January 2015

Adventure to Vietnam and Cambodia with AMA Waterways

The first three days of our trip have been extremely active and exciting! Nothing like starting a trip off with a bang!

Due to flight schedules, we decided to overnight at Lax Airport and explore LA. We had a comfortable sleep at the Holiday Inn Express next to Enterprise Rent a Car, our preferred company, and took off to the incredible Getty Villa Museum of Ancient Artifacts in Malibu first thing in the morning. The Getty Museum was closed on Mondays so it was a lucky alternative to visit the Getty Villa, which is an absolute must-see. We then headed to the Santa Monica Pier for lunch at Bubba Gumps and to stick my toe in the Pacific Ocean. To cap off the day, we cruised over to the uber funky Venice (muscle) Beach, to see the local action.

Our China Air Business Class couldn’t be any better for high tech comfort with flat bed seat on the new Boeing 777 plane. We connected in Taipei and upon arrival in Hanoi, we were whisked away and connected to the AMA Waterways group on their Hanoi City Tour which included the Hanoi “Hilton” the prison where John McCain and hundreds of our Air force Pilots spent Up to 5 miserable years during the Vietnam Nam War. We checked into the venerable 5 Star Sofitel Metropole a one hundred year old historic hotel which reminded me of Raffles In Singapore. We loved everything about it and it has a perfect downtown location to boot!

I had to travel half way around the world to see my sister Nancy and her husband Steve. We reunited at the hotel, as this trip was at the top of each of our Bucket Lists!

Our afternoon tour was very exciting, we all jumped into individual Cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) and were taken on a hysterical hair raising tour of the old city where you had hundreds of motorcyclists come into intersections from 6 converging streets and somehow, no one was run over or into by a series of miracles. There were busses weaving down the narrow streets and peoples feet out on the sidewalk edge almost run over but all 80 of us survived in fine shape, shaking our heads in amazement! We then took an equally surprising walk around Hanoi’s Old City where I got fantastic movies of the meat, fish and vegetables vendors selling right on the sidewalk. We saw grilled Dog, a delicacy in VN. This adventure was followed.by their famous Water Puppet Show, where Dick and I struggled to stay awake.

Early Thursday, we took off eastward to one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, Ha Long Bay, a natural harbor sprinkled with myriads of karst (limestone) mini and maxi mountains. We boarded our very deluxe Indochina Sails luxury Junk which was a real surprise. We were expecting a small basic Hong Kong Style junk and what we got far exceeded our expectations. The cabins with king size beds were very spacious, bathrooms with inlaid marble, good food and a great Masseuse! We cruised around the spectacular harbor stopping at two islands, both with very steep stairs too conquer. The Surprise Island lived up to its name with its huge cave “a la Mammoth,” which we spelunked through. I can tell you that if you have difficulty climbing stairs and walking on uneven surfaces, you would skip these little side trips. This has proven to be the case this entire week. You could enjoy this tour and wouldn’t have to climb all the way to the top of the temples to get a full appreciation of these S.E. Asian countries. I did it and can tell you my back needs a break which I’ll make sure it gets from now on!

We returned to Hanoi by a 3 and a half hour transfer and flew out to Siem Reap, Cambodia Friday afternoon and were ensconced in one of its most luxurious 5 star Tropical Style resorts, the Sofitel Angkor Golf and Spa hotel. Again, we were all impressed with our accommodations, complete with huge pool with Swim-Up Bar which I took full advantage of!

We spent two mornings visiting the most important temples in the Angkor Archeological Park which were located within 15 minutes of our hotel. I liked Angkor Thom the best. This Unesco World Heritage Site was built as a royal city and was the last Capitol of the Khmer Empire in the 12th century. The towers are adorned with 216 Gigantic Smiling Faces. The whole complex was rediscovered in the mid 1800s, and started being cut out of the Jungle in 1908. This continued throughout the 1900s. We could see how the trees became intertwined with the stones in the Ta Prohm aka Kingdom of Trees (featured in the movie”tomb Raider). The afternoon included another of the approximate 1300 temples and a visit to ODA English & Arts School. This orphanage is supported by AMA Waterways. We were entertained by the talented kids with a Fishermans Dance and toured around by a charming English Speaking student. I have to mention that Cambodians are extremely hospitable and sweet people, bowing with their national greeting with their palms raised together, thumbs pointing to their noses. They are very considerate of people’s age and VIP status, raising the elevation of their … Greeting for people who are older like grandparents and all the way to the eyebrows for Priests and Royalty.

Some of the group got up at 3:30 to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, like my sister and Steve. I must admit, he got some gorgeous world class pictures of the world’s largest religious Temple. I can tell you, it was a hard climb to the top and an even harrier descent back down the steep steps, not for someone with vertigo! Fortunately, not me!

