Overall it was a wonderful start to our extended trip in SE Asia. I selected this boat based on the positive reviews but also the fact that it is the only boat small enough to generally sail the entire route HCM city to Siem Reap without the extended bus ride other river boats take. This is a huge benefit thought be aware that really this is only the case from August-October, maybe November if you are lucky-- depends on water levels but this year we sailed the end of October and were the last boat of the year to do the entire route-- and seeing the Tonal Sap is really pretty. If water levels are too high they will fly you to Phenom Penn which still beats the six hour bus ride other lines take-- that is just too much for a seven night cruise. On this review I will focus on the questions/concerns I had before I booked.
--36 passenger boat no issue, it was actually really fun you got to sit with and really know everyone on board. Most people 55-75, leaning toward the older part of the range, but literally everyone active and well traveled. We all got along so well, it really did feel like a group of friends traveling together by the end.
--Absolutely amazing top quality hotel choices for those doing 13 nights with hotels in Ho Chi Minh and Siem Reap-- almost everyone does this land/cruise package and I would highly recommend this. We travel in top quality usually boutique hotels and for larger hotels could not have asked for more-- amazing, huge rooms with a local feel and superb breakfasts. The Reverie in HCM is the top rated and most expensive hotel in the city and everyone (mostly all first class travelers) said it was the nicest hotel they have ever been in-- over the top posh and comfortable, great views, friendly service, nice location. The Park Hyatt is nicer than any US Hyatt with fresh dim sum along with so many other things for breakfast-- food and room very lux and so far beyond a US Hyatt.
--Rooms on boat large for a ship and lovely (be careful when comparing sizes many ships include balcony is square footage which is misleading). Bed was a bit hard for me but they immediately put on a topper that made it perfect.
--Service on boat fantastic, couldn't ask for more.
--Great, low priced massages onboard-- book early for best times.
--Great mix of cities and villages on itinerary. Even if a particular day does not sound appealing you will be surprised. I was not super excited about going to the killing fields and the genocide museum but it was not what I expected and one of the most memorable days of any trip I've taken. The killing fields are heartbreaking with a tower full of skulls dug up and stories that will change your life. There is more to see than I expected, and the history will hit home far more than any movie or book. Bring a colorful hairband or ribbon/beaded bracelet to leave on the posts at the pits where bodies were dug up as a tribute to the dead. Our guide on Avalon named Hiek told us how the conflict affected his family and village, words and stories I will never forget. The genocide museum is not a dusty old museum but the actual buildings where people were tortured and detained; it is difficult and overwhelming but you will feel the history here, especially with a guide who knows how to bring it alive with reverence as does Hiek.
--Overall atmosphere was social, fun and comfortable. Days were well organized, both guides were very different but excellent.
--Cruising the Mekong really worth doing but keep in mind it is a working river and the beauty is in the people and the backroads and really immersing yourself in the local experience-- if you are looking for a pristine, pretty experience this is not the trip for you. However, cruising is one of the most efficient ways to see real village life and fishing villages as well as the highlights of Cambodia. The villages are amazing with moms running out to show off their babies, kids excited to see you (we saw no begging or asking of money anywhere), and overall a way of life I had no idea still existed today-- whole extended families living in rough shacks, getting to the village on single poles they walk over water, etc. I thought the afternoon visiting a local school and helping the kids with their reading would be hokey but it was lovely.
