Good Morning Vietnam
I’ve always considered myself pretty well-travelled, but I think it would be fair to say I’m not a great adventurer. I really wanted to do something a bit different and with some trepidation and much excitement Lisa and I, joined by our close friends Ian and Michelle set off to cruise the Mekong River.
Ok, we weren’t exactly jumping into our canoes, but even so the thought of waking up and uttering the well-used announcement “Good Morning Vietnam!” seemed pretty exciting to me.
The flight to Ho Chi Minh City from the UK is a long one and nothing can really prepare you for the culture shock of the bustle and rarefied humidity that greets you. We were glad to be met by a smiling CruiseCo representative who speedily got us on our way to our first stop, The Caravelle Hotel, in the centre of this sprawling city.
Although the Vietnamese Government re-named Ho Chi Minh City in honour of a great leader, tourists and locals alike prefer the name Saigon. Our hotel was situated in a part of the town clearly kept sanitised to western tastes with many exclusive department stores and boutiques. Venture outside this area and you are struck by the vast size of the place and its population.
We were told there are over 6 million motorcycles registered in Saigon alone and believe me that seems a conservative estimate. At each road junction you can look in either direction and just stare in wonder at the wall of traffic that confronts you. I can only compare it to the televised scenes of runners crossing the start line of the London Marathon. Incredibly the roads are very safe to cross and after a while you learn just to walk out slowly, but steadily, never stopping or running and simply allow the riders, often a family of 4 on one motorbike, to weave their way around you.
Our hosts CruiseCo provide a comprehensive range of guided excursions within the holiday package so we able to take in all Saigon’s essential sights during our brief stay. Your days are cleverly structured in a way that gives you plenty of time to explore on your own. The memory of sitting in a local restaurant each of us with a personal white-hot barbeque, cooking our own food, will live with me forever.
After two hectic days we set off to join The CruiseCo Adventurer where we will embark on a week-long river cruise along the mighty Mekong River. First impressions are good. The boat is well furnished, the cabins clean and spacious, but it is the warm and friendly welcome of the staff that “seals the deal”. The all-inclusive food and drink provided is excellent and although the on-board entertainment is a little corny everything fits.
The beauty of river cruising is that excursions never involve much road travel. You get up, have breakfast and you’re there enjoying the new surprises each stop has in store. There is a mixture of sightseeing and cultural visits and I feel on the whole the balance is about right. I really enjoyed the window into local people’s lives as we took in floating markets, monasteries and factories.
Vietnam is a country where war dominates its history. As foreign tourists it is difficult to relate to the great suffering its people have endured. Much is made on the tour of The Vietnam War or as locals would refer to it “The American War”. Without doubt the poignant visits to museums and the tunnels are an important part of understanding why the country is what it is today. The younger generation clearly just want to forget the past and move to an ever more commercial and western lifestyle. The contrast with Cambodia could not be greater.
On reaching the border all passport and visa formalities are handled for you by the crew. It is not immediately apparent, but as you pass into Cambodia you are stepping back in time. Yes it still has large energetic cities and commercialism is creeping in, but everything is simpler and in many ways more charming.
It is interesting that although religion and temples form the backbone of this adventure the people themselves generally worship their forefathers rather than mystical Gods. Tiny shrines bearing offerings (sometimes as simple as a pancake roll) occupy pride of place in many houses and shops to honour lost relatives. This endearing humanity and love of family encapsulates the Cambodian outlook on life, it is truly inspiring.
Of all the places we visited Phnom Penh was my favourite. It has a balance of many interesting sightseeing opportunities and a vibrant nightlife. You can easily and cheaply get around the town by tuck tuck, a kind of motorised rickshaw. I don’t think that Health and Safety Laws will allow this form of transport in the UK anytime soon, but my goodness it was exciting.
We had been advised by our hosts to cruise the river south to north in order that we save the best until last. Following an emotional goodbye we set off by road to Siem Reap. It is strange the comradery you can establish with your fellow passengers and the crew in just a week. It is a credit to CruiseCo that you really do feel like one big family.
So with this new extended family we checked into the impressive, so impressive, Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor. If you’ve ever wondered “how the other half live?”………. it’s here. This little slice of colonial elegance was the perfect setting for our last couple of nights. Siem Reap was another wonderful city to explore, it lacked the excitement of Phnom Penh, but its more graceful charm grew on me.
From our luxury base we visited the phenomenal temples at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. The scale and beauty of these architectural masterpieces is breath-taking. There are occasions when you just need to put down your camera and stand in awe at what is in front of you. Watching the sunset over Angkor Wat is one such moment. Sometimes in life you just have to be there and this without doubt is one of them.
Errors and omissions excepted.
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