APT 12 Day Vietnam and Cambodia Highlights

As I begin to reflect on my 12 day Vietnam and Cambodia Tour with APT Luxury I can’t help but miss life on the Mekong! To think, just last week I was relaxing on the Sun Deck of the beautiful Ama Lotus, admiring the scenery that the Mekong has to offer.

From motorbike tours and ox-cart rides to Buddha blessings and floating markets… where do I possibly begin to tell you about this fantastic itinerary!

Travelling from the UK, the journey isn’t the shortest – but this certainly should not put you off! We flew out with Singapore Airlines in Premium Economy, and what a pleasant journey we had! Having returned home in standard economy class, I most definitely believe it’s worth the upgrade to premium. Why? For extra personal space, an improved leg rest, a HD touchscreen monitor and an overall more comfortable flight.

Day One - Arriving into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Two flights later (London to Singapore and Singapore to Saigon) we collected our luggage, and made our way towards the exit of Saigon airport where we were greeted by a friendly APT rep, who gathered arriving passengers and showed us to the coach for a 30-minute transfer to the hotel. A bottle of water was provided for each guest on the coach which was very much appreciated!

Arriving at the Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers was made simple by APT, we filled out a quick form during the coach journey and APT had arranged for our room keys to be ready for us upon arrival. The hotel is fantastic, the rooms are lovely, staff were friendly, the food was great and it’s in an ideal location.

The first day is a relaxed affair – after having freshened up in the room we had a few hours to spare before APT’s Welcome Dinner and so we decided to wander to the Ben Thanh Market and barter for some souvenirs. Saigon is certainly like no other city I have visited before – for a start, the road traffic is absolutely mental (more on this later).
 

Saigon-market

This evening we met our fellow travellers and Tour Director at a welcome reception and dinner at the hotel – it’s a fantastic opportunity to introduce yourself to new faces who you’ll become familiar with throughout the trip! The Sheraton Saigon Hotel also has a brilliant open air bar on the top floor – the perfect place for a night cap with a view!
 

saigon

Day Two – Cu Chi Tunnels

This morning we left the hotel at 08:15 and headed 90 minutes by coach to the Cu Chi district – it’s an interesting drive as you leave the city behind and see scenes of typical southern Vietnam.

 

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels is one of APT’s fantastic Freedom of Choice Touring options and I highly recommend it! You’re given a first-hand look at the Vietnam-American war as you walk through the jungle and are given the chance to crawl through the underground tunnel network. Best of all, you don’t have to enter the tunnels if you do not wish to and if you’re up for it, you can crawl through a 30-metre tunnel, taking roughly 2 minutes. Of course I couldn’t resist the challenge – the video below will give you an idea of what to expect (I apologise for the unsteady quality).

After an interesting morning we enjoyed lunch at a local restaurant which sits on a tranquil island surrounded by 2 small rivers, before the journey back to Ho Chi Minh City (Lunch is included in the price of your holiday with one bottle of water and you must pay for any additional drinks).

saigon lunch

Upon returning to the hotel we had a few hours spare to relax or further explore Ho Chi Minh City before dinner at Australian celebrity chef, Luke Nguyen’s Xu restaurant (a two-minute walk from the hotel) – and what a delicious meal this was! I highly recommend this restaurant to anybody visiting Saigon!

Day Three – Saigon Motorbike Tour & Join the ship

A brilliant feature of APT’s 5* Luxury River Cruising is their Freedom of Choice Touring options, which allow you to make a choice out of a selection of tours on various days of your trip! Today, in Saigon, there were various options to choose from, including a walking tour, cooking class, shopping tour and of course, the motorbike tour which I couldn’t resist.

For those of you who haven’t visited Saigon, the road traffic is absolute mayhem; it is estimated that there are 3 million motorcycles in Saigon, and they certainly do not approach junctions and round-a-bouts in the same way that we do, not to mention they very often sit (balance) 5 or 6 people on one bike. The motorbike tour was an awesome way to experience Saigon and immerse yourself in local life and surprisingly I felt very safe on the back of the bike (a helmet is provided by APT)! This thrilling tour lasts roughly 2 hours and stops at key sights along the way, including the Opera House, China Town and Binh Tay Market.

This afternoon we departed the Sheraton Hotel in Saigon and made our way to the River Mekong, where Ama Lotus (our ship for the next 7 nights) was awaiting our arrival. The journey to the ship is approximately 90 minutes by coach, a great opportunity for a snooze.

