We arrived in Hanoi from Tokyo on Sunday evening having planned on a full day of independent touring before the start of the AMA organized part of the trip with the rest of the group. We booked the extra night at the Sofitel Legend Metropole directly through AMA since we wanted to be certain that we did not have to change rooms for the other two nights covered by the tour. We arranged directly with the hotel for a private car transfer since we didn’t want to deal with a taxi at 10:30PM after traveling for so long. We were met immediately outside customs and were in our car in 10 minutes. The ride to the hotel was about 40 minutes (normally up to an hour during the day with traffic). There was not alot to see other than what was visible along the side of the road. It was about 5-times the price of a taxi but the hotel staff was waiting for us when we arrived and we were in our room in the Opera Wing (newer wing) in less than 15 minutes on the 2nd floor (actually the 3rd since the ground floor is considered the 1st floor). The room was lovely and we faced the pool area so there was no concern about noise. There was bottled water, chocolates and plenty of space. The next morning we went to the restaurant for our included buffet breakfast which was as expansive as it was delicious. The restaurant overlooked the courtyard and pool area. A basket of croissants and pastries was brought to our table as well as the French press coffee and tea we requested. There was a made to order omelet station, yogurts, fresh fruits, cereals, breads, juices, eggs, dim sum, Vietnamese dishes, bacon, sausage, potatoes, grilled tomatoes and other dishes too numerous to mention. After breakfast we walked to the main lobby (it’s a weird configuration to get from the Opera Wing to the original historic part of the hotel but not really a problem). We were met in the lobby by our Hanoikids guide, Phanh, a 21 year old finance major in university. For anyone that doesn’t know about Hanoikids, I found out about them on Cruise Critic. They are university students paired with tourists who speak English strictly for the opportunity to practice their English. The only thing you pay for is their entrance fees, taxis to sights and lunch. There is no other charge. We decided to bring some English language novels and a box of See’s chocolates from home which she was surprised and delighted to receive. Since we wanted to hear about Phanh’s Vietnam and we had compared our AMA itinerary for the next day with the suggested itinerary on the Hanoikids website, we worked out a tour that would not overlap too much and provide us with the greatest exposure to Hanoi. Since the rubber sole on DH’s shoe had come apart while we were in Japan for 3 days, our first stop was for shoe repair on Shoe Street in the Old Quarter, just 3 blocks from the hotel. We walked to Shoe Street, evidenced by blocks of stores selling shoes. Phanh helped us navigate the streets and deal with the amazing sea of motorbikes whizzing by constantly. The key is to step into the street when there is a small break in traffic and slowly but methodically WITHOUT STOPPING walk across. The drivers can gauge your stride and behavior and maneuver around you as long as you don’t stop or make any sudden movements. Harrowingly, it works every time. It also helps to have a local lead the charge. After the shoe repair, we visited a communal (tube) house on Ma May Street in the Old Quarter known as Huong Tuong Communal House. Make sure you have Dong but, in a pinch, they will accept dollars. If you do use dollars, be prepared to actually pay more since they don’t always know how to convert and they have little understanding of how to provide change, if any, in Dong. Not yet having been to the ATM, we paid with a $1 bill and actually overpaid because in Dong it would have been less than $.75 for the 3 of us. It may seem inconsequential and it is easier but you can run out of dollars very quickly if you don’t have local currency. (On that subject, we brought 50-ones, 30-fives, 20-tens and 5-twenties. We found that we needed at least 100-ones and 50-fives and luckily the ship was able to change a couple of 20’s into fives and someone on the trip brought so many ones that they were able to change them for us.) Next was a trip to an ATM on the street in the Old Quarter. In Vietnam, there are buttons for English but the currency dispensed is Dong. The conversion when we were there was approximately 21,500 Dong to $1 USD (it had just been devalued a few days before). For ease, we just rounded it to 20,000 Dong. We had no difficulty using the ATM’s in Vietnam or Cambodia (more about that in the Cambodia section) but make sure that you have a 4-digit PIN. We told Phanh that we wanted to walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, first stopping for coffee and a bathroom break at Highland’s Coffee on the 6th floor of a building opposite the NE corner of the lake on Shark Square (Dinh Tien Hoang St.) with a great view of the lake (good photo op). We walked over the red bridge (Bridge of the Rising Sun) into the Ngoc Son pagoda where Phanh said students go to pray before their university entrance exams (this was also a stop on the AMA tour the next day but we appreciated seeing it earlier after the walk around the lake). After a complete walk around the lake and the pagoda visit we were ready for lunch. We told Phanh that we wanted to eat lunch at Cha Ca La Vong which was a great experience (Cha Ca means Fish in Vietnamese and it is on Cha Ca Street in the Old Quarter but make sure you go to the right one as there are copycats on the same street using the exact same name so check the address carefully. If you are walking from the lake it is on the left side in a run-down looking building with 2 floors). There is only one thing on the menu-seasoned fish filet pieces fried in oil on a burner on the table with herbs, rice noodles and sauces. It is delicious and about 115,000 Dong per person (less than $6). We left and took a taxi to Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton). This was very interesting and I recommend going. It is not on the AMA tour but they recommend it during the lunch break on the tour day. Whether you have extra time in Hanoi or just the day scheduled with AMA, definitely see it. It will take about 45 minutes to tour the whole site. From there we took a taxi to the Cathedral area where Phanh introduced us to cold lemon tea and the art of sitting on tiny plastic stools with hundreds of others, mostly university students-she even ran into some girlfriends. We then walked to Silk Street to do some shopping. I ended up at Khai Silk (again there are copycats so you need to make certain you are at the right shop). The products are beautiful-very highly styled and reasonably priced by western standards but high end for Vietnam. They sell scarves, shawls, purses, dresses, blouses but I wound up with a lovely scarf (one of many