My Husband and I have just returned from a wonderful land tour of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia which included an overnight stay on a Junk in Halong Bay and a 7 night cruise down the Mekong on the ‘La Marguerite’
I am a compulsive note taker and write a diary for my own enjoyment but record practical information too for future reference.
I have some mobility problems so was not able to access all the activities but I was so grateful to everyone that I met as they were all very helpful and supportive of the fact that I can’t walk very fast.
I am posting extracts from my diary here which you may find useful. I am including my entries for our time in Siem Reap and Saigon (Ho Chi Min City) as i would guess that most people who sail the Mekong also visit these 2 cities.
SIEM REAP AIRPORT. We arrived in Siem Reap on time and were greeted by musicians, dancers and a small gift box each with some local green tea......a very nice touch.
The visa purchase (US$20pp) was completed quickly and fortunately all the luggage from our group arrived too which was a relief after Hoa's warning yesterday. The TravelMarvel local guide, Savon, met us at the arrivals exit and we were all on the bus and ready to go within 35 minutes of landing. The coach was positively luxurious with wide reclining seats and plenty of leg room......hopefully a sign of things to come.
I was really surprised by Siem Reap as it appears to be much more 'westernised' in the way the shops etc are laid out than we saw in Vietnam or Laos. There looked to be a lot of very impressive hotels too.
SOKHA ANGKOR HOTEL.
This has the 'wow' factor from the moment we turned into the drive. The lobby area is huge and beautifully appointed with marble floors and sumptuous seating.
We were greeted with ice cold towels and a cold drink while we waited to be given our room keys.
Staff members were in the process of decorating the building for the Cambodian New Year celebrations tomorrow
It is a 'deluxe' city view twin room and is spacious and nicely decorated.
I love the bathroom with the bath and separate shower.
The beds are comfortable and the pillows are soft and fluffy -bliss!
The other facilities are:
TV with some English language channels
Dressing table with mirror
Several plug sockets with multi pin choices
A bucket chair
We had dinner in the hotel pub - a very nice Cambodian Red Curry and a 'so-so' burger and chips. After dinner we walked across to the supermarket and had a look round. It's amazing to see how familiar lots of the products were. Goods were priced in US$. We ended up buying 2 magnums and 2 cans of soft drinks. We ate the magnums sitting at the table by the supermarket entrance and watched the world go by.
Back at the hotel we had our drinks and a game of scrabble before retiring to bed.
SATURDAY 12TH APRIL –
A.M. Very, very hot, high humidity and hazy sunshine.
We were awake at 06.30. I had my coffee in bed while Jim got ready to go on is early morning bird hunt. While he was out I showered (bliss in the walk-in shower), shaved my legs, washed my hair and then did a bit of hand washing before going down for breakfast in the main restaurant .
There was an extensive range of buffet food, both local and international, and pleasant servers.
THE 'OLD' MARKET. We decided to get a US$2 tuk-tuk to the 'old' market. It is walkable but quite a long way and hard going in the heat. The market is under cover with a vast amount of stalls selling all kinds of food, clothing, textiles and souvenirs. We ended up buying quite a few things and bargained reasonably well. I could have bought a lot more but restrained myself!
We walked across the river to the 'arts' market but felt they were asking a lot more for the same items so went back to the old market before getting the tuk-tuk back to the hotel.
Jim went to the supermarket to get some biscuits and water to tide us over until dinner tonight while I sat in the shade by the pool and typed this up.
We had some tea and biscuits in the room before meeting the group at 14.00 for the temple trip.
ANGKOR THOM TEMPLE VISIT 14.00 to 16.30
We are now the 'orange group' to distinguish us from the new comers!
The trip to the temple complex started with a 10 minute Drive through the suburbs to the 'check point' where we all had our photographs taken for our complex entry ticket ($40 for 3 days unlimited entry). Our guide provided us with a plastic wallet on a lanyard to put the personalised ticket in (if we forget the ticket or lose it we are responsible for purchasing a new one) and also gave us a receiver and head phones so we could hear Savon's commentary while moving around the temple.
The temple complex is huge (800km sq) with over 800 temples dating from the 1st century AD. The Thom temple is just one of the many that are being constantly uncovered in the jungle that grew around them after they were abandoned in the 12th century. The most famous of the temples in the complex is Angkor Wat.
The bus entered the complex area and passed an enormous lake where families were picnicking before we got to a car park where we had to change from our coach onto a mini bus. The bus then continued the journey past more picnicking groups and food and drink stalls before passing through a huge gateway where we could see the temple. The bridge over the moat by the gate was lined with statues of animal gods and reminded me of Ancient Egyptian temples.
We left the mini bus and then Savon explained about the history of the temple before we went over to it. Our passes were examined by an official before we were able to access the temple itself.
The ground is very uneven and there are steps up to the 3 different levels so I only did the first level and walked around that to our meeting point. The others went on exploring inside for a further 30 minutes while I found a spot to sit in the shade to wait for them.
