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Trip Tonle Sap and Mekong River Cruise with APT Tonle Sap and Mekong River Cruise with APT 06/28/2013 - 07/14/2013   Eight days with APT cruising down the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers in Cambodia... Julian Summers (AU)
Australia Cambodia Singapore Vietnam

Tonle Sap and Mekong River Cruise with APT

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Eight days with APT cruising down the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers in Cambodia and Vietnam, with a few days beforehand in Siem Reap and afterwards in Saigon.

Means of Transport
Boat Bus / Truck Plane
  • 28Jun 2013

    1 Departure 06/28/2013 Australia —

    Perth, Australia

    Description

    Up at 4:30 am and left home at 5:00 am to depart Perth at 7:40 am with Singapore Airlines. Had a surprisingly good breakfast at the airport before departure. We're looking forward to packing away the jumpers - hopefully we won't be in the cold for a couple of weeks!

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  • 28Jun 2013

    2 Singapore Stopover 06/28/2013 Singapore —

    Singapore, Singapore

    Description

    We had an uneventful flight (the best sort!) to Singapore where we are currently filling in 3 1/2 hours before on onward flight to Siem Reap. Fortunately there is plenty to do at Changi airport and we have visited the Butterfly Garden and the Orchid Garden. The Butterfly Garden is a small enclosure attached to Terminal 3 and spreading over 2 floors. Since it is effectively outside, we got a taste of the heat and humidity - about 30 degrees. Although it is a small area, there was a good range of colourful butterflies at rest on the flowers and flapping around the enclosure.

    We caught the SkyTrain around to Terminal 2, from where our next flight was departing. On the way to the departure lounge, we walked past the Orchid Garden, which had a large display of orchids of all colours and sizes. There was even one clone that had been created especially for Changi Airport. A team of gardeners was hard at work re-building one part of the display.

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  • 28Jun 2013

    3 Arrival in Cambodia 06/28/2013 Cambodia —

    Sangkat Svay Dangkum, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia

    Description

    We had a good flight from Singapore to Siem Reap with Silk Air, SIngapore Airways' regional network. It was a smaller plane but still had a good food service. There was a strange series of programmes displayed as in-flight entertainment, including Japanese talent shows and British challenge shows where everyone ended up crashing into a swimming pool which obviously was shot in mid-summer but was supposedly in ice and snow!

    The views of Cambodia from the plane were very interesting, including a huge lake which we took to be Tonle Sap which we will go on as part of the APT cruise. Talking of which, we've seen a few people with their APT backpacks, so it looks like the tour participants are assembling at the same time as us. It gradually became cloudy as we travelled and as we came in to land we could see that there had been recent heavy rain. Fortunately there were only a few spots as we got off the plane and walked to the terminal

    We had arranged an eVisa for Cambodia before leaving home and this led to a very quick trip through immigration. The baggage carousel started up soon after we arrived there and Angela's suitcase came through quite quickly. However, mine took ages, which undid the benefit of the eVisa!

    Customs procedures seemed a bit odd - most people lined up in the the red "something to declare" lane but were just waved through. We went through the green lane, which was just as quick.

    We had decided to book a car from the hotel to pick us up, which worked out well because we were both very tired once we'd arrived. We had a warm welcome, together with a heated towel and a chilled bottle of water, and waited a few minutes for our car to arrive. The drive from the airport took us past Angkor Wat temple, giving us an introduction to its size.

    Check-in at the hotel was very civilised, with us sitting down having a welcome iced tea while the staff did all the paperwork. They suggested we upgraded to a suite for "only USD25 more per night" and it was certainly a magnificent room but far more than we needed. Plus it was on the ground floor and we were worried about noise.

    We did give in to the suggestion to go to the hotel restaurant for dinner, since there was a display of local dances. This was very enjoyable, and we found it interesting to see the same influences as we had seen in Bali and Thailand. I guess this is a result of the Khmer empire covering most of the region in the past.

    Having been well fed during the day on the planes, we had a relatively small meal of nasi goreng with chicken, plus Amok fish, which was a local dish of fish in coconut milk and spices, served in banana leaves - very nice with a glass of Cuvee Sofitel chardonnay.

    Where I stayed: Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort - Vithei Charles De Gaulle, Khum Svay Dang Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia

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  • 29Jun 2013

    4 Lazy day but an Angkor highlight 06/29/2013 Cambodia —

    Sangkat Svay Dangkum, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia

    Description

    After a long day travelling, we had a slow start to the day, going for a buffet breakfast at around 9:30. There was a huge spread of Western and Asian food. Angela enjoyed some "detox juice" - pineapple and lemongrass and ginger. After a feast of cereal, fruit, omelette, and croissant Angela finished off with some miso soup!

