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The Magnificent Mekong with Viking River Cruises

The Magnificent Mekong with Viking River Cruises

Postby Dave » 14 Aug 2012 10:39

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Another review? What more can I possibly add to my daily blog (Dave's blog from Vietnam & Cambodia on RV Tonle), review of the ship (RV Tonle - a review of the ship) and a great many slideshows...

Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Cambodia: Photos of village life
'Tomb Raider' temple, Cambodia
Vietnam: Photos of village life
Vietnam: Photos of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Cambodia: Royal Palace complex, Phnom Penh
Cambodia: Photos of Buddhist temples
RV Tonle Pandaw - a slideshow

...Not a lot I suppose! But I still feel the need to write the final chapter - a summing-up, as it were.

The 'Magnificent Mekong' is how Viking describes this package - I can't call it a cruise because cruising is only half the story. We spent eight days on board RV Tonle and eight days based in hotels in Vietnam and Cambodia.

This was an absolutely fantastic holiday for many reasons, but I'll start with the least expected. We couldn't believe what amazing value for money it was, and I heard many others say the same. We stayed in three very different 5-star hotels: the French colonial-style Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi; the modern Le Meridien Angkor in Siem Reap, with its beautiful grounds; and the luxurious Sofitel Saigon Plaza in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.

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Breakfast was of course provided, which was just as well as my two croissants and orange juice would have cost $50 in the Metropole! We usually did our own thing for lunch because there'd be a few hours between the morning and afternoon excursions. For dinner though, with one exception when we had an excellent meal and entertainment at Le Meridien, we were taken to top-class restaurants to sample the local cuisine.

This holiday was of the same duration as our Greenland and Iceland cruise last year, and it cost us roughly the same. I wouldn't dream of comparing the destinations, but I think it's fair to say that the accommodation (and the ship) was on a par with our premier suite on Boudicca. The big difference though is that last year we also spent a lot of money on excursions - and we tend to be careful because the cost can certainly add up! On this holiday, both at the hotels and while cruising, we probably averaged two excursions per day and all were included in the price. If you've read my blog you'll have seen the variety of means of transportation we experienced - rickshaw, cyclo, ox-cart, electric cart, as well as traditional and modern boats. We were issued with small radio receivers which we always took with us and these enabled us to hear the commentary - and avoid getting lost.

Of course any excursion will have a guide, but Viking do things a little differently to most. The 56 (or so) people on the trip were divided into two groups. Each group had their own Viking rep for the duration, and our rep was the excellent Lee. Our group was always on the same coach or boat and Lee was always there - answering questions, giving a commentary, and generally looking after his flock, as well as ensuring that the restaurants prepared us vegetarian meals! If anyone from Viking is reading this... Lee was brilliant. In addition to Lee we always had a local guide with us which meant that, for example, we gained a real insight into the horrors of life under Pol Pot in Cambodia because our guide survived that time.

I'm not sure it comes under the heading of value-for-money but I must mention something that we thought was a very good idea. At our first meeting with Lee he suggested that we all contribute $50 to a 'tips fund'. There would be a great many coach drivers, guides, and people driving all the different vehicles during the next couple of weeks - all of whom would expect a tip. Giving the $50 up-front meant that Lee would distribute the tips and so there'd be no need for us to worry. He kept us informed as to how much he gave everyone and even passed round an accounts sheet on the last day. I should add that the $50 didn't cover the ship's staff or Lee himself though!

Before I finally stop talking about value-for-money I want to give a thumbs-up for the airlines used. Thai Airways flew us from London to Hanoi via Bangkok and from Saigon to London, again via Bangkok; and we also had a short internal flight with Vietnam Airways from Hanoi to Siem Reap. Thai Airways in particular were excellent.

I know I sometimes heap so much praise on Viking it can sound as if I work for them, so I'll let you be the judge of this little extra... The itinerary for the final day in Saigon says: "After breakfast, check out of your hotel and you will be transferred to the airport for your return flight home." Most people (including us) didn't need to be at the airport until late in the afternoon so our reps arranged that we didn't need to check out until about 5pm and organised an excursion to a Viet Cong tunnel complex and museum outside Saigon. I don't doubt that this is something they normally do, but it seems that Viking's approach is to surprise with extras rather than disappoint.

It's worth dwelling on the excursions a while longer. The highlight for me was always going to be Angkor Wat in Cambodia (first photo above), and I wasn't disappointed. The place is absolutely breathtaking in its scale, magnificence and setting and it's certainly one of the world's great wonders. But we didn't just visit Angkor Wat - there are hundreds of smaller temples in the area and we visited four in all. My second favourite was the amazing 'Tomb Raider' temple which was one of the most spectacular and photogenic places I've seen:

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Religious buildings and monuments old and new were a major feature of this trip (especially in Cambodia) and we visited a great many - Buddhist (with a touch of Hindu), Confucian, Taoist and Christian. In one Buddhist temple we were treated to a moving blessing given by three monks.

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A non-religious highlight was our visit to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. We were taken from our mooring by cyclo (more than 50 of them!) to the palace where we admired the beautiful buildings - in one of which we saw solid gold statues and in another a solid silver floor. The cyclos then took us to the National Museum and then back to the ship.

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Most cruises we've done have taken us to the touristy sights but what made this trip completely different was the number of excursions to remote villages and markets where we gained a small insight into daily Cambodian and Vietnamese life. I'm not sure how many villages we saw in all, but I'd guess around half-a-dozen, and some were genuinely remote, being accessible only from the river. Much as we loved the fantastic buildings, it was visiting and talking to the people that gave us a real love of these two countries. Almost every child we met wanted to practise their English by saying "Hello, what is your name?" because they see English as a key to a better life.