Once back on the mini bus, we were treated to a 30 minute drive around the countryside so we could get an idea of how people in the farming communities live. Most people seemed relatively prosperous and had sturdy, well kept houses and neat parcels of land.
We transferred back to our coach for the 20 minute drive back to the hotel and we were in the room with a coffee at 16.40.
LAUNDRY SERVICE. Jim took some dirty clothes to the laundry service recommended by one of our group - $2 per kilo. So we should get that back tomorrow.
Our evening finished with a group meal in the restaurant followed by a display of traditional dancing. The buffet meal had a good mixture of Indochinese and international food and the dancing was beautiful. A game of scrabble completed the evening.
SUNDAY 13TH APRIL.
A.M. Boiling hot with clear sky and high humidity.
P.M. Very, very, very hot and humid with sunny intervals.
I find it difficult to believe that I am sitting writing this while watching the sunrise over the Angkor Wat Temple complex. Although it is quite crowded it is a magical scene and compares favourably with sunrises seen at the Taj Mahal, Mt Everest and over the River Nile.
The adventure started when the alarm went off at 04.00. The group met in the lobby at 04.50 and we left the hotel at 05.00 for the short ride to the ticket station. The new members who had joined the group needed their photos taken for their ticket.
We were given torches along with our commentary receiver sets and bottles of water as we left the coach. It was a long walk, for me, to the bridge over the lake and then across the bridge to the Wat wall gate before another longish walk to the cafe area for a drink and biscuits.
It was getting lighter as we moved across the bridge and by the time we arrived for the refreshments the crowds were already taking up position for the best photograph as the sun emerged just to the left of the temple itself.
As the sun rose higher the shafts of light created reflections of the temple building in the pool in front of the towers........ Just magnificent!
DH 'parked' me on a seat overlooking the temple while he went into the complex.
There are the usual souvenir stalls at the edge of the main temple area.
There are toilets and a cafe. The toilets are signposted behind the cafe and are very basic. There is a charge of 1000Rials. The one western toilet was dirty so I used a squat plate one. There is a concrete trough of water and a saucepan for flushing but no provision for toilet paper.
There are a lot of souvenir sellers, some of whom were quite persistent and a lot were children.
Inside the temple there are 3 levels to climb. The first 2 are fairly easy I believe but the 3rd one is quite strenuous. You must have shoulders and knees covered to climb the last stage.
We walked slowly back to the meeting point back across the bridge, passing a bridal couple having their wedding photographs taken by the complex walls.
We were all there at 08.15 and walked back to the bus, getting to the hotel just before 09.00. After breakfast Jim left for his 'quad bike' tour.
QUAD BIKE EXCURSION.
There were sixteen of us doing the quad bike excursion. We were picked up from the hotel by the quad bike companies own tuk-tuks and arrived at their headquarters after a ride of twelve minutes. We were first given a safety talk, issued with face masks, helmets and then had to complete a circuit to determine if we were competent at driving the bikes. Three of the ladies failed and they had to have a guide each to assist them with their driving. The route took us out into the flat country side which allowed us to see how the farming community worked and lived. The early tarmac roads soon disappeared and we then found ourselves on dirt tracks with undulating surfaces and this at times created quite a dust storm. After about forty minutes we stopped for a ten minute rest break. We then continued for a further 30 minutes before returning back to the starting point. I thought that the experience was good.
TA PROHM TEMPLE.
We left the hotel at 14.15 for the drive to Ta Prohm.
Along the way Savon told us a little of her early life during the Khmer Rouge regime when her family were forcibly relocated from their village near Siem Reap to the forested area 150km north. The family had to carry their allowed belongings on a shared bullock cart. Savon was still a baby so her mother was allowed to ride with her but her father, sisters and brother had to walk. It took 3 nights and 4 days. Once they arrived, her father and older siblings were separated from Savon and her mother for 6 years. Savon's mother was made to work clearing the forest to make paddy fields and while mum worked Savon was kept in a deep hole so she couldn't crawl off. She says they were always hungry!
Savon explained that her immediate family felt very fortunate as they all survived and were reunited but they lost many members of their extended family.
Savon is grateful for the chance she had to get an education and recognises the value of the tourist trade to modern Cambodia.
At the temple there were the usual souvenir sellers outside the walls but they are not allowed into the complex.
It was a fairly long walk along a tree lined avenue and over uneven ground. The temple buildings were much more how I'd pictured them with the trees growing through the stonework. This was the temple, along with Angkor Wat, that featured in the 'Tomb Raiders' film and it felt very atmospheric.
Our overall time here was 1 hour and we were able to spend about 30 minutes exploring the temple itself.
APT SPONSORED ORPHANAGE. This was followed by a 50 minute visit to the APT sponsored orphanage where the children put on a performance and gave a guided tour of the facility. Most people gave donations of either money or school supplies.
We were back in the hotel at 17.15 and decided to take a tuk-tuk into the old town. As it was the start of the Cambodian New Year celebrations everywhere was really busy. The roads into the central area had been cordoned off and the barriers were manned by police so the area was traffic free.