of varying quality that I bought throughout the trip). It was now nearing 5 PM and we walked back to the hotel and said goodbye to Phanh, having spent a lovely day with a very nice and intelligent young lady. It was her first tour without a companion and she did a great job. I highly recommend Hanoikids. We were ready to recharge our batteries so we sat down in the outdoor bar for a drink. It was chilly-Hanoi experiencing its coldest winter in 30 years, but there were outdoor heaters and my hot chocolate and Grand Marnier drink hit the spot. Our friends, who took the pre-trip week starting in Saigon, arrived at the hotel at 7PM and we went to dinner at an Italian restaurant recommended by the Italian concierge-Luna d’Autuno. Much is said about taxis in Vietnam & Cambodia. The way to get where you want to go and not get ripped off is to have the hotel call a taxi for you, have your destination written on the hotel business card, have the doorman tell the taxi driver where you are going and show him the card, then give it back to you, ask the driver how much it will cost and to turn on the meter-don’t leave until it is turned on. Same for the return. We had every restaurant and even stores get us a taxi and go through the same procedure. We never had any problem with any taxi. Taxis are cheap and you can get caught up in paying in dollars, overpay and still wind up paying only $2. After awhile you start feeling a little guilty because it is so cheap. This is one of the reasons for all of those dollar bills.
The next morning we had our orientation from 8:30-9:15AM. I cannot say enough about Thinh, our tour manager. He started with the pre-tour group for the week from Saigon and was with us until he took the group to the airport the final day in Saigon. He knew everyone, facilitated everything and always had a smile on his face. He was concerned about the health and well-being of every tour participant and handled everything with grace. His tip at the end was worth every penny and more. He was a gem! We were organized by color, each color representing a bus-green, orange and blue. Each bus had a separate tour guide-one in Hanoi & Ha Long Bay, one in Siem Reap, one in the rest of Cambodia and one in the Vietnam Mekong and Saigon. All of the guides were stellar. The buses were first class, always with cold water, wipes, a/c, a mike for the guide. You could leave valuables on the bus as the driver kept it locked and stayed with it. If that wasn’t the case in certain situations the guide would tell you to take your things. Tours were paced allowing time for independent lunches and time for rest before the afternoon tour would begin. Everything was very well communicated and everyone was always on time which was amazing. The buses were not filled to capacity. There was usually enough space for everyone to have their own seat with a few exceptions. We had a radio transmitter and earphones so we could listen to the guides on most excursions.
Our guide for Hanoi and Ha Long Bay was Mango. Our tour of Hanoi included Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum but we did not go inside (I still don’t know why), his residence, the Temple of Literature, One-Pillar Pagoda, a break for lunch (we went to the Club de L’Oriental 2 blocks from the hotel recommended by Mango- a lovely old building and a delicious upscale Vietnamese lunch with enough time to take a taxi 10 minutes away to an antique gallery and back to the hotel for the afternoon tour). We went to Ngoc Son pagoda (a repeat for us), followed by a cyclo (pedicab) tour of the Old Quarter for 30 minutes and then the Water Puppet Show. We were back at the hotel by 6PM and then we had an independent dinner at Green Tangerine (Vietnamese French).
HA LONG BAY
The next morning our bags were outside our rooms by 7AM and we had breakfast. We met in the lobby by 8AM for departure to Ha Long Bay. Our bags were checked by us to be certain they were there and put on our bus. We were told to pack an overnight bag just for the overnight on the junk and that we would have an opportunity the following day before we went to the airport to repack our bags. The trip to Ha Long Bay took about 3.5 hours with a stop for restrooms and to shop at a very large store selling embroidered silk & cotton thread pictures (made on-site), souvenirs, gifts, jewelry, etc. The prices were not cheap but you could negotiate. I purchased a hand embroidered silk picture-others purchased lacquerware, gifts, clothing. We arrived at Ha Long Bay around noon and boarded our junk. There were 3 junks for our group since each one could only accommodate about 22 people. The cabins were randomly assigned once onboard and we had a buffet lunch in the dining room which also doubled as the bar and lounge area. Unfortunately it was overcast and cold so we did not have the opportunity to sit on the sun deck. The junk was well-appointed with a public bathroom on the second deck, the same deck as the dining room/bar/lounge. There were cabins on the first and second decks and the sun deck was on deck 3. The buffet lunch was good. Our cabin,on deck 2, was on the small side but was very well-appointed- nice size bathroom, individual a/c and heat, a safe, nightstands, lamps and 2 picture windows (all cabins are the same-only the deck location is different). After lunch we were taken by a smaller boat to see a floating fishing village which was an eye-opener. This was one of the many such villages we would see throughout our trip. This particular one had about 700 people who lived here year round. After this excursion (we stayed on the boat the entire time as there is no place to disembark and walk around), we went back to our junk for some down-time. Before dinner there was a fruit and vegetable carving demonstration. We ate dinner around 7 PM which was buffet but with some wait staff service, socialized a bit and then turned in after a very full day. The next morning was Tai Chi on the sun deck at 7AM. The weather was cold and misty but a few of us braved the elements for 30 minutes of Tai Chi which was most enjoyable. There was coffee and some pastries from 7-9AM and there was an optional 1-hour tour to the caves until 9AM. My DH went but I opted to stay behind with some others and enjoy my morning coffee and read. When they returned from the tour a full brunch (it was 10AM) was served. We had already checked out of our cabin before breakfast and left the junk at 11:30AM to board the bus. We stopped on the way to the airport at a golf resort for lunch at which time we took our luggage off the bus to repack if we wanted to. We were told that we would not see our checked luggage again until we went to our hotel room in Siem Reap as we were being checked-in for our flight and our luggage put on the plane by Thinh and his assistants. Lunch at the golf club was uneventful-a buffet with some unusually matched appetizers including French fries (apparently for western tastes) and