Friday, August 17, 2012

Goldring Travel's AMAWaterways' AmaLotus - Vietnam, Cambodia and The Mekong River Cruise- Part IV

Two days to go and we are off to Vietnam and Cambodia...so finally the Itinerary, maybe. 

As I write this Typhoon Kai-Tak is pounding Vietnam with winds up to 133 kilometers per hour (83 miles per hour) and very heavy rains.  Ha Long Bay is closed to ships, 20,000 Vietnamese solders placed on standby, and there is an expectation of some serious damage.  This typhoon, whose center is expected to land north of  Vietnam, is big, having now closed Hong Kong Harbour and caused some serious damage in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong with an expectation of almost 300mm (over 11 inches) of rain.

For me it helps keep things in some perspective.  While I am concerned about flights, the quality of our tour and cruise and my family's happiness, I first and foremost worry about the effects on the people and places we are so excited to see and understand. 

Not knowing about the typhoon until this morning, late yesterday I met with my rabbi to talk about how better talk with my kids about the Khmer Rouge genocide and how it relates to their feelings about the Holocaust. He said to just let it be and experience and to talk about it later.  Why?  He said when most people visit such places their first approach is to think that it is like Disneyland:  It was put there as a display for them to see.  It takes time for that initial process (what I will call a "defense mechanism") to fade and reality to really come into play.

As much as part of me wants this to be a fun and idyllic family holiday, I just think it happenstance has set it up to be so much more. 

OK, then, let's get to it!


One of the most frequent questions is, "How do you get there comfortably?"  The honest answer is, "You don't.  But it is worth the effort."  Being that there are four of us, we are flying economy, but with a little bit of advanced planning, it should not be terrible.  (Yes, business class may make things a bit more comfortable, but with 27 hours of travel of travel and an eleven hour time difference, the benefits of spending for business class for a family vacation diminish...because jet lag and lower oxygen levels are the same in the front of the plane as they are in the back.  Mindset and lots of water matter far more.)

We fly from Newark, New Jersey to London on United (bulkhead seats) and then have a five hour layover.  While in London I have arranged for two airside bedrooms at No. 1 Heathrow, Terminal 3 for two of those hours at a cost of a mere 30 GBP each.  A bit of breakfast then a couple of hours horizontal followed by a shower and change of clothes before our 11.5 hour flight to Bangkok on followed by a 2 hour flight to Hanoi would make a bit of a difference.

We have two two seat configured sets of seats on our Thai Airlines flight near the front of economy with a similar configuration on the flight to Hanoi. (If the person behind me kicks my seat I know I will be able to deal with it swiftly!)

We have already been pre-approved for our Vietnamese visas on arrival (www.myvietnamvisa.com).  After obtaining our visas and clearing Immigration and Customs we will hire an SUV taxi at the taxi counter for a fixed price of US$12.00 (190,000 Vietnamese Dong) for the 30 minute ride. (Dollars apparently are widely accepted, though discouraged the government.)

OK now that that is over (and don't I wish it was that quick!), let's get to the real Itinerary.  I have highlighted the hotels and any particularly interesting (to me) activities to make it a bit easier to follow.  As you read over the itinerary, you will notice one thing that I am quite impressed with:  The Balance. The theory (and we will see how it plays out in reality) is that there are busy days and resting days, museum days and activity days, tour days and independent days, included meals and independent meals.

August 21 - ARRIVE IN HANOI, VIETNAM - Sofitel Legend Metropole. I have arranged for at least one of our two rooms to be available for our early morning arrival.  After a shower and a sleep we will venture out to sample a bit of Hanoi on our own.   

