By: Aga Olewinska Senior Certified Travel Associate
Vietnam and Cambodia have been on my bucket list for a while therefore last December I decided to take the “Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong River” cruise with my husband. We took two cruises with Avalon few years ago and we loved them so much that we decided to book another one. This land / river package starts in Ho Chi Minh and ends in Siem Reap with 7 days aboard the Avalon Siem Reap; however, we have also added Hanoi and Ha Long Bay extension.
We started our trip in Hanoi where we spent two nights in the Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake hotel and it was a great beginning of our vacation. This luxury hotel is uniquely placed over the serene waters of West Lake, located just a few minutes away from Hanoi Famous Old Quarter.
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is known for its centuries- old architecture and a rich culture with Southwest Asian, Chinese and French influences. We visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison, took a cycle ride through the Old Quarter with its beautiful French colonial architecture and saw the famous water puppet performance. Next day we traveled through the fertile countryside to stunning Ha Long Bay, the place known for its amazing emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rainforest. Our small group really enjoyed the cruise and the VIP treatment! There were only 8 of us and the boat capacity was 40! It was such a relaxing cruise with a delicious lunch!!! And it was so nice to escape from hectic pace of life in Hanoi and enjoy the tranquil, beautiful Ha Long Bay…
Another thing I liked about taking this extension with Avalon was staying overnight in Ha Long Bay. Many other tour operators offer this tour as a day trip from Hanoi which is about 3.5 hours away…It must be really exhausting. We were very happy to stay in a nice hotel with great food and very affordable SPA services.
I think that visiting Ha Long Bay is a must! It is too picturesque to miss and it is as spectacular as people say.
After visiting the northern part of Vietnam we flew to Ho Chi Minh City which is so much different from Hanoi. Hanoi is more traditional, less westernized and in my opinion it gives you more “authentic” Vietnam experience. Hanoi locals seem to be living a more traditional style of life compared to those in Ho Chi Minh City, so you feel more like you are in “old” Vietnam. But I also loved a very modern, busy and fascinating Ho Chi Minh City and I think that comparing both of them is like comparing Sydney and Melbourne or Beijing and Shanghai. Both cities are much different in terms of atmosphere and feel and choosing which one is “better” is just a matter of personal preference.
In Ho Chi Minh City we stayed in the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon hotel. It is a great hotel with a perfect location and amazing buffet breakfast.
We started our city tour next day with a morning walking tour that included the most famous and historic landmarks of the city. In the afternoon we visited the War Remnants Museum which has exhibits relating to the Vietnam War including posters, photographs, US armored vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons. It was a very moving and very informative visit.
Lunch was included that day but we didn’t expect that we would have to make it! The tour director took us to a Vietnamese cooking class where we made a chicken dish, Vietnamese spring rolls and a noodle soup. We had so much fun and the food was delicious…. well, at least for some of us.
Next day we left the city to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. During the Vietnam War the tunnel system stretched from the South Vietnamese capital to the Cambodian border and it included countless trapdoors, constructed living areas, command centers, storage facilities, weapon factories, bomb shelters, field hospitals and kitchens with concealed chimneys. We also had the opportunity to walk through the actual tunnels, which was a must-to-do experience for me.
After enjoying Ho Chi Minh for a few days it was time to begin our wonderful cruise along the Mekong River.
Avalon Waterways’ new ship on the Mekong River, the Avalon Siem Reap, is an all-suite intimate vessel allowing only 36 passengers. It is smaller than most other ships on the Mekong and because of that it is able to go to many places where the larger boats can’t. The small size also allows Avalon to float across muddy Tonle Sap Lake during the summer and fall trips, moving the vessel close to Siem Reap in Cambodia where you spend additional 2 nights. We were there in December so we couldn’t cross the lake as the water level was too low but Avalon booked for us a plane so we didn’t have to travel up to 7 hours by bus like clients of other riverboats.
I have to say that I was truly amazed by the luxury of this beautiful ship! The cabins were huge and everything was 5 star.
Breakfast and lunch were buffet- style and there were four to six course dinners. The food was plentiful and delicious, there was nothing to complain about. The cuisine was mostly Asian but Western options were available too. Bottles of water were plentifully supplied for each cabin.
During the day local beer, spirits and sodas were included and wine was served with dinner. There is no dress code on the ship. You can wear casual clothes at all times but most of the passengers changed clothes for dinner.
Some nights after dinner we had an info session on our destination or we watched a movie that explained the history of our destination, like Good Morning Vietnam, or the Killing Fields. This was a great way to show and help us understand the intricate details of their history.
The staff on the ship was amazing. Within a few hours they knew everyone by name and after every excursion they met us with a drink, cold towels and happy faces. They even cleaned the mud from our shoes! These friendly, carrying, helpful and lovely people made this wonderful cruise even more special. Our cruise director and local guides were well organized and knowledgeable of local areas and attractions.
The cruise itinerary was very enriching as you do become immersed in local crafts, culture and tradition. We stopped at amazing small villages along the way, both in Vietnam and Cambodia.
During our excursions we met a lot of locals and we could watch their everyday lives- making rice paper, bricks, silver products or snake wine. We visited a fish farm, a village where women have been hand- weaving silk for generation, a Buddhist temple where we took part in in a traditional water blessing by local monks and a school where kids were able to practice their English. We also had children from a local orphanage coming to the ship to perform traditional Khmer dances. Their performance was truly amazing! What was also important to me is that it gave me the opportunity to support these underprivileged kids.
Our wonderful cruise ended in Phnom Penh and we continued to Siem Reap where we stayed 2 more nights. Siem Reap is a gateway to an ancient world and the ruins of Angkor, the old capitol of the Khmer kingdom from the 9th -15th centuries. During our stay we visited with our local guide many different temples including the best preserved and most famous of all of them, Angkor Wat.
This trip has opened my eyes up to so many wonderful things, yet at the same time, so many tragedies. Learning about the destruction that the Khmer Rouge set upon the Cambodian people, and seeing the killing fields where so many innocent people lost their lives and loved ones will haunt me forever. In the Genocide museum, we got to meet one of the 7 survivors of the 21 concentration camp, and learn, firsthand about how that impacted his life and his country.
Anyone who wants to be immersed in fascinating Asian culture and really see what life along the Mekong is like would love this cruise. This journey created memories that will stay with me forever!