    We surprised ourselves after breakfast by deciding we'd have a quiet morning next to the pool and enjoyed doing just that. We didn't feel like we needed any lunch after our big breakfast, but did have a Tiger beer from the pool bar!

    We eventually stirred ourselves about about 3:30 and just got under shelter when there was a heavy downpour. Fortunately it was very brief so we decided to stick with our plan to go to Angkor Wat, the famous the temple just north of town. We arranged to hire a tuk-tuk, a scooter-drawn buggy, rather than a car, mainly for the experience and also because it was much cheaper. Our driver was Mr Song and he took us out to the entry where you buy tickets for 1 day or more. It was now 4:20pm and he explained that if we waited until about 4:40pm we could get a 1-day pass which would cover the rest of today plus tomorrow, saving $40. So, it turned out there was a benefit of lazing by the pool most of the day!

    We lined up with quite a crowd of people and at 4:40 there was a synchronised removal of the "Closed" signs at all the booths and people started moving through remarkably quickly, especially since everyone had their photo taken to go on a printed pass. We were soon on our way again.

    Not far away we came to the massive Angkor Wat temple, surrounded by a 190m wide moat. There were lots of people there but it didn't seem too crowded. We explored in and around the various parts of the temple, marvelling at the fact that it was constructed to such a high standard and on such a large scale centuries ago. The outer galleries contained amazing carvings (bas reliefs) of warriors and gods, heaven and hell, complete with horses, elephants, crocodiles, birds and fish. We left as the sun was setting and made the most of the colours on the stone.

    Mr Song took us back into town and dropped us off at the Old Market, where we spent a little while looking at the handicrafts and "designer" shirts. Angela found a Pashmina scarf to go with her new dress for the Amana Living ball.

    We walked along the road to Pub Street, an area of restaurants with the roads cordoned off and full of tourists. As we walked along, Angela spotted the Cambodian BBQ Restaurant, which she had read good reviews of in Lonely Planet. We had a "degustation" dinner consisting of 5 meats (chicken, squid, pork, beef and crocodile) with unlimited vegetables and noodles, cooked on a fire-pot placed in the middle of our table. A metal dome was used to cook the meats, while a "moat" was filled with broth to cook the noodles and vegetables. The heat in the fire-pot was such that the staff regularly had to top it up with fresh stock to replace what had steamed off. Although the meat was in small strips, it ended up being a very filling and thoroughly tasty meal.

    After dinner we walked to the New Night Market and wandered around for a while, seeing mostly the same goods that had been at the Old Market. Angela succumbed to the offer of a foot and shoulder massage at $3 for half an hour and had an excellent massage that lasted for 50 minutes.

    Finally it was time for a tuk-tuk back to the hotel and in bed around 11pm.

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  • 30Jun 2013

    5 Temple touring 06/30/2013 Cambodia —

    Sangkat Nokor Thum, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia

    Description

    We had arranged for Mr Song to pick us up at 7:30am to tour some more temples, so set a 6:15am alarm to have time for another hotel buffet breakfast. Mr Song was duly waiting for us outside at 7:30am and we headed off for Angkor Thom, passing Angkor Wat on the way. We had decided on an early start to beat the worst of the heat and crowds. At Angkor Wat, we saw that bus-loads of tourists were also making an early start and it was much more crowded than it had been the previous afternoon. We passed other temples on the way then whizzed through the South Gate of Angkor Thom. We would have quite liked to stop for a photo but Mr Song just pointed it out and kept going.

    Angkor Thom was the last capital city of the Khmer empire, built in the 12th century, and covers 10 square kilometres - so it is hardly small!

    When we arrived at Angkor Thom, Mr Song pointed out the route we should take and where he would meet us at the end.

    Each temple at Angkor Thom is a considerably smaller complex Angkor Wat but we enjoyed it just as much because it was so approachable. The first temple (the Bayon) had 54 towers crowned by 216 huge smiling faces of the Avalokiteshvara (or possibly King Jayavarman VII, who commissioned its construction).

    On to Baphuon, about 200m NW of the Bayon. Steep stairs took us to the top of a pyramidal temple with sweeping views across the surrounding plains.

    By now (around 11am) it was very hot and humid and we were glad to have carried plenty of water with us.

    Having reunited with Mr Song, we decided to go to Banteay Srei, "considered by many to be the jewel in the crown of Angkorian art" according to Lonely Planet. Mr Song was at first concerned that it was too far (40km, an hour's drive) but eventually decided it was OK to go there. We had a very enjoyable cross-country drive, seeing some of the "real' Cambodian countryside and villages. We did feel sorry for Mr Song, who seemed to find it tiring to drive a tuk-tuk on a trip that probably was more suited to a car.

    it was well worth the drive out to Banteay Srei, again due to the quality of the temple rather than its scale. The stone carving certainly was exceptional and the stone itself was very attractive with shades of pink and browns. It is believed that the carving here must have been done by women, since it is too fine to have been done by men!