August 22 - HANOI - A morning sightseeing tour will take you to Hanoi’s most famous historical and cultural sites: Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Ba Dinh Square, One-pillar Pagoda and The Temple of Literature. In the afternoon, experience an authentic rickshaw ride (known as “cyclo”) in the Old Quarter, followed by a traditional water puppet show. (B)

August 23 - HANOI - HA LONG BAY Overnight Junk After breakfast, depart Hanoi for a scenic motor coach ride to one of Vietnam’s most renowned locations, Ha Long Bay. Board a traditional wooden Junk that combines classic beauty with modern conveniences, plus luxurious overnight accommodations. Set sail to discover the Bay’s magnificent scenery set amidst stunning limestone cliffs. That evening, you’ll enjoy dinner on board and overnight on the Junk. (B,L,D)

August 24 - HA LONG BAY - HANOI - SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA Sofitel Royal Angkor - This morning, our Ha Long Bay Junk continues its scenic cruising while a delightful breakfast is served in the dining lounge. Late morning, disembark for a motor coach transfer to Hanoi Airport. After a short flight, arrive in Siem Reap, Cambodia, gateway to Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer empire and one of the most renowned archaeological sites in all of South East Asia.  The afternoon is ours to wander and take in the culture...and food.  (B,L,D)  

August 25 - SIEM REAP - ANGKOR After breakfast, begin a guided sightseeing tour of the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Highlights include Angkor Thom, the newly restored Baphuon Temple, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King and the Bayon. This afternoon, travel through the rural countryside to visit the pink sandstone temple of Banteay Srei, known as the shrine of the women. Afterwards we will visit the English-language school sponsored by AmaWaterways in the village of Ta Toum.  We have been asked to bring along school supplies if we desire as a donation.  We have two bags ready to go!  (B,D)

August 26 - SIEM REAP - ANGKOR This morning we will visit the most iconic of all Angkorian temples - Angkor Wat. The world’s largest religious temple complex was built in the early 12th century by the Khmer King Suryavarman II and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. We will also visit Ta Prohm, the temple famous for its intertwined trees (showcased in the film Tomb Raider). There is going to be some good free time to explore Siem Reap and I am truly looking forward to that. (B)

August 27 - SIEM REAP/PREK KDAM -  EMBARKATION - Normally this day is a bit different than what we will encounter.  The normal itinerary has a short transfer to the ship and a lovely cruise down Tonle Sap Lake.  However, this year it was unusually dry, so the waters that flow up from the Mekong River to fill the lake were insufficient so the water levels are too low for the ship.  (Last year there were some of the highest levels ever and severe flooding.) We will be taking a long bus ride to Prek Kdam, located on the Tonle Sap River.  I believe we will be stopping at what was to be our first cruise port  Kampong Chhnang located about an hour upriver from Pkek Kdam.  Once onboard in the early afternoon, we settle in and then have a Welcome Dinner. The ship moors overnight. (B,L,D)

August 28 - KAMPONG CHHNANG - KAMPONG TRALACH- OUDONG - After breakfast, a motor boat excursion takes you into the lakeside wetlands that form the mouth of the Tonle Sap River. Enjoy a stunning variety of bird life and see numerous great fish traps some over a half-mile long. After your excursion, return to your vessel and cast off towards Kampong Tralach. An afternoon tour includes an oxcart ride from the river bank through the countryside to the beautiful Wat Kampong Tralach Pleu. Tour the pagodas, and then board a motor coach to Oudong, the former capital of Cambodia, where you will tour the Buddhist monastery. After the visit, you motor coach will take you to your vessel, which will cruise towards the village of Chong Koh. (B,L,D)

August 29 - CHONG KOH - PHNOM PENH - This morning, visit the Chong Koh silk weaving village for a leisurely walk. Your vessel then departs for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. An afternoon walking tour provides an orientation to this spectacular city. Return to the vessel for dinner followed by a special Khmer folk performance on board. The vessel moors overnight in Phnom Penh. (B,L,D)