It was wonderful to see such a vibrant and busy area with the music, market stalls, bars, restaurants and street performers making the most of the warm evening.
I bought a couple of tops for $15 and then we had a nice meal at 'The Indian'........chicken samosas, chicken pakoras, light chicken curry, a spicier chicken curry, rice, garlic naan, 2 local beers, 2 fresh lemon drinks and a tip came to £16 and was very tasty.
We got a tuk-tuk back to the hotel where I did some packing and we played scrabble before bed.
MONDAY 14TH APRIL.
SIEM REAP TO THE MEKONG RIVER AND LA MARGUERITE.
A.M. Very hot, humid and sunny.
MEKONG RIVER TRIP ITINERARY CHANGE.
We had been informed before departure that some of the itinerary for the Mekong cruise had been changed as the river level was low and that, together with the bridge works, meant that we would not be able to embark at and sail across Tonle Lake. This was quite disappointing as the excursions there seemed really interesting. We are, however, doing an 'over night' stay in Phnom Penh instead.
I was up at 05.00 for a shower and to finish the packing so we could put the cases out for 06.30. After breakfast we checked the room, checked out and got our luggage organised for the coach.
DRIVE TO THE MEKONG. We finally left the hotel at 08.15 for the 200km drive to the Mekong to rendezvous with the boat.
The total journey was 5 hours but the coach was very comfortable so I caught up on a lot of sleep. The roadway was a mixture of paved highway and rough country road so it was quite bumpy in places.
There were 2 stops.
The first was at an old stone bridge where the bus left us and we rejoined it by walking over the bridge. There was a western style toilet facility by the bridge which a young lady kept clean. She charged 500rials for use but accepted $1 for 2 people.
The second stop was at the half way point and was a form of 'motorway service station' with western style toilets, a shop and a cafe area. It looked a bit daunting on first sight but was actually quite nice inside and several people bought souvenirs there at moderate prices.
It was a bit of a shock arriving at the ship as we had to walk over some very rough ground and then up a steep gangway into the 'bowels' of the ship before finally getting into the passenger area. This was forced on us because there are some repairs going on at a bridge near the usual jetty and the ship can't get through to the dock area. Hopefully our other docking points will be less hazardous!
LA MARGUERITE RIVER CRUISE SHIP.
The ambiance is 'country house' with dark wood and rich fabrics.
There are 4 cabin floors and 46 staterooms (2 suites, 6 junior suites, 30 balcony cabins and 8 porthole cabins) with a capacity of 92 guests. The whole ship is given over to 'Travelmarvel' clients for this trip.
A small library with 2 computers and wifi connections
The sun deck with a small plunge pool and bar.
This is located on the Tonle deck near to the restaurant.
First impression was that it is smaller than I expected but we have had very large hotel rooms so I'm sure it will be fine.
The cabin has:
3 wardrobes with mirrors
A large dressing table with e shallow drawer
Pad and pen
Angle poise lamp
2 audio receivers with ear pieces and charger
Twin beds with duvets
2 bedside tables
Fridge with 4 complimentary bottles of water
2 packets of potato crisps
Window seat with bench cushion and 2 small cushions
Small balcony with 2 tiny seats (it will be a challenge to sit there!)
Room under the bed for suitcases
The Bathroom has:
Walk in shower
Cupboard with mirror
We were greeted with fresh mango juice and ice cold hand towels.
The ship's manager did a short talk on the safety aspects of the ship and some essential information on dining arrangements before we all went for lunch.
Our cabins were available after lunch and our luggage was already there along with:
A welcome gift of a 'TravelMarvel' laptop case
A lanyard with see-through plastic pocket for tour tickets.
A welcome letter.
A copy of 'The Daily Cruiser' with information about today's activities and some general information about the ship.
All meals are open seating and there are a range of table sizes from 2s to 8s.
The breakfast is a buffet.
There were a range of international and local dishes plus an egg station, fruit, cereal, pastries etc.
Buffet appetisers - salads, breads, pasta station, soups.
Buffet desserts: fresh fruits, hot pudding (bread and butter the first day), cake, mousse
The main course has to be ordered from the server and and there are 3 choices - meat, fish and a vegetarian option.
You order your meal from a menu with 2 or 3 choices for each course, mostly western style.
There is always an 'amuse bouche' on the table as you sit down.
There is a choice from:
3 main dishes
Tea/coffee is available 24 hours in the main lounge.
Soft drinks, fruit juices, local beers and spirits are complementary throughout the day.
There is a choice of house red and white wine at lunch and dinner.
Name brand drinks and cocktails are charged to your on board account.
There is a pianist who plays popular, for our age group, light music in the main lounge at various times.
Films are sometimes shown in the evening.
Local artists come aboard to perform on some evenings.
We finished our evening having a chat and drinks with Phil and Lynn from King's Lynn in the lounge so finally got to bed around 23.00.
TUESDAY 15TH APRIL.
MEKONG RIVER - A.M. WAT HANCHEY. P.M. KAMPONG CHAM.
