By: Dana Woods, Senior Travel Consultant, CTA Certified
We arrived at Saigon’s Ho Chi Minh airport in Vietnam just after 10:00pm. We applied for e-visas several weeks prior to departure, so upon arrival, the process to receive our Vietnam tourist visa stamp took less than 10 minutes. After sailing effortlessly through immigration, we collected our luggage, met our Avalon representative in the baggage area, and we were enroute to our hotel within what seemed like only 45 minutes of landing.
Upon our arrival at the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon –a deluxe hotel located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, we were served refreshing fruit drinks while the Avalon representative checked us in and distributed “meet” instructions for the next morning.
Our daily Buffet Breakfast included an immense variety of fresh fruits, omelets made to order, meats, vegetables, fresh juices, pastries & sushi. Our hotel was located within walking distance of many historical sights, including Ho Chi Minh Square & the famous Rex Hotel. Outside, the streets buzzed with thousands of motorbikes, commonly carrying families of 4 or even 5. Infants, toddlers, and family pets balanced on the seats or stood on the narrow floor board between the driver and steering controls, as if it was second nature. On the last day of our stay in Ho Chi Minh, from my seat on the motorcoach, I looked upon a small family consisting of a man, a woman and a swaddled newborn on a motorbike! I thought to myself, “she must really trust his driving skills”. The day’s sights were filled with contrasts. We walked to the Notre Dame Cathedral, Gustav Eiffel’s Central Post Office, and continued along DongKhoiStreet, which was built by the French in 1865. I had no idea how much the French influenced architecture in Vietnam history. My good friend and colleague who is Vietnamese, told me the French brought the alphabet to Vietnam. There is also a clear illustration of Russia’s influence, as the streets were lined with the Soviet Union red flag that bears the golden hammer & sickle which I also found surprising.
For lunch, we participated in a fun Vietnamese cooking class at the Saigon Cultural Arts Center, where I earned my chef’s degree. After lunch, we visited the Reunification Palace, which served as both home and workplace for the President of South Vietnam, and during the Vietnam War, it was utilized as a “war room” and provided refuge for foreign reporters who congregated there.
While I anticipated the visit to our next scheduled sight, …nothing prepared me for the War Remnants Museum, where graphic images of battle scenes flooded me with emotions I could barely choke back.
The Cu Chi Tunnels amazed me! This 120 mile network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war, served as an underground secret village that enabled them to move around undetected, and surprise ambush vulnerable US troops. We were able to walk through a section to experience what it was like.
We walked back to the hotel and admired the window displays of the many luxury boutiques and shops along the way. Conveniently, the US Dollar is the major negotiated currency, and is dispensed from ATMs both in Vietnam and Cambodia.
We traveled by motor coach to the port on the Saigon River to embark on our Deluxe river cruise ship the Avalon Siem Reap, which was a well anticipated highlight for me. Our cruise director collected our passports and $50 US cash per person for processing Cambodia tourist visas that would take place at the border crossing later during our cruise. The cabin was decorated with a beautiful dark wood floor, huge bathroom and spacious shower. The large bed faced the river for panoramic views of life along the Mekong, through “wall to wall,” floor to ceiling sliding glass doors.
Life onboard was relaxed. The crew was both gracious and attentive. The food on board the ship was very good. The selections included both delicious Khmer cuisine and Western foods, which gave us the opportunity to try new local flavors or opt for a familiar choice.
The ship was equipped with a beautiful intimate boutique style spa, which offered mini spa treatments daily. I treated myself to a lovely relaxing pedicure that reminded me of my wonderful trip long after I returned home. Each day, the crew helped us disembark onto awaiting sampans or planks extended to the shore, and welcomed us back on board with ice cold hand towels and fresh Cambodian fruit drink concoctions to cool and refresh us.
On this particular day we boarded a beautiful sampan and cruised the CaiBe Habor. We visited a local establishment where we saw the manufacturing of rice paper, rice wine and rice candies. We also visited a fish farm near ChauDoc, and enjoyed the scenes of daily life, and bypassed several traditional Vietnamese floating markets along the river near Sa Dec. The day ended with a visit to the house of Mr. HuynhThuyLe, the lover of French novelist Marguerite Duras, whose torrid relationship served as inspiration for the film L’Amant. While crossing the Cambodian border, our cruise director seamlessly processed our tourist visas.
The next day, we awoke in the capital city of Phnom Penh, where we each hopped on our own private cyclo, to visit the Royal Palace. We entered the extravagant Silver Pagoda, with its floor made of 5 tons of gleaming silver. We continued on to visit the National Museum, which featured a fine collection of Khmer artifacts.