August 30 - PHNOM PENH - A morning tour explores the highlights of Cambodia’s capital city, famous for its French colonial architecture, busy cafes, vibrant nightlife and renovated river “corniche.” Visit the Royal Palace and the spectacular Silver Pagoda. The National Museum is another highlight, with outstanding displays of Khmer crafts. After lunch onboard, another excursion leads to the infamous Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge’s grim Tuol Sleng or S21 detention centre (Genocide Museum) situated in the suburbs of the city. An overnight on the waterfront provides an opportunity to dine in one of many nearby restaurants and experience Phnom Penh’s vibrant nightlife, should passengers so choose. (B,L,D)

August 31 - PHNOM PENH - BORDER CROSSING - TAN CHAU, VIETNAM - Spend a day cruising the Mekong River and crossing the border into Vietnam. Your vessel moors at the small town of Tan Chau, Vietnam. I have every intention of spending a good part of this day in the ship's swimming pool enjoying the scenery and life on the Mekong River. (B,L,D)

September 1 - TAN CHAU - SA DEC - After breakfast, transfer to small boats, which will navigate through narrow channels to visit an evergreen island. You will also visit a catfish farm and a rattan mat and slipper-making workshop. Back ashore, a traditional “xe-loi” (trishaw) awaits to transport you around Tan Chau. In the afternoon, your vessel cruises downstream to Sa Dec, where it will moor overnight. (B,L,D)

September 2 - SA DEC - XEO QUYT - CAI BE - In the morning board a local boat for Sa Dec. Once ashore, you will tour the town noteworthy as the place where the French writer Marguerite Duras spent many years in her youth. Visit a local market, Fujian Temple and the house of Mr. Huynh Thuy Le, Duras' Chinese paramour, which is now a small museum. Afterwards board a motor coach for Xeo Quyt, used as a base during the French and U.S. wars and now an important ecological site, with its jungle overgrowth. After lunch on board, a local boat will take you to Cai Be’s spectacular floating market; then you will go ashore to see candy and rice paper workshops. This evening, enjoy a gourmet Farewell Dinner on board. (B,L,D)

September 3 - HO CHI MINH CITY - DISEMBARKATION - Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers - The cruise comes to an end as the ship docks at My Tho Port, followed by a transfer to Ho Chi Minh City. As the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina, Saigon was known as “Paris of the Orient.”  Upon arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, you will enjoy a city tour that explores famous landmarks, such as the former Presidential Palace, Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral; Cho Lon (China Town) and its famous Binh Tay market and Thien Hau pagoda.  I have my eye on a particular restaurant for dinner!  (B,L) 
September 4 - HO CHI MINH CITY Today is free to explore Ho Chi Minh City on our own.  You know I will be hitting the markets and shops including the Thi Nghe Market and the famous Lunch Lady, Nguyen Thi Thanh. (B)

September 5 - DEPART HO CHI MINH CITY - Transfer to the airport for your homeward flight. Actually, we will miss sleeping in Ho Chi Minh City as our flight home departs on September 4 at 11:50 p.m.  Why?  We need to make it back in time for our children's first day of school! Taking into account the crossing of the International Dateline, we will arrive back in New Jersey mid-day on September 5th. (B)

Speaking of getting home, I might as well set out our return which (and I have not mentioned this to the kid's yet) creates a very cool experience:  We will have circumnavigated the globe!  Departing from Saigon on ANA Airlines (again with a two two seat configuration) we fly six hours to Tokyo's Narita Airport.  With just under a 3 hour layover, not much time, but enough to stretch a bit before another 11.50 hour flight to Chicago. On that 777 there is a small forward section of only two rows.  Again, with a bit of pre-planning and Elite status we secured a 3 together + 1 (two aisle seats) configuration. So absent a crying baby (It is me flight so changes are pretty good there will be one) we should be able to get some rest.  After clearing Immigration and Customs and rechecking our baggage, a short (relatively speaking) flight to Newark brings us back home.

Now, all that is left is...The Entire Experience...and what still seems like forever for it to begin.