Vietnam and Cambodia are lands of ancient temples, magical landscapes, sprawling rice fields, friendly people, and painful history.
They are developing countries emerging after years of wars and brutal regimes. The best way to explore these lands and get a glimpse into a disappearing way of life, is with a Mekong River cruise and land excursion combination.
We recently traveled with AMA Waterways on a 7 day Mekong River sail with pre-cruise visits to Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Siem Reap, and concluding with a stop in the bustling city Ho Chi Minh, also known as Saigon.
Here are some highlights from these exotic far away lands:
Hanoi is a vibrant and bustling city with large boulevards dating back to the 18th century French colonial empire. The downtown area is abuzz with thousands of crisscrossing motor-bikes and zooming scooters in a frenzy of noise and tumult.
We visit the Temple for Literature, Vietnam’s first university, established in 1073. Today it is a sprawling complex of beautiful courtyards and manicured gardens, topiary, shrines and temples.
The tour continues with a stop at the vast Ba Dinh Square, home to the monumental Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.
The highlight of the city tour is a visit to the former Hoa Lo Prison, now a museum dedicated to the suffering of the Vietnamese under the French rule. This is also the site of the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where John McCain and other American POWs were incarcerated during the Vietnam War. McCain’s parachute and equipment are prominently showcased.
During our Hanoi visit we stay at the historic Sofitel Legend Metropole, a French Colonial style hotel in the heart of the city serving travelers and dignitaries since 1901. The hotel’s elegant rooms surround a tranquil interior courtyard with a swimming pool and a glass enclosed cafe. The Metropole features several dining venues including the gourmet French restaurant Le Beaulieu, the Vietnamese Spices Garden, and the Italian Angelina.
HA LONG BAY, Vietnam
A three and a half hour drive from the city brings us to one of Vietnam’s most treasured landmarks, the spectacular Ha Long Bay. This UNESCO heritage site is famous for its dramatic limestone cliff formations and its thousands of islands and islets that dot the tranquil sea.
We experience this magical place via a two day one night cruise on the Indochina, a wooden ship with luxurious rooms and amenities.
On the first day, we visit a floating fishing village of about 600 residents who live in rudimentary houseboats. We board tiny row boats and have a close up glimpse into the villagers daily life.
In the morning, we anchor in a picturesque bay surrounded by rugged islands that soar into the blue sky. We hike up a mountain to the Cave of Surprises, a million-year-old cavern system with stalactites and beautiful rock formations. We take in stunning views of the bay, boats and the rocky outcrops that rise from the sea.
After a short flight from Hanoi we land in Siem Reap, the gateway city to the Angkor Archeological Park, the largest religious complex in the world. A UNESCO heritage site, Angkor is home to many temples built by the powerful Khmer monarchs who ruled the area from the 11th through the 13th century.
On our first day we explore Angkor Thom the ancient Khmer capital. Its center piece is the Bayon Temple, a stone edifice with towers adorned with 216 gigantic smiling faces. The limestone temple was built exclusively for ceremonial purposes, and the inner rooms contained statues of deities that were looted throughout the centuries.
In the afternoon, we watch the sun setting over the Banteay Srei, a pink sandstone temple with beautiful carvings and picturesque structures.
The following day, we head to the most important temple, Angkor Wat, a breathtaking sprawling complex surrounded by a moat and majestic exterior walls. Its iconic lotus flower shaped towers are the symbol of Angkor and Cambodia. The temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, is considered to be the largest religious monument in the world. We climb the steep stairs to the upper levels and from this high vantage point comprehend the staggering size of this majestic compound.
Next, we visit the Ta Prohm temple, a building surrounded and taken over by a fast growing jungle of fig and silk-cotton trees. It is the site where the movie Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie was filmed.
SIEM Reap, Cambodia
The city of Siem Reap has a colonial charm, an exotic air as if it emerged from a movie set. We take a motorized rickshaw, called Tuk-Tuk, and ride through the busy streets. In the old market we stroll by tiny stalls that offer everything from fruits and vegetables to household items and clothing.
We stop at Artisan Angkor, a workshop and store that offers sculptures, lacquer boxes, silk scarves and clothing, and colorful home accessories.
In Siem Reap we stay at the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra, a posh 5 star hotel with flowering tropical gardens, sprawling lotus ponds, and shady causeways. The soaring lobby is elegantly decorated with chandeliers, attic fans and hard wood carvings. The rooms are spacious and appointed with luxurious amenities. It is hard to believe that only a few years ago the area was a rice field.
The itinerary includes a lavish buffet served in the hotel’s outdoor courtyard accompanied by a colorful Cambodian dance show. We also experience the hotel’s signature restaurant, Mouhot’s Dream, considered the best restaurant in Siem Reap. The chef offers a la carte dining or a tasting menu. The tuna sashimi with seared duck foie gras, and the scallops with Thai eggplant and sweet potato curry are not to be missed.
Cruising On The AMALOTUS
The cruise segment of our trip begins in Siem Reap where we board the Amalotus for a seven day trip down the Tonle Sap River towards the Mekong Delta and Saigon.
The Amalotus is a three story, elegant ship that accommodates up to 124 passengers. The decor, inspired by Indochina’s colonial past, is accented with dark wood floors, carvings and lattice work throughout.
The main gathering place is the Saigon Lounge where guests enjoy relaxed afternoons, daily briefings and on board entertainment.
