AmaWaterways’ AmaLotus moored mid-stream last night just off of the picturesque Vietnamese town of Sa Dec. Modernization is much more obvious here than in Cambodia; on our boat journey from the AmaLotus into town for the start of our morning walking tour, cranes and excavators could be seen working on the harbor.
But before we disembarked the ship for a day of adventures ashore, I once again made my way to the Saigon Lounge – as has become my custom – for a cup of coffee at 6 a.m. I don’t know what kind of coffee is used aboard the AmaLotus, but it sure is good. It’s strong and flavorful without being overpowering, and it’s nice that coffee and cookies are available both in the Lounge and one deck up on the Sun Deck every morning from 6 onward.
Today, guests aboard the AmaLotus were treated to two amazing adventures: a morning walking tour of the local market in Sa Dec combined with a visit to the home of French author Marguerite Duras; and an afternoon excursion to Cai Be to see rice paper and candy manufacturing, along with the town’s unique French Gothic cathedral.
As on AmaWaterways’ European river cruise excursions, guests had the option to choose between the morning tour in Sa Dec and a much longer, extended morning tour that also included a visit to nearby Xeo Quyt by motorcoach. Running until well after 1 p.m., this expanded tour also included a visit to one of the last remaining jungles to have been occupied by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War that ran for nearly 20 years between 1955 and 1975.
I opted for the long tour. My thoughts whenever I visit a place is that if I’ve traveled thousands of kilometers to be there, I may as well make the most of it. However, I think it’s great that AmaWaterways continues to offer varying types and lengths of tours, as that provides guests with the ability to make the choice that suits them best.
Ashore in Sa Dec, our respective groups took a stroll through the busy local market. Here, we got a look at the numerous kinds of things that were available for purchase – everything from fruits to spices to meats of all kinds.
There’s plenty of fish here, and the market is packed in the early morning hours with the fishmongers doing their thing. Snake blood is prized in this part of the world, so it wasn’t too much of a shock to see a woman, hands soaked in a sea of red, bleeding snakes.
What was fascinating to me was to see the shocked reactions on some of my fellow traveler’s faces when, for example, they came upon things like rats, or spiders, for sale. The reason I say that is because while it is different and exotic from what we’re used to, I am not sure I can say with a straight conscience that the make up of our food – North American food – is any better. I mean, what’s in a hot dog? Does anyone really know? Or in soup that has “formed meat chunks.” Perhaps, in North America, we’re just better at hiding what’s in our food by smothering it with 16 different kinds of cheeses and then baking it five or six times over.
Regardless of whether you’d partake in some of the more exotic foods or not, a stroll through Sa Dec’s market is exhilarating. At the end of it, we conveniently came to our next stop: the home of Marguerite Duras.
Duras lived in Sa Dec between 1928 and 1932. Here, she met Huynh Thuy Le, the son of a wealthy Chinese family. The two became involved in a passionate love affair that would become the basis for her award-winning 1984 novel, The Lover, as well as the 1992 Jean-Jacques Annaud film of the same name. In fact, the near-sister-ship to AmaLotus, La Marguerite, is named after the author.
If you’ve never seen The Lover, you should – it is a movie about a forbidden romance, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it was filmed right where we were today, at the actual house of Huynh Thuy Le. Formerly used as a reception house for a branch of the Vietnamese government, it has only been open to the public since 2009.
After our brief visit, the folks who had elected to return to the AmaLotus left and were guided back to the waiting boats that would take them to the ship, while those like me continuing on were brought swiftly aboard two motorcoaches that would take us on the hour-long, 53-kilometer journey to Xeo Quyt.
Used as a base during the Vietnam War, the jungle at Xeo Quyt is surprisingly dense. Although sheltered from the force of the sun, it is considerably hotter inside the jungle than it is outside due to the humidity.
Although the pathways have been modernized for tourists, many of these are raised as much as two meters off the ground and have no handrails, so it is important to watch your step, lest you end up in the murky abyss below.