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We'd never been to this part of the world before and didn't know what to expect. I knew a little about the Vietnam War and that Vietnam is a one-party communist state, but much less about Cambodia and its recent history. I imagined that Vietnam might be restrictive and have a strong uniformed presence but it seems open and liberal, and the most obvious uniformed presence was the Tourist Police whose main job is to help tourists cross the roads. The cities in both countries felt chaotic, friendly and unthreatening and far more hassle-free than in many other developing countries we've visited.

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For me, one of the most important things about this trip was learning about the terrible and complicated modern history of the region, and I returned home wanting to know more. I think it's shameful that we in the West know so little about attempts to 'bomb them back to the stone age' and the resultant emergence of the truly evil Khmer Rouge. Perhaps our version of history is defined by Hollywood and that southeast Asia is somewhere we'd rather forget? I asked Lee why the Vietnamese appear to bear no grudge against the West and he shrugged and said that Vietnam has been involved in so many wars and has been occupied by so many foreign powers that they've had to learn to shake hands and move on. Interestingly, it's China that seems to worry people most...

If you're considering visiting Vietnam and Cambodia I'd suggest doing it sooner rather than later because, although both countries are developing rapidly, they remain relatively untouched by western uniformity - we didn't see a single McDonalds anywhere! Almost everyone travels by bicycle, moped or boat, and prices (for us) are extremely low and tourists are made to feel extremely welcome. And, of course, there are the wonders at Angkor - I'd recommend seeing them before they get turned into a theme park!
Last edited by Dave on 14 Feb 2013 16:42, edited 5 times in total.
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Re: The Magnificent Mekong with Viking River Cruises

Postby JollyJill » 14 Aug 2012 11:03

It truly sounds wonderful. I almost wish that we had booked your cruise for next year instead of the Moscow to St Petersburg one.

Oh well, maybe 2014 eh? :)
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Re: The Magnificent Mekong with Viking River Cruises

Postby Dave » 14 Aug 2012 11:12

JollyJill wrote:It truly sounds wonderful. I almost wish that we had booked your cruise for next year instead of the Moscow to St Petersburg one.

Oh well, maybe 2014 eh? :)

Isn't that the great thing about cruising Jill? - there's always another 'must-see' place to visit! Your Russian cruise is definitely on our to-do list... :)
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Re: The Magnificent Mekong with Viking River Cruises

Postby Jimmy the One » 14 Aug 2012 11:24

Think this must come under the heading... "and now for something completely different " a huge WOW factor
Thanks Dave and Fred :D
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Re: The Magnificent Mekong with Viking River Cruises

Postby bobbyoscar » 14 Aug 2012 11:28

Well, what can I say to describe how I feel after reading all your descriptions and thoughts abour your recent travels
amazing, awesome...... (much more I think)

Thank you so much for allowing us to share this with you and for also the time it must have taken out of your holiday to keep us all informed with your blog.

Thank you Dave & Fred
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Re: The Magnificent Mekong with Viking River Cruises

Postby hazel20 » 14 Aug 2012 13:37

Thanks Dave and Fred - it was totally fascinating following that journey with you!
And the photos too!
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Re: The Magnificent Mekong with Viking River Cruises

Postby grannyM » 14 Aug 2012 17:20

Thanks for that brilliant 'summing-up' of your trip Dave. I think your last comments about how that whole region was literally ignored by the Western powers when they left them in a worse state than when they arrived, to supposedly 'save' them, spot on. A truly shameful period of history and as you said not the first time the people were subjected to a foreign power. I do fear that China may be the next oppressors.:(

As much as I love your photos of the temples and historic sites I did think that the trips to the villages to see and meet the ordinary people is what I would have enjoyed the most. :)
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Re: The Magnificent Mekong with Viking River Cruises

Postby Dave » 17 Aug 2012 10:17

grannyM wrote:Thanks for that brilliant 'summing-up' of your trip Dave. I think you're last comments about how that whole region was literally ignored by the Western powers when they left them in a worse state than when they arrived, to supposedly 'save' them, spot on. A truly shameful period of history and as you said not the first time the people were subjected to a foreign power. I do fear that China may be the next oppressors.:(

As much as I love your photos of the temples and historic sites I did think that the trips to the villages to see and meet the ordinary people is what I would have enjoyed the most. :)

I like to talk to people to try to get some idea of what life is like in the places we visit and I usually do some research when we get home (although rarely before we go). The other day I bought a 6-DVD box set on the Vietnam War (and watched the lot the same afternoon) and The Killing Fields, which we'll watch soon. After our Elbe cruise at Easter I realised I knew little of the history of the Czech Republic so I read everything I could find on Wikipedia when we got back!
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Re: The Magnificent Mekong with Viking River Cruises

Postby Dave » 22 Aug 2012 13:08

I've assembled various clips from Fred's phone and my tablet into a single video. Most of the clips were taken during rides (cyclo, rickshaw, etc.) and it's all a bit random since I didn't try to organise the clips by date or edit them.


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Re: The Magnificent Mekong with Viking River Cruises

Postby Stan Deasy » 22 Aug 2012 16:33

Hi Dave, great action video.....I was hoping that you would catch up with the No.59 cyclo guy in Phnom Penh but you never did! ;) :lol:
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