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Timeless Vietnam and Cambodia with Uniworld River Cruises

Thursday 5 November 2015

We had visited Vietnam on a sea cruise, but felt we had barely seen the country. So we were keen to go on the Mekong river through the heart of Vietnam and Cambodia, and particularly to see Angkor Wat at Siem Reap, Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnamese capital Hanoi.

We chose Uniworld's Timeless Vietnam and Cambodia because it included a Mekong voyage on an interesting ship, added luxury hotel stays in Ho Chi Minh City, Siem Reap and Hanoi, included a variety of excursions, and was essentially all-inclusive.

With Emirates flying from many regional airports, and with no desire to go near Heathrow, we took the Emirates overnight A380 from Manchester to Dubai, and then on to HCMC (Saigon) - splitting the journey into two equal segments.

Ho Chi Minh statue, Ho Chi Minh City Motor bikes in Ho Chi Minh City Hidden entrance, Cu Chi Tunnels Cai Be waterside and church Cai Be, rambutan fruit delivery Sa Dec, rice husk fuel delivery Sa Dec market Harvesting water hyacinths

With time differences we arrived at HCMC in early evening to be met by Uniworld and given a personal transfer to our hotel, the Park Hyatt Saigon in the centre of the city opposite the refurbished Opera House. We were impressed by our spacious room in this top quality hotel, and the choices at breakfast matched the appetites of guests from around the world.

Our Vietnamese tour manager, Binh, and the local guide, Nam, both spoke excellent English. Their first job was to explain how to cross the road! With 5 million motor bikes the main local transport, the buzzing traffic was an amazing sight. The secret was to walk, never stop, and let the bikes go around you! We also learnt that words in the Vietnamese language were one syllable, the longest word being 6 letters. Written letters were in Western roman characters.

Guided sightseeing in Ho Chi Minh City centre covered the main sights including the Ben Thanh central market, Notre Dame cathedral, the historic post office and the Reunification Palace (previously the South Vietnam Presidential Palace). The Vietnam War and its aftermath were graphically described in the War Remnants Museum, an included but optional visit. The day ended with an exclusive Uniworld dinner at Xu Restaurant, one of the best in HCMC.

Our next day took us to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels outside the city. The 150 miles of underground tunnels were the hiding place of Viet Cong during the war, and are a fascinating insight into how they lived despite regular bombings. Following a special Uniworld lunch at the Ly Club, we took the road to My Tho port to join the ship. It was a fascinating trip through rural Vietnam. An unexpected sight was the ornate tombs of relatives set amongst the paddy fields.

Phnom Penh royal palace Phnom Penh palace throne room Killing field memorial stupa Mekong riverside village Angkor Ban entrance Buddhist flag and stupas Buddhist novices and monks Phnom Pros golden buddhas

The Cruise Director, Eric, introduced us to River Orchid. Built by Pandaw with special Uniworld additions, River Orchid features polished wood decks and cabins with extensive wood panelling, a large bathroom, and air-conditioning. The external walkway around the ship has seating outside the cabins, making for a cooling breeze when under way. On the top deck is a shaded lounge area, and an enclosed air-conditioned bar lounge, reached by some fairly steep stairs. Complimentary wi-fi internet is available on this deck. Local brand beers, spirits, house wines and soft drinks are included onboard and with meals.

Meals were taken in the elegant dining room, with large windows overlooking the river. There was a conventional buffet for breakfast and lunch, and full dinner with menu choices reflecting the region. There were opportunities to try local dishes such as Pho, a broth containing noodles, beef or chicken, with herbs and some green vegetables.

Moored in the wide Mekong river overnight we enjoyed a Vietnamese theme dinner, followed by a concert from local traditional musicians. Our fellow travellers comprised Australians, Americans, British, Canadians and New Zealanders who already saw the holiday as an experience and adventure totally different to a conventional European river cruise.

The next day we took excursions in sampans, smaller boats designed to navigate the canals and shallower inlets. At Cai Be the floating market had boats selling a variety of items, with waterside houses on stilts incorporating shops, trading posts, and small factories. A highlight was a visit to the rice factory where rice was popped and packaged by members of an extended family. Later at Sa Dec we saw women harvesting water hyacinths, and called at a brick factory to see how Vietnamese wasted nothing - Mekong river mud blocks were fashioned into bricks, baked in kilns fuelled by rice husk waste from a rice-milling factory, and the spent rice husks turned into fertiliser! The busy Sa Dec market was an eye-opener, with a huge display of anything edible - fish were kept alive to show their freshness, and vegetables were abundant. Also in Sa Dec was the former home of French novelist Marguerite Duras.

