Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review and Reflection of the AmaWaterways AmaLotus Vietnam and Cambodia Tour and Cruise


Preface:  I have never had difficulty writing a Review and Reflections of a trip before.  I have struggled with this one…in a very good way.  You see, my AmaWaterways’ AmaLotus Vietnam and Cambodia experience (land and cruise) I had from August 21 through September 4, 2012 was, without question, one of the best overall travel experiences I have ever had. 
 
While you can read my thirteen (13) article travelogue of my trip (starting at http://goldringtravel.blogspot.com/2012/07/goldring-travels-amawaterways-amalotus.html), this is but a synopsis of what was an extraordinary immersion into similar, but very conflicting, cultures juxtaposed to many social, political, economic and spiritual experiences.  How to synthesize this into a short Review and Reflection while keeping it relevant is the challenge.
The Basics

AmaWaterways provides you with what are clearly the best hotels in Hanoi, Vietnam (Sofitel Metropole Hanoi) and Siem Reap, Cambodia (Sofitel Angkor) and a very good one in Saigon (Sheraton – though the Sofitel is also used) along with the best luxury junk on Halong Bay.  



The AmaLotus river cruise ship was so much nicer than its descriptions prepared me for.  I was fortunate enough to have access to a standard Veranda Cabin, a Junior Suite and a Sa Dec Suite (the largest).  They are extremely well designed, finished and equipped; including the bathrooms.  With rich deep-toned woods, lots of natural light, plenty of deck space, really comfortable  furnishings inside and out…and a great pool aft on the Sun Deck…you truly wanted for nothing.  


Luggage handling was flawless (from outside your old room to inside your new one) as were transfers, Cambodian visas and the flight from Hanoi to Siem Reap (baggage claim there being the only time I had to handle my luggage while in AmaWaterway’s care). 

Virtually every provided meal was very good to excellent and, with rare exception, you can order what you like or enjoy truly extraordinary buffets (they are really much more than buffets!) rather than from a limited fixed menu. And on those couple of occasions, the menu options were more than acceptable.  

While on the AmaLotus the food was consistently surprisingly good and with an excellent mix of Western and Westernized-Asian offerings through a mix of an every-changing buffet at breakfast and lunch coupled with an Action Station offering something new each meal (Vietnamese pancakes, omelets, pho rice noodle soup, noodle dishes, etc.).  Dinners are a strictly sit-down affair with a starter, soup, main and dessert with standards such as hamburgers, salmon and chicken breast always available.  Honestly…and I know this stuff…I am truly amazed not only at the quality and variety of offers made on the cruise portion of this trip, but its presentation.


On the land portion drinks were generally an added cost, but on the AmaLotus AmaWaterways freely pours an acceptable bulk “white” and “red” wine during lunch and dinner and Vietnamese beer, vodka, gin and whiskey at all times (as well as soft drinks).  Other spirits (limited, but acceptable selection) and a small, but ample, reserve wine list are available at an additional cost.  Note:  There was a good bit of discussion about why wine is not included other than at meals.  The reason is obvious to me:  Wine is much more expensive as it needs to be imported.  

One thing you do need to understand is that your staff and crew are not American or British and have not learned English in American or British schools, but rather in Vietnam and Cambodia.  As such, understanding your charming…and they are charming…shipboard staff and guides can take some getting used to and be prepared for small requests to be lost in translation.  (It was rather humorous to me listening to some well-meaning people trying to explain things in more and more complicated ways rather than simplifying it, such as “Cook it more” was replaced with, “I want this well-done so that I do not see any red in the meat.  Do you understand?” because they thought the concept wasn’t understood, when it was a “lost in translation” moment.)  















AmaWaterways would not allow us to reserve a table and that initially was a bit of a sore point as we had to juggle and jostle…and even get to the dining room early so we could sit together.  (You see single persons and couples would sit at a table for six so they could have a window seat.)  However, after a couple of days we sort of lay claim to a particular table and stayed there; in part because our waitress was so charming and had such a wonderful sense of humor.  The problem – if it was a problem – was that many times we didn’t have a clue what she was saying!  She was just so dear that didn’t matter.