A.M. Hot, humid and overcast with some heavy showers.
P.M. Sunshine and clear blue skies. Marginally cooler.
In our cabin we had:
2 audio receivers and head phones.
2 water bottle carriers
2 lanyards with plastic pouches attached.
Rain ponchos and umbrellas
We went to the main lounge to collect
Tour groups badge (orange, green, blue)
Cabin number card ( as a check for who is off the ship)
We were up early, as usual, so Jim could see if there were any birds around and then he tried fishing from the balcony but the bread fell off. Hoa (our Tour manager) managed to get Jim some prawns to use as bait for later.
Wat Hanchey. We had breakfast and then Jim got ready for the walk to the Wat Hanchey which left at 08.30 and returned at 10.45 ready for the ship to sail back down river to Kampong Cham.
It was amazing to see the crew members create a walkway and steps up the steep river bank. We are learning that these remote areas along the Mekong are not geared up for tourism yet so few places have jetties. It will be interesting to come back in 10 years to see the changes.
I decided not to go this morning as Hoa informed us that there are 500 steps to the top of the temple plus the climb up and down the river bank so I knew there was no chance of me doing it. There were a few others who, for various reasons, chose to remain on the ship.
I sat on the top deck and caught up with this epistle, had a chat with a couple of ladies and watched the tour party scramble down the river bank back to the ship.
At 11.15 there was a lecture in the lounge given by all 3 guides.
The first part was mainly about the geography of Cambodia then Buntha talked about marriage and wedding traditions and the third guide explained some of the 80 uses of the traditional scarf that is carried by almost everyone in country areas. That was particularly fascinating as it is used as:
Modesty cover when going to the toilet outside (less than 40% of Cambodians have plumbing in their homes)
A sling for a baby -on mother's body or slung between the handlebars of a bicycle
A child's hammock
A vessel for the steaming of rice
A shirt..........the list was endless!
The ship then sailed back down river to Kampong Chan where we moored at the same river bank.
We set off for the afternoon excursion at 15.00 to yet another Buddhist Temple - Wat Nokor. It was about a 15 minute ride through the city streets to the temple. The thing that has made these last few visits memorable has been the fact that the New Year parties are ongoing for 3 days and most people gather at the temple sites. It is such a noisy, colourful and happy atmosphere that it draws you into the happiness of the locals. Not only are the temples magnificent in their own way but the sight of people dancing, eating, chatting and playing games with their families softens the somber feeling that can sometimes overtake you, especially in Cambodia when our guide, Buntha, is telling us about some of his childhood experiences. He was removed from his family at the age of 8 to be taken to a camp where he and the other children were brainwashed and then taught to be soldiers for the Pol Pot regime. He was orphaned during the Khmer Rouge dictatorship and when Cambodia was liberated the only family he had left was a cousin. He didn't even remember his given name as he was renamed at the camp and he still has no idea when his birthday is so he just chose 07/07/1970 as his day because the number 7 is an auspicious number. The bullet holes in the temple walls were a constant reminder too as we walked round.
HOLLY (their spelling) TEMPLE. The second part of the trip was another short drive up to the hill top Holly (their spelling) Temple which was just as busy with party revellers but was a much more modern and complete structure. Some of the group walked down the 300 steps to the 'Buddha Garden' while the rest went in the bus. The garden was full of statues of Buddha in all shapes and sizes and included a huge reclining Buddha too.
The 'Bamboo bridge’. The last stop was at the 'bamboo bridge'. This was an amazing structure constructed entirely from bamboo..... Over 1,000,000 bamboo poles were used in the creating of it and it stretches right across the Mekong River. It is used by pedestrians, motor cycles, Tuk-tuks and small cars and it was really busy when we saw it.
The group were back aboard for 17.15 so Jim went to the gym while I had a cup of tea on deck and carried on writing this.
Hoa gave a briefing about the next 2 days in the lounge before dinner.
WEDNESDAY 16TH APRIL.
MEKONG RIVER - ANGKOR BAN AND KOH OUKNHA TEY (THE SILK ISLAND).
A.M. Hot, sunny, humid with a pleasant breeze.
P.M. Very hot, sharp heavy shower, very humid and sunny intervals.
The ship started to sail down river at 05.00 so when we woke up at 06.00 we could watch the ever changing activities on the river bank. There were people fishing, swimming, loading goods onto boats, washing etc.
At 07.30 we arrived at the temple at Angkor Ban and the crew started the mooring procedure. I've come to the realisation that, at the moment, there are no permanent jetties at most of the places along the river. I'm hoping that it will be a proper jetty in Phnom Penh because climbing up these steep banks, even with help from the crew members isn't easy for me.
Fortunately, the temple here is right next to the river so there are no busses with high steps for me to negotiate!
The purpose of our temple visit this morning is to receive a blessing from the Buddhist Monks.