    At the end of the walk around Banteay Srei we enjoyed lunch at a cafe before Mr Song took us back to the Sofitel. Definittly time for a swim, and we enjoyed a cocktail (a frozen mango daiquiri and a mai tai) while bringing diary and blog up to date.

    More text and photos to follow.

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  • 01Jul 2013

    6 On our way to the river 07/01/2013 Cambodia —

    Khum Ta Ches, Cambodia

    Description

    Up at 5:30am to shower and pack in time for our bags to be outside the room at 6:30am. As we put them out, the staff were already at the end of the corridor picking up bags. We went over to the restaurant for another lovely buffet breakfast, then went outside to register with APT. There was a line of people already but we eventually were "processed", handing in our passports and getting a baggage tag to identify which cabin our bags were to be taken to. We then had to find our bags outside to attach the tag - it seemed rather inefficient!

    We then went upstairs to pick up our backpacks and off to the foyer to wait for our 8:00am departure. We were split into 4 colour-coded groups (ours was yellow) and left on buses for a 5 1/2 drive to the Tonle Sap River where the boat was moored. Later in the wet season it will be much closer to Siem Reap but now, at the start of the wet season, the lake is too shallow.
    I'm sure the drive was made longer by the extent of roadworks - we were regularly slowing down to navigate across or around excavated sections. We saw a mixture of huge rice padis, small towns, and villages. On the way we had a commentary from Mr Tu, the APT tour director, and Phany, our Cambodian guide.

    We had a couple of "happy stops" where we could visit toilets and enjoy some retail therapy (which we resisted). The second of these was at "Spider Town", where the local delicacies are tarantulas and crickets. Fortunately we weren't hungry enough to have to eat them! Phany had explained that the locals hung plastic sheets up at night with lights behind them to attract the crickets, which hit the sheets and fall into a batch of water from which they are collected during the night.

    Eventually we arrived at the RV Amalotus and were greeted by a line of staff holding umbrellas as we walked across the grass on a red carpet. It looked as though the landing had been constructed especially for today, with steps chopped out of the river bank.

    We went up to the Saigon Lounge for a welcome drink of apple juice and soda and to meet the main members of the ship's crew. At 5:30 we would have a compulsory safety drill, then at 6:30 a briefing on tomorrow's activities with a welcome cocktail from the captain, followed by dinner at 7:30pm.

    After the briefing we went down one level to the dining room for lunch, selecting from a huge buffet an with plenty of wine or beer - we had a frontignac chardonnay which was quite passable.
    Finally we were allowed to go to our cabin and did a little unpacking before having a snooze for an hour or so before our safety drill. We had to take life-jackets from our room and assemble on the top deck at the appropriate station. The staff didn't know how to launch the lifeboats ("we'll have to go and ask the Captain"), so we were glad that it probably wouldn't be necessary.

    Back down to the Saigon Lounge for our Captain's Welcome Cocktail (whisky and peach juice, surprisingly nice) and more briefings on the boat's facilities and the week's trip ahead.

    Our dinner was a highlight - a menu put together by Luc Nguyen. We had Vietnamese spring rolls and a beef roll wrapped in betel leaf which was delicious. Then there was a sweet and sour soup, followed by a choice of main courses - I had beef while Angela had fish. I had a Chilean cabernet with the beef - a huge glass! There was There was a choice for dessert also and I had banana cake while Angela had tapioca.

    Finally off to bed at around 10pm after a long day!

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  • 02Jul 2013

    7 Shore excursion to Kampong Chhnang 07/02/2013 Cambodia —

    Cambodia

    Description

    Alarm at 6:30am to be ready for a departure at 8:15 to a floating village. We again split into four groups (we stayed with yellow to get yesterday's guide, Phany) and took a small boat into a tributary of the river where the village was located. Phany explained that most of the residents were of Vietnamese origin, although there were also some Cambodian and one area was Muslim.

    Three generations of each family lived in a small house and survived from fishing. We also saw boats which served as mobile shops, so the residents didn't need to go ashore to shop very often. After driving around the lagoon we went ashore for a walk through the village, seeing the small shop-houses and markets. There were many cheerful children calling out "hello" and grateful to be given gifts. Angela gave out some coloured pens which were well received.