a choice of sandwiches or Pho (pronounced Pha-a) which we chose while on the bus the day before. It was served to us at communal tables with plenty of beer, soft drinks and bottled water included with the lunch. After about an hour we were back on the bus to the Hanoi airport. There were some duty free shops, some with decent prices, but not so for any western goods such as perfumes. We were given our boarding passes with our passports (passports were given to Thinh the day before). A word now about the Cambodian visas: I opted to obtain mine through the Cambodian evisa website before I left home for $25. I wanted to save the hassle of waiting on line in the Siem Reap airport for it to be issued for $20. I heard that it was no big deal but I like to be prepared so I did it all in advance and printed out 2 copies of the evisa and stapled one in each of our passports and kept one each in our passport case for the exit from Cambodia (but it was never collected). At our initial orientation in Hanoi, Thinh told us that he would handle the Cambodian visa for anyone who didn’t have one-give him one passport photo, $20USD and your passport when he asked for it and he would take care of the whole thing. So had I known this I obviously would have done it differently BUT there is no way to know that the tour manager on your tour will also handle it this way. I know that on a tour in November 2010 the individual passengers had to get their own visas upon arrival. We said goodbye to Mango at the airport in Hanoi. The flight from Hanoi to Siem Reap was approximately 1.5 hours and a full meal was served in flight (didn’t touch it but some did).
SIEM REAP-ANGKOR TEMPLES
We arrived in Siem Reap after sunset to a full moon (very revered as it was the first full moon of the new year) as we walked down from the plane, across the tarmac and into the luggage area. Thinh had expedited our arrival in Siem Reap with the customs agents. Once we retrieved our bags from the luggage belt we were able to walk right through to the bus where they were taken from us to be put in our rooms at the hotel. There was some confusion since we thought we did not have to touch our bags at all and would have them in our rooms after dinner but there must have been some communication error. We arrived at our hotel, Le Meridien, and went straight to dinner in the main dining room. Our room keys were given to us at dinner, again the rooms were randomly assigned. Dinner was very good and served buffet style with many stations and a large selection. All of the food was fresh and delicious and we were told that we could drink the water and ice. After dinner we went up to our room which was large and comfortable. DH’s bag was not there but was recovered from another room in 20 minutes. We decided to check our emails and use our Skype account (the hotel charges $8 per 24 hours for internet access). That’s when we found out that our office was frantically trying to reach us to find out about the junk that sunk on Ha Long Bay the same night we were there. After emails assuring them that it wasn’t us, we went to sleep. Luckily, our junk trip was not cancelled. Had it been scheduled for the following night we would not have been able to do it as the Vietnamese government cancelled all junk trips for a few days to inspect all of the junks.
The next morning we had the included lavish buffet breakfast in the hotel and boarded the green bus with our Cambodian guide, Chantha, at 8:30 AM. Our first stop was to get our 3-day pass for the temple sites for which we had to have our pictures taken and wear it around our necks at all of the sights. The first stop was Angkor Thom where we visited the South Gate, Bayon, Terrace of the Elephants and the Leper King. The complex is incredible as you approach and just beautifully carved with intricate designs that are more than 800 years old. The bus had cold water bottles all the time and it was important to wear sunscreen and drink alot during the days as the humidity was high, the sun hot and there was little, if any, shade. There is alot of walking involved and some steep climbing. For those that did not want to climb, one of the other guides stayed with that group and walked around the base area with them and we met up later. We had to leave our bus and take a smaller shuttle bus to and from the entrance so on the return it was very hot-drink lots of water! It is also advised to wear a hat and bring an umbrella for shade which many people did. We went back to the hotel at 11:30 for a lunch break for 3 hours. We opted to take the green bus into town with some others so our guide could take us to a laundry to drop-off our clothes. The charge is $2USD per kilo (2.2 pounds) and it is weighed right in the bag. It would be ready the next day at 5PM (there are no dryers because electricity is so expensive so you need to wait a day for them to dry). Chantha also showed us a great place nearby to eat lunch, The Ankgor Palm restaurant. The meal was delicious, organic and cheap. We had a dish called Amok which is a local fish steamed in a banana leaf with coconut milk, ginger and spices with rice. It was wonderful washed down with Tiger beer. Our friend decided to get a local haircut around the block and was back 30 minutes later and $3 lighter. We took a “tuk-tuk” back to the hotel. They are known by a variety of names-rickshaw, cyclo, pedicab, etc. Some are powered by bicycle from the back (Hanoi & Saigon) and others by motobikes in the front (Siem Reap, Phnom Penh). The average price is $1 but can go as high as $5 depending on the number of people (some can take as many as 4 people) and the distance. You must negotiate the price before you get in. We met in the lobby for the afternoon tour of Angkor Wat. The place is mammoth and the approach is awe-inspiring. It was sunny, hot and humid (sunscreen, hat, umbrella & WATER!!). After the tour, we had the option of going back to the hotel or up Phonm Bakheng hill with our guide to watch the sunset. I chose to return to the hotel but DH opted for the sunset. Unfortunately, there was little sunset as a big, black cloud blocked most of the sun. That evening we were on our own for dinner so the four of us went into town to eat at the Red Piano, recommended by our guide on Pub Street. It was made famous by the cast of Tomb Raider (Angelina Jolie) while filming in the area. Compared to our lunch at The Angkor Palm it was very overrated. Pub Street has the proverbial restaurants, bars and shops and is an interesting place to walk around. There are the fish foot massage shops that have large tanks of skin eating fish that love to nibble away the dead skin from tourists’ feet for $3 for 15 minutes. We saw alot of that but did not partake. We finished off with ice cream from The Blue Pumpkin and some window (stall) shopping but did not buy anything. It had been a very long day so by 10PM we were back in a tuk-tuk for the trip back to the hotel.
