Saying farewell to the Mekong in Ho Chi Minh City
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
After a journey that had taken us from Siem Reap, across Tonle Sap Lake and into the Mekong Delta, guests aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaLotus disembarked the ship for the last time this morning in the Vietnamese port of My Tho, 60 kilometres outside Ho Chi Minh City.
There’s a lot to be said for the way AmaWaterways has seamlessly scheduled everything on this river cruise; I finally figured out today that my Blue Group was entirely comprised of those of us who had elected just to join the river cruise portion of the trip, which is also available as a 16-day overland journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
Grouping guests by their itinerary and excursion options makes perfect sense – yet, the way they’ve arranged everything still allows you to connect with newfound friends made onboard the ship. All four busses whisked AmaLotus guests on a 90-minute drive to the Sheraton Saigon hotel in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1. From there, guests with other hotel arrangements could independently make their way to their next accommodations.
Sadly, my journey comes to an end here in Ho Chi Minh City, which I have learned is still called Saigon by nearly everyone. My flight back to Seoul aboard Korean Air leaves tonight at 11:40pm, and from there it’s onward to North America.
To be honest, not staying here in Saigon is the worst travel mistake I’ve made this year. Actually, not taking the full cruise tour offered by AmaWaterways is probably the worst mistake, if I am being completely honest about it. For my first-ever visit to Asia, I thought I’d hedge my bets and take the week-long cruise, and return again if I liked it.
There’s just one problem: I loved it.
I heard about some of the amazing experiences the guests who participated in the full overland journey from Hanoi had, like the opportunity to sail Ha Long Bay and overnight aboard a traditionally-themed “junk.” They also got to visit the ODA Free Village English School in Siem Reap that AmaWaterways set up in 2011 in conjunction with the Orphans and Disabled Arts Association of Cambodia.
However, I managed to make full use of my time here in Saigon. I got myself a day room at the Sheraton Saigon, which I’d classify as essential if you have a late-night flight. During my stay, the temperature outside was 28 degrees Celsius (82F) with humidity approaching 44 degrees Celsius (111.2F). If you plan on exploring, you’re also going to want to shower afterward. Your future seat-mates will thank you.
The Sheraton also gave guests a helpful little list of tips with their keycard:
- Ho Chi Minh City is generally safe, but there are reports of occasional pickpockets and bag snatching around the tourist areas. Please exercise precaution at all times.
- Please leave your valuables in the hotel safe deposit box or in your room safe and just take what you need when you go out.
- As the streets are busy, please cross the roads carefully and watch out for thieves on motorbikes you may snatch your belongings.
- There are illegal taxis parked around the tourist areas. Please contact our Concierge Desk on the ground floor (ext: 104/450) for recommendations of taxi companies.
- The taxi drivers generally don’t speak English. Please bring a map or the written address and ask our associates for assistance. Please carry small denominations of Vietnamese Dong as Taxis generally don’t have change.
- In case of emergency, please call our Guest Services Manager on 0903 005 133 for assistance.
The advice given in point number three is particularly important. In Saigon, you learn one thing very quickly: don’t ever stop or change direction while crossing the streets! The motorbikes will go around you.
I also managed to take in both the War Remnants Museum in District 3 and the Ben Thanh Market in District 1.
In the case of the museum, one of the most fascinating aspects is the collection of helicopters, aircraft and tanks belonging to the U.S. Military that are on display near the entrance. Visitors – particularly American ones – should be aware that the entire museum focuses very heavily on atrocities committed by the United States during the Vietnam War, while completely ignoring the war crimes that included Vietnamese involvement. It’s a very worthwhile museum to visit, but certain exhibits are definitely designed to provoke (and this coming from a Canadian.)
The Ben Thanh Market is an adventure in its own right. You can buy just about anything here, from clothing to shoes to wallets to food and electronics. The age-old system of bartering seems to be going out of style here, though; most vendors stuck to within a few dollars of the listed prices. Still, it’s quite the experience, particularly in some of the more narrow aisles.
The crowning point of my day was a trip with new friends up to the Level 23 Nightspot & Wine Bar located on the 23rd floor of the Sheraton Saigon. The windows here are open-air, allowing the breeze high above the city to waft into the room. It’s probably the coolest place (literally and figuratively) in the city, and it doesn’t hurt that it overlooks the Rex Hotel and its famous Foreign Correspondents Club, as well as the massive Bitexco Financial Tower that stands 68 floors above the earth and features its own cantilevered helipad on the 52nd floor.
After dinner at a local restaurant – which was a wonderfully fascinating experience to say the least – it was time to leave the Sheraton and Saigon behind.
The drive to Tan Son Nhat International Airport only took roughly 20 minutes, and by 9pm, I was checking in for my return journey at the Korean Air desk. From the Sheraton Saigon, it should only cost about $8 – but ensure you hail your taxi through the hotel. Unlicensed cabs congregate at major tourist spots, and they are famous for ripping off tourists.
Clearing security and immigration were relatively painless despite the fact that even at 9pm, the airport is quite busy. There are three flights to Seoul from Saigon tonight alone, all operated on widebody aircraft carrying over 250 people, and all leaving within five minutes of each other.
If you’ve never done a river cruise like this, you really should. It’s difficult for me to think of a better way to experience Cambodia and Vietnam for the first time than onboard the AmaLotus.
Of course, once you do – you’ll want to return again and again.