We are taking a pretty long bumpy ride to get to our boat, the AMA Lotus, due to the fact that we are traveling in the dry season, the boat can’t get up the Tonle Sap River to board near Siem Reap. The highlight of the trip was watching our guide Lovy eat deep fried Tarantulas, crickets, grasshoppers and water beetles, which are a staple for some of the population. It’s full of protein and kept people alive during Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge massacre of over 2 million Cambodians. During the wet season, the Mekong River has so much volume that it backs up Into the Great Lake which doubles in size. The one and a half million Boat People must move their floating homes to higher ground during the wet season. You can’t believe it but these people drink the water from this polluted river/lake and wash their dishes right around the corner from their outdoor toilet. This is why the life expectancy is only 50 yrs old!

Our boat the AMA Lotus is very comfortable, with spacious cabins and king beds.Ours has a French Balcony, where you can look out an open window, and a tiny balcony where two can sit. Candidly, we hardly used either of them, and preferred to have the entire panorama in our sights from the top Sun Deck, complete with tiny pool and bar. The food has been a little too good for me and my love of Asian/Thai style cuisine. I know I’ve regained some of my hard lost girth. Most of our friends have all gained at least 5 lbs.! Wine,beer and local liquor is included with both lunch and dinner. You have sumptuous buffets at all three meals, but at lunch and dinner you can order a full entree with soup and appetizer. We have daily briefings from our Tour Manager Thoai who has been absolutely a magician keeping all of us very happy. Our local guides have been some of the best any of us have ever experienced. One of the highlights of the cruise entertainment was the Crew Show which was hysterically funny with the various cruise departments competing with each other. There was lots of dancing passengers afterwards to great rock music!

AMA has kept us pretty busy on two daily included excursions pre and post lunch which have included Oxcart Rides thru the countryside, sightseeing by Cambodian Style Tuk-Tuk, (a slightly safer 4 pax capacity of the Thai version), visiting one of hundreds of Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh and the Royal Palace among other shore trips. We all enjoyed a full day on the Mekong as we see the confluence of all four rivers join at Phnom Penh into the Mekong on our way to the Vietnam border and Saigon in two days. We just had an “elephant pants” photo op for everyone who bought their Cambodian Bloomers yesterday in the Central Market. I got mine For a whopping 5 Dollars! We really enjoyed our boat excursion in Tan Chau to Evergreen Island where we walked through a small village to see up close how the families live. The kids go to school either in the early am till noon or in the afternoon, so there are always lots of kids following us wherever we go. Several of our cruise friends brought pencils and other school supplies for them, but it can be very chaotic giving them away in mobs of kids and can cause fights if someone didn’t get anything! In another boat excursion, we went to a candy and popped rice family operation where they also sold 3-year-old Cobra Snake wine which was supposed to be very medicinal to cure everything with a little Viagra thrown in for good measure!!

Our arrival in Saigon was a real eye-opener for me, as the last time I’d been there was 11 years ago, and I really wasn’t looking forward to it. What a great improvement for clean streets, a huge contrast to the Political Capitol, Hanoi which was pretty dingy and dirty. This city of 7 million people is the NYC of Vietnam Nam and is now clean and full of green, flower filled parks but still has over 3 million motor bikes, so still lots of traffic. You take your life in your hands crossing the street and have to constantly watch out for “crazy bikers” whooshing by you even on sidewalks. I skipped the Remnants Museum (full of VN War Propaganda) and stayed in the huge Ben Thanh Central Market, where we had lots of fun getting some bargains, like $9 Selfie Sticks where you put your smart phone to an extension stick to take Selfies, sure to be a hit with the Grandkids! We were all upgraded to Tower one bedroom Suites, so everyone is enjoying this Sheraton 5 Star luxury. It’s located in the epicenter of town next to the Opera House where we are going to see the A O (Ah,Oh) Show tonight, which lived up to its billing as a great acrobatic show. We all loved to walk so again, taking our lives in our own hands, we walked to the Zoo and Botanical Garden, which we would recommend visiting. It also has the Historical Museum on the same location, and friends told us the Fine Arts Museum is excellent. The girls took a taxi back to relax at the hotel pool, no way was I taking that walk again, a $3.00 taxi was just great!

The four of us agreed that this trip was a huge success. AMA Waterways took care of us in every way, and our tour manager Thoai was a real champ, herding 117 of us around this complicated itinerary. All of our local guides have been excellent and easy to understand as well. We all agreed that we could strongly recommend this trip to people who love experiencing the way half of the world lives, enjoys the ancient and exotic, and don’t mind seeing trash along the way. You preferably need to be in fairly good shape, to fully enjoy all the temples and walks and should have a good sense of balance as well, as crossing bridges with no side rails can be a challenge.

Give me a call if you would like to discuss this trip or any other destination. I am hosting two other groups in the next year: a 2 wk Princess Solstice Norwegian Fjords, North Cape Cruise out of London. This one on June 12th and a South African, Victoria Falls and Botswana Safari next Jan. 6th.’16 where I now only have 10 spots left. Call me for flyers on either and I’ll email them to you. Happy New Year!