The following morning started with breakfast at 7AM and then back on the bus at 8 AM for the trip to Bantey Srei. This is the temple complex featured in the movie “Indiana Jones Temple of Doom”. The trees and roots literally grow out of, on top of, and around the temple. There were some wonderful photo opportunities. We bought a lovely watercolor of the ruins painted by a young artist from a group of orphans and disabled people. He signed it and rolled it into a small wicker tube. I was sorry that I didn’t get a picture of him with the painting to keep together. I also should have bought another one-good cause and very unique. Our next stop was Ta Phrom, my favorite of all the temples. Made of sandstone, Ta Phrom is also the oldest (9th C.AD) and I think the most beautifully and intricately carved of all we saw. It also seemed to be the least visited. It is amazing that at all of the temples we visited you can climb on the rocks, touch everything and access is virtually unrestricted. This will most certainly change in the future. Several passengers had purchased woven straw water bottle holders for $1 (everything seemd to cost $1) at some of the sights the prior day so I was happy to find them here, purchased one and brought it home. It’s a good souvenir and very practical. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a roadside village and watched palm sugar being made. It was quite interesting. I actually bought some (3 wicker rolls for $2). I also bought a locally made batik fabric for my daughter who is into that kind of stuff. They are worn by the local women as skirts wrapped around their waists to just above their ankles. This afternoon was to be our last time with our guide, Chantha. On behalf of his local tour company, we were given a small gift – a wicker gift box with a silver trinket box inside. All of us had different shaped silver items. Ours were a squash and an elephant. These boxes are locally made of Cambodian silver and are sold throughout Cambodia of differing quality but a lovely and unexpected gift and remembrance of our time in Cambodia. We returned to the hotel in time for lunch (on our own). We sat in the lounge enjoying a cool drink and opted to eat at the hotel for lunch. My DH stayed in the room for a nap while I decided to go for a swim. Our guide offered to take those that were interested to the local market (Old Market) for a couple of hours but I decided not to go. I just couldn’t face another market and the heat. Instead, I went into the hotel gift shop where I purchased for gifts 3 pair of locally made silver earrings, 5 raw silk scarves and small wicker baskets filled with bags of locally grown saffron and chili peppers. That night the group had a lovely dinner at the hotel which included a BBQ of prawns, satays, vegetables, squid and other seafood in addition to an expansive dinner buffet. We were treated to a beautifully performed traditional Apsara Dance show while we ate.
RIVER TRIP ON LA MARGUERITE
Our bags were outside our rooms at 7AM and it was registration for La Marguerite in the lobby from 7-7:45AM after which we had breakfast. We were given tags for our luggage and made sure the tags were placed on our bags and that the bags were counted and placed on our bus. We left the hotel at 8AM with our new guide, Vantheany (we called her Teeny), for the 5-hour ride to our embarkation point. Due to low water levels at this time of the dry season, we could not embark on Tonle Sap Lake as cruises do during the rainy season. Our embarkation point was to be Prek Kdam. On the way we would have a bathroom break and visit a small marketplace. The road was almost only 1 lane and dirt most of the trip. The landscape was flat, dusty and somewhat brown due to the dry season. Occasionally there was a hill in the distance, workers in a field, a small hamlet with oxen, houses, children. We stopped at Kampong Thom for a bathroom break and to check out the local market. There were fried tarantulas, fried crickets, snakes, sticky rice and a large variety of local fruit-mangos, pineapple, papaya, dragon fruit, bananas, peanuts (locally grown), tamarind, etc. On the bus, Teeny treated us to sticky rice cooked with black beans in bamboo which is then peeled back and eaten by hand. It was quite good. Some in the group purchased bananas and pineapple, all of which were very tasty. Teeny also purchased some locally grown peanuts which had been boiled for us to sample. Again, quite good. We finally arrived at our embarkation point, Prek Kdam, at 1:30PM. There were some local villagers watching us as we exited our buses and walked down the river bank over dried mud steps to reach the small wood and rope gangplank onto La Marguerite. There were several crew members assisting us with our carry-on bags and steadying us as we made our way onboard. We were directed to our cabins to drop-off our things and then to the dining room on the Main Deck (aft) for a buffet lunch. There are also cabins on this deck. We were on the Saigon Deck-deck 2- where the Saigon Lounge was aft, the Library was forward, the office was mid-ship as was the small gift shop. Deck 3 had cabins, the Sun Deck (aft), the fitness room, showers and massage rooms in between. The cabins were very well-appointed with an efficient use of space and a large bathroom. The linens were soft and the towels thiick and plentiful. There were slippers and bathrobes in the closet, a hairblower and a safe. There was a cushioned banquette next to a large picture window (under which was a full-length deep drawer,a desk (on top of which was the TV, DVD player, a large, working old-fashioned fan and an old-fashioned telephone that worked for room-to-room calls only), a desk chair, 2 night stands with 2-drawers each, bedside lamps and overhead lights and a french balcony with a