--Tip: if you are like us and enjoy the backroads more than palaces, use your free time on this voyage wisely. For example, in Phenom Penn we saw highlights like the palace with the ship in the morning. In the afternoon we asked a Tuc Tuc driver to show us where the locals lived and frankly it was a shock at first with garbage strewn streets and rusting shacks. However it became fascinating with tiny winding streets and places where we were the only non locals. The driver was so delighted with our request that he took us to his home for a beer to meet his wife, cousins, aunt, uncle, etc. all living in two rooms and very proud of it because they could only own this home due to the uncles business. It was an amazing afternoon and we got to see how an average family lives, see how family oriented they are as a culture, ask so many questions about why all the trash, etc. it was a highlight of the trip. In HCM the day we arrived and there were no activities with the ship we made a point to walk to a local massage place very highly rated rather than the hotel spa and got a two hour massage for $28. Just walking on our own and getting an authentic Vietnamese massage (best massage of my husbands life) in a clean local place (Temple Leaf Spa only 10 minute walk from hotel) with lovely tea served before and after was a joy-- its such a big part of the culture and walking on our own a different way of seeing the real city. We recommended it to the only young person (33) on the boat with him mom and he also just loved getting local vs. structured tours. That night we had booked ahead a street food tour on vespas, selecting a vendor that goes to five different districts and to where the locals go. This is something you must do in SE Asia to really understand the culture-- ride on the back of a motorbike and try street food with the locals. The traffic will not scare you at all once you understand it-- half the bikes have kids and whole families on them, the speed is slow and while it seems a maze, there is no aggression or road rage, it is a communal flow with the right of way readily given. It is beautiful, peaceful, and eye opening to be on the back of the motor bikes-- we did it three times. The same with crossing the street, not scary as people claim, simply walk slowly and the drivers will move around you. Our trip would not have been the same without street food either and we are super hygienic. Beside the fact that the food is delicious and unique it is a critical part of a culture where most folks are in homes with minimal ability to cook and eat two meals a day out. We sat with the locals at tiny tables, listened and learned. Yes we used hand sanitizer, took supplements to keep our immune system healthy, and if you are squeamish I would bring my own chopsticks, but the trick as the tours know is to go to places where you are eating food immediately after it is cooked. And oh my god the crab claws with friend chilly peppers-- astounding. On our first night of the trip we literally broke all food rules for street food-- had fresh veggies, dairy, ice, etc. Never got the tiniest tummy ache on a 25 day trip. On this first day in HCM before the cruise agenda kicked in we had a ball with so many surprises like the "lady boy" impromptu show in the streets as we ate street food with the locals. Seriously it is these side trips that a cruise could never do that made our trip. In Siem Reap I have to recommend the tour we did the last full day (we flew out on our own to Hanoi that night). After seeing the major temples for two days with Avalon which were amazing but super crowded, we did a vespa tour called beyond Angor-- it took us to back roads and temple not yet reconstructed where we were literally the only ones there-- best pictures we took, great local experience to balance our more formal days with Avalon-- saw a magical side to Siem Reap we would have completely missed if we didn't supplement the ship itinerary. Also in Siem Reap if you are a serious foodie- on your night off go to Embassy restaurant-- $36 for an 8 course exquisite meal in a one of a kind restaurant started by two women who against all odds made it to the top of the culinary institute-- one of the best meals of our lives and just super special experience in so many ways, each course a work of art. Make reservations ahead of time!
-I would go northbound because Siem Reap is truly the highlight
Cons (all minor in the scheme of things but be aware to set expectations)
-Food was fresh and simple but below our expectations. It felt like they were cutting corners on protein. For example every day at lunch they usually had a noodle or soup they were preparing on the spot as a main course but it was almost weird the way they handled protein. For the soup, which again is the main course, they would literally deliberately count out three (very tiny) pieces of chicken (like 1" x 1")
in the water to cook whereas even the most simple local restaurant would be full of chicken. For a noodle dish one day it had shrimp but small shrimp cut into smaller pieces-- for a whole serving you would literally get maybe two shrimp cut in pieces. There were other side dishes but often only one had meat and we noticed they only put a small amount out at once and didn't replenish much. One day the only meat besides the soup was chicken pieces. Lunch period was an hour and a half. We got there with an hour left. The chicken crock on the buffet table contained about four small pieces of chicken-- three wing tips which are usually thrown out because there is literally no meat on them and a weird piece of cartilage with a bit of meat. In the time we were there it was never replenished. Sure we could have asked for more meat to be put into the soup when they prepared our serving or asked for more chicken to be brought out but you shouldn't have to do that every time! If you are a dessert person it is also an issue. At lunch each day it was the same thing-- tiny squares (like petit four size) of cake and a simple pudding or mousse. Dinner desserts were again usually a very simple plain pudding no variety. Only on the last night did we get a nice dessert. Dinners were better but kind of repetitive with a lot of simple curries. We learned to order whatever was marked as "chef recommends." If you are a foodie you won't hate the food, it is fresh, but absolutely nothing memorable and breads are all lousy. Every single night at dinner you get a choice of one very basic (like hamburger bun) soft white roll or a soft white roll with something sprinkled on it. Food ranged from fair to good with only one very good dinner which was the last meal onboard.