    We returned to the Amalotus at 9:45am and the boat left at 10am for our next destination, an afternoon excursion to Kampong Tralach and Oudong At Kampong Tralach we climbed up steep steps in the bank to where there were a large number of carts pulled by oxen and we all climbed in, two people per cart. A number of children followed along and were pleased to receive gifts of pens and toiletries. We had been advised not to give them money or sweets, although this didn't stop one lady giving out loads of lollies!

    It was a fairly rough ride along the dirt road, with no suspension on the carts and wooden wheels. However, it was a good way to see some of the town and surrounding countryside and, as the guides pointed out, this is still a common form of transport for the locals.

    We met up with our buses and climbed aboard for a 45-minute ride to Oudong to visit a Buddhist monastery. Oudong was previously the capital of Cambodia and still contains many old buildings. The monastery was a huge complex surrounding the main temple, a tall, almost plain-looking building on the outside with internal walls and ceiling covered by paintings. In fact the exterior walls were elaborately decorated in yellow carvings. A highlight was the chanting by three monks, the conclusion of which was a blessing in which they threw handfuls of jasmine flowers over the tourists seated on the floor in front of them.

    After touring the monastery we re-boarded the buses to drive to Prek K'Dam, where we had originally joined the Amalotus. There had been some rain during the afternoon and it must have been heavy in Prek K'Dam because the field we had to cross was muddy and full of puddles. The drivers decided the buses would get bogged if they drove in there - there was already a truck bogged - so we walked carefully across to the steps. The conditions didn't concern the local boys, who were playing a game of soccer in the mud!

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  • 03Jul 2013

    8 Koh Chen Village, then on to Phnom Penh 07/03/2013 Cambodia —

    Khan Chamkar Mon, PP, Cambodia

    Description

    Walking tour of Koh Chen copper village

    The Amalotus had moved from one side of the river to the other bank, so we were able to walk ashore up steps cut into the bank. We were met by children and teenagers carrying trays of silverware as we walked along through the village of Kampong Tralach. We visited a small shop where various copper and silver goods were being painstakingly decorated and bought a small bowl and pill box. We were invited to enter the home of one old gentleman and saw the small space available. Apparently the town has grown dramatically over the last couple of years since a bridge was built across the river, giving better access.

    We continued through the village to a local school. We visited one classroom where the kids sang us a Cambodian song (more quantity of singing than quality!) and we responded (at Phany's suggestion with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, including hand gestures. Phany then translated the song (roughly) saying that "the sky was the limit" if the kids worked hard at school and they would be able to travel to other places like us.

    We returned to the Amalotus after the tour and the boat left for Phnom Penh. I took the opportunity of some free time to update the diary, then we arrived in Phnom Penh around 2:00pm. There was a short walking tour during the afternoon to Wat Phnom, a Buddhist monastery on top of a nearby hill. The threatening sky turned into lightning and rain as we walked and there was about half an hour of heavy rain. There had been a few drops of rain as we left the ship so Phaney had brought along umbrellas for us all - we were very glad to have them!

    Tonight there was no trip briefing because there was a demonstration of traditional Cambodian dances by a group of Khmer children.

    We stayed on the Amalotus for dinner, then walked along the river-bank on Sissowath Quay road to find a massage for Angela at a place recommended by Phaney. She enjoyed a 1 hour Khmer massage and slept very well afterwards.

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  • 04Jul 2013

    9 Exploring Phnom Penh 07/04/2013 Cambodia —

    Khan Chamkar Mon, PP, Cambodia

    Description

    Another early start for an 8:15 trip exploring Phnom Penh. Our first stop was the Royal Palace, where we visited the throne room (pictures were not allowed) and the Silver Pagoda, which had over 5 tonnes of silver tiles on the floor, and many statues of Buddha including a huge solid gold one decorated with diamonds up to 25 carats in size, plus an emerald Buddha.

    The next stop was the Central Market, a huge building with an impressive domed roof. The main building was surrounded by numerous stalls selling shirts, scarfs, belts, backpacks and so on - a typical Asian market. Inside there were many jewellery stalls, plus those selling copy watches and sunglasses. There was a range of camera gear as well as other small electronics - Angela bought a laser pointer for work, the pointer plus pack of ten batteries was $5! She also chose a lovely green sapphire earring and pendant set.

    We returned to the ship for lunch and decided to give ourselves an afternoon off rather than go on a tour. We read for a while then had a swim before getting a tuk-tuk to take us to the Russian Market. This was quite a distance away across town, driving through crazy traffic. The Russian Market was a very different from the Central Market, with narrow alleyways of stalls. There was a bigger range of material stalls and we nearly bought some beautiful embroidered silk but decided against it. Angela did buy another tee-shirt and a 2nd silk scarf to match her new dress (she now has the full set - a hot-weather silk scarf and a cold-weather Pashmina scarf!).