At Tan Chau the next morning our sampan took us past floating homes to the mainland town and the beautiful Cao Dai temple before boarding a traditional Xe Loi, or cycle rickshaw, to visit a family-run rattan factory producing mats, baskets and other items. We then visited a floating fish farm growing tilapia, with the Mekong providing flowing water. Our visit ended on 'green island' where houses were built on stilts above the floods in the rainy season. This very agricultural community relied on the rich soils brought down river. Their wealth was measured by the number of animals owned.

Aspara dance troupe Floating fish farm Restaurant tasting menu main course View over the Mekong Cooked grasshoppers for sale Shops with a variety of goods Monks festival procession Festival lunch for the monks

Cruising on upriver River Orchid reached the Vietnam-Cambodia border where two sets of officials had to authorise the crossing, with a break for lunch learned from years of former French colonial rule. Cambodia is a monarchy, and has a population of 15 million people, 50% who are 21 or younger. English is taught in many schools, and by Buddhist monks at monasteries. The US Dollar is widely used in Cambodia.

The Mekong is very wide at this point, and we learned that its water level varies enormously, at its highest in late summer. All Mekong cruise itineraries are subject to change if the river is too low or too high. With some 60 million people living in the Mekong delta, and 30% of he world's rice exported from here, the health of the Mekong is vital to survival.

Entering Cambodia, we cruised upriver to reach Cambodian capital Phnom Penh after evening dinner. The Mekong flows through Phnom Penh and our ship was able to moor at the quayside in the centre of town.

Next day, the cyclos were ready at the quayside for our tour of Phnom Penh. Sitting in the basket at the front with the pedaller behind we went the short distance up the quayside to the Royal Palace complex. Inside, the Silver Pagoda housing the Emerald Buddha, with 5,000 silver floor tiles, and the Royal Throne Room are the major attractions. Our cyclo then took us to the National Museum and its collection of Khmer sculptures before returning to the ship where before dinner there was a special traditional dance performance by children from a local orphanage.

Two special visits from Phnom Penh gave a lasting memory of the fate of some 2 million people in an extraordinary period of Cambodian history. During the Khmer Rouge control from 1975-79 many professionals or intellectuals were interrogated and tortured in Phnom Penh at Tuong Sleng, a school turned into a prison - S21, before being sent to the Choeung Ek orchard (killing fields) where over 17,000 were executed and buried in mass communal graves. S21 is now a museum with many photographs of victims, and there is a memorial stupa at the killing fields with skulls of those recovered from the mass graves, many of which have been left untouched.

Later that day there was time to walk along the busy quayside to see the Phnom Penh locals relaxing by the river, eating street food, playing football, and just parading. Motor bikes and tuk-tuks in the rush hour were joined by western luxury vehicles as proof that Cambodia's wealth and middle class were growing.

The familiar view of Angkor Wat Looking out from Angkor Wat The causeway to Bayon, Angkor Thom Bayon temple, Angkor Thom Ta Prohm doorway Ta Prohm tree roots Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi Hanoi farewell dinner entertainment

We were in late September, and the water level was well below its highest but it was too high for our ship to go under the bridges of the Tonle Sap river so we had to miss out this section of the route. From Phnom Penh we sailed upriver to moor after lunch by the authentic Khmer village at Angkor Ban. Walking round the village we saw the traditional houses built with living space on the first floor, so that the cattle and animals were sheltered below. The local school was holding an English lesson, so we helped out by with reading and questions. We returned to the ship through the grounds of the temple, with many reminders of the Buddhism practiced by more than 90% of Cambodians.

Our final day on the Mekong was one of the most fascinating as we visited Wat Hanchey, a temple complex high above the river, for a traditional water blessing from the monks. It was a festival day and later the monks processed through the site, collecting rice and money gifts from a large crowd. There were tremendous views over the Mekong as we descended 303 steps back to water level and the ship. Later that day we took a coach to Phnom Pros near Kampong Cham with its massive gilded buddhas and had a preview of the upcoming splendours of Angkor Wat at the Nokor Bachey temple built in the same period. After a crew presentation we had the ship's farewell dinner, with a Royal Cambodian theme.

Sad to leave River Orchid, but eagerly looking forward to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, we left the ship next morning to take our coach through the Cambodian countryside to Siem Reap. We would miss the shoe cleaning, the welcome cold towel and soft drink provided on the ship after every excursion! This five hour journey gave fascinating views of the country and we felt was preferable to cruising the wide Tonle Sap lake some distance offshore.

