We recently completed the September 13, 2011, 15-day AMA Waterways La Marguerite land and cruise package from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. I had clients on this cruise, and they had asked if we would like to accompany them. Of course the answer was a resounding "Yes!"
Day 1 - We flew from LAX, arriving in Hanoi at 9:30 a.m. (after 17 hours in the air). I had previously obtained "Visa On Arrival" documents, and we breezed through the airport with our multiple-entry visas. A nice air conditioned van was awaiting us, and it whisked us away to the first of our 5-star hotels - the Sofitel Metropole. Service, amenities, and room decor were impeccable. We had previously arranged a private afternoon tour with Hanoi Kids - a group of college students who volunteer their services to show tourists around their city. They absolutely refuse compensation for their services, asking only that the tourist pay for any transportation charges or meals/snacks during the tour. Our guide was a grad student, and she offered us several choices that weren't included on AMA's tour the following day. We opted for the Viet Nam ethnological museum, which I highly recommend. It highlights the 50+ ethnic groups who live in Vietnam, with outdoor re-creations of their dwellings, and indoor displays of their many lifestyle needs. This was followed by coffee in a typical Hanoi coffee house (think Starbucks on a much more primitive scale). The entire cost for the day was less than $15 (300,000 Vietnamese Dong). Speaking of currency, ATM's are everywhere. We initially bought 2 million dong (about $100), which lasted us for the entire trip. Most establishments take Visa and MasterCard. That evening we ate in a large, bustling Vietnamese restaurant - great food and beer for around $20 for two of us.
Day 2 - AMA's morning tour took us to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, one-pillar pagoda, and the Temple of Literature. Our guide was exceptionally fluent in English. There were around 30 people on the tour. The afternoon tour saw us riding in rickshaws through the intricate maze of the old quarter - an experience not to be forgotten. This was followed by a unique water puppet show in an indoor theater. Fascinating and most enjoyable! After this tour, our friend and I went on our own to the infamous "Hanoi Hilton", now a museum that displays the many years that this prison was used for both the French and then the American prisoners of war. Of course the propaganda emphasized how wonderfully our downed flight crew members were treated. On display were many of Senator John McCain's personal effects, including the flight suit he was wearing when he was shot down. Dinner was on our own, and we again found a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant at rock-bottom prices.
Day 3 - After breakfast in the hotel and hotel check-out, we boarded a bus for a 2-hour ride to Ha Long Bay. We boarded a beautiful junk (Asian sailing vessel), which was our home for the next 1 1/2 days. Sailing Ha Long Bay provided one of the most exotically beautiful experiences of our lives! It is truly an "8th wonder of the world". We explored a large cave in the afternoon - similar to what one would see in Carlsbad Caverns.
Day 4 - After more Ha Long Bay sailing, we disembarked the junk, rode a bus to the Hanoi airport, and boarded our 2-hour flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I'll interject here by saying that our cruise director, Vuong (aka "Rex") stayed with us from our arrival in Hanoi until our departure in Saigon. Vuong was, quite simply, one of the best and most organized cruise directors we've ever encountered! Upon arrival in Siem Reap we were transported to the Sofitel Angkor hotel - 5+ stars in every respect. A lavish buffet dinner was awaiting us, and it was followed by a performance of Cambodian dancers and musicians.
Day 5 - We spent the day visiting the major temples of the Angkor complex - Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, Banyan, and several others. Plan on LOTS of walking and even more photos! EVERYWHERE is a photo op!! These ancient temples from the 11th and 12th centuries feature engineering feats that seem incomprehensible, considering the lack of technological factors that seem so commonplace today.
Day 6 - After breakfast we visited another gorgeous temple. We then visited an orphanage that is sponsored by AMA Waterways. We're talking primitive here - no electricity, phones, indoor plumbing, etc. AMA has, however, installed solar panels which power the ceiling fans in the classroom. My wife and several others had carried large packages of school supplies from the States, and we gave these to the teachers for distribution. In the afternoon we visited the famous temple that was featured in the movie "Tomb Raiders", with huge tree roots that entwine the ruins. Dinner was on our own, so we rode one of the infamous "Tuk Tuk's" to a recommended restaurant and dined on some great Cambodian cuisine. Cost for a 10-minute ride - USD $2.00! By the way, the major currency used in Cambodia is the US Dollar - it's used everywhere, rather than the Cambodian riel. Siem Reap has a wonderful, bustling, hectic central market, where bargaining is a true art form. If the price starts at $15, offer $5, and go from there!
Day 7 - Three of us took a tuk-tuk into the old town and participated in a one-on-one cooking class. This 2 1/2 hour class was in the same restaurant where we had dined the evening before. We prepared numerous Cambodian dishes from scratch and then dined on our creations. Cost? $20 per person, which included the lessons, lunch, and cooking school t-shirt! We departed Siem Reap by bus at noon and drove 45 minutes to our beautiful La Marguerite, docked at the southern end of Tonle Sap lake (the largest lake in Asia). NOTE: Those who only took the 7-day river portion of this trip joined us at this point. These were about 50% of the passengers. The ship is beautiful and the rooms large and very well appointed. NOTE: -- internet on the ship is VERY spotty and is only reliable when tied up near a major city on the Mekong (such as Phnom Penh). Food on board was varied and deliciously prepared - except for desserts, which left a lot to be desired. Vietnamese red and white wines, spirits, and beer are complementary throughout the day; call brands are charged accordingly. Amazing, from a wine snob such as me, that after a couple of days I learned to actually enjoy the Vietnamese wine! And Vietnamese gin and tonic was quite good as well. Breakfast and lunch were buffet style with both western and Asian choices, many cooked to order. Dinner was from a set menu and was also delicious. Service was wonderful. We sailed south to join the Mekong, and we moored overnight at Kampong Chhnang (no, that's not a typo).
Days 8 - 10. We sailed the Mekong River and visited several villages along the way to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. These visits included fish farms, floating markets, small villages, temples, and monasteries. The Cambodian people are EXTREMELY friendly, and everywhere we went, the children would wave, smile, and shout, "hello"!
Day 10 - 11. We visited many of Phnom Penh's highlights - the presidential palace, silver pagoda, and many others. But the most chilling and memorable visits of our entire trip were to the infamous killing fields, followed by S21 - one of the most brutal torture prisons in history. Suffice it to say that between 1975 and 1979, the brutal dictator Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge troops managed to kill 2 million of Cambodia's 7 million population. Who did they kill? Anyone with any type of education at all, including their families. This left Cambodia devoid of any sort of infrastructure, and as our guide (who lost his family in the killings) told us, Cambodia literally started at square zero in 1979! This experience will be burned forever in my memory. Other horrors of Cambodia center around the millions of land mines that were distributed by the Khmer Rouge. Everywhere one looks, one can see men, women and children of all ages with missing limbs, resulting from these instruments of maiming.
That evening several of us elected to dine on our own, so we boarded tuk-tuks and ate in a famous "hot pot" restaurant. On Day 11 we departed Phnom Penh and crossed the Mekong "border" into Vietnam (with a 3-hour delay while Vietnamese border officials made sure our passports, visas, and documents were in order). That evening we moored in Tan Chau.
Day 12 - 13. Cruising down the Mekong Delta, we visited several villages, exploring fish farms, handicraft shops (mats, candy, etc), temples, and floating markets. One of the most interesting visits was to Xeo Quyt, a thriving Viet Cong base during the war. All of the bunkers, meeting rooms, headquarters huts, and trails have been maintained, and one can easily envision the horrendous conditions that American troops were faced with when attempting to ferret out the "enemy".
Day 14. Our wonderful seven days on the La Marguerite came to an end. We disembarked about 60 miles from Saigon, boarded a bus, and were treated to a tour of an ancient Chinese temple, followed by a lacquer ware factory (great place for purchasing final quality souvenirs). We toured the Presidential Palace (aka Reunification Palace), Notre Dame Cathedral, and the French architectural gem post office. We were then taken to a fabulous Vietnamese restaurant (Indochine) for lunch, followed by check-in at the Sofitel hotel. Although quite nice, I would rate this hotel more in the 4-star category (compared with the Sofitels in Hanoi and Siem Reap). Unless you have recently won the lottery, I wouldn't suggest eating dinner in the hotel's buffet dining room, since it costs $44 per person. Compared with all of our other dining experiences in southeast Asia, this seemed exorbitant! We opted instead to walk two blocks to a great pho restaurant (Pho 24), where Carol and I enjoyed fresh spring rolls, large bowls of pho and a beer apiece - total cost $11 including tip!
Day 15. Breakfast was included at the hotel, but the day's exploring was on our own. AMA offers a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, used by the Viet Cong, but we passed. We instead visited the War Museum, which I HIGHLY recommend. We spent at least 3 hours there, and it was incredibly interesting. The many rooms focus on both the French occupation and the American war. The most chilling of all was the room dedicated to the effects of Agent Orange - on both the Vietnamese and our own American forces. Ugly!! We also visited the central market, where we purchased many last-minute souvenirs. NOTE: Many items in Siem Reap's central market, such as silver jewelry, are NOT sold in Saigon's market. Prices on other items are comparable between the two markets. So I would recommend buying what you like in Siem Reap, without thinking that maybe it will be cheaper in Saigon.
Day 16. Depart for home.
In summary, this trip rates among the highlights of all trips we have ever taken. Passengers were about 60% American, 25% Canadian, 10% Australian, and 5% British and Russian. We didn't hear one "whine" during the entire adventure! Weather in southeast Asia is hot and hotter, with very high humidity. There are no laundry facilities aboard the ship, but laundry service is available. Smoking is strictly limited to the sun deck, so those who enjoy a smoke-free environment will be pleased. AMA just launched its brand new, slightly larger AMA Lotus, which will sail the identical itinerary. AMA is to be commended for having everything so well organized, and for providing a gorgeous boat, first class land accommodations, and experienced, friendly English-speaking tour guides.