    The tuk-tuk driver had waited for us outside the market and we wove our way back through the traffic. We were interested to see a few more expensive cars on the road and in a showroom we saw a Rolls Royce and a Bentley - obviously there is some wealth in Cambodia!

    Another lovely dinner on-board, then off to bed.

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  • 05Jul 2013

    10 Depart Phnom Penh to cruise to Vietnam 07/05/2013 Cambodia —

    Cambodia

    Description

    The Amalotus moved off the dock early in the morning and anchored in the middle of the river for a couple of hours while the captain completed formalities for leaving Cambodia. Eventually we were underway for the 100km trip down river to the border with Vietnam.

    Soon after leaving Phnom Penh, we left the Tonle Sap River and entered the Mekong. There was no dramatic difference - the water seemed the same muddy colour, but the Mekong was a lot wider. We saw where the sand was being dredged from that had been conveyed up the Tonle Sap in barges that looked like they were about to sink.

    Angela attended a demonstration of towel and napkin folding and learned a couple of new methods. We had been amused by the new towels left on our bed folded to to look like a dog or an elephant.

    After lunch we went up to the Sun Deck and spent a while reading and chatting to other passengers in the pool. We enjoyed a cold beer and Angela shared in a bottle of Spanish champagne purchased by Ron from Melbourne - this was one of the bottled ways that were not included for free. We all had such a good time chatting we ended up a bit sunburnt.

    At 3:00pm Angela attended a cooking class and a demonstration of fruit carving. This was followed by an "ice-cream party" where several varieties were served - we felt so well fed after our big meals that we skipped the ice-cream.

    We arrived at the Vietnam border at around 5:30pm and stopped for a couple of hours while the immigration procedures were completed - fortunately wee didn't have to do anything other than attend the briefing about the next day's activities then attend dinner.

    Quite a relaxing day, and I think we were all quite pleased with the break after being busy each day beforehand.

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  • 06Jul 2013

    11 Boat trip exploring Tan Chau 07/06/2013 Vietnam —

    Vĩnh Hòa, Tân Châu, Vietnam

    Description

    We had stopped the previous night near Tan Chau, our first destination in Vietnam. After breakfast we boarded a small boat with our new local guide, Son, for a trip ashore. Firstly we drove around some tributaries of the Mekong, seeing the many different types of boat on which people live and work. Many had large eyes painted on the bows to protect them against evil (and crocodiles!).

    The driver nosed the boat into the bank for us to go ashore and explore the "evergreen island", where about 400 people live in a small village growing corn, rice and beef cattle. We walked through a corn field and were met by waving children (they weren't at school because it was Saturday). The villagers had plenty of cattle (grown for meat) and chickens as well as their fruit and vegetable crops. Apparently they enjoyed the island life because there was no traffic.

    We re-boarded the boat and drove back to another spot where we went ashore and walked through fields to a rattan mat factory. We saw the whole process from soaking and dyeing the reeds, cutting them to length, and weaving them into mats of all sizes. We bought some place-mats, hoping they will be OK to get through quarantine.

    As we left the factory we met a team of cyclo (rickshaw) drivers, who took us for a ride (one per vehicle) through town and to a silk factory. There were lots of ancient-looking weaving machines there, most creating patterns based on cards that looked like piano rolls. Angela tried on a couple of blouses but couldn't find one in the right size.

    We re-boarded our rickshaws for a ride back into town, where we had a quick walk through a local roadside market. As usual we were followed by young children, who were pleased to be given gifts of pens from our diminishing stock. We had lunch on board while the Amalotus continued to cruise downstream towards our next stop, Sa Dec. That evening there was a presentation on Vietnam in the Saigon Lounge.

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  • 07Jul 2013

    12 Sa Dec then Cai Be 07/07/2013 Vietnam —

    Đông Hòa Hiệp, Vietnam

    Description

    We took small boats ashore to explore the small town of Sa Dec. The driver took the boat around a tributary of the Mekong to find a brick factory that was still working (it being Sunday) and which we could access reasonably easily from the water.

    The clay for the bricks arrives by boat from the rice paddies and is worked to remove impurities and get the right consistency. It is then extruded and cut into bricks which are fired in the kilns, with rice husks as the fuel. The firing can take a long time - one batch still wasn't ready after 90 days firing!

    The government is concerned about air pollution from the kilns and is investigating alternatives. It seemed to us they would end up with a problem of disposing of the rice husks! Currently the burnt husks are recycled.

    We returned to our small boat and motored through the creeks to the Cao Dai temple. The Cao Dai Temple was very interesting - it's religion is based on the best of Buddhist, Taoist, and Christianity. It was certainly very colourful!