The top level of the ship features a sun deck with cushy chaises and a small wading pool. There are bars in the lounge and on the top deck where guests can enjoy complimentary soft drinks, beer, and house cocktails. Premium liquors are offered at a charge.
The bright and spacious cabins feature a small terrace and a French window and are accented with carved wood headboards and furniture. Bathrooms are modern with glass enclosed showers and Toto toilets.
The Mekong Restaurant serves three daily meals; buffet breakfast with American and Asian selections, including a daily Pho soup, a la carte lunch, with a salad bar, and a la carte dinner. The cuisine is Asian and Western with nods to regional influences and ingredients. There are also “standing order” dishes such as burgers, pasta and grilled salmon and chicken. Complimentary red and white wines are offered with lunch and dinner.
After dinner there is on board entertainment such as a children’s dance group from a local school, a dance troupe from the Mekong Delta and a crew talent show.
The ship is serviced by a friendly, eager to please crew of Cambodians and Vietnamese.
While life on board is relaxing and enjoyable, the exciting part of this cruise is the itinerary and close up access to the people and sites along the way.
Kampong Chhnang and Koh Chen
The Amalotus anchors midstream on the river and we are ferried with a local boat around floating villages. We see the life of the people, cooking, cleaning fish, rolling in hammocks or washing their clothes. The villagers are mostly fisherman, raising fish in cages or catching them with nets. They sell them at the market, smoke them or make fish paste, a mandatory ingredient of the Cambodian cuisine.
We stroll through a market and pass by stalls offering sugar cane, rice, teeth whitening leaves, soups, boiled duck eggs with the chick inside, and more.
In the afternoon we stop in Koh Chen, a village whose inhabitants specialize in silver and copper artisan works. The villagers live in small houses on stilts, many on the river bank, where they wash themselves and their clothes. On the ground level, under the stilts there is a “kitchen” area with a rudimentary hearth with pots, pans, and spices. We walk through the village followed by cheerful children in black and white school uniforms, while accompanied by the incessant hammering of the copper and silver smiths.
Oudong, once the capital of Cambodia, is home to Cambodia’s biggest Buddhist monastery, Vipassana Dhura.
We visit the huge, ornate building, stop for a monk’s blessing, and continue exploring the sprawling, manicured property. The monastery is inhabited by 80 monks and about 200 male and female nuns. In a separate hall, the nuns prepare and distribute donated food to the monks who are not allowed to eat solids after their 11 am meal.
Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh is the seat of the government and home to the country’s elite.
Our tour includes a visit to the Royal Palace complex. We stop at the Silver Pagoda, named for its silver floor tiles, where we admire a gold Buddha statue that weights 199 lbs. and is decorated with 2,086 diamonds. We visit the throne room, used for dignitaries and royal official functions, and we stroll along manicured gardens taking in the majestic golden structures.
We also stop at the central market, a huge complex where one can buy everything from live fish and chickens to fake Gucci bags and Rolex watches.
The afternoon is dedicated to Cambodia’s genocide, the period from 1975 to 1979, when the Pol Pot regime tortured and murdered over 2,000,000 citizens, mostly the country’s professionals, intellectuals, and anyone suspected of connections with previous governments.
We start with a visit to the countryside, and to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. We walk by muddy mass graves where we see bone fragments of the thousands of people executed and buried here. A monument to the victims displays hundreds of skulls found in the fields.
We continue our tour to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, once the S21 Detention Center. Located in a former school building, the place served as a jail where over 17,000 people were tortured and made to confess to crimes against the state and to denounce their neighbors and family members. All the incarcerated prisoners where executed except a handful who survived. One of them was an artist whose paintings of torture and horrific daily life in the prison are displayed throughout the museum.
The Mekong Delta
The delta is home to millions of people whose lives follow the ebb and flow of the river. An agrarian society for centuries, the locals live in small houses on stilts to allow for the yearly floods. When the water rises they become fishermen and catch or raise still water fish. As the river recedes it leaves behind a layer of fertilizing silt and the residents become rice farmers, engaging in the arduous work of planting, growing and harvesting their crops. When the river reverses direction and seawater fills the riverbed, the enterprising Mekong people become salt water fishermen and raise shrimp.
We visit villages, floating markets and small factories; one making puffed rice candies, another weaving silk, and another manufacturing sleeping mats from river reeds.
SAIGON, HO CHI MIN CITY
We disembark in Saigon where as part of the land tour, we stay for 2 nights at the five star, centrally located hotel Saigon Sheraton. A sumptuous buffet lunch is included.
The city tour takes us to the Unification Palace, once the seat of South Vietnam presidents, and continues to the American War Remnants Museum, dedicated to the “American aggression” and the war’s legacy. It’s hard to watch, but every country writes its own history.
The city of Saigon however, has long forgotten the war. It is an emerging metropolis, where free market communism has brought in foreign investors and where local entrepreneurs are quick to cash in on the rising economy. Many of the streets are lined with expensive designer stores, while sidewalks team with food vendors, lottery ticket sellers, and other peddlers.
The avenue between the Opera building and the post office is lined with air conditioned shopping malls with international designer boutiques, not much different from luxury malls anywhere. Many hi rise office buildings are under construction, a sign of Vietnam’s economic boom.
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This exotic part of the world is changing right in front of our eyes, as these industrious nations hurtle into the future. A trip with Amalotus is a great way to have a close up peek into a disappearing world. www.amawaterways.com. ∆