There are cruise ships that sail various destinations, and then there are cruise ships built specifically for destinations. Avalon Saigon represents the latter -- and the destination is what this cruise is all about.
The 36-passenger river vessel, like its nearly identical sister Avalon Siem Reap, has a lower height and flat roof that allow it to fit under bridges and power lines most other ships can't, opening up the ability to cruise to and from Vietnam's most bustling city, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). This makes for effortless pre- and post-cruise stays, ultimately eliminating travel time in tour buses that otherwise would be required to access the city.
Beyond its unassuming yet efficient exterior (Avalon Saigon is by no means a sleek, modern-looking vessel), the ship provides a lavish, cozy oasis from which to relish the scenery and access the depths of the Mekong River, between Saigon and Siem Reap, Cambodia. While moseying along, cruisers can kick back in a beautifully appointed, glass-enclosed lounge flooded with natural light or a covered outdoor deck at the front of the ship, all while enjoying complimentary beverages -- one of several cruise fare inclusions.
Even in the cabins, views can't be missed, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows that stretch the entire length of one wall, and beds facing out to the water -- an Avalon Waterways staple that has earned awards. Beds can be configured as either one queen or two twins; there are no cabins with options for more than two passengers.
Design-wise, the ship boasts modern furnishings with Asian touches, such as decorative woodwork, paintings and sculptures created by local artists, and photographs of scenes from the region. Dark wood floors contrast with cream-colored walls, while floral-patterned linens and area rugs add pops of color throughout the ship.
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However, the most captivating aspect of an Avalon Saigon cruise is the destination. Cruisers have a chance to explore both more developed cities and smaller, remote villages -- some seemingly untouched by tourism -- throughout Vietnam and Cambodia (and possibly even Thailand, depending on your itinerary). We sailed from Saigon to Siem Reap -- on the Lower Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake -- with tours and enrichment focusing primarily on the culture and history of Vietnam and Cambodia, led by guides from both countries.
Cruisers with mobility issues should be warned that neither the ship nor the shore excursion programming is designed for people who require wheelchairs or other mobility aids. The ship is not equipped with an elevator or accessible cabins. Additionally, most of the remote villages visited have no roads; where roads exist, infrastructure is poor, with uneven roads and damaged sidewalks.
Active baby boomers from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand tend to make up the majority of Avalon Saigon passengers, but occasionally you'll see some Gen-Xers onboard. While many tend to be seasoned travelers drawn to more off-the-beaten-path itineraries, Avalon Saigon also hosts a number of American Vietnam War veterans who wish to return to Vietnam for the history aspect, as well as the opportunity to meet a retired Viet Cong captain -- one of the standout experiences outlined on Avalon Waterways' Mekong River itineraries. (Note: The term "Viet Cong" has a negative connotation in Vietnam, so locals prefer the term "Vietnamese Communist.") Although children are permitted to sail, they're rarely seen due to the itinerary's mature nature.
You'll want to leave the formalwear and dress shoes at home because they won't be necessary. Avalon Saigon's dress code is super casual, with passengers sporting light, comfortable, loose-fitting clothing day and night. Passengers are even encouraged to wear flip-flops or their room slippers around the ship. (After shore excursions, passengers are required to remove their footwear for cleaning before boarding the ship.) Given the hot, wet climate, good items to pack include linen pants or capris, T-shirts, long cotton dresses and rain jackets. Scarves also are great to have on hand for cool nights, but bear in mind they're not sufficient for the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh or temples in the Angkor region, where covering the shoulders and knees is required. Sleeves are a must; you'll be denied entry if you're in a tank top, even if your shoulders are covered by a scarf.
The cruise fare covers your accommodations, all shore excursions (including tips for drivers and guides), all meals and most beverages onboard, and a pre- and post-cruise stay at a luxury hotel. (Cruisers can also choose to book just the sailing sans pre- and post-cruise stays.)
Among the beverages included are unlimited local beer and local spirits, soft drinks, coffee, tea, bottled water, wine at lunch and dinner, and a cocktail of the day. We loved our "border colada," a local twist on a pina colada, which was served as we crossed the Vietnam-Cambodia border at sunset.
Extras, such as spa treatments, gratuities, visa fees, airfare and transfers, are not included. Avalon's suggested tip rates are $7 to $9 per person per day for the cruise director and $10 to $12 per person per day for the crew. Cruisers have the option to prepay tips with a credit card before their cruise, or after the cruise with cash. As always, passengers are welcome to tip more than the suggested amounts for exceptional service.
The local currency onboard is the U.S. dollar, which also is accepted by most stores, restaurants and vendors on land, but they require crisp bills with no tears or blemishes. We recommend bringing smaller bills (10s, 5s and 1s) since you'll likely receive change in local currency. Bigger cities like Saigon, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have ATMs if you run out of cash. Most restaurants also accept Visa or MasterCard credit cards.
Shopping aside, you might also want to have some cash on hand for optional donations during shore excursions, where you can buy school supplies for a local classroom visit or donate an offering to Buddhist monks who perform a traditional water blessing on passengers.