River cruise in Vietnam: a perfect vacation for body and mind


by Susan Hudson
Willamsburg Travel

Taking a river cruise, does not necessarily mean a European destination. If you have any adventure in your blood, perhaps an Asian destination along the Mekong Delta should be on your horizon.
Since this was an area that was so much a part of our lives in the 60’s and 70’s, this is a trip that needs to be considered. It should be noted that over 60% of the Vietnam population is under the age of 30. We encountered no anti–war hangover/hostility from anyone, anywhere on our trip. Tourism and consequently hospitality is what the Vietnamese are known for now. Most Vietnam cruises actually begin inland in the city of Hanoi with an overnight stay.
My recommendation would be to stay in Hanoi a couple of nights and then opt for the 4 night add-on before the cruise starts. This is a once in a lifetime trip and needs to be dealt with accordingly. Start off with 2 nights in Hanoi. This gives you a day to catch your breath after a very long international flight and just relax. The next day would be a city tour after breakfast. The tour might include a pedicab ride around the old quarter, a water puppet show, HoChiMingh’sHouse (built on stilts), the “One Pillar Pagoda” an historic Buddhist temple, the Military History Museum, and the Temple of Literature, built for Confucius.
A stop for most Americans is the Hoa Lo prison (commonly referred to as, Hanoi Hilton) gatehouse. The “gatehouse” and small museum is all that is left of the prison where Senator John McCain was held for almost 6 years. The next day, a trip to Halong Bay. Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The waters are an emerald color and the islands that dot the bay are limestone topped with rainforests. This is a great place for rock climbers, scuba divers and junk (the Chinese wooden sailing boats) tours. A full day and night should be reserved here.
The next stop is Hue. Hue is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is known for its monuments and the tombs of several emperors. One of the most popular sites is Thien Mu Pagoda (Heavenly Lady). It is the tallest religious building in Vietnam and is 7 octagonal stories. The next day you will be travelling to Hoi An, a small city on the South China Sea. HoiAn has pristine white sandy beaches. Originally it was an important trading center during the 16th and 17th centuries between Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Indians. Today, there are numerous art and craft shops and tailors who produce made-to-measure clothes in 24 hours at a fraction of western prices. There are also several internet cafes, bars and restaurants along the waterfront.
Danang is about 25 minutes away and also has beautiful beaches, the most famous, immortalized during the Vietnam War for American servicemen on R&R, is “China Beach”. It will soon be home to several 5 star resorts, but for now, the beach is still a quiet place ideal for an afternoon swim or picnic.
After Danang, your next stop will be HoChiMinh City (Saigon, as we knew it)– located on the Saigon River. It is considered the most important city in Vietnam. It has wide boulevards with a lot of historic French colonial buildings. Some of the structures in the city, seen on any city tour are: the Reunification Palace, City Post Office, and Notre Dame Cathedral. The tour usually ends with a rickshaw ride to the large Chinese market. Not to be missed are the famous CuChi tunnels. These tunnels were used by the Vietcong as hiding areas during the Vietnam War and they served as communication and supply routes, make shift hospitals, food and weapon caches as well as living quarters. After the war, a few tunnels were left intact and are now a tourist attraction that visitors can view and see first-hand a part of history.
HoChiMinh city is the embarkation point for all river cruises on the Mekong Delta. The boats on the Mekong are quite a bit smaller than the ones on the Danube and Rhine, but they have all the requirements of a river boat. The accommodations can be very “comfortable” to extremely luxurious. It all depends on your pocketbook. On our boat we even had a European chef that gave us a variety of fresh Asian and Continental cuisine. The scenery along the Mekong Delta, is vibrant. You will see a mix of boats – work boats, hauling “goods” down the river, fishing boats, and others docked (or tied up) and used as living accommodations.
All along the river are rice fields and farms with either oxen or women plowing and working the fields. Every day your river boat heads up river and pulls onto a sandbank after breakfast for excursions inland. These excursions might be to see a pagoda, a school, a snake farm or one of the many floating markets.
On the 5th day of your cruise, there is a border crossing (on the river), which takes you into Cambodia. Members of the Cambodian military actually board the boat and check all passports. It is all very no-nonsense and is not done quickly.
Our stop for the afternoon is Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh is the capital and largest city in Cambodia. It is the wealthiest and most populous city in Cambodia. It is probably best known for the fighting that went on in 1975 between the South Vietnamese that came across the country to escape the Viet Cong and the ruling government, Khmer Rouge. It was a short period of only 4 years but during that time over 1 million citizens were killed from starvation, fighting, and labor camps.
Now there is a very important museum, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum at the “killing fields”. It portrays the events, much like the Holocaust Museums that are dotted around the world. This is a full and solemn afternoon. However, if you are not worn out, and wish to lighten the day, there is an exceptional market to visit. It is in the shape of a dome and was built in 1937 by the colonial French. It is still going strong with stalls showcasing a variety of products.
There are also newer “western-style” shopping centers but these are not as much fun as the markets. Among the other sites to see is the Silver Pagoda, the Royal Palace, the Independence Monument and the National Museum.
Our final stop and debarkation city is Siem Reap. Just like on a large cruise ship, all of your luggage is taken off the boat by the crew and deposited in your hotel room. You are left to explore the area for the rest of the day on your own. There are plenty of stalls filled with arts and crafts and small restaurants to keep you occupied. It also is a city full of French colonial architecture.
The most famous tourist attraction and another UNESC World Heritage Site is Angkor Wat, about 5 miles away. The central feature there is the “Angkor” temple. In addition, there are said to be over 1000 temples (some, are not more than a few nondescript bricks). Angkor Wat purportedly is the world’s largest single religious monument.
This is the end of our journey, tomorrow we fly out. I would say we have learned a lot and relaxed a lot – a perfect vacation for the body and mind.