Our specialist cruise consultant John was recently lucky enough to do what he calls, one of the “ultimate cruises” – The Mekong River. He sailed with APT Travelmarvel and had the trip of a lifetime, traveling around Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia. We interviewed him to find out what he really thought of the trip and to find out his top travel tips for those of you considering a venture to the Far East!
We know this trip has long been on your bucket list- how did it live up to your expectations?
It smashed my expectations, both countries were more beautiful than I could have imagined.
We first had two nights at the Grand Hotel Saigon, followed by eight days on board the La Marguerite river cruise ship. At the end of the river cruise we were transferred to Siem Reap to stay in the wonderful Shinta Mani Resort. This tour started brilliantly in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and just got better and better each day. I saw and experienced sites that will stay in my memory for ever.
You can read more about John’s overview of this trip here.
What can passengers who have cruised on river ships in Europe expect from this one? How was your ship different?
La Marguerite has a very colonial feel about it, the décor is very classy, yet understated. The bathrooms seemed huge compared to other river cruise ships I have been on. I have had excellent customer service on all the river cruise ships I have been on but there seemed to be a genuine warmth from the Vietnamese and Cambodian crew on this ship.
Having completed a few cruises on European rivers, where, from the outside most of the ships look very similar, long, narrow and low, La Marguerite looked very different when I first clapped eyes on her. She has a capacity for less than a hundred passengers, the space you get inside the ship is incredible, the cabins are huge. The facilities on board were included massage rooms, a fitness room and a larger than expected pool on the sun deck.
If you want to learn more about the ship, click to read John’s blog about it here!
Did you stay in other accommodation on your trip? What was that like?
I stayed in the Grand Saigon Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, which was a great location for walking to places of interest, bars and restaurants. Travelmarvel did a great job of selecting good quality accommodation in a great location, making it easy to explore easily. I also stayed in the Shinta Mani Resort in Siem Reap, Cambodia. This was my favourite hotel. Great staff, food, location and rooms. This is a four star that should be a five star, I loved it.
How immersive did you feel the experience was? Did you get to meet with any local people? Was it difficult to communicate?
It was a very immersive trip, Travelmarvel has got this worked out perfectly. In almost all cases, the locals knew at least a few words of English and because of their culture they are very keen to know what seems like very personal things about you, such as your age, how many children you have and so on. This was mentioned by our guides beforehand so it was not a surprise, in fact it was very endearing.
Did you take any optional excursions? Were they worth the money?
I chose the Tuk Tuk tour in Phnom Penh. It was a really authentic way to get around and generally viewed as safer than going by moto taxi! The tour only cost a few dollars and was great fun and a superb way to see more of the Cambodian capital with its bustling local markets and pagodas. Remember that a map might not be much use for you as it’s unlikely your driver will be able to read it. Learn a few basic directions in Khmer (an easy one to remember is chop, meaning stop!) or use the names of the nearest markets to get to the areas you want to see, drivers will not always be familiar with the landmarks that Westerners are interested in.
What was your experience travelling around on land like? What modes of transport did you take? Any memorable experiences?
As well as walking and using Tuk Tuks in the towns, I did get on the back of a locals moped in Ho Chi Minh to get back to the hotel – not for the faint hearted! When we visited Kampong Tralach in the Kampong Chnang province we took a twenty minute ride in an Ox cart. This was really good fun with two of us to each cart. If you’re used to a little more luxury do be aware that you’ll have just a thin straw mat to sit on so you may be feeling a bit numb by the end!
Again Travelmarvel have got the pace spot on. In most cases it was a couple of hours in the morning off the ship, then back on for lunch and another two hour or so excursion in the afternoon. They were all at a slow pace, they had to be as it was so hot and humid. At the Angkor temples at the end of the cruise, they created an extra group for people who wanted to go particularly slowly, as there were quite a few steps involved at the temples.
Was there anything you found overrated or disappointing?
Quite simply, no! The tour got better with each day and every experience was a memorable one.
We’ve heard that there are some ‘unusual’ dishes, did you or any others try anything new?
There were lots of exotic foods to indulge in and I tried deep fried ants in Phnom Pen. There were lots of delicious foods including Cambodian Pancakes, Vietnamese Spring Rolls, fresh fish and all the prawns you can eat plus a lot of exotic fruits including the sweetest mango I’ve ever eaten, dragon fruit which looks better than it tastes and jackfruit which smelt awful!
Deep fried tarantula and deep fried crickets were on the menu in every Cambodian market plus deep fried frogs legs – this seemed to be Cambodia’s version of KFC!
The most unusual food I came across was Balut. This is a fifteen day old egg which is a developing duck embryo/ fertilized duck egg that is boiled and eaten in the shell – not only did it look vile, but I’ve been told it tasted worse than it looked!
Was there much opportunity for wildlife spotting? Did you see any up close?
I don’t think it’s possible to look anywhere in Cambodia without seeing some form of animal. Stray dogs seemed to be everywhere, as did lizards. Lizards all over the place! Fortunately we didn’t see any snakes but saw a variety of different spiders and bugs ranging from tiny to massive and lots of the biggest and brightest butterflies I’ve ever seen! Water buffalo and Oxen were roaming free all over the Cambodian countryside. I’m kicking myself for not doing the optional excursion to see the Cambodian elephants in Siem Reap.
Do you have any advice or tips for people looking to book a Mekong cruise?
My top tips would be to choose carefully when you visit. I visited in July, which was very hot and humid. If you don’t like high humidity, go October to May. One thing you definitely need to remember is insect repellent- gallons of it! You will use it. If you have a balcony cabin, never leave the doors open, mosquitos will eat you alive if they get in your cabin.
A general tip to avoid illness is when away from the ship and your hotels, do not have ice in your drinks or eat anything washed in tap water, it’s just too risky. Even on board the ship and in hotels, use bottled water to clean your teeth.
Finally, be prepared for the hustle and bustle! You’ll notice very quickly that crossing the road in Vietnam is scary, you have to trust that they will go around you! Walk in a straight line at a steady pace, do not slow down or speed up. There’s no point in waiting for a gap in the moped traffic, it will not happen.
You can follow John’s adventures on his facebook page below…
Would like to sail the Mekong River? Have you ever visited before?
Let us know in the comments below…