This is an unvarnished subjective review of my recent Viking river cruise on the Mekong on the RV Tonle. Viking is the most recent of a number of tour companies that contract the Pandaw river boats for their vacation packages. We had taken Viking cruises in China and Russia and enjoyed them very much, so we had no qualms about booking this one. We had to work with the Viking travel agent (TA) for several days before we finally obtained a sailing date that fit our schedule, although we put ourselves on a waiting list for several others. At this point communications with our TA ceased, as he no longer returned my phone calls or answered my emails. Other TA's could not, or would not give me any information about the wait lists, so I finally gave up and resigned myself to the March 19 sailing. The Generations visa service was expensive but efficient and I had no complaints. The air booking person was very helpful and made some modifications for me so I could leave Hanoi a day earlier due to a commitment here at home. I was also able to use some frequent flyer miles to upgrade to business class on the trans-pacific flight to and from Tokyo. By the time we landed in Saigon, it was 1030 PM and we were escorted to the hotel by our Viking representative and checked in by midnight. Thus, the first day of the tour was already over. The good news was that the Sofitel Saigon Plaza hotel in Saigon was wonderful, as were all the hotels on this vacation. Viking always does a great job in picking top-notch lodgings. We were escorted to the hotel by one of our two guides (Tom and Kong). Our guides were superb, spoke excellent English and did a good job in looking after our every need. There were 62 of us on the cruise. I would guess that the average age was about 70. Most were well-heeled, well- traveled, and well- educated. There were a few that should not have been on the trip due to mobility issues. Many of the tours require physical dexterity and good balance. The American Disabilities Act standards do not apply in Vietnam and Cambodia. I assume that they either did not read the caveats in the brochures or chose to ignore them. They ended up being a burden for our guides. Potential customers should use some common sense before booking a cruise such as this. My recommendations are as follows:
If you use a cane to walk- Don't go.
If you can't go at least 2 1/2 hours without going to the toilet-Don't go.
If you have balance problems or vertigo-Don't go
The Saigon tours were interesting, and included the Reunification Palace, Chinatown, a lacquer factory, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the central market. As expected, there was some force feeding of Communist propaganda during the excursions. The war museum was completely one-sided, as expected and featured some former South Vietnamese Air Force aircraft that had been repainted with USAF insignia. I failed to mention that I was the only Vietnam War combat veteran on the trip, having flown as a navigator in AC-130 Gunships, primarily in Cambodia. Since I had been based in Thailand, I had only seen Cambodia from the air. When we ceased operations in August 1973, we knew it was only a matter if time until the Khmer Rouge took over the country, but we never foresaw the genocide that was to come under Pol Pot. At that time no one even knew about Pol Pot. Our guides tried to tip-toe around the politics, but had to toe the party line, at least in Vietnam. That evening, we were transported to the Rex Hotel for a nice fixed menu dinner and cultural dance presentation.
After a sumptuous breakfast, we were transported to the ship via bus and greeted by the friendly crew of the RV Tonle. The accommodations were comfortable, but not luxurious. Bottled water was freely dispensed for drinking and tooth brushing. The dinner and lunch menus varied between quite good to acceptable. The French influence was quite evident in the baguettes and other breads. The most memorable dinners included lamb, salmon and fried chicken. The breakfast buffet was wonderful, with many options. I think they did the best they could with the products that they could obtain. Local beer and well drinks were always free and complimentary South African wine was liberally dispensed at dinner. The Vietnamese and Cambodian beers were quite good, as was the white wine. I thought the red wine was dreadful, but my fellow passengers seemed to like it very much. The house liquors were mainly Philippine products. I only tried the house Vodka once and felt that it would have been more appropriate as a paint thinner. There were also reasonably priced premium beer, wine and liquor options. In the evening, there were history lectures and classic movies that were related to some of the sites we visited. Complimentary Wi-Fi was available once we crossed into Cambodia, but you had to be in the library lounge to connect. I just used my I-pod to get my web mail, rather than bringing a laptop.