door that opened but room enough for 1 person to stand only. There was always coffee and tea available on the Sun Deck together with a full bar, a small, raised pool and lounge chairs, tables and chairs, some of which were covered from the sun and elements by canvas. All three decks are accessed by a semi-spiral 3-story wooden staircase with wrought iron railings. While all cabins, the dining room, Saigon Lounge, Library, gift shop, massage & exercise rooms and office are air-conditioned, the central part of the ship was usually warm due to exterior doors being kept open or cabin hallway doors not being closed. At first it was uncomfortable, but after a day or so, it was fine and people started closing the doors more often. The gift shop was left open and unattended most of the time but the office was across the way so it wasn’t a problem if you wanted to buy something. There was always a bartender on the Sun Deck and the Saigon Lounge and in the evening there was a classical piano player in the Lounge. That is where most people congregated throughout the cruise since it was air conditioned, had internet access when it was available, beverages, etc. The Library also had a good assortment of paperbacks, board games and DVD’s (the flat screen TV in the cabins only played DVD’s-no television). We brought some DVD’s from home but they would not play as they were incompatible with the local technology so save luggage space and don’t bother. There were also 2 PC’s in the Library that usually worked OK when there was internet service available. Occasionally, there was a problem but someone from the office was usually available to fix it. Many passengers had laptops, iPad’s, etc. so there wasn’t much of a problem that I saw with access to the computers. The Saigon Lounge and the Library were the only 2 places with internet access. We had a life-vest safety briefing on the first and second days due to the junk sinking on Ha Long Bay. AMA was very concerned about safety and all of our boat trips during the cruise required that everyone have and WEAR their life vest before the boat would leave. Breakfast and lunch were buffet each day and there was always a station for omelets and Pho in the morning and at least one special hot food station at lunch. Breakfast consisted of cereals, fruits, juices, eggs, potatoes, breads, yogurts, cheeses, smoked fish, etc. Lunch was several hot entrees, a selection of several cold salads, cheeses, breads, crackers, desserts. There was always free coffee and teas(cappuccinos, espressos, specialty coffees were charged), water, soft drinks, local wines, beers & spirits available at no charge. International liquors, beers, wines were charged. There was a mini-bar in the cabin that had snacks and drinks for a charge but the water was always free and replenished daily and whenever you wanted. Water was also provided in a canvas shoulder strap bag when departing on every excursion (a hand wipe was also in the bag) and upon every return there was a cold cloth and glasses of iced fruit juice waiting. Breakfast was usually served between 7-9AM (you could arrive at any time); lunch was usually from 12:30-1:30PM (you could arrive at any time) and dinner was seated and served (no buffet) at 7 or 7:30PM (depending on what was going on before or after that) and ended around 9-9:30. There were no reserved tables and people ate where and with whom they wanted. After awhile, people seemed to gravitate towards certain groups and tables and the staff seemed to know who they were and their preferences.
Most morning excursions left the ship by color between 8-8:30AM and returned by 11-11:30AM with some exceptions. The afternoon excursions usually left between 2-3PM and returned by 5-5:30PM, again with a few exceptions. Before dinner each evening we would meet in the Saigon Lounge for 30 minutes to discuss the next day’s itinerary and for Thinh to make announcements and answer questions. The crew would serve drinks and there would be a daily drink (alcoholic) served by request for no charge. We would also be served a small appetizer such as a fried spring roll (never gave us a napkin though to wipe off our fingers). Dinner was selected from a menu on the dining table (the menu and times were also posted outside the dining room each day). There would be 1-2 set appetizers, a choice of soups, salads and a choice of one of 2 main courses and one of 3 desserts. There was always grilled chicken breast, steak and hamburger with French fries available as well as ice cream (the coconut was wonderful), cheese and crackers for dessert. On a couple of evenings I was not impressed with the entrees offered so I chose steak and chicken breast. They were quite accommodating about substituting certain potatoes and vegetables although the staff sometimes had language issues. Still, they were young and so willing to please that it was enjoyable to be around them. And they are still training and work very hard to understand what it is that you want. We found that they were hard-working and very polite. Our cabin steward, Luong, was phenomenal. In addition to being a great singer, he was always working. He was constantly straightening up our cabin, replacing towels and cleaning our shoes. After many excursions of walking on dirt roads, etc., we would come back to the ship where damp towels would be placed on the floor to wipe your feet. Still, I hesitated bringing the shoes into the cabin and on 2 occasions rinsed them in the shower. I would leave them outside our cabin with the intent of cleaning them later. For a few days I couldn’t understand how they were winding up in our cabin looking very clean and placed on plastic until I found out from another passenger that Luong was cleaning the shoes. Incredible! He earned a separate tip at the end of the cruise.