The remainder of the day gave us time to explore the city at leisure with an evening enhanced by the children from a local orphanage visiting our ship, and performing a lovely traditional Cambodian song and dance recital just before dinner. They were so sweet!
Today’s sights began with a glimpse of the atrocities inflicted on the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge rebel’s regime. We first visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was a former high school turned into a prison. We then drove a short distance outside Phnom Penh to Choeung EK, one of many Killing Field Memorial’s established by the government.
We visited the village of PrekBang Kong, where many families continue the well preserved tradition of silk weaving. Some of these modest homes had as many as eight silk weaving looms, for which the women pay an expensive fee to have a professional fabric designer set up each loom with intricately designed patterns, enabling them to churn out gorgeous silk fabrics for wholesale distribution. These women, and some men, straddle huge silk weaving looms for hours on end, day after day, and once the silk is all weaved, they purchase a new patterned design, new silk threads, and begin the process again.
The Wat Hanchey Temple dates back to the 8th century, and sits high on a hilltop where we were offered the option to walk the estimated mile up the steep incline, or take the motor coach. Once there, we took part in a traditional water blessing performed by the local monks. After lunch we arrived at the village of Angkor Ban, were we visited a local Khmer school and interacted with the children during their English lessons. The children were excited, and their teacher appeared very proud of his students, as they individually introduced themselves and informed us on what they wanted to become and the careers they aspire to have in the future. We integrated into the seats among them, each of us being surrounded by small groups of children, where we got acquainted and asked them “one on one” about their school. They exhibited great pride in showing us their illustrated lesson books while reading rhymes to us in English. They invited us to read aloud with them, and were delighted by our accents ranging from that of various US regions, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Britain origins.
The children were further amazed as we pointed out on their atlas the many countries we had collectively traveled from to meet them. I felt our visit opened the world to these young minds, and inspired them to believe their dreams of seeing other places beyond their own village.
We sailed by miles and miles of lush green shore line that hide the busy villages behind each grassy knoll. Each shore stop intrigued my curiosity about who we would meet next and what we would see or learn about each village’s dwellers.
At one village I saw, for the first, time a huge python snake in its natural habitat wrapped around a tree branch high above me. I was unnerved at the fact that there was no protective glass pane between us like at the zoo.
Further into the same village a young calf broke away from a group of cows in the yard of a private home, and made a beeline directly for me. I froze as it looked directly into my eyes. I thought “if this thing kicks me, my vacation is over”. Suddenly it screeched what sounded to me like a distress call for its mother, then turned back around and ran away, leaving me both amused and relieved.
The village children possess an authentic joy and welcoming curiosity, which tugged at my heart strings. I have found that the children in many of the villages we visited are learning English in hopes of getting good jobs and make good lives for themselves. In many of the villages, they greeted us as we disembarked the ship and immediately engaged in conversations using their English.
If a traveling tourist felt inclined to contribute to the continuing education of these children, I would encourage them to bring a small quantity of school supplies such as pencils, pencil sharpeners, pens, paper, coloring books, crayons & markers. Donations from a few individuals from within our group were warmly appreciated. Additionally, individually wrapped candies, supplied from our tour director, brought smiles all around, so this might be something to consider including in your packing list as well.
On the final day of the cruise we disembarked from our ship and bid a fond farewell to the crew. Our flight between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap was seamless, as our bags were taken to the airport ahead of our arrival via motor coach, which was a very nice perk.
Upon arrival in Siem Reap, we started our sightseeing of the Temples of Angor, which began with the most famous temple, Angkor Wat. We went on to Banteay Srei. We were then taken for a lovely lunch and, checked into our beautiful hotel, the Victoria Angkor Resort, with architecture and design reminiscent of an era from the set of the movie Indiana Jones. I half expected Harrison Ford and Cate Blanchett to be sitting in the lobby.
The next stop was TaProhm, where massive tree roots grew over, and through the ruin walls. We shared the road in our tuk-tuks with the elephants on the way to the temples and wild monkeys frolicked along the tree lined streets as we passed by.
Lastly, we stopped at the Les ArtisansD’Angkor, a development project that teaches traditional handicraft techniques to young adults. These children are contributing to the restoration of many of the ruins of the Angkor temples, which was quite impressive. Their restoration work was seen in various areas during our temple visits.
In the evening for our farewell dinner, we enjoyed a private Apsara Dance performance where the ancient Khmer culture is feature through talented dancers, singers and musicians.
This trip was by far the most memorable and dear to me yet.
Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong River – Northbound
Senior Travel Consultant, CTA Certified
Tour and River Cruise Specialist
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