--Most of the tours and included tour food are great ,but there was a couple of tacky overly touristy things that we try to avoid. The included group dinner in HCM is excellent but the included group dinner and dance performance in Siem Reap is so bad I would honestly skip it even though if you are going northbound it is your last meal with the group. The dance show was like the worst local dinner theater you can imagine-- a total tourist place where the performers were calling it in and not very talented. The food was also the worst kind of tourist trap food and the wine undrinkable-- we barely ate and felt it was very inconsistent with the standards of the rest of the trip. The other day that is like a tourist trap and does not become Avalon is that day at the silver making village. First of all it is one of those fake workshops where the work being done is for show. There is no real silver here, just silver plating and everything they sell (don't buy here!) is the exact same stuff the local kids are selling on the street for half the price-- literally the same packaging on the identical earrings etc.-- clearly all bought from the same supplier probably in China and you can get in every tourist shop. Avalon really loses some credibility here encouraging you to buy only at this place, clearly getting a kick back and misleading their customers. They try to say it is better quality and and the only place in the village they can guarantee quality but when I pointed out it was not made locally and the packaging clearly plastic and exactly the same as the kids, they couldn't contradict me and looked uncomfortable. If you really want to buy something note that the locals with trays of silver who follow you around that day will follow you right to the ship and the price will be 1/3 by the time they get to the ship. Same again with the place they take you for snake wine and to watch rice cakes being made. It is fun to watch the rice cakes and candy being made but do not buy anything but the rice cakes and candy there and ask for the price first-- all other items are the same as the local markets at three times the price plus when you check out they will overcharge you by double the prices marked. Tip: best place to buy souvenirs and designer knock offs is the night market in Phenom Penn, half the price of the same stuff in Vietnam. Also when negotiating in the markets in Vietnam (no need to in cambodia, everything is so cheap) don't listen to the ship when they tell you how to negotiate I think they told us to offer half then come in the middle but you wouldn't believe the Vietnam markets and how they try to upcharge tourists-- I wanted a knock off bag for my daughter that started at $185 and got it for $20. The best quality things we saw were in the old town section of Hanoi but not inexpensive at all. And nothing in the markets or where the ship takes you is handmade, there is just a lot of fake workshops around to give you that impression.
Overall, a few annoying things and they could definitely upgrade the food. Bottom line though is that we loved this trip and would do the whole thing on Avalon again because the pros far outweigh the cons and there is no packaged trip that will ever be as non touristy as we would like.
A is top floor and costs more, B is bottom; all rooms identical in size and decor. There is far more privacy on B because people are not going by all the time to the lounge/dining room, and B is right at water level.
Palaces were interesting, night market was the lowest price and most culturally interesting (picnics, keroeke), but best was exploring the neighborhoods on tuk tuk where the average person lives.
Amazing. Boat tour took up for two days to major temples, on third day we were on our own and took a vespa tour to back roads, exploring lesser known temples-- it was an amazing combination, from the very crowded but impressive major temples to the mystical and deserted temples hidden in the jungle.
Cooking class was too big and a bit hokey with every name called out for a certificate (we all could have skipped that) but the saving grace was the delicious lunch, each course was fantastic.