This is a good place to discuss tipping. Like many cruise ships, a suggested tip is $10 per day per person and can be added to your ship account at the end of the cruise and charged by credit card (as long as the total amount is more than $25USD) or you can settle your shipboard account in cash (USD or Dong are accepted although all charges are in USD). We added $140 to our account for the tips, tipped Luong an additional $20 and handed Thinh an envelope the final night of $140 ($10 per day times the 14 days we were with him). As for other tips: We were fortunate enough to be in a group that was traveling together as a large group so they would work out a tip for the guide and bus driver based upon how many days we were with them. So for example, if we were with the guide for 2 full days, it would usually be $8-10 per person total for the guide and $4 per person for the driver. We would pass along an envelope for each and the leader of their group would present it on behalf of all of us at the end of our time with them along with a little speech. This relieved us of figuring out how much to tip, made sure they got a tip from everyone and got it all at once. We did it in USD and it worked out well since once the envelope was being passed you could make change and get more dollar bills! If we had a driver just for the afternoon, we would tip him $2 for both of us.
Entertainment on the ship was well done. One night we watched the movie “The Killing Fields” which was an excellent introduction to Phnom Penh and the history of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Another evening in Phnom Penh a troupe of orphaned teenagers were onboard playing traditional instruments and dancing traditional dances. They were excellent. Another night we had 2 Vietnamese singers and 3 musicians playing traditional instruments. All entertainment was in traditional costume, including the night that the crew and guides entertained us. One of the nights we were in Phnom Penh we took a tuk-tuk after dinner onboard to Raffles Hotel for Singapore Slings in the Elephant Bar. That was fun! On the way to Sa Dec, Vietnam, the crew left on our beds the DVD of the movie, “The Lover”, Marguerite Dumas’ story of her affair with Mr. Le (Marguerite is the namesake of the ship, La Marguerite). Unfortunately, our copy must have been a bootleg since it stopped every 30 seconds so we never watched it after the first 20 minutes. Otherwise, people had drinks & conversed, or played cards & board games, searched the web, sent emails or went back to their cabins. There was Mr. Hai, the piano player, who was an accomplished classical pianist but instead played mostly western songs which seemed to fall flat. By the end of each day we were happy to retire to our cabin to read but usually fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow. On 2 of the days we had lectures on Cambodia & Vietnam in the late afternoon after our excursions. On our one sea day, there was a cooking class and an ice cream party. On that day I had a wonderful 2-hr. body scrub and hot stone massage-a real treat- that I booked the first day onboard. Our daytime excursions in Cambodia, excluding Phnom Penh, were to small floating villages and towns with local markets selling local fruits, vegetables, fish, herbs, spices, etc. and to pagodas and schools. For most excursions, we were met by a local boat that pulled up alongside the Marguerite. We were always helped aboard and there were individual seats, life vests and a canopy. One afternoon we were met at the river bank in Kampong Tralach by 45 ox carts from several villages who took us on a 20-minute ride to our buses which would take us to the largest Buddhist pagoda in Cambodia-the Buddhism Center in Oudong. As the ox carts traveled along the dirt road, children would run or bike alongside. I brought a big box of pencils from home to give out to the children. They would respond by placing their hands together as if praying-the Cambodian way of saying hello and thank you. It was wonderful to see their faces and watch them call over their friends for their pencils. Children were everywhere-40% of the population of Cambodia is under the age of 15 and while education is compulsory, it is not enforced. Much of the population is too poor to buy the required uniform and books so many don’t attend school which is a terrible shame.
LA MARGUERITE-PHNOM PENH
We arrived in Phnom Penh on the third day and were docked there for 3 nights. The dock is along the waterfront street of Sisowath Quay Road, lined with shops, restaurants, hotels, tourist shops, ATMs, etc. FYI-ATMs in Cambodia dispense USD. When using the ATM you will be given a choice of withdrawing money from checking, savings or universal. Press the universal button. Also, if for some reason the ATM starts beeping (similar to a home burglar alarm), withdraw your card immediately and either start again or find another ATM. While this didn’t happen to us, we were warned by others that it may mean the machine is about to “eat” your card. From the Marguerite to the street you must walk up 75 shallow metal steps or up a metal incline attached on the side of the steps. The port at street level is actually a parking lot for cars, tour buses and tuk-tuks. The port closes officially at 11PM but you can get back in by paying $1 (we were never asked and just walked in as we pleased). We were able to leave the ship the first night if we wanted but chose to stay onboard and watch “The Killing Fields” which didn’t end until almost 11PM.
The next morning we went by bus to the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and the National Museum returning to the ship for lunch. We were also given the option to have the bus and guide take us to the Central Market (Phsar Thom Thmei) to shop for an hour or so after our excursion. They waited for us or we could take a tuk-tuk back to the ship. The market is indoors as well as having stalls along the outside and at all 4 entrances, all selling gold, silver, jewelry, clothing, souvenirs, flowers, food, fabrics, scarves, shoes, etc. There is also a Russian market that sells similar goods and is supposed to be cheaper with more bargaining. I don’t know if any one actually went to the Russian market to shop. We decided to find a laundry and found one a block from the pier. Once again, it was $2 per kilo and it would be ready by 5 the next afternoon. That afternoon there was an optional excursion to the “Killing Fields” (Choeung Ek Memorial) and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, the Kmer Rouge’s detention center in Phnom Penh.. The other option was to stay onboard or spend the time on your own. We chose the former and were so glad we did. It is quite disturbing, especially since the killing fields site we visited is only one of many such sites where the Khmer Rouge did their dirty deeds. Nevertheless, the sobering sites should not be missed as they put in context the painful recent history of the Cambodian people. This evening we went to Raffles by tuk-tuk.