We left the ship at 08.30 and it was quite a struggle to get up the bank but Jim was a great help. Once at the village we all went straight to the temple where we had to remove shoes and hats. Inside, the building was beautifully decorated with paintings of events from the life of Buddha and an altar with several statues. Mats were arranged on the floor for those who could sit cross legged and chairs were provided for us less supple people. The priest and 3 young novices came and sat in front of us and the guide explained the proceedings. We all put our hands together as the priest chanted the blessing and wafted a bunch of herbs around before scattering lotus petals over us.
Once the blessing was finished, people were invited to make a cash donation and receive a blessed 'friendship band’.
The next part of the tour was a walk through the village which is one of the few that escaped destruction in the Pol Pot years so it is authentic in the way it is set out and organised. The people were very friendly and welcomed us into the open air ground level of their homes. We saw cooking on open fires, animals wandering at will though the village, people dozing in hammocks and children trying out their English on us. It was a wonderful experience to get so close to the ordinary people of Cambodia.
We were back on the boat at 10.30 for the 4 hour sail down the river to the silk island. While we sailed, Jim and I continued our scrabble competition, chatted to people on deck and had lunch.
THE SILK ISLAND
The boat moored at 14.30 and there was a short climb, this time, up the river bank to the line of tuk-tuks that were going to take us to the silk factory. Group members had been given face masks as the roads were very dusty so we looked a bit like gangsters! We set off in convoy through the countryside and some small villages where people were still celebrating the New Year with parties and dancing. The tuk-tuk ride lasted about 45 minutes.
On arrival at the factory, I was surprised to see that it was set in lovely gardens. There were western style toilets and picnic tables.
Our guide showed us the various stages of manufacture although there were only 2 weavers working as it was a public holiday day. There was a shop selling the factory products......a scarf was $10.
We were lucky enough to witness a group of young people dancing round a shrine constructed on a tree trunk. This was part of a party celebration so there was a DJ and sound system. It has been such a privilege to be part of the New Year events.
The return ride was much shorter and we were greeted by a group of souvenir sellers before getting back on board at 16.30 for the short sail into PHNOM PENH city itself.
The entertainment for the evening was from a Cambodian dance school. The pupils ranged from 13 to 20 and they performed a series of classical, folk and social dances for us. There control and discipline was remarkable and it was beautiful to watch.
Our evening finished with dinner and a chat with others in the lounge.
The ship docked at a proper jetty and many people went off the ship to walk along the promenade, have dinner out and get a tuk-tuk into the city centre.
THURSDAY 17TH APRIL.
MEKONG RIVER - PHNOM PENH
A.M. Hot and sunny with high humidity
P.M. Hot, humid with sunny intervals
During breakfast this morning, the ship reversed away from the dock to allow AmaLotus to dock in our place. La Marguerite then pulled in along side so we did a 'walk-through' to get ashore.
There were 73 steps from the jetty up to the promenade where tuk-tuks were available for hire.
The king’s palace was in walking distance from the ship along the promenade.
THE KING'S PALACE.
We set off at 08.30 for the palace which was a 10 minute drive along the promenade. We had a short photo stop at the front entrance before driving round to the main visitor entrance.
The gardens and the royal buildings are breathtakingly beautiful and it wasn't too crowded when we got there. The 'Silver Pagoda', which gets its name from the solid silver floor (covered with carpets when tourists are inside), was magnificent too.
There are western style toilets and shops too.
There was the option to visit the national museum which was a 10 minute walk from the Palace and cost $5pp entrance fee.
THE CENTRAL MARKET. Most people went for the 1 hour stop at the central market which is a large building with isles radiating from a central rotunda. The stalls on each isle specialised in a particular type of goods - household, shoes, jewellery, electronics, adult clothes, children's clothes etc. - although there were some exceptions.
We were quite lucky because, although over half the stalls were still closed for the New Year celebrations, there were enough stalls open to look at and the market area wasn't particularly crowded. The stalls take US$ and bargaining is expected.
The tour finished back at the ship at 12ish so there was time for lunch and a bit of a rest before we started again at 14.15.
THE KILLING FIELDS.
The 40 minute bus ride through Phnom Penh gave us chance to see some of the city and it has a definite 'French colonial' feel although it could do with some sprucing up.
The first stop was at one of the 'killing field' sites. The area has become a memorial to those killed during the rule of the Khmer Rouge and it has a magnificent stupa devoted to the 'unknowns'. There are pathways around the sites of the mass graves and the whole area has a very sombre feel to it. Our guide, who had been taken as a child by the Khmer Rouge, made the scene come to life with his reminiscences of that time and the horrors that were committed on this site.
There were toilet facilities and a shop selling appropriate goods (is there anything appropriate for the acts that were committed here?)
TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM. The second part of the tour was a visit to S21 Detention Centre which is now called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and it was a 30 minute bus ride back through the city.
This is a very stark series of buildings where the people who had been identified as 'enemies of the state' were detained and tortured until they confessed to their so-called crimes after which they were 'disposed of' at the killing fields. The galleries of photographs of some of the men, women and children who were victims of this dreadful place made it more real as you could see the terror in their faces.