    There were many people trying to sell hats on the walk to and from the temple. We both succumbed! It was interesting to see that the firm price of $2 dropped to $1.50 or even $1 as the walk progressed!

    After the temple, we took the boat back into the centre of Sa Dec and walked through the market alongside the river. The many "delicacies" for sale included frogs, snakes and rats! On a brighter note, there were stacks of garlic looking like Christmas decorations, meant to ward off smells or evil spirits - not sure which!

    We returned to Amalotus for lunch, during which time the boat sailed on to Cai Be. We boarded our small boats again for a tour of the cathedral and a candy-making workshop.

    At the candy factory we saw the manufacture of popped rice. Rice was added to hot sand in a wok. It popped and was scooped out into a sieve so that the sand fell back into the wok and the popped rice was clean ready for coating in a toffee-like sauce. A huge slab was rolled out on a table then cut up into small pieces and packaged. We were sat down at a small table where we could sample a range of their wares with a cup of green tea.

    We returned to Amalotus by around 5pm to prepare for the Captain's Farewell Cocktail and Crew Presentation. The cocktail was vodka-based again, so we chose a G&T instead. As long as you have the "local" spirits the drinks are free and we found the local gin to be quite acceptable.

    Our cruise director, Tu, brought out all the ship's staff so that we could say thanks with our applause, then we went down for dinner. Afterwards there was a "traditional folkloric performance from the Mekong River" which J chose to skip in order to pack but A said was good.

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  • 08Jul 2013

    13 Depart rv AmaLotus for some time in Saigon 07/08/2013 Vietnam —

    Phường 15, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

    Description

    Woken early (around 5am) by the anchor being raised and Amalotus getting underway for My Tho port where we would be disembarking.

    Suitcases outside the cabin by 7am for collection by the crew, then downstairs for our final Amalotus breakfast. We had to be out of the cabin by 7:45am then meet in the Saigon Lounge ready to depart at 8:15am.

    Our bus trip to Ho Chi Minh city took about 2 hours, during which there were explanations by our local guide Son and the tour director Tu about the countryside we were travelling through and life in Vietnam.

    We arrived at the Sheraton Hotel, where most of the other APT guests were staying. The group about to join Amalotus were checking out, so the lobby was full of people with APT bags!

    We had been able to book into a walking tour included for those who had booked activities with APT after the river cruise - it was an extra $20 each for us. The main aim of these tours is to fill in the time until those staying in the Sheraton could check in. Some people left on a motorbike tour - rather them than us based on what we had seen of the traffic! Ours was a much more sedate and mostly safer walking tour around some of the nearby highlights, including the Opera House, the Post Office, the Notre Dame Cathedral (which was closed) and the Reunification Palace (which we saw from the street but decided to return to). Outside the Palace we were picked up by cyclos, a bicycle-driven rickshaw capable of taking one passenger each. It was a good way to see some of the areas around the hotel, at a slow enough pace to feel part of what was going on.

    Back at the Sheraton we said farewell to APT and caught a taxi to the Yellow House Hotel, where we would be staying at a much lower nightly rate! We dumped our bags in our room and walked around the corner for lunch.

    Where I stayed: Yellow House Hotel - 31 Bui Vien, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

    Our room at Yellow House is described as a balcony apartment - it has a small kitchen and large balcony, which would be nice to sit out on if it wasn't (a) too hot or (b) too rainy! It is a typical Saigon building, narrow and tall. We are on the 3rd floor above a (reasonably) quiet lane - quiet compared to the roads, anyway.

    It rained heavily after lunch and we had a sleep after our early start. We went out for dinner and were surprised to find it was still raining, though not so heavily. We hadn't found the right location when we went for lunch but this time went a bit further and found the tourist area where there is a good choice of restaurants.

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  • 09Jul 2013

    14 Ben Thanh Markets, Reunification Palace, Puppets 07/09/2013 Vietnam —

    Phường 15, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

    Description

    We started off with a taxi to the Ben Thanh markets and spent a while resisting the entreaties of many stall-holders keen to deal with their lucky first customer of the day. At one stall J bought a couple of business shirts and A bought some more zip-off trousers (lighter weight than her others). The stall-holder was delighted to hear we were from Perth - her aunt owns a Vietnamese bakery in Morley!

    We decided to risk lunch in the market for a total of $3 - there seemed to be no after-effects! Our APT guides had warned about the risks of eating local food and needing to spend a long time in the "happy house" afterwards!

    After lunch we walked across to the Reunification Palace, arriving there as it opened for tours at 1pm. We were pleased that the ladies at the front desk agreed to look after our backpacks, then we were able to join a free tour with an English-speaking guide. The palace was magnificently furnished from the days it was the Presidential Palace, with most furnishings still in original condition from the '60s and '70s.