Upon arriving at the ship, there is no need to worry about your luggage – this will be taken to your stateroom for you. Once on board you’re invited to join the hotel manager in the lounge for a welcome drink followed by lunch in the restaurant!

Lunch on board is a relaxed affair with open seating (a great chance to meet your fellow travellers). Once seated you will have the option to order a soup and main course from a menu and then help yourself to appetisers and desserts from the well-stocked buffet.

Early evening the ship departed My Tho Port and guests were invited to Captain’s Cocktail and Dinner!  

apt welcome dinner

Day Four – Cai Be and Sa Dec

Our first excursion along the Mekong was brilliant; a local boat took us through the floating markets before we stepped ashore into the town of Cai Be.
 

Vietnam Cai Be

Interestingly we saw how a few of their local foods are made including coconut candy, popping rice and rice paper. Plus, we were introduced to ‘Snake Wine’… yes this is made with a real snake and I think it’s for an acquired taste.
 

Snake Wine

During lunch back on board, the ship sailed further down the Mekong and this afternoon we went on a guided tour of Sa Dec. Here we enjoyed a tea ceremony, visited a local temple and wandered through the local food market. It’s fascinating to see the local people busy buying and selling at the market and there were certainly some interesting stalls, from live fish and frogs to skinned rats and fried insects. It was pleasing to hear that tonight’s dinner wouldn’t be purchased here!
 

Sa Dec Market

Day Five – Tan Chau & Crossing into Cambodia

Tan Chau was a definite highlight of the trip, the day began with a boat journey past the local stilt houses and through the narrow channel to visit an evergreen island – here we were welcomed into a local family’s home and learned of their local life and family traditions, before getting back on the boat to reach Tan Chau where we crossed the town by rickshaw (a cart pulled by peddle bike for those unsure).

Tan Chau Rickshaw

Back on board for lunch and Ama Lotus departed for the border between Vietnam and Cambodia where we temporarily stopped for visa formalities. Having a whole afternoon on board gave us chance to enjoy the ship; some chose to relax in their staterooms, others took a dip in the pool on sun deck plus there was an organised cooking demonstration in the lounge for those interested.

Evenings on a river vessel are relaxed, do not expect large amounts of entertainment and big productions. Limited for space with one lounge/bar area, on most evenings guests can enjoy a drink whilst listening to the piano. That being said, after dinner on a couple of occasions a documentary was shown on a big screen in the lounge, karaoke took place on one evening and a local dance school entertained us on board in Phnom Penh.
 

Mekong Sunset

Day Six – Phnom Penh

Today we’re in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. It’s an emotional introduction to Cambodia as we kick start the day with a visit to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (S21 detention centre) to learn of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge history – a very moving experience.
 

Phnom Peng Killing Field

After returning for lunch on board we were back into our tour groups and off the ship to visit the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda – here a dress code is applied and so all guests must cover their shoulders and knees. Most parts of the Royal Palace are open to the public and so we were able to enter the Silver Pagoda, named after its silver tiled floor!
 

Phnom Penh Cambodia

As we were docked in Phnom Penh overnight, we chose to dine off the ship this evening and experience the nightlife of the capital! For just a few US Dollars you can reach the centre by Tuk-Tuk (motorcycle trailers).

Day Seven – Phnom Penh & Koh Chen

This morning we visited Phnom Penh’s Central Market, the perfect opportunity to find some bargains; souvenirs, postcards, clothing, silks and even try some local food.

Back on board for 11:45am and we set sail for Koh Chen just 39km down the Mekong – enough time for lunch and a freshen up.

Disembarking in Koh Chen is not for the immobile – as you can see we were to walk across this narrow and wobbly gangplank, followed by a short steep hill. Koh Chen is a small village and the tour is a leisurely stroll to visit a copper manufacturer and along the way meet some local children.
 

Ama Lotus Mekong

Day Eight – Oudong

Oudong was an interesting morning, a short coach journey took us to a Buddhist monastery where we first took part in a Buddhist blessing ceremony and then explored the monastery led by our tour guide (again, a dress code is applied here – everybody must cover knees and shoulders).
 

Oudong Buddha Blessing

Might I add here that the APT tour guides throughout the whole cruise and tour were fantastic – their English was brilliant, they were extremely knowledgeable and had a good sense of humour.

