This week’s guest review was submitted by Paulette Hannah. She and her husband recently returned from a Mekong cruise with AmaWaterways. Upon her return, Paulette reached out to us eager to share her experience. River Cruise Advisor encourages guest reviews. If you’ve been on a river cruise lately and would like to share your experiences with our readers, please contact us.
I just returned from a trip to Vietnam with AmaWaterways, and I’d like to share the highlights of my journey with you. I am new to river cruising, my first was on the Danube in late 2017. It was excellent, and set my expectations pretty high for this Mekong River trip.
A few years ago, I began hearing good things about Vietnam from other travelers, so I nudged it to the top of my bucket list for 2019. I believe a recommendation from a knowledgeable fellow traveler is just about the best assurance anyone can get, as there is no personal gain involved.
The full Mekong River itinerary from AmaWaterways includes seven nights of cruising bookended by a land package with luxury hotel accommodations in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Siem Reap. and Hanoi, plus a one-night stay onboard an “elegantly-appointed” ship on Ha Long Bay.
There are options for the cruise alone, or with three added days. If I’m going all that way I don’t want to skip anything, so I purchased the full 16-day Charms of the Mekong itinerary. AmaWaterways’ airfare was priced competitively and included all transfers so I added those as well. I hoped it would be worth the 22-hour flight in premium economy. AmaWaterways’ beautiful marketing brochure promised authentic experiences in rural villages and cultural immersion through guided excursions.
I was not disappointed; the excursions proved to be exactly as described. In fact, there was more to do and see than I could accomplish – things I had never done before, like riding an oxcart and a trishaw. We were taken through tiny canals to fishing and farming villages; to exotic temples; by tuk-tuk around capital cities; and we hiked above a beautiful bay and ventured down into a spectacular cave.
We did all these things up close and personal, seeing for ourselves how the remarkable people of Southeast Asia have survived through wars, colonialism, and occupation. Like the natural metamorphosis from caterpillars to beautiful butterflies, Vietnam and Cambodia appear to be in the process of transformation; you can just feel it. A juxtaposition of old and new surrounds you everywhere and these highly resilient people welcome you with open arms.
The trip began in Saigon for its history during the Vietnam War. The requisite tourist attractions occupied the first full day: the former Presidential Palace; the War Remnants museum; and the Cu Chi tunnels. After an early morning visit to the central Ben Thanh covered market, we headed to the port to board the AmaDara. If I knew I could get all I needed at the market, I would have left everything but my toothbrush at home – I’m serious.
Checking in to the AmaDara was a breeze. Our bags were delivered to our rooms for us, so we immediately began to explore the ship and discover culinary delights in the restaurant. I do like AmaWaterways’ policy that beverages are complimentary throughout the day for everything but wine. The AmaDara was new in 2015 but showed no signs of wear and tear.
Over the next week’s 270-mile water journey, we would experience a range of high and low emotions as we learned about the history of Vietnam and Cambodia. The local tour guides contributed greatly to our education. They shared incredible personal stories of how their families and friends struggled after the Vietnam War. They translated stories from survivors we met. They told us how optimistic the young people are today. They answered all of our questions with candor, intelligence, and a perspective that only comes from life experience.
The visual panoply of life along the Mekong River, practiced today as it has been done for generations, was jaw-dropping compared to modern life in America. I learned how vital the river is for 60 million people that depend on it for farming, fishing, and agriculture.
Back on the AmaDara near the end of each day, we were treated to spectacles of cooking demonstrations, traditional costumed dancers, karaoke, wine tastings, napkin folding, or piano music. There was always something special going on for our entertainment and participation.
We passed into Cambodia halfway through the cruise on our way to Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Archaeological Park, home of the astounding Angkor Wat Temple complex. Of the four temples we visited I found Ta Prohm the most intriguing, not because Angelina Jolie was filmed here; it just had a sense of place about it. We stumbled upon a bride and groom while there.
The late afternoon flight from Siem Reap after a half-day of temple exploration made for a long day with an extra hour’s drive from the Hanoi airport to the hotel. Everyone was pretty weary, but the Sofitel Legend Metropole upheld the high standards I’d gotten accustomed to by this point in the trip.
The next day I learned that crossing the street safely is a major feat. “Stay together like sticky rice!” our local guide exclaimed on our walking tour. It actually worked.
The bustle of Vietnam’s capital city would prove to be in stark contrast to the next and final excursion, an overnight stay on Ha Long Bay. I was not looking forward to the four-hour drive, but the motorcoach was comfortable and by now I had full confidence in AmaWaterways to deliver a unique and highly satisfying tour experience.
Looking back on the trip now, I chuckle at myself because I thought I was signing up for a river cruise, but I came away with a cultural education that broadened my perspective on the world. Vietnam is a remarkable place to visit. I hope you will make it there soon.
On a final note, I was so impressed with AmaWaterways on this tour for taking care of every little detail to ensure there was nothing for us to worry about. Maybe this is because they are family-owned and operated or perhaps they just care that much about repeat business (no, I’m not being paid to praise them, nor did I vote for any one cruise line as the best).
Yesterday I received a hand-written postcard from the cruise manager of the AmaDara thanking us for choosing AmaWaterways. It’s the details. – Paulette Hannah