by Isabel Conway –
My ten day G Adventures ‘Mekong Encompassed’ trip begins here in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) with a night at the historic Grand Continental hotel. Tomorrow we will set out to experience Vietnam and Cambodia from an interesting perspective – the waters of the mighty Mekong River – lifeblood of South East Asia. Back in 1880, the ‘Grand Continental’ was Saigon’s first hotel, built to bolster the egos and deep pockets of rulers, wealthy planters and adventurers during French colonial rule. in Graham Greene arrived in the 1950s to research and write the Quiet American here. Later the Continental was a headquarters and main hang out for foreign correspondents covering the Vietnam War.
REMINDERS OF THE FRENCH COLONIAL PERIOD AND AMERICAN OCCUPATION
The Parisian style baroque Opera House, main post office and crumbling 19th century villas remain from Colonial times. These days District 1 also features skyscraper bars and shiny shopping malls of exclusive and high street fashion names. Travel a bit further and you will reach districts advertising ‘massage hotels’ in dodgy neighbourhoods which prospered with the arrival of the US military. The War Remnants museum at Vo Van Tan (warremnantsmuseum.com) is a shocking yet unmissable experience, focusing on American involvement in the Vietnam war whose napalm attacks had a devastating effect. The grounds are still scattered with helicopters and tanks. Nearby check out the Museum of the Revolution, the former presidential palace with a symbolic tank at its entrance, marking the victory at the war’s end for the North Vietnamese.
A MUST SEE OUT OF TOWN
The most popular trip out of the city is to the Cu Chi tunnels complex dug by the Viet Cong. Extending for hundreds of km they used to stretch all the way to the Cambodian border. Tens of thousands of civilians as well as Viet Cong guerrillas hid in them out of range of American shelling, many dying of disease Crawling through a portion open to visitors, half a meter wide there’s an eerie sense of the claustrophobia and fear suffered as the bombs rained down.
Some visitors to the Cu Chi tunnels – but I wasn’t tempted – grab the chance to fire an AK 47 ($25 for ten rounds) posing afterwards for selfies with dummy soldiers at the on- site gun range.
AN INTRODUCTION TO OUR MEADER ON THE MEKONG
Our G Adventures Riverboat Toum Tiou 11, which we join at the cruise pier back in Ho Chi Minh city is a 38 m long Cambodian built 14 cabin comfortable classic riverboat, manned by an ever smiling crew. The food, a daily revolving buffet of south East Asian dishes is plentiful and tasty. Our CEO (chief experience officer) Cambodian born Ronnie has the tricky job of making sure none of us fall overboard from the sundeck after too many delicious house cocktails in the evenings.
LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE
About 4,000 km after rising in the Tibetan Himalaya, the Mekong flows down to the South China Sea in a tangled network of rivers, tributaries and canals where life congregates – from floating markets to floating villages and fishing settlements.
Farm buildings along the riverside are built on stilts, barges glide by, weighed down with coconuts, guavas and dragon fruit. We visit an island fruit farm, timeless floating markets, navigating narrow canals in small row boats to reach island cottage candy and rice wine businesses Elaborate gilded temples and towering Buddha statues are admired and photographed everywhere along the way.
After crossing Cambodia’s border, we pile aboard ox carts, trotting past emerald green rice paddies, everywhere greeted with big smiles by waving children and smiling adults. On the island of Koh Chen some of us buy beautiful locally made silver jewellery and watch the shaven monks in their orange robes receive offerings of lunch on the roadside.
CHAOTIC AND CHARMING PHNOM PHEN
Our ‘slow travel’ through backwaters of Vietnam and Cambodia sees us dock at Phnom Phen’s stunning waterfront. Cambodia’s bustling welcoming capitol has thrown off the horrors of the past to embrace a better future. Few, except for the guides who take tourists around the most visited of the heart rendering Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, ten miles south of the city speak of a past that saw mass genocide. Nearly 3 million, including children and babies died either directly or through starvation at the hands of Pol Pot and his murderous Khmer Rouge.
WONDER OF THE WORLD, TEMPLES OF ANGKOR
Our final day is spent in Siem Reap in the lap of luxury at lovely Angkor Resort hotel (www.anantara.com) set in magnificent gardens complete with realistic built to scale elephants whose trunks spout cooling water. Siem Reap’s bars and incredibly cheap restaurants overflow with ‘I gave up my job to travel’ bloggers and vloggers. We are all here to visit one of the greatest wonders of the world, the vast Temples of Angkor. What better way to end a memorable journey than with a 4 am wake- up call ….and the rain held off….to hurry and catch Angkor Wat’s glorious sunrise.
NEED TO KNOW
Most major centres in Vietnam and Cambodia have ATMs but in the countryside make sure to carry the local currency and small tips are expected for assistance like guiding and bar and room service from polite but often under paid locals. Roaming charges are astronomical and its advisable to purchase a SIM card on arrival.
Food: I ate delicious street food in Vietnam and Cambodia without any ill effects. The food of both countries is among the world’s greatest cuisines, using fresh herbs and intricate flavours, superbly prepared and excellent value.
Factfile: G Adventures 10- day ‘Mekong River Encompassed’ from €1849pp (excluding flights) and including 7 nights on board the Toum Tiou II Riverboat and two nights in hotels, most main meals, transportation with local guides throughout. Visit www.gadventures.co.uk , leading Irish tour operator Sunway (www.sunway.ie) or G Adventures Dublin office 01-6971360. Isabel flew Thai Airways International award winning Business Class, London Heathrow to Bangkok return and onwards to Ho Chi Minh City and from Siem Reap with Thai Smile. Thai Airways International (THAI) flies twice daily to Bangkok from London Heathrow and operates the only non-stop A380 service between the cities. Return economy flights to Phnom Penh from €774. Check out the website www.thaiairways.co.uk / +44.8445610911 for special promotions