    The heavens had opened just as we arrived but we were delighted to see the rain had cleared once we finished in the Reunification Palace. We started to walk in search of a taxi back to the hotel but decided to accept the offer of a cyclo ride (which ended up costing more than a taxi but was fun).

    After a short rest we took a taxi to see a water puppets show. This was amazing, with a series of short sketches performed by puppets controlled by puppeteers under the water! The water was murky brown (Mekong River colour) so we couldn't see through it. We saw a picture later showing the puppeteers controlling long rods from behind the curtain to make the puppets move around. We couldn;'t work out how they manage to choreograph their movements without the controls crashing into each other.

    The show had started at 6pm so we got a taxi back to De Tham and found a restaurant for dinner - an excellent meal at Cafe 333.

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  • 10Jul 2013

    15 Walking to Saigon city highlights 07/10/2013 Vietnam —

    Phường 15, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

    Description

    Angela woke up early and sat at the table on the balcony updating the diary. It was a lovely clear morning after all the rain yesterday.

    We had breakfast at Yellow House then caught a taxi to the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Museum. The museum is housed in a once-grand mansion built in 1885. There were interesting historical displays on the cultures that make up the community and extensive coverage of the struggles the Vietnamese Communists have had against the invading imperialists over the centuries, from the French to the Americans. The propaganda is quite amusing!

    We were also amused by the procession of wedding parties using the building for wedding photos. Most brides were in traditional Western dresses with long trains, while one had a simpler dress in red. There is a grand staircase which was the setting for many photos. They also used an old Citroen outside.

    We then walked to the Bitexco Financial Tower, a landmark which is easy to navigate to since it is the tallest building in Saigon at 262m (68 floors). There is an observation deck on the 49th floor with (of course) magnificent views out over Saigon on a clear(ish) day like today. (By the way, Lonely Planet says the observation deck opens at 1pm and is on the 48th floor - both incorrect). We had stopped on the way for lunch at a Japanese restaurant to fill in time until 1pm, nervously watching the clouds build up. We were lucky - the 3pm downpour didn't eventuate today!

    There were free lockers available (as there had been at HCMC Museum) so we were glad to walk around in the air-conditioning without our backpacks for a while. There were a number of HP touch-screen PCs set up with panoramic views taken a couple of years earlier - you could scroll left and right then touch an information icon to get a popup window with details on what you were looking at - very good! It was interesting in some cases to compare the current state of a building under construction.

    We felt that we had a much better idea of the layout of the city after the view from above. Descending to ground level, we walked across to the banks of the Saigon River then around the up-market hotel area nearby. We visited the Caravelle hotel to see the rooftop bar in the old section of the hotel - this is the vantage point from which foreign journalists watched the fall of Saigon. It was quite reminiscent of the colonial atmosphere of Raffles. We had intended to have a beer there but the prices were outrageous - 3 times what we were used to from restaurants and 8 times the local shop price - so we left.

    We retraced some of our steps from the APT walking tour, passing the opera house where we saw a display promoting the Ao performance, a new show similar to Cirque du Soleil but featuring the Vietnam story. After some debate we decided to book for tomorrow - it obviously caters for the tourists at around $45 per ticket! We also returned to the Post Office to have a more leisurely look around. Across the road, the Notre Dame cathedral was open this time so we had a quick look inside - somewhat less impressive than the appearance from outside.

    By now we'd had enough walking around, so caught a taxi back to the Yellow House Hotel.

    It had been interesting walking around the "posh" part of town near the Sheraton and other international hotels. It is a very different experience from where we are, nestled between local houses and with street markets at the end of the lane.

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  • 11Jul 2013

    16 Cu Chi Tunnels and Ao Show 07/11/2013 Vietnam —

    Tân An Hội, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

    Description

    Up early to be at the travel agent by 7:30am to check in for an 8am bus to visit the Cu Chi tunnels. The drive took about 2 hours, travelling out to the north-west of Saigon. It took a long time to get out past the airport through congested traffic but the the roads cleared a little.

    We enjoyed the explanation about how the Vietnamese had fought the Americans from the tunnels. It must have been terrible for the US forces, not only trying to fight in this climate and terrain but also with the guerilla tactics and bobby traps of the enemy.

    Julian was (just) able to squeeze into a demonstration tunnel entrance which could be easily concealed with a few leaves on top. We went into a tunnel that had been set up for tourists, i.e. at 1.2m tall was larger than the normal tunnels for the Vietnamese. We traversed 40m before deciding to exit - one of the tour group went the full 100m! It was quite hard work walking in a stoop through the tunnel and surprisingly hot.