There are still party tents and command bases that remain here, as they were used by the Viet Cong. There are also underground tunnels, bunkers, and fox holes that help to illustrate just how formidable the jungle terrain was here, and how well the Vietnamese knew how to use it to their advantage.
We walked for an hour on a circular route through the jungle, even passing a section of land fenced off with razor wire and dotted with signs stating that land mines could be present beyond the fence.
Coming here also helps to understand what the American soldiers who were sent here during the Vietnam War were up against: a climate unlike anything they had ever experienced. Terrain that was totally foreign to them. And Vietnamese soldiers willing to do whatever it took to prevent the Americans from achieving their goals.
It was a revealing and eye-opening hour.
After our tour, we enjoyed a relaxing ride back to the AmaLotus, where we had just enough time to enjoy lunch before setting out to our next adventure: a tour of Cai Be.
At lunch, I restricted myself to the local specialties, which were tremendous. Vietnamese-styled soups and dishes, all with no nuts. I even had a local Vietnamese beer. One of the best aspects of river cruising: all the local ingredients and specialties, served within the comfort of a ship where you unpack once and don’t need to worry about the logistics of transportation.
But during lunch, dark clouds had been building. By the time my Blue Group was called, the skies were threatening to open up at any moment.
And did they ever!
Halfway across the river on our boat ride into Cai Be, it started raining harder than I had ever seen it. The Monsoon Season was in full swing. But – because everyone on the AmaLotus had reminded us constantly to take either an umbrella or a poncho, I just ripped open my poncho pack and started to put it on.
The rain was coming in sideways at this point, but did I care? No. In fact, I felt better during the rain in the afternoon than I had all morning, because the humidity suddenly evaporated. Not everyone in my group appeared to agree, and there was suddenly a huge push to go back to the AmaLotus and scrap touring altogether, which I and about three others strongly resisted.
I flew 12,000 kilometers to see Vietnam, and I’d be darned if a downpour was going to stop me. Plus, I was already soaked, so it didn’t really matter much.
To satisfy everyone, our tour guide re-arranged things so that we toured the rice paper and candy factories first before walking the short distance to the French Gothic cathedral. It was a plan that worked perfectly, as the worst of the rain had let up by then.
At the factories, we were invited to sample traditional coconut candy, freshly made rice paper rolls, and to enjoy some jasmine tea, which was superb. We also had the opportunity to try what’s known as the “Asian Viagra” — Snake Wine, or Rượu thuốc, literally meaning “medicinal liquor.” Large, venomous snakes are inserted into an enormous cask of rice wine and are left to steep there for many months.
The one I, along with a few others, tried was made from Cobras. The alcohol neutralizes the deadly properties of the cobra venom, while the cobra blood is thought to have curing effects for everything from hair loss to sexual dysfunction. I didn’t notice anything different about my constitution afteward, but I do have to say: It tasted mighty good, and went down as smooth as a fine glass of scotch.
Some images from the afternoon:
This evening was a bittersweet one, as it marked our last night aboard the beautiful AmaLotus. Shipboard accounts could be settled in cash from 1:30 to 6 p.m., or by cash or credit card from 8 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. It was an easy and efficient process, but if you plan on paying by credit card, ensure you have a PIN-enabled one. I met one fellow traveller who had to go and get cash from her stateroom because her non-PIN credit card would not go through.
Tonight, there was a traditional folkloric presentation in the Mekong Lounge, followed by the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail & Crew Presentation. This was followed by another sumptuous, multi-course meal in the Mekong Restaurant. I know there’s the old joke about people on cruises doing nothing but eating, but I have to say I’ve looked forward to dinners more aboard the AmaLotus than on any ship I can think of, save for perhaps those on Silversea ships.
Tomorrow, we arrive in the Vietnamese port of My Tho, near Ho Chi Minh City, and although our cruise will come to a close in just a few short hours, there’s still another day of adventures ahead on this great journey down the Mekong.