The full horror of these ordeals was made more personal by the fact that our guide had been at this centre for a short while before being sent to a youth 'training camp'.
We had the opportunity to listen to one of the few survivors from this centre and to buy copies of his book and his paintings.
It was a very quiet bus load of people on the return trip to the ship!
The evening started with a briefing on the 'river day' tomorrow and some information about optional tours in Saigon and flights home before we had dinner, sat in the lounge and then bed.
FRIDAY 18TH APRIL –
MEKONG RIVER CRUISING -PHNOM PENH TO TAN CHAU (VIETNAM)
A.M. Hot, humid and overcast.
P.M. Hot, humid with hazy sunshine
Wow.........we got a lie-in this morning as it is a river cruising day so we got up at 07.30ish, had breakfast and then watched the 09.00 sail away.
We had a very lazy day, dozing, playing scrabble, reading, chatting and watching the activities along the river.
The countryside along the river is quite flat and used mainly as agricultural land. There are small villages along the river bank where you can spot the elaborate Buddhist temples and some water villages too. All the way along we could see people hard at work in the fields, fishing or looking after their animals.
The river is very wide in places and for long periods we sailed down the middle so it was difficult to make out what was happening on the banks without the aid of binoculars.
The ship stopped for 2 hours at the border between Cambodia and Vietnam while immigration officers came on board to inspect our passports and we then sailed for another hour to Tan Chua where we anchored mid-stream ready for the trip ashore tomorrow.
At the briefing, Hoa explained that people will be ferried across to the town in small boats that only hold 23 passengers. He told us that the local authorities will not sanction the use of larger tenders, but that might change as more tourists boats visit the area.
Hoa also explained about the rickshaws being used to transport the passengers around the island and, because these are small and shallow with no back rest, I decided not to go ashore.
After dinner the crew members put on a 'La Marguerite's got talent' show which was a bit of fun and then they put on dance music so it turned into quite a party.
SATURDAY 19TH APRIL.
MEKONG RIVER - TAN CHAU
A.M. Hot, humid and hazy sunshine
P.M. Very, very hot, humid and sunny clear sky.
Well, back to the early morning alarm today! We went up on the top deck to have coffee before breakfast and to enjoy the relatively cool morning air.
The orange group left at 08.30 and I waved them goodbye. I'm quite sad to miss the trip but know my limitations so I'll have to wait for Jim to write up about the experiences.
We took a short tender ride to the shore and boarded individual rickshaws. These were old and your knees were under your chin but a stool was provided to help people mount and dismount. After a short ride we stopped at a silk works before moving onto a rattan producing site. Both of these were interesting and time was allowed for shopping. We then said goodbye to the rickshaws walked through a small fishing village and boarded our tender. After a ride across the lagoon we entered a tributary with fishing houses on the sides. We walked around the fishing village with our guide who explained the day to day life of the families who live there. We were followed by a large group of children in the village and this made me feel a little uncomfortable. We also went to a small temple which was inside a bar/cafe and walked to a small toll bridge. We boarded our tender which then took us back down the tributary, across the lagoon and back to our boat.
I spent a quiet morning trying to download some photos of the boys which I managed to do eventually but the internet connection was very slow.
The tour returned at midday and after lunch we played scrabble and then relaxed as we watched the passing river traffic as we headed further downstream to our next stop.
SUNDAY 20TH APRIL.
MEKONG RIVER - SA DEC
A.M. Hot, humid and sunny.
P.M. Very, very hot, humid and sunny.
Yet another early morning but it was beautiful on deck, drinking an early morning coffee and watching the local fishing boats.
The tour this morning left at 08.15 when we were tendered by local motor boat across the river to Sa Dec. The boat ride was about 15 minutes each way and we travelled up a tributary of the Mekong with communities on both sides. It was interesting to see the difference between the fishing community on one side with their house boats and wooden stilt homes and the more affluent people on the other side of the river whose homes are quite French in style although a bit run-down by our standards.
We were given a guided tour of the market which I thought was fabulous........so much colour, so many sounds, so many smells - some delicious and others a bit off putting, smiling people and a feeling of vibrancy.
Our second stop was the original home of the lover of the French writer, Marguerite Duras and is a good example of the excessive love of highly decorated and gilded architecture of the early 1920s.
Most of us were back on the ship at 10.00 for the 3 hour sail down to Cai Be. A few intrepid explorers went off to the jungle to see the area used as the Vietnam Cong headquarters during the Vietnam War.
XEO QUYT - VIETNAM KONG STRONGHOLD
It took roughly one hour to arrive at our destination. It had a water park on the outside which contained lakes with different water lilies, eating areas and music centres. We crossed a bridge into the jungle area. The path was raised above the many small water courses and we had to cross several small and narrow footbridges. There were command posts, hidden gun emplacements and tunnels. There were signposts in English and Vietnamese to explain the individual use of the sights that we saw. We spent about two hours on the site before making the one and a quarter hour drive back to the boat which had travelled down the river to meet us.