Regarding tipping, the guides suggested that we pay $100 per couple up front for all the tips for the local guides, bus drivers, small boat operators, etc. so we wouldn't be nickeled and dimed throughout the cruise. Most thought this was a good idea and went along with it. I also gave extra tips to the Cambodian and Vietnamese local guides who were very good. The ship tips come to around $150-170 per couple for the cruise, which you can put on a Visa or Mastercard . AMEX is not accepted onboard. Also I tipped my tour guide (Kong) about $170 at the end of the tour. It's also a good idea to bring 50-100 one dollar bills for souvenirs. High end shops and hotels take all credit cards. The dollar is the preferred currency in Cambodia and Vietnam, so there is no need to ever exchange dollars for local currencies. ATMs even dispense dollars in Cambodia. The bottom line is that you should bring about $500 cash with you. The ship and hotels all have room safes and crime seems to be almost non-existent.
The tours along the Mekong were pretty much as advertised in the brochure. We were able to see and appreciate the daily lives of Vietnamese and Cambodian farmers, brick makers and fishermen. These people work very long hours for almost nothing, live in squalor, yet seem to be as happy and dignified as any millionaire on the boat. Smiling, friendly children abound everywhere. Some are looking for a hand-out, some are selling stuff, and some are just curious. Along the way, we were able to experience a variety of transportation methods, including Rickshaws and Tuk-Tuks . Many of the tours required tricky transfers onto small skiffs. During the seven days on the ship, we saw a lot of villages, Wats, orphanages, and markets. Our tour guide had worked at the notorious S-21 torture center in Phnom Penh as a small child after his parents were executed by Pol Pot. Over 2 million Cambodians were killed in the genocide. The visit to the killing fields was powerful and emotional. The bones of victims continue to surface all around the area. We could see them everywhere. I now have no regrets about my role in fighting the Khmer Rouge in 1973, other than the fact that we didn't finish the job. Perhaps, the most poignant moment for me was at Wat Hanchey in Cambodia where I saw a Buddhist monk ring a gong that was made out of the bomb casing of an unexploded US Mark 82, 500 lb bomb. Now I knew the war was really over.
After disembarking, we took a five hour bus ride to Siem Reap with only one "happy house" rest stop. Fortunately, we were warned by the guides, so I was able load up on enough Immodium and lomotil to keep my "Ho Chi Minh's revenge" under control for the journey. Quite a few of the passengers had some intestinal distress that seemed to be exacerbated by the anti-malarial medication, which I stopped taking after a few days. Mosquitoes were few and far between and I think that frequent applications of DEET 30 lotion is enough protection against Malaria and Dengue fever for this tour.
At Siem Reap, we checked into the stunning Sofitel Phokeetra Royal Angora Golf and Spa resort. This is one of the most beautiful and luxurious hotels I have ever seen. The rooms, service and food were outstanding. Tours of various temples including the famous Angkor Wat were amazing but the tours required quite a bit of agility to complete. Safety is not a high priority here, although the guides did their best to make sure we didn't get hurt. We also saw the mysterious Taprohm Temple which was featured in the Tomb Raider movie.
Reluctantly, we finally checked out of the hotel to fly to Hanoi. Unfortunately, the flight didn't arrive in Hanoi until about 1100 PM so we didn't get to the hotel until after midnight. Once again, poor scheduling meant that we only had a few hours of sleep in the Sofitel Metropole hotel before resuming the tours. The Hotel was wonderful and the tours were good, except for the Hanoi Hilton, which was just a propaganda event. We also went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but I was the only passenger to decline viewing the long deceased and stuffed dictator. We had a nice farewell dinner the last night, bid adieu to our new group of friends, jumped into a cab the guide procured for us, and headed to the Hanoi airport.
This was the trip of a lifetime and we are still trying to process everything that happened. I know that I glossed over a lot of details about the food and tours, and I think I really shortchanged the hardworking crew of the RV Tonle. The only English word they didn't seem to know was "no". I highly recommend this to those who prize adventure over luxury. Despite the minor problems encountered, we remain loyal Viking customers. I'm just getting a different travel agent next time.