After a tour of the monastery we were back onto the coach and heading to Kampong Tralach where we were to travel by unique mode of transport… on an ox-cart, back to the ship. The ox-cart isn’t particularly comfortable but it’s a great experience, to travel through the countryside how the locals do!
 

Oudong Oxcart Ride

Day Nine – Kampong Chhnang

Departing the ship by local boat, we were taken through the floating village of Kampong Chhnang to see the daily life of the people living on floating houses – it’s fascinating to see hundreds, possibly even thousands of people all living in the floating village; their lives are unique. After roughly 40 minutes on the water we went ashore for an enjoyable 20-minute walk through the local town – this walk was made interesting when our local APT tour guide, Piseth, introduced us to a local delicacy… a fertilised duck egg. A few days before the duckling is ready to hatch, they boil the egg and then eat it. A gentleman from our group did have a taste and apparently it doesn’t taste too bad!
 

Fermented Duck Egg

Day Ten – Disembark Ama Lotus & Arrive in Siem Reap

Depending on the water levels of the Tonle Sap Lake you will either disembark the ship in Preak K’Dam or Siem Reap. Why? If the water levels of the Tonle Sap Lake are high enough, the ship will sail across the lake towards Siem Reap. However, we cannot predict the water levels and unfortunately they were too low for our cruise to sail across the lake.

What does this mean? Disembarking in Preak K’Dam and getting a coach to Siem Reap. In total this journey takes roughly 6 hours (give or take because of traffic and roadworks). I must admit, it sounds worse than it is. The coach journey is broken up with a couple of stops along the way.

As they say, every cloud has a silver lining…

If we hadn’t have taken a coach, I would never have let a live tarantula crawl on me, nor would I have had the opportunity to taste a fried tarantula – a local delicacy.
 

Fried Tarantula

Arriving at the Sofitel Angkor Hotel (early afternoon), our key cards were ready for us and our luggage was delivered to our room whilst we had a light lunch in the restaurant.

The Sofitel is a gorgeous hotel, the service was brilliant, food was great, the rooms, pool area and other public areas are lovely! Plus, the hotel is in a good location; close to the centre of Siem Reap and also the Angkor complex.

After lunch and a quick freshen up we were to meet our tour groups in the hotel lobby and depart for Angkor Thom, to see the Bayon temple – the most enduring capital of the Khmer empire.
 

Angkor Thom

Dinner in Siem Reap this evening was ‘Freedom of Choice Dining’... what does this mean? Guests choose from a list of local restaurants and APT book you a table and arrange for a TukTuk to take you there. Dinner is already paid for, but you are to pay for any drinks you have.

After dinner we took a stroll around the night market and then a TukTuk back to the hotel.

Day Eleven – Angkor Sunrise & Ta Prohm Temple

Today is a massive highlight of the trip… a champagne sunrise at Angkor Wat - the 4:30am start was definitely worth it!
 

Angkor Wat Sunrise

Not only did we enjoy the view as the sun rose over the magnificent Angkor Wat but this was followed by a tour of the temple – which works well because it is a cooler time of day and you’ll be back to the hotel for 9:00am in time for breakfast.

After a few hours to relax and a bite to eat we were back into our tour groups and in the minibus to visit Ta Prohm, the temple best known for where Tomb Raider was filmed.

Ta Prohm Cambodia

As this was the last evening of the trip, APT arranged for a local dance group to perform for us at the hotel before our delicious Farewell Dinner!

Day Twelve – Siem Reap Bicycle Tour & Departure

As our departure wasn’t until later afternoon, we had time for one more APT Freedom of Choice Tour this morning. Again there was a good choice; a cooking class, an Aspara dance class, spa treatments, a Buddhist blessing, a horse cart ride and a cycling tour. I opted for the cycling tour – it was lovely to take a leisurely cycle through Siem Reap’s countryside, to see the locals going about their daily lives.

Returning to the hotel late morning, we had time to return to our hotel rooms, freshen up, close our suitcases and have them outside of our rooms for midday. The hotel staff collected our luggage and loaded it onto the coaches for our transfer to the airport.

Goodbyes are never easy… and I certainly wasn’t ready to leave Cambodia! For anybody travelling in the future I’d highly recommend more than 2 nights in Siem Reap – first of all to appreciate the lovely hotel and pool area, but also because there is so much to see and do in Siem Reap!

 

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