A journey along the Mekong
Sailing along the Mekong River is an amazing introduction to Indochina and I was fortunate to travel in 5* comfort aboard the new river cruise vessel Scenic Spirit. A modern, all suite, fully inclusive ship that has taken luxury to a new level but at prices that won't break the bank. Everyday our tours were included, led by knowledgeable local guides - onboard we were looked after by a multi-national crew of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Australian and French. Scenic has built a reputation for being a thoughtful employer and this was reflected back to the passengers through endless smiles and 'can do' attitude of the staff. Scenic Spirit only has 34 suites taking a maximum of 68 passengers so there was always a lovely sense of quiet and space.
Our journey started with Emirates flights Manchester - Dubai - Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), it's a long way but the aircraft was comfortable with good food and great entertainment so the time passed quickly. Arriving at our destination at 6pm on Sunday evening the transfer journey gave us our first glimpse of the city's crazy traffic. Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it is still often known, has 10 million people and 3 million motor scooters with whole families and large items of luggage traveling together on one bike!
Saigon is a working city rather than a tourist destination but our stay was a great introduction to Vietnam - it felt very safe (other than when trying to cross the road) and it was easy to find our way around. The Vietnamese Dong was almost 31,500 = £1 and everything was seemed very cheap though I never did get to grips with all the 000s! If you have time in Ho Chi Minh City there numerous tours that can be pre-arranged including a Vintage Vespa ride that allows you to experience Saigon like the locals or you can head to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels to witness the legacy of the Vietnam war running beneath the jungle floor.
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We embarked Scenic Spirit in My Tho (about a 90 minute journey) and with the red carpet and smiling crew out to meet us it was a real 'wow' moment. The ship only came into service in January 2016 and has been designed in a tasteful understated way with real attention to details and the most comfortable bed I have ever slept on!
Our first day took us to Cai Be and Sa Dec and we started to witness the life that revolves around the Mekong in Vietnam. Walking through the street market was fascinating and sometimes stomach churning; not quite what we are used to but the climate means the locals visit the markets twice a day and to ensure freshness produce is often still alive! On our second day we had a choice of excursions and opted for a trip to Tra Su Bird Sanctuary and experiencing the quiet, flower filled waterways I had seen in so many pictures was for me one of the highlights of the whole trip.
Early in the morning of Day 3 we crossed the border into Cambodia - a remarkably easy process which was handled with faultless efficiency by Paula, the ship's amazing cruise director. As soon as you enter Cambodia you notice the changes, the river is quieter with much less traffic and on the banks you see only farms and temples, gone was the river traffic we experienced in Vietnam. Scenic Spirit is incredibly quiet as it moves through the water and sitting up on the Sun Deck enjoying the breeze and watching the world go by was wonderful - for those who want a little more activity there is a great pool (large enough to actually swim in) and as always the staff were very attentive and the all-inclusive nature of the ship made it easy to relax and enjoy whatever we fancied.
Our next two nights were to be spent in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. Home to The Royal Palace, National Museum, Raffles Hotel and an amazing array of markets there was plenty to see and experience. The ship is able to dock right in the heart of the city and the Tuk Tuks were always there waiting offering a pleasant and cheap way to explore the city. Our trip included a wide range of tours and 'enrichment' options at no additional cost including a trip to the Killing Fields to learn about Cambodia's extraordinary history. We opted for a Cambodian Cookery Class at a local hotel which was a fun and interactive experience - we came away with recipes and I can now create a wonderful 'green mango salad'!
The Mekong divides at Phnom Penh and we spent the following day cruising the Tonle Sap to the ancient hilltop pagodas at Wat Hanchey where we received a monk's blessing and had time to understand the links between Buddhism and education for the young people of Cambodia. The final part of the cruise took us to Kampong Cham and from here we traveled by coach to Siem Reap.
Siem Reap was much bigger than I had been expecting, it felt very international and had a real buzz of tourists. We had booked to stay at The Victoria, a very authentically colonial hotel - built around a central pool and gardens with rattan reclining chairs and ceiling fans - it was absolutely glorious.
Siem Reap is close to the 12th century Angkor Temples now a World Heritage site. Although I had seen many pictures and read about the area I was still completely unprepared for the scale and magnificence of the temples which cover acres of tropical forest. Having not booked in advance we arranged a Tuk Tuk via the hotel which for just $18 gave us a driver, vehicle and cold bottled water for the whole day. From February 2017 prices are $37 1 day $62 3 day and $72 7 day entrance.
Archeologists believe that Angkor was the largest city of the pre-industrialised world and probably supported a million people in an area of 40 sq miles. Today it is a well organised, but still authentic tourist experience and our Tuk Tuk transported us between the temples. Angkor Wat is the best known but there are many others including Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm made famous as a location for Indiana Jones in Tomb Raider and The Temple of Doom.
Visiting Angkor was very much a high point of our holiday and we were glad that even though time was limited we had extended our stay to include a day here. Visiting Vietnam and Cambodia was an amazing trip made truly special by the wonderful staff and comfort of Scenic Spirit. There is so much to see and experience in Indochina and we have only just scratched the surface but this was an amazing holiday and we will definitely be heading back soon.
The Scenic Spirit is now on sale for 2018 and if you would like to start planning a holiday to Indochina please call to us to make an appointment for an informal chat.
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