On our final full day in Phnom Penh, the ship had traveled downriver to a local silk-weaving village at Chong Koh. Most of the green bus opted instead to visit a local elementary school right near where we were docked to give out pens, pencils and toiletries we had collected at our hotels and on the ship. We visited grades K-6, met the teachers, principal and had a translator. The children were adorable, appreciative and eager to meet the group of strangers. Expect to be greeted by local women and children selling scarves. The children latched on to me immediately and followed me everywhere. When I agreed to buy scarves from them I was surrounded by all of them and the adult women. I negotiated with them and handed off each scarf to my DH who also paid. I would still be there had it not been for the ship’s horn and Thinh patiently waiting for us to get onboard. I have wonderful pictures of these children and great memories (and lots of scarves, too). This was a highlight of our trip as were all encounters with the children. The afternoon was free with an optional walking tour led by Teeny to Wat Phnom, a park with a hill in the middle of Phnom Penh with several pagodas on top, one honoring Madam Penh, the founder of the city. So after lunch and before the walking tour, DH and I decided we wanted to buy silver serving utensils as a gift to ourselves and went back to the Central Market by tuk-tuk. The short story is that a shopkeeper directed us to her cousin’s shop along Sisowath Quay in the hotel district (across the street from Hotel Cambodiana) where we bought a set of 4 beautifully carved, handmade serving pieces and were taken by their English speaking young friend by tuk-tuk back and forth to the store, an ATM and the pier. We decided to take the optional walking tour during that afternoon during which Teeny introduced us to ripe lotus seeds, hanging fruit bats and a group of monkeys, one of whom stole her lotus seeds. That night after dinner we enjoyed the traditional dance performed by the Cambodian children, said goodbye to Teeny and met our Vietnamese guide, Dauo, who would be with us for the remainder of the trip.
The next day was our only “sea” day so we slept in (until 8:30) to make breakfast which ended at 9AM. La Marguerite left the pier and we watched Phnom Penh recede in the distance as we merged with the mighty Mekong River, a sight that you can actually observe since the Mekong is blue-green. Today we would cross the border into Vietnam. There was a fruit carving demonstration, an ice cream “party” and a day of down time, much relished after 10 days of nearly constant activity. Late that afternoon we moored in Tan Chau, the first Vietnamese town on the Mekong. This evening was a briefing by Thinh of tomorrow’s activities, dinner and an enjoyable show by the crew and guides.
In the morning we took a local boat to Tan Chau town where were met onshore by a sea of rickshaws (Xe Loi). Along our route through town we were greeted by locals, always waving and smiling. We visited a slipper making factory and a rattan mat factory and walked through a small enclave of locals to our motorboat which would take us down narrow channels to an evergreen island. We met and mingled with the villagers, their oxen, the local fisherman, and seamstress. We met the children, handed out more pencils and pens, saw their crops (bananas, corn, chili peppers, rice) and watched them build a pond to catch fish from the canal when the river rises during rainy season. We returned to the ship for lunch and cruised further down the river to Sa Dec while enjoying a free afternoon onboard. After a briefing by Thinh, we enjoyed dinner and a Vietnamese traditional folklore performance.
The next day was our final touring day on the river. After breakfast, a local boat transferred us to Sa Dec for a walking tour. We strolled the incredible local food market- fresh (very) fowl, fish and vegetables and had a sampling of some exotic fruits. Next was the family home of Mr. Le, Marguerite Dumas’ lover. The next stop was a 1-hour bus ride to Xeo Quyt, the former Viet Cong base (described in the materials as “a base to lead the province’s people to contribute their strength to that of the whole country to carry out victoriously the anti-French and US war of resistance for the salvation of the fatherland”). It was interesting and involved walking along dirt paths and over footbridges. This was the only place that we applied bug spray (40% DEET) although there appeared to be no bugs (some passengers had taken anti-malarial drugs but Thinh said they were not necessary where we would be and apparently he was correct as we never saw any bugs and never were bitten). Those passengers that did not want to travel to Xeo Quyt returned to the ship and it sailed to Cai Be to meet the others returning from Xeo Quyt. After lunch, there was a mid-afternoon excursion by local boat. We passed the Cai Be Floating Market and took a short tour of a 1930’s family home that is now also a guest house. We docked and took a short walk to visit a candy making factory which also made rice paper and snake wine. We returned to the ship for our final evening. Tonight was a farewell dinner, time to settle accounts and pack.
HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON)
We docked in My Tho during the night. Bags were outside our cabin by 7AM and breakfast ended at 8AM. Our bus to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon or HCM) left the dock at 8:30AM and after a little more than 1 hour we arrived in HCM. Our first stop in HCM was the Emperor Jade Pagoda, an intricately carved figurine pagoda in Cholon (Chinatown). Afterwards, we were taken to the Reunification Palace where Dauo took us on a tour of the interior rooms. Following was a visit to a lacquerware factory (Minh Phuong) where we saw how the various types of lacquerware are made and had an opportunity (very short) to purchase. The number and types of products for sale were so overwhelming that we decided to return the next day with our private guide. Our next stop was Indochine restaurant for an included lunch with the entire group during which we received our room keys for the hotel, again randomly assigned. After lunch we were taken to our hotel, Sofitel Plaza Saigon, to check-in. We had a very large and lovely corner room with a great view. DH had not been feeling well the past 2 days so he remained at the hotel for a nap while we went with our guide and bus to Ben Thanh Market. We had about an hour to traverse this cramped, bustling market teeming with people and goods. I found nothing that I wanted to buy and was just too overwhelmed although some of the ladies purchased several pair of very cheap sandals. We returned to the hotel and decided to spend our friends’ final night at Mandarin, a beautiful and elegant Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant with wonderful food and service. Each dish was a work of art and was a fitting finale to a great trip. We would be staying in HCM for 2 more days but they were leaving in the morning so we said our goodbyes that evening.