Speaking of staff, three of our four guides ranged from one of the best I have ever had to very good.  One was a bit of a dud, but I only had him for the last couple of days in Vietnam.  He had a very hard act to follow as my Cambodian guide, who was, well and truly, an exceptional human being that added so much to our experience that I am not sure I could ever thank him enough.  Over the six days we was with us, he was able to express and explain, in detail, the complicated relationships between Cambodia, Vietnam, China, France and the United States and then how the interrelationships between the King, the Khmer Rouge, the Viet Cong intertwined with those relationships.  And, of course, he brought the fear and destruction the Khmer Rouge brought to Cambodia uncomfortably alive.  I am much more enriched as a result.

Our tour guide (who traveled with us for 15 days) was a bit annoyingly repetitious and I wish he had slightly better mastery of the English language (which could be why, in part, he repeated himself so much), but there is no question that he got the job done with nary a hiccup.  If he could get those 30 minute daily briefings down to the 5 minutes they really needed, it would be a plus.

That said, two of the travelers not only needed some medical care, but were so impressed with it that they requested that I mention in this Review that AmaWaterways not only arranged care in clean, well-equipped, medical facilities, but stayed with them the entire time.  The tour guide mentioned to me that AmaWaterways is meticulous with this and requires not only that sort of personal attention, but detailed reports to stay fully informed.  This is a great thing to know if you have concerns about traveling to a fairly remote third-world destination.

The Actual Travel Experience
Let me start with, “You Missed It!”  

Yes, the majority of people consider the AmaLotus cruise down the Mekong River as being what the trip is about so they do not take the Pre-Cruise Extension from Hanoi to Halong Bay, Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Big mistake.  And I mean:  Big Mistake!

Even before I took this trip I have spoken to people who have said that since they are traveling so far they should spend some time in Thailand.  To me that is like saying I want to explore France, so while I am there I will spend time in Germany.  Not only are they distinctly different countries, they are distinctly different cultures, histories, etc.  My suggestion is to do this trip well; not two trips no so well.

The fact is that traveling down the Mekong River with no real context results in a pretty superficial experience and a real lack of understanding why or how the local people live the way they do and why there is development where it is and the cause and effect of it. And, trust me on this, you are not going to “get it” with four or five days of shore excursions.  But if you are looking merely for a vacation in an exotic location (as some prefer to sunbath, shop or loudly gossip more than discover), I guess it would work…but why travel so far to do so?

Anyway, by including the pre-cruise land portion and taking advantage of our free time to delve into things a bit deeper and/or more personally, it allowed myself and my family to really experience things while pushing ourselves, comforting ourselves and even being embarrassingly touristic at times.  (If being paraded down a small village in a 40 rickshaw caravan is not “embarrassingly touristic” I am not sure what is!)


AmaWaterways does a great job of balancing the desires of those who want touristic experiences, cultural experiences and in-depth sociological experiences.  This is not an easy task; especially when working in Communist countries that require – yes, require – that certain things be included in your tour.  So be prepared for a boring water puppet show, a fun touristic rickshaw ride, a visit to a silk weaving sweatshop come souvenir bastion, a charming walk along a dirt tracked local village, a trek through a former Viet Cong encampment, visits to prisons with histories of torture and some amazing temples such as Angkor Wat and a beautiful chanting prayer by Buddhist monks.

Was I really moved and disturbed by our first excursion to the Hanoi Hilton (especially with the mandated propaganda)?  Absolutely.  Did I reflect on the horrific conditions that prison inflicted upon American soldiers, but also the local Vietnamese when under French rule?  Absolutely.  Did it strike me hard when later that evening I was sitting in the Sofitel Metropole (a bastion of colonialism for 100+ years) being served by Vietnamese staff in similar manner to when they were forced to serve the French…causing me to reflect on why there is such resentment and hatred of colonialism and imperialism?  Without question.