    Near the end of the tour was a firing range where one could buy 10 rounds of ammunition to fire from one of a range of weapons - a couple of our group did so but it didn't interest us.

    We arrived back in town at around 1:30pm. It was another clear day, so very hot - we were glad we had been on an air-conditioned bus for our trip.

    The travel agent (from where the bus had left) was in a section of De Tham (road) with lots of restaurants so we decided to have lunch before heading back to the hotel (which is in a much quieter section of the same road, frequented by locals rather than tourists). We had walked past Ichiban Restaurant each day and had decided to go there for lunch. However, we got there and found the lights out and the staff asleep on the restaurant benches! We retraced our steps back up De Tham to Cafe 333 where we had enjoyed dinner the night before and had another excellent meal - crispy noodles with seafood and chicken curry with potatoes.

    We returned to the Yellow House hotel for a shower and a sleep until leaving at 5pm for the Ao show at the Opera House at 6pm. We were a little concerned that our taxi driver didn't understand where we wanted to go but he took us straight there with no problems.

    The Ao show is billed as a Vietnamese version of Cirque du Soleil. There was a similarity in style even if the quality of the performance was not as high. It was an enjoyable show which ran for about an hour.

    Afterwards we walked around looking for a restaurant but decided everywhere was far to expensive since we were in the "golden mile" for tourists. We caught a taxi back to De Tham and tried another new restaurant - good food but not up to the standard of Cafe 333. We could get used to the daily special of "Saigon green" beer for VND10,000 (50 cents) - especially since it is a 450ml bottle!

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  • 12Jul 2013

    17 Lazy last day in Saigon 07/12/2013 Vietnam —

    Phường 15, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

    Description

    We felt that we had one more day in Saigon than we really needed, so had a lazy day today. We walked around the local area enjoying the bustling morning market set up by (and for) the locals on the footpath. There is a full range of fish, meat, fruit and vegetables available, most of the fish still alive and everything looking very fresh.

    Angela was keen on another massage and we walked around for ages trying to find a recommended shop, without success. On the way, we found another large local market, selling clothes as well as fresh produce. This one looked more permanent, with sellers sitting on a raised platform in the middle of the stalls.

    We returned to De Tham and the massage place Angela had been before. Angela had been quite pleased with the earlier massage but put off by them hassling her for a "voluntary" tip that pushed the agreed price up by one third. This time, she agreed a fixed price up front!

    Julian went back to the hotel to cool off for a while, before returning to De Tham to join Angela for lunch. We decided to try out a pizza for a change and shared a very nice marinara.

    It was another sunny day, so very hot and humid, and we went back to the hotel for a sleep in the air-conditioning. Then it was time to pack before tomorrow morning's departure.

    We walked back up De Tham to our favourite restaurant, Cafe 333, for another lovely meal. As always, it was striking seeing the difference between "our"part of the street (full of locals) and further north (full of tourists). We saw some kids jumping a rope on one of the few large parts of the footpath not full of motorbikes and gave away our remaining pens and an Aussie hat.

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  • 13Jul 2013

    18 Leaving Saigon 07/13/2013 Vietnam —

    Phường 15, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

    Description

    We didn't have to leave until 9:30 so hoped to sleep in, but both woke up at around 6:30. We spent some time working on photos, diaries and blog before going down to breakfast. We were ready to leave as planned and arranged a taxi from the hotel to the international airport - only VND170 whereas we had allowed VND250. It was a fairly quick trip and we had plenty of time to look around the fairly new-looking airport and use some free wi-fi.

    We found a couple of good books about the water puppets performance we had seen earlier in the week and couldn't choose between them, so eventually bought both.

    Had a comfortable Silk Air flight on a 777 to Singapore, arriving in overcast and grey weather - not sure if this is still caused by the Indonesian bush fires.

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  • 13Jul 2013

    19 In Transit at Changi 07/13/2013 Singapore —

    Singapore, Singapore

    Description

    In transit at Singapore's Changi airport for 3.5 hours. Angela went off to check out the range of gardens around the airport while Julian wandered slowly from Terminal 2 around to Terminal 3 (through Terminal 1) to wait at the gate - updating the blog while waiting.

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  • 14Jul 2013

    20 Back home 07/14/2013 Australia —

    Perth, Australia

    Description

    We were lucky on the flight from Singapore that there were only the two of us in the 3 seats so we had plenty of space. We arrived at 12:15am and had a very slow trip through Immigration, especially for Julian who doesn't have a "smart" passport.

    Angela was very pleased that the rattan mats were allowed through quarantine. Other people had suitcases full of food and carved wooden statues, so were having a slower trip!

    Helen met us outside and drove us home as we adjusted to the cold weather!

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