Perhaps the most Southeast Asian influence onboard is reflected in the menus. Food served can be described as Cambodian and Vietnamese fusion (though menus can vary depending on the ship's itinerary) with local delicacies, innovative twists on classic dishes and even Western options for those who want a break from all the rich flavors and spices. Be warned: If you're craving pizza or cheeseburgers, you won't find them onboard. (If you do really want these foods, you can usually find them in the big cities.)
The ship does welcome special requests, including those due to dietary restrictions, which are most likely to be accommodated if made in advance. A few passengers on our sailing noted allergies to baker's yeast and gluten ahead of time, and the crew had sourced ingredients to make delicious rice-based breads for them daily. In fact, all bread onboard is baked fresh daily. Most of the provisions are sourced from the major cities of Saigon and Siem Reap from trusted grocers; Avalon Saigon crew do not shop at local markets for sanitary reasons.
Overall, most of the food we ate onboard was sumptuous, and the portions were perfect; there was always room for dessert. The best part about the dining experience onboard, however, is the service. The waiters are always friendly, attentive, professional and totally endearing. They remember passengers' names and drink preferences with an overwhelming sense of passion, sincerity and pride.
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One fact we love is that no food goes to waste. Any food untouched by passengers -- especially during the buffet-style breakfasts and lunches -- is offered to the crew members in addition to the special meals cooked for them onboard. Leftovers from passenger plates are gathered and distributed to local farmers for their livestock.
The Dining Room (Deck 2): Avalon Saigon's only true dining venue is tucked away toward the back of the ship on the second deck. It's bright, cozy and modern with rustic flair, as the back wall is made up of gorgeous, intricately carved woodwork, created by local artisans; two paintings depicting daily life in Southeast Asia are found on the other side. (Avalon commissioned local artists to produce all the artwork throughout the ship.) Windows stretch the length of both side walls, flooding the room with natural light and scenery.
In the center of the dining room sits a small oval display table used for salads, soups, fruit and vegetables, juices and other side dishes during the buffet-style breakfast and lunch services. There's also a buffet-style table along the back wall, where chefs offer hot items and made-to-order dishes during breakfast and lunch. Dinner is the only sit-down service, where neither the center display table nor the hot table are used and diners order off a menu. Seating arrangements include four round tables seating six each, and eight square two-tops against the wall that can be combined for larger groups.
Breakfast is available early in the morning, so passengers have enough time to eat and get ready for the first excursion. The hot table usually features items like French toast, herb-crusted potatoes, grilled seasoned tomatoes and oatmeal, with the option for made-to-order eggs, pancakes and other items. On the center table, you'll find assorted fruit, yogurt, cold meats like smoked prosciutto and salmon with the fixings (capers, cream cheese and onions), and a variety of pastries. Juices, such as orange, peach, guava and grape, also can be found there. The most popular drink choices include naturally brewed ginger tea and Vietnamese iced coffee -- a guaranteed wake-up call.
Also buffet-style, lunch is served onboard every day between excursions. During this time, the standout item at the hot bar is usually a made-to-order Cambodian or Vietnamese noodle soup that rotates daily. You can order a vegetarian option or select one of a few proteins like chicken, beef and fish; then dress it up with your choice of toppings. Other hot lunch items might include pasta, a local meat dish, greens like spinach or beans, and mashed potatoes. The center table offers salads, assorted vegetables and fruit, a cheese and cracker board, hot and cold soups, and finger sandwiches.
For dinner, passengers sit down for a four-course meal (starter, soup, main, dessert) that tends to turn into a long affair -- especially with the endless flow of complimentary wine and beer. Each course includes at least one Western option. Starters might feature an apple raisin cocktail or Khmer (Cambodian) shrimp salad, while soups range from tomato and pumpkin bisque to Vietnamese oxtail and khao poun (Cambodian spiced pork).
There are usually five choices for the main course, with items running the gamut from a duck and bean curd hot pot and Vietnamese spicy spaghetti to one of the Western choices, which always include chicken, salmon or tomato pasta. Among the desserts usually on offer are a cheese plate and fruit selection, plus rotating treats like Key lime pie and ice cream with warm cherries. Side dishes, breads and included drinks also are listed on the menus. Always noted are vegetarian and heart-healthy options, as well as chef's recommendations. Passengers should make special dietary requests when the cruise is booked and check in with the cruise director once onboard.
Panorama Lounge (Deck 2): Down the hall from the dining room, the Panorama Lounge serves pastries, tea, coffee and juices for early risers. The bar also has three large jars of light snacks, including cookies, dried fruit and nuts, which are perfect for munching on throughout the day. At night, during the pre-dinner cocktail hour, the lounge serves hors d'oeuvres, such as spring rolls, fish balls and rice chips to accompany the free drink of the day. Bear in mind: If you order wine, beer or other spirits during cocktail hour, it will cost you since those drinks are only covered during meals.