Now, let’s extract that from our trip.  If I had just done the Mekong River Cruise on the AmaLotus my first experience with Vietnam would have been on the second to last day when we visited small floating fish farm, a local village and a rattan factory.  I would have absolutely no context and would probably have seen the day as “charming”…nothing more. 



But now, let’s take it back just two days earlier (the day before was a “sea” day).  That day we visited the Killing Fields and the S21 Detention Center of the Khmer Rouge.  Aside from the fact that I would not have had the days of information provided by our Cambodian guide while in Siem Reap, I would not have near as much context as to the interrelationship between the Viet Cong and Cambodia’s King nurturing the Khmer Rouge…and why.

As an expert travel agent and one who has organized some pretty complicated experiences and vacations for my clients, I can tell you without any hesitation that it would be near impossible for me to put together such an integrated experience as the one AmaWaterways has provided.  Dealings with local villages and governments, businesses and individuals, and then coordinating all of it is very complicated.

As an example, one day we visited Kampong Chhnang with small tenders picking us up at the ship and then cruising around the floating village.  This was followed by a wonderful stroll through the local market before returning to the ship.  After a short cruise after lunch we arrived at Kampong Tralach where we were greeted by dozens of ox carts (and even more people) as we bumped along a dirt track to be met by modern motor coaches that took us to a Buddhist monastery for a traditional jasmine prayer and a discussion of the Cambodian melding of Buddhism and Hinduism, after which we met the AmaLotus which had repositioned downstream near the tiny village of Chong Koh for a relaxing evening aboard the ship.  Try that on your own!


One point I do want to stress:  With all of the activities noted, this is not a trip for everyone.  I do not like the Difficulty Categorization that many ocean and river cruise lines use.  On a scale of 1 to 5, this trip is rated a 4…but I also have a day tour in Bordeaux with another operation that has a Difficulty rating of 4.  There simply is no consistency, so do not rely upon them.  

This trip is in a very hot, very humid environment.  If you are climbing through Angkor Wat or monkey bridges in a former Viet Cong encampment or up many stairs or over distances of half a mile or more, it will take its toll if you are not up to it.  There were people on our trip that were physically unable to do many things…and, thus, held us back.  There were people that just didn’t want to be that hot or tired.  There were people who simply had no idea this was not a passive vacation. So please do your research and be sure it is the right experience for you and that you consider your possible impact on those you will be traveling with.  In these remote areas no one, including AmaWaterways, has the ability to immediately handcraft a personal excursion if you are not up to the small group experience.

Another thing to consider:  I would strongly recommend that you take this trip from Hanoi and then travel through Cambodia to Saigon.  It gives you a sense of connection and development.  If I started this trip in Saigon, I sense I would feel that I was reading a book from back to front; from the modern city of Saigon back in time to a simpler time.  It is, in reality, a simpler time being infiltrated by many things which you experience as you travel.

Conclusion

This was a phenomenal experience and one that I am not only thrilled I took, but had my family experience. 
 
 
 
For me it answered many questions and gave me some real insight and perspective for those things that troubled me so in the 1960’s and 1970’s as well as some understanding of why it all really happened.  This trip has, for now, made me feel incredibly patriot, incredibly angry and also incredibly humble as well as quite introspective.
 
But for my children to experience the spirituality of our Cambodian guide and the Buddhist monks, the joy on the faces of children that live in bamboo shacks with no plumbing maybe electricity, the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and the culinary experiences of fertilized duck eggs, fried tarantula and pho; to appreciate that those with more stuff really seemed to have less in their lives…and that if you swallow your “coolness” and get into some touristic things you can actually have fun,  it was all worth it.
 
 
A wise man gave me some advice before taking this trip.  He said to not work at explaining things.  To let it just be and over time they will settle in and the questions and thoughts will arise.  He is oh so right.  
 
So as I write this, please understand that this review is written only days after I have returned.  It is all just settling in. So far so good, huh?
 
I highly recommend this AmaWaterways’ experience.