The next morning we met our guide, Zoom, at 8AM in the lobby. We had planned a very full day with him before departing from home. Since we had expected him at 9, he sat with us as we ate our buffet breakfast (included). We had a private car and driver in addition to Zoom. Our first stop was Giac Lam Pagoda, the oldest pagoda in Saigon. From there we went to Binh Tay Market in Chinatown, even more crowded than Ben Thanh if that were possible. Zoom navigated us all around as we watched the inventive ways goods are delivered to the market. Again, we found nothing we were interested in buying. Next it was lunch at Pho 2000 where we enjoyed great pho and excellent spring rolls, then on to a different lacquer workshop than the one we visited the previous day. Here we purchased a lacquer lotus plate, wine bottle stands and covered lacquer boxes inlaid with mother of pearl-all for reasonable prices. They were packed in bubble wrap for the trip home. We stopped outside the Reunification Palace where we had an interesting discussion with Zoom about the war, politics, life in HCM and Vietnam. Our next stop was the War Remnants Museum, an over-the-top propaganda museum but worth the visit. We drove past the Opera House, City Hall, went inside Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office, and then enjoyed a wonderful Vietnamese iced coffee drink at the rooftop Garden Bar of the Rex Hotel with a wonderful view of the skyline, Opera House and City Hall. It was at the Rooftop Garden that the U.S. daily briefing took place during the Vietnam War and was also allegedly CIA Headquarters during the war. After a very full and most enjoyable day with Zoom, we returned to the hotel and said goodbye to Zoom (the next day he dropped off a CD of all the pictures he took with us the day of the tour). We looked through our guidebook for a restaurant for dinner and decided that we needed some Western food. We opted for Skewers, a Mediterranean inspired restaurant a short taxi ride away. The food was good, not great, but it was what we were looking for that evening. After dinner, the restaurant called a taxi and we went to the Caravelle Hotel, across from the Opera House, and went up to the 5th floor Saigon, Saigon Bar. We sat out on the terrace and enjoyed the beautiful view of the gorgeously lit City Hall and other buildings while listening to a Cuban Latin band. We decided to have a nightcap at the Rooftop Garden Bar at the Rex so we crossed the street, took some great pictures of City Hall and capped the evening off at the Rex.
Our final day in Saigon was a full one as we did not need to be at the airport until 9:30PM. We arranged to pay for a half day at the hotel so we didn’t need to check out until 7PM. After our included buffet breakfast with a couple from the ship (several people only took the cruise portion of the trip), we decided we were oriented enough to walk to the area near City Hall where DH was told by Zoom he could buy the watch he wanted. Surprisingly, we realized that we were only 6-7 blocks from this area and the walk was easy. We passed the US Consulate, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Post Office and several shopping malls and department stores. Our watch hunting was ultimately not successful but that was OK. We decided to walk down Don Khoi Street, the major shopping street, towards the Saigon River. We were told by Zoom that it was not very safe to walk along the river (pickpockets) but we wanted to go into the oldest hotel in Saigon, the 1920’s French-era Hotel Majestic, at the foot of Don Khoi Street and the river. We went up to the Sky Bar for a drink and enjoyed a great view of the river. After enduring the heat and humidity, we left and walked back up Don Khoi street to Mojo for lunch at the Sheraton Hotel. Mojo is a funky place with a menu of sandwiches, salads, international as well as Vietnamese dishes. Following lunch, we walked along Le Loi Street to the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. The museum, which costs the equivalent of $.50 per person, is a 3-story French villa with an original 1920’s era elevator and a wonderful display of historic and contemporary sculpture, paintings and lacquerware. The museum is not air-conditioned so it might be a better stop in the morning. We walked back the way we came on Le Loi Street, stopping in the Park Hyatt for a cold drink and a glass of wine while cooling down and resting our feet. The hotel is very modern and the art work is beautiful. It seemed that we had probably been in every high-end hotel in the city save one or two. We walked back to the Sofitel exhausted and a little disappointed that we did not make it to the City Museum for the Water Puppet show that could only be seen between 5 and 6 that day. After doing some final packing and taking showers, we checked out of our room and left our bags with the bellman. We asked the concierge for a restaurant recommendation. He suggested an Italian restaurant a short taxi ride away and he made a reservation for us. When we arrived at L’Hostaria, we were greeted by the manager from Turin who luckily had a table for us since there was a very large party of Germans occupying most of the tables. And it was lucky since the food was wonderful, the wine very good and the prices very reasonable. It was a delicious dinner capping a fantastic trip. We returned to the hotel, picked up our bags and took a taxi to the airport 25 minutes away. We flew to Tokyo, had a 5 hour layover and were back home 26 hours later but on the same day we left HCM.It was a memorable and very special trip.