CAI BE - FLOATING MARKET, COMMUNITY MANUFACTURING AREA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.
The afternoon excursion began at 15.00 with another 15 minute tender boat ride along another tributary to the village of Cai Be.
To be honest the 'floating market' was a bit of a letdown as there were only a few market boats and nobody buying as most trading is done in the morning. It was interesting to see that the market boats were quite big and their owners live on board unlike the sellers on the boats in Bangkok.
After passing the market we pulled in at a community manufacturing area where the workers produce sweets made from local ingredients like coconut and popped rice. By our standards it was very unhygienic but the people were working with pride and enthusiasm. They also had other local items for sale so we had a bit of 'shopping time'!
There followed a walk through the village to the Catholic Church where people had gathered for their Easter Sunday Celebrations. It was lovely to see so many youngsters dressed in their Sunday best waiting to go inside for the service. In fact it was quite poignant being there on such a special Christian festival after seeing all the other religious festivities during our tour.
We left the church and crossed the road to get the tender back to the ship and were on board for 17.00.
The evening began with a packing session. I couldn't believe how much we have acquired but, hopefully, if we can get the washing done in Saigon, I can get a bit more in the cases.
After dinner there was a cultural show with musicians and dancers from the local area. It was very different from the ones in Cambodia.......much more folk story telling than the stylised hand movements of the Cambodian dancers.
We did the majority of the packing before retiring to bed.
MONDAY 21ST APRIL.
MEKONG RIVER - MY THO TO SAIGON ( HO CHI MIN CITY)
A.M. Very hot, humid and sunny.
P.M. Very, very hot, humid and sunny.
Yet another early morning with the alarm going at 06.00 again! The cases had to be out at 06.45, the room vacated at 07.30 and we left the ship at 08.00.
The drive to HCMC ( I will call it Saigon from now on as that is how most of the residents refer to it) took just over an hour and it was interesting to see the countryside and how it differs agriculturally from Northern Vietnam.......more fruit orchards and vegetables than rice cultivation.
It was obvious early on that Saigon is a huge city and it owes a lot architecturally to its time as a bastion of French colonialism. There are some wide boulevards, pretty park areas, narrow streets and a mixture of grand Art Deco buildings mixed in with modern sky scrapers and slum areas.
The volume of traffic - motorbikes, scooters, cars, lorries, pedestrians - was daunting especially when trying to cross the road. It seems that you wait for a space to step onto the road and then proceed at a slow but steady pace as vehicles whiz past you in all directions at an alarming rate. So far, so good!
We had emphatic warnings about personal safety and protection of property from pick-pockets and bag snatchers. Unfortunately this type of crime is quite prevalent so it is important to only take out what you can afford to lose and not to flaunt expensive jewellery etc.
The group arrived at the hotel at 09.30 and we were asked to stow all our carry-ons behind the reception area for safe keeping while we were taken on an orientation walk by our local guide. Hoa hoped that our rooms would be ready by the time everyone returned. I decided not to go and was so pleased that Hoa was able to get access to our room soon after the others left.......he is a sweetheart.
The walkers were back in time for the optional excursions (shopping or a pillion ride on a motor bike round the city) at 11.00.
THE GRAND HOTEL.
The hotel is in a good position - the river, opera house, central market, up-market shopping malls and cafés and restaurants are all within walking distance or, in my case, a $2 taxi ride.
The building dated from the 1930s but has recently been refurbished and has an imposing entrance, spa, swimming pool, restaurants and a coffee shop, a rooftop bar with panoramic views over the city.
The room is an unusual shape with an entrance hall with 2 arm chairs and the wardrobe and then a left turn into the bedroom area.
2 large single beds
Pad and pen
Dressing table with drawers
Fridge with mini bar
2 small bottles of water
Fresh fruit basket
Over bath shower
ORIENTATION WALK BY OUR LOCAL GUIDE. The group arrived at the hotel at 09.30 and we were asked to stow all our carry-ons behind the reception area for safe keeping while we were taken on an orientation walk by our local guide. Hoa hoped that our rooms would be ready by the time everyone returned. I decided not to go and was so pleased that Hoa was able to get access to our room soon after the others left.......he is a sweetheart.
The walkers were back in time for the optional excursions (shopping or a pillion ride on a motor bike round the city) at 11.00.
We sorted our remaining finances and then got a taxi to the market area.
THE CENTRAL MARKET. I thought the market was great. There was very little pressure to buy and a huge number of stalls. The market is generally divided into sections.......... clothes, hardware, food, shoes, souvenirs etc. At most stalls it is expected that you will bargain but there are a few 'fixed price' stalls where prices are marked on the goods. There are signs above these stalls announcing that the prices are fixed. We bought a t-shirt for Jim, aeroplanes and football strips (Vietnam) for the boys and tops plus a hat and a silk sleeping bag for me.
We got a taxi back to the hotel and then walked to a coffee shop for lunch - 2 Americanos and 2 club sandwiches. We were given complementary iced water and iced green tea. Total cost was around £8.
