please, AMA, pour it into the river and charge us a bit extra but give us palatable wine. Is that too much to ask for? The local beer is reasonably good and the free gin and tonics are fine too. be careful with the local rum, though, it takes a bit of getting used to. Best deal: mimosa for breakfast, made with Russian sparkling wine which is not bad at all - and it's free. Should have swiped the occasional bottle, just never occurred to me.
Entertainment: OK, there you are, floating down the Mekong, you can't afford to have a six piece band travel along together with a few dancers and a string quartet. So what you get is a piano player/crooner and a spot the lie game put on by the some cruise staff. On two nights local groups perform and they are, indeed, very good.
One last thing about tipping. We all know that wages in Vietnam, and especially Cambodia are extremely low, and make no mistake, that also applies to the AMALotus. The payroll on the Mekong is quite different from the payroll on the Rhine. So we are asked to tip everywhere and yes, you do need to bring at least $75 in singles per person. Incidentally, half the ship was occupied by Australians who had booked their cruise through APT (no idea how they are related to AMA Waterways) and they had all their tips included. What's so difficult to do that for the rest of the group, even with the option to prepay your tips?
So, AMA Waterways, yes, this was an amazing trip, but not because of AMALotus but because of the fabulous countries, and the fabulous people. And yes, the cruise offers a great way to see and experience the country and the people which would be a lot harder to do through any other way of travel. But please, on your ship live up to the reputation your company has in Europe.
Sorry, this turned out to be quite a bit longer than intended.