Tag Archives: river cruising

A market town on the delta

The Cao Dai temple from the water. Another tender has just unloaded passengers in orange life vests

The Amalotus remained at anchor in the middle of the river overnight. After breakfast we all piled into the tenders to visit the town of Sa Dec which is situated on the river bank.

Dara, our guide, took us to Cao Dai Temple just over the road from the jetty where we alighted from the tender. Founded in the 1920s, Caodaiism blends Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam into one monotheistic religion. Its saints include Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen. You’ll see some of them above the altar in the picture below. Its followers comprise the third largest religious group in Vietnam. Read more about this fascinating religion here. I think it’s a fantastic idea. It’s often said the great religions have more in common than their differences.

Inside the temple. Note all the saints above the altar
Buddha, Confucius, Mohammad, Jesus etc
A funeral vehicle

Our next stop was all about Vietnam’s Romeo and Juliet story – only nobody dies. As a fifteen-year-old celebrated French novelist Marguerite Duras had an affair with twenty-seven-year-old Huyen Thuy Le, son of a wealthy Chinese family. The pair wanted to marry but both families frowned upon the relationship and Le was forced to marry a suitable Chinese girl. Duras eventually wrote an award-winning novel, published in 1984, about their affair. The movie version was popular in Vietnam despite the removal of some more erotic scenes.

We visited Huyen Thuy Le’s house, an example of a wealthy Chinese home, where we were served a cup of ginger tea.

From the house we went into the markets. Markets are the equivalent of supermarkets in Western countries. People come every day to buy fresh food for their families. But this market was for the people of the delta. I’ve mentioned before that the Vietnamese cheerfully admit that if it moves, they’ll eat it. One of the staples, carefully displayed on ice, was rats, skinned and gutted. Our guide said he loved them. Kentucky fried rat. Yummy.

Produce being delivered to the market
Some of those fish are tiny. I can’t see how it’s sustainable
This man is putting gutted, skinned rats on ice
More seafood

As usual, fish was kept alive if possible. But so were chickens. My Western sensibilities were jolted when I saw them on the ground, their legs tied so they couldn’t run away.

Fresh chicken, legs tied

It’s a whole different world.

Happy to pose for photos with our guide, Dara

We returned to the ship for lunch. There was another outing in the afternoon, to a village where sweets were made (we call them lollies) but I think it says something about the pace of activities that only about six people actually went. You’re right, we were not in the six. We’d started longing for home a few days ago. In fact, Pete didn’t go on the trip I’ve just described.

That night it was our farewell dinner. Some of us would be going to Saigon and from there, home. Others would be spending a few days in Saigon, doing the parts of the tour we had done first.  Overnight the Amalotus sailed on to an industrial port where we disembarked for a two-hour drive to Saigon where we waited in the hotel lounge before leaving for the airport in the evening. Although we were in business class, neither of us lay down during the flight because of coughing. After the long flight and the three-and-a-half hour drive to Hervey Bay, It was nice to pull in to our drive at home, even if the atmosphere was smoky and it hadn’t rained.

That said, it was a terrific trip, a mix of so many different layers of the two countries. We saw Imperial Vietnam at the Citadel and the poorest of villagers, the grandeur of the abandoned temples at Siem Reap and the trading city of Hoi An. We learned how to make spring rolls and saw how the food was grown. We watched fishermen ply their trade and rode in basket boats. We diced with the traffic in Saigon, Phnom Penh and Hanoi. We saw the horrors of the killing fields. For me the enduring memory will be two magical nights and days on the waters of Ha Long Bay. We were offered many different options for outings, something suitable for the most active to the most sedentary and being able to eat at different restaurants in Hanoi and Siem Reap was fantastic. And we met some great people.

My only advice to anyone going is try not to get sick!

And remember, if you want to revisit any of the posts for this trip, take a look at the summary page. They’re all listed.

Into the delta

Houses along the water way

On this day we went to visit a village in the delta, travelling by tender through waterways that flowed from the great river. We passed fish farms raising the fresh water fish, basa. You’ve probably seen it in the supermarket.

A floating fish farm. The nets are underneath the platform

From there the channels became narrower. The banks were lined with fields of vegetables and fruit and we passed many fishing boats, large and small, as well as rows of houses built over the water. This was real Vietnamese peasant country where the villagers grew crops, tended animals and fished as they’d done for centuries. Except now they received extra money from tour groups.

Washing day
I’d guess people live on these
Harvesting bamboo? Reeds?
The ground is incredibly fertile
A house in the village

We were taken into a village where the people have lived in the same way for centuries. Except for motorbikes, schools, and satellite dishes. Fruit trees grow between the houses and chickens run around. Cattle are raised for sale to third-party merchants.

Chillies are dried the old fashioned way

Cock fighting is illegal in Vietnam but it isn’t in Cambodia, so a few choice cockerels were being raised to sell in Cambodia. They’re worth a lot of money to poor farmers.

He’s going into a ring in Cambodia

We were invited to climb the stairs and see the villager’s houses but some of us declined. I know they were paid for it, but still it seemed… inappropriate. This was a Saturday and the kids had the day off school. They were delighted to see us and we received many smiles and waves. We were wearing our little wireless devices around our necks and at one point a few kids stared at the ear piece. Pete took his out and let a number of kids listen to what our (quite distant) guide was saying.

Listening to the guide with Pete’s ear piece

You’ll never see an overweight person in this country, which wasn’t true of our group. One man who I’d guess was in his thirties was most amused by Pete’s belly. You could almost hear him wondering when the baby was due.

It wasn’t only the kids happy to have us there – the old people were, too. Everywhere we went the old women, in particular, were very happy to pose for photos. But I don’t think all of the generation in the middle were quite so pleased. They watched us as we wandered through their village, some more resigned than anything else. I do have to wonder how often these tours invade their privacy. Still, I’m sure the money helps.

On the balcony of her home.
A big, friendly smile
If I got myself into this pose I’d never get up again

Our guide said it was great for the kids to see these groups. They learned there was a wider world out there – we must look like aliens to them – and how important it was to learn English. One day they might get to be tour guides just like him.

From here we went on to a small factory where rattan goods were made. Occupational health and safety would have a pink fit. It’s a cottage industry in this village. They pick the rattan, strip the stalks and dye them, then the weavers create mats and bags. It was a noisy, smelly business but I’m sure that’s how things were in Europe during the early industrial revolution. At least here there’s plenty of food.

Weaving rattan and developing a hearing problem

From there we all boarded a local rickshaw – a bucket-like contraption towed behind a bicycle