TRAVEL REVIEW: Vietnam? Don’t Miss Saigon

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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In life there are experiences and there are unforgettable experiences. Our holiday in Vietnam and Cambodia fell into the latter category.

Our holiday company was Riviera Travel, unknown to me until I picked up the brochure in The Star office, but one that we will certainly be travelling with again, such was the expertise of our tour guides and the organisation of the whole holiday.

Our fascinating tour started with two days in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now officially called, staying at the superb five star Renaissance Hotel. We were a small group of travellers under the wing of the immensely knowledgeable and unflappable Becky, our Riviera tour manager.

Saigon is a cacophony of sounds, smells and sights. Its name is so evocative that it conjures up a thousand different images. A beautiful city distinguished by the Mekong River running through it with thousands of motor bikes and scooters making crossing the road a feat.

The food stalls at the side of the roads offer delicious takeaways, often in front of designer shops like Versace but also with impressive and cheap markets in abundance.

We were taken on a walking tour of the city, a visit to the famous CuChi Vietcong tunnels and to landmarks like the Reunification Palace, left as it was the momentous day that the Communist tanks crashed through the gates in 1975, the War Remnants Museum, documenting the atrocities of war, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Main Post Office.

And we viewed the whole city from the Saigon Sky deck, 68 floors high and an urban icon designed to evoke the beauty of the lotus, Vietnam’s national flower.

We joined the RV Jayavarman which was the epitome of luxury for the next seven days on the mighty Mekong river.

This small ship offered exceptional style with fine dining to please the most hardened connoisseur. With four decks, bar, spa, library, lounge and restaurant together with crew whose only aim in life seemed to be to meet your every wish, it was the most wonderful way to travel through Vietnam and Cambodia.

All shore excursions were included as were entrance to all the museums and temples, three superb meals a day to include the most delicious local delicacies, talks on Vietnamese and Cambodian culture, a daily briefing on the next day’s programme, a display of Apsara dance by the Khmer Angels, tour of the ship’s engine room and kitchens, cookery classes in Vietnamese and Cambodian delicacies, late night movies and a champagne reception with dancing on the last night.

Each day was so packed with activities that it was hard to find time to relax with a drink on the sun deck. However, we did manage it!

With just 27 exquisitely designed staterooms, it was easy to forge friendships with the other passengers but I wouldn’t recommend this holiday to anyone with mobility problems as there was a fair amount of climbing and walking.

Every morning after Tai Chi on the sundeck and breakfast, and in the afternoon after lunch, there was an excursion off-shore.

Sailing through Vietnam we visited Cai Be floating market and Gothic cathedral, Binh Thanh Island where water hyacinths are made into rattan baskets, Chau Doc with its industry of fish farming and local market and Evergreen Island with houses on stilts.

Crossing the Vietnamese border into Cambodia our first port of call after a relaxing day cruising was Phnom Penh.

Once the ‘Pearl of Asia’ its shine was tarnished by the impact of a terrible war and revolution, but now it is an attractive and cosmopolitan city.

Travelling by rickshaw – what better way to see the sights – we visited the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda where there is a gold Buddha decorated with 10,000 diamonds!

The Tuol Sleng or Genocide Museum gave a harrowing documentation by photograph of thousand of victims of the Khmer Rouge who were tortured on the premises when it was known as Security Prison 21. We then visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where most of the detainees of S-21 Prison were executed. Walking through the green and shady fields, it was hard to imagine the brutality that had unfolded there, but we were given chilling reminders by the mass graves and the displays of more than 8,000 skulls of victims.

Sailing through Cambodia, we visited Koh Chan with its industry of fine silverware, Kampong Chhanang for Khmer style pottery, floating houses and villages, Chong Koh to see how the people make cotton products and the rural Angkor Ban with ancient Cambodian houses.

Our last day on board took us to the monasteries of Wat Nokor and Wat Hanchey, a 7th century pre-Angkorian temple on a hill top with stunning views of the river and surrounding countryside.

We were amazed at the happiness of the river people – many of whom had absolutely nothing by our standards.

Whole villages were composed of houses made of corrugated iron, wood or cardboard.

The installation of one water pipe was an event of such excitement that you could only feel ashamed at the comfortable lifestyle we enjoy.

We were especially moved by a visit to an orphanage at Kampong Cham. We took presents for the children who were excited by gifts of colouring books and pencils. The children of Vietnam and Cambodia are so beautiful I wanted to adopt all the orphans.

After our farewell dinner we prepared with some regret to leave the ship and next day drove to Siem Reap through lush green countryside and almost biblical agricultural scenes where we stayed for three nights in the five-star Angkor Miracle Hotel. Our first day of sightseeing here took us to the utterly amazing temples of Angkor – first to Angkor Wat, then the 13th century city of Angkor Thom and to Ta Prohm which has been left in its natural unrestored state with giant tropical trees bursting through the ruins.

Our last day and half of holiday was at leisure which gave us chance to explore the lovely town of Siem Reap with amazing markets and restaurants, and to lie by the pool for a much needed rest!

After years of terrible wars and genocide, the people of these countries have, with their incredibly strong work ethic, made Vietnam and Cambodia a joy to visit.