First and foremost, Son, our Tour Director was an amazing and diligent guide that met everyone’s needs. He ensured everyone understood the plan, how to eliminate overhead and bureaucracy and the most time was spent on the attractions and not waiting around. We loved how he handled all the passport, visas and customs processes. He made it so easy for everyone. Not a single complaint.
The land portion of the Hanoi tour excellent. Good balance and blend of sites. My only criticism is the tour did not include an option for the women’s museum which is a great museum to understand all the ethnicities in Vietnam, nor did it include a visit to the (Army) War Museum in Hanoi. We went to these on our own. Taxis only cost $2-3 each way, so it was no problem for us to do when we arrived a day early before the tour started.
The hotels were clearly 4-5 star choices. Could not have been better choices and the Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi was a clear delight. Definitely sign up as soon as you can for the free bomb shelter tour. You will learn a lot of history in 45 minutes that many never hear or see in Hanoi.
As everyone will tell you, bring LOTS of $1 bills for tips. You need at least 50 of them. Plan for it, you will need them for many things, like Tuk Tuks, taxis, drinks, etc. Don’t plan on exchanging money in Vietnam for the small bills…you can, but it is a pain in the butt and may not be possible when you need it. Just bring $100 in lots of small bills. You will be happy. The ATMs in Vietnam are plentiful and spit out local currency…most people don’t need more than $50 in local currency. In Cambodia, most people use US dollars and even the ATMs give out US dollars, no local currency needed. In restaurants, taxis and bars, tipping is not needed or expected.
From a weather standpoint, it was HOT and HUMID in August. You will sweat your butt off and be prepared to bring lots of clothes that you can wash in your room every day (like EXOffico, REI and Columbia). Most people can and do wear shorts, but for temples and pagodas, you do need long pants and full shirts that cover your shoulders to get into most of them. Outside of that, most places and most people are very casual. It can also rain/downpour at a moment’s notice, so small mobile umbrellas are handy. The tour group is very good with giving ponchos and umbrellas when people were not prepared.
Hanoi, Siem Riep, Phnom Penh, the villages are all safe. No threats whatsoever. Very friendly people and no concerns of theft, pickpockets, etc. A true delight that is not experienced in many countries anymore. Never felt or seen any behavior or activities to concern a tourist.
One thing that AMA did very nicely is there for approximately 65 people total in our group. They broke it down into 3 groups every day based on a color naming scheme. In general, most groups at 15-20 people max, and each group got their own bus. They never operated with massive group sizes or crowded busses. You actually felt like a smaller tour. This was well done and a definite plus for this tour company.
Cruising with AMAWaterways on the AMALOTUS for a week was a delight. The highlights:
The staff do have limited English, but it is adequate and they try very hard meet all passenger needs while being in a third world country. They are customer focused and it shows. But, be aware, they are limited and if you have questions that are more than basic things, they will not understand you or be able to help. It is important that people set different expectations on what is possible and what can be done in a third world country.
The rooms are very comfortable and clean. We were a little worried that our first room (303) had very poor air conditioning and was going to be hot, but they moved us to a new room (305) and we had a nice ice cold room the entire cruise.
One thing people should be aware of: if some of the better rooms are not occupied, they will not upgrade you to the nicer rooms. If you want a nicer room, they will offer the upgrades for a discount ($500 - $800 for the week), but it won’t happen just because you are a frequent guest of AMA Waterways.
The food was great every day. Good choices, many options and generous portions available to everyone. Local and western choices. Great flavors and unbelievable presentation every day. The seating times are somewhat fixed though: lunch is at 12:30 and dinner is at 7:30. There is a little flexibility, but not much. Everywhere you, you will be given lots of bottled water to drink and brush your teeth with. Not even locals drink tap water, so you better not try it yourself. Even if you run out, you can buy a bottle for 50 cents in local currency or even a bottle of beer for less than $1 US dollar. Most people felt the Cambodian Angkor beer was the best choice.
Drinks are always available: beer, cocktails, soft drinks, juices, water, etc. Wine is only available at lunch and dinner, but it is poured with ease and you can take a full glass when you leave the table. The house wines were not bad and unless you are a connoisseur, the wines will be just fine.
The exercise room has 1 bike, 1 treadmill and 1 elliptical with a few free weights and yoga mats. It is not much, but at least they had something on the small ship. I think it would have been nice to have a few more free weights in the heavier levels.
Vising the local villages and schools was a wonderful experience as a westerner. We were able to see, smell, and feel how many people in Vietnam and Cambodia live their daily lives. It is so limited and so different, it is hard to explain until you experience first-hand. You learn and understand so much more with tours like this that are not possible in the standard group tours. The people love to meet and see you and it is a delight to interact with them. When you visit these places, the children love the gifts. In Siem Riep, we purchased some small soccer balls to give to children in the villages. This is something they could never afford, but it gave them a toy that many could enjoy that might not be possible without outside visitors bringing these things to them. It was a great reward to play a game with all the kids without saying a word that neither side could understand.
If you have one of the mini-suites you get the great benefit of a bathtub (with jets) which is great when you have to do laundry to clean your daily sweaty clothes in the 100% humidity and 100 degree weather in these countries in the summer months.
You also get a dedicated Internet hotspot for your room and do not need to share with the entire passenger list which is VERY nice when you want to stay connected along the way.