After lunch we braved crossing the street to walk for a while by the riverside and then we took a different route back to the hotel, stopping to buy a camera cap for Jim, some 3D birthday cards from a street vendor and some drinks for the room from the little grocery shop by the hotel.
We played scrabble, Jim went to the gym and I tried to do a bit of re-packing but I'm not sure how we are going to get everything in the cases!
We ended our evening with a walk to the 'Bier Garten' pub/restaurant for dinner. We has 2 kinds of spring rolls, a beef satay, a hot-rock beef tenderloin, 1 beer and 1 lemon soda. Personally, I thought it was expensive at £26.
The last thing was to get 2 Brazil strips for the boys for 250,000dongs = £7.50
TUESDAY 22ND APRIL.
A.M. very, very hot, very, very humid and sunny
Yet another 06.00 alarm so I shot out of bed for a shower etc before breakfast.
The restaurant is huge and the food stations are spaced out at intervals across the room so it was quite difficult to find the items but the variety, quality and quantity was good.
CU CHI TUNNEL TOUR.
We left the hotel at 08.00 for the 90 minute drive to the tunnels site. The drive was interesting as it gave us a perspective of Saigon in rush hour and it is organised chaos in its own way. There seem to be no rules for road use but people drive with understanding of their environment.....amazing!
It was also interesting to see the suburbs of Saigon and to see that there are many very nice houses and also how clean the people keep the area in front of their property.
When we got to the tunnels site there is a large car park and very clean and plentiful western style toilets. Once everyone had used the 'happy room' the tour began with a walk through the souvenir shop to the entrance which is through a high ceilinged tunnel with quite a long steep upward walk.
Once inside the compound we were guided through the forest on uneven pathways to various sites where we were shown the ways the Vietnam Cong soldiers lived and fought in this area. We saw the entrance to tunnels, the booby traps set for US troops, the camouflaged tunnel ventilation systems, the ammunition stores and much more. Some of the group went down into one of the tunnels for a 100 yard walk through and said it was very narrow and claustrophobic inside.
The tour took approximately 90 minutes. There were bench seats by most of the exhibits.
We were back at the hotel around 12.30.
We decided to have lunch at the same chain coffee shop but the one at the other side of the hotel and when we got back we had a game of scrabble by the pool before Jim went to the gym and I tried to organise the second case! Thank goodness we have 30kgs each.
'FAREWELL DINNER’. It was the 'Farewell Dinner' so we left the hotel at 06.30 for the short walk to ‘Maxim’s’. The venue is a supper club with music and dancing performance. We were seated at long tables.
It was pleasantly decorated in side and reminded me a bit of the club in the Indiana Jones film in Shanghai in the 1930s.
The food tasted ok but the portions were minute except for the soup:
1 spring roll, a small portion of a beef salad,
sticky rice, garlic broccoli and cauliflower, ginger chicken (1 tiny piece each), catfish and tomato soup.
We paid for our own drinks.
The entertainment consisted of a small group of musicians who played a selection of 1930s tunes and 4 girl dancers who were ok.
I have to say that it was probably the most disappointing activity of the whole tour.......what a shame!
Jim and I called at the grocery store for a bag of 'Pomsticks' each as we were both hungry.
WEDNESDAY 23RD APRIL.
SAIGON TO SINGAPORE
A.M. very hot, humid and sunny
P.M. very hot, humid and sunny.
We had a lie-in until 07.00 this morning. It's just a shame the beds are so hard!
We had breakfast and finished the majority of the packing before getting a taxi to the market again where we got a couple of the vegetable peelers, a t-shirt for Freddie and a shirt for Jim. Having crammed these into the suitcases, we vacated the room at 12.00
For the next couple of hours we chatted with our tour companions, Jim used the free computer in the hotel business area to look at his e-mails and I chatted to two charming gentlemen from Myanmar who were on business in Saigon attending the international food convention.
I also got chance to say goodbye and to thank Hoa before he left at 14.00.
JASPER'S RESTAURANT. We had lunch at Jasper's - the restaurant across the road from the hotel's side entrance. It has a very eclectic menu and the portions are good. I had the cheese and ham melt with chips and a tonic water while Jim had a chicken tikka baguette with chips and a diet coke. The total bill was 456,500 dong=£13 approx.
We returned to the hotel and played scrabble. By the time we finished it was time to leave.
The ride to the airport took about 35 minutes. Minh, our guide from yesterday, was with us to escort us into the terminal.
I had the wheelchair assistance which arrived promptly and we were whisked through passport control and security very quickly.
It was a two hour wait so we played scrabble again........I know, it gets boring but we enjoy it!
It is close to the city - 35 minutes drive.
It has 1 terminal
Check in was quite fast
Our luggage was checked through to LHR.
I waited a few minutes for the wheelchair after check in
Security was relatively lax as Barbara carried a full bottle of water through without being challenged.
Airside has the usual supply of shops and food outlets.
I could probably have walked from security to the gate as the distance wasn't great.
There are plenty of seats at each gate.
There are disabled toilet facilities.