Arriving in Siem Reap we were entertained by Uniworld to a private lunch including several Cambodian signature dishes at Champey air-conditioned restaurant before checking in at Victoria Angkor Resort and Spa. This colonial style hotel was built around courtyards, with large rooms overlooking the tropical gardens and pool. Later we were taken on a tuk-tuk tour of Siem Reap to get our bearings and after relaxing and unpacking at the hotel we went off to dinner - by tuk-tuk - at an extremely busy local Khmer Kitchen Cambodian style restaurant where we sampled amok, fish cooked in coconut milk.

Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom were the much awaited excursions next day. A very efficient system produced our three-day archaeological park photographic passes, and we then crossed the causeway into Angkor Wat. Our Cambodian guide Virak knew a route into the site away from the crowds, and we were soon walking amongst the extensive ruins. The five spires of the temple at Angkor are featured on the Cambodian flag, and we were able to visit all three levels - some 669 feet from the base to the top of the highest tower. Built during the 12th century the carvings on the stones were done in situ, some with incredible detail.

After a lunch break we returned to Angkor and Angkor Thom, the huge city built to service Angkor Wat. It has many temples, with Bayon the most sensational, built inside a moat and with a central tower and many carved faces. Nearby the Temple of the Elephants with its lengthy elephant frieze and the Terrace of the Leper King add to the atmosphere.

The evening saw a group of us head by tuk-tuks to what was billed as a Barbecue Restaurant. We soon discovered it was do-it-yourself cooking when after ordering meat and vegetables a large tray of red-hot charcoal was dropped into a slot in the middle of the table. Naturally the Aussies tended the barbecue while the British dispensed the beer. A great experience and extremely good value!

The next day there was an excursion to the temples of Banteay Samre and Banteay Srei, both noted for their fine carvings. We skipped these and instead spent the morning at the Siem Reap central market, a kaleidoscope of colour with unforgettable smells and sounds. As elsewhere, bored assistants were busy with their mobile phones! The afternoon produced another highlight - the temple of Ta Prohm. Unlike others, Ta Prohm has been left as it was found, with massive trees growing over stones and doorways and across courtyards. In this state it was used as a location for the Tomb Raider film with Angelina Jolie.

Our last night in Siem Reap was a special Uniworld dinner and an Apsara traditional dance show in the outside dining area of the hotel with included wine, beer or soft drinks. The next day we were to depart for Siem Reap airport for the included two-hour flight to Vietnam capital Hanoi. On the way we visited a silk farm, where silk was obtained from the worms, and spun and woven on the premises into scarves and other items.

The flight to Hanoi was our first with Vietnam Airlines and we were impressed. It was a fairly new A320 which left on time, and arrived early at the stunning new airport in Hanoi. After our coach transfer to the Hanoi Intercontinental Westlake Hotel we were given a welcome drink and the keys to our luxury room overlooking the central area of the hotel, with swimming pool and beyond the West Lake and the lights of the city.

Next was a busy full-day tour of Hanoi, starting at the area around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum facing the Presidential Palace. This huge building is guarded round the clock with regular changes of the guard. Nearby is the small house where Ho Chi Minh actually lived, overlooking a small lake. The One Pillar Pagoda was built around 1049, perched on a pillar and reconstructed after the French left Hanoi. The Temple of Literature was founded in the 11th century as Vietnam's first university and contains an open-air temple area.

The morning ended with a visit to the grim remains of Hoa Lo Prison, built by the French to detain political prisoners but used by the north Vietnamese to hold captured American pilots and widely known as the 'Hanoi Hilton'. After an included lunch at the Wild Lotus restaurant, one of the best in Hanoi, we took an electric buggy tour around the vibrant old colonial area with its many shops and street vendors selling every item imaginable. The afternoon ended with a Water Puppet Show at the Thang Long theatre, a top attraction in the city.

The last evening of the holiday was a special Uniworld dinner at the Forest Restaurant, decorated with authentic artwork and with the feel of a traditional mountain home. Entertainment was provided by a band in traditional costume playing traditional folk instruments.

The last day saw some members of the group go off on a two night extension to Halong Bay. After a relaxing morning we were taken to Hanoi airport for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City to join our Emirates return flight to Manchester. Again the Vietnam Airlines B787 flight left on time and arrived early in HCMC, leaving us plenty of time to eat and relax before flying home.

We would describe the whole holiday as an adventure experience and a superb way of getting to know very different cultures. It was considerably more than just a river cruise!

Barry, Blue Water Holidays Chairman

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