Vietnam and Cambodia have long been on my wife’s and my bucket list. We’ve just returned from a truly fabulous AmaWaterways trip to these two fascinating countries. The trip was half on land – Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Siem Reap, and Hanoi – and half on a cruise on the AmaDara on the Mekong River. We have traveled extensively throughout the world, including numerous ocean cruises and a terrific European river cruise, but this was the best cruise experience we have ever had.
Much of that owes to the fascination of the two countries - the traumas they have experienced in very recent history and their remarkable rebound from them (rarely have we learned so much from a "vacation" trip); the genuine warmth of the people, both trip staff and those on the street; the incredible variety of what there is to see, from dirt-poor communities living on the water and on the banks of the river to vibrant emerging cities clogged with new construction and motor-bike dominated traffic. (Learning how to cross the street was itself a fascinating experience.) Much owes, as well, to the extraordinarily well-organized trip. The trip manager, Mr. Thoai ("Call me Twy, like in 'twice'"), ran the trip like a well-oiled machine, dealing with the innumerable daily chores of moving over 100 people from one place to another, as well as the inevitable unexpected developments, with an ever-present smile. His competence, efficiency, and spirit set the tone of the entire trip.
The week-long cruise on the AmaDara was delightful. The ship's facilities are very good, if not the best we have experienced. We splurged on a "suite," which means a room that was plenty spacious, as opposed to the invariably cramped standard living quarters on a river cruise boat. The staff were incredibly well-trained and their genuine friendliness created an infectious positive attitude on board. The food was easily the best we have ever experienced on a cruise, and we have traveled previously on top-ranked cruise lines. The quality of the meals was remarkable in light of the challenging circumstances of feeding so many people on a cruise on a river in a poor part of Asia, and doing so from tight kitchen facilities. Kudos to head Chef Pheara and his staff who produced several dinners that were worthy of a highly-ranked restaurant in a major city. The quality of the staff and the food contributed to an unusually congenial environment on board the ship. It was easy to interact comfortably with all of our fellow passengers.
The highlight of the trip was the excursions, one each morning and afternoon. Never previously have we experienced such interesting and unique outings, nearly all of them simultaneously fascinating and educational. Each was different from all of the others. They varied from walking through small dusty poor rural villages, with their invariably friendly inhabitants, in which we sampled such "delicacies" as snake wine, to visiting sobering monuments to the traumas of war and genocide. The Vietnam War Remnants Museum in Saigon allowed us to see a formative experience during our early adulthood from a different perspective (and reminded us how important it is to see both sides), while visiting the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh - although less upsetting an experience than we expected - left us dumbfounded about how evil selected individuals in history can be, and how remarkable it is that they have the charisma and power to recruit thousands of their country's citizens to do their dirty work.
We appreciated the histories of these two countries, and their current economic development, in part due to the superb guides working for Ama. With one exception, the guides were among the best we have ever experienced - all thoughtful and informative, willing to address difficult questions, and punctuating their presentations with both great senses of humor and personal touches, including explaining how their countries' evolutions had affected their personal lives. Mr. Long gave us a great overview of southern Vietnam while on the cruise, as did Ms. "Tinny" during the Cambodia portion of the cruise. Mr. Son brought Hanoi to life with the best English we experienced on the trip (not that the other guides' English wasn't good too). He, and the charming city itself, made us wish we had one more day to explore the city. The rickshaw ride through the chaotic traffic was fun and surprisingly not frightening.
The trip's few disappointments were disappointing only in relative terms. While we benefited from unusually good weather, the intense heat during our tour of the Royal Palace and the National Museum in Phnom Penh, after visiting the Killing Fields the same morning, made that morning more challenging than any other (although it, too, was definitely a net positive). Wandering through the crowded and fascinating food market near the river that afternoon compensated. The fact that we waited at our hotel in Siem Reap most of the day before flying to Hanoi in the evening seemed a wasted opportunity: we could have had more time in Hanoi had we flown out that morning. We also felt that the final leg of the trip, to famous Ha Long Bay with an overnight on a "luxury junk" (quite an oxymoron, but the boat was fine), fell short of our high expectations. The bay is truly gorgeous and the three excursions were interesting and fun (especially the enormous cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites). But the bay was overrun with tourist boats and we felt rushed to get from one excursion to the next. The government is going to have to decide whether it wants to limit traffic on the bay. It definitely detracts from the experience.
Two minor drawbacks: The seemingly constant tipping (for bus drivers and their assistants and one-day guides) was a bit annoying, although frankly we appreciated the opportunity to express our gratitude to Mr. Thoai and our principal guides with larger than expected tips. And Ama's policy of charging for name-brand alcohol drinks was annoying too. (Local brands were free...if not very good. Wine and beer were free with lunch and dinner. Local beers - quite good - were always available at no charge but wine wasn't.) Of course if Ama included all alcohol in the package price, that price would rise. Not clear whether that would make good business sense, but an all-inclusive policy would be appreciated by many travelers.
Our hotels in the big cities - all Sofitels - were superb and each different from the others. The buffets were notable, especially those in Saigon (the most amazing we've ever experienced) and Hanoi. The resort in Siem Reap was gorgeous and we enjoyed some time in the large, beautiful pool with its swim-up bar (although surprisingly, perhaps, the food was less good than at the other two hotels). Sofitel has risen high on our list of favorite hotel chains as a result of this visit.
Overall, this trip ranks among the very best we have experienced in lives blessed with lots of travel. Ama runs a terrific operation in this part of the world.
Good size with a nice layout. The bathroom was a bit cramped, with the toilet pushing up against the sink. Shower was well-designed.
Good overview of the city's highlights.View All 104 City Tour Reviews
Enjoyed walking around.
Powerful reminder of the Vietnam War, importantly presenting it from the perspective of the other side.View All undefined undefined Reviews
The Royal Palace and its grounds were actually quite impressive, but it was particularly hot that morning. The Killing Fields were sobering but less "difficult" than we expected. The National Museum was not worth the time, unless you're really into statues of the Hindu gods. Walking through the food market was a real treat, and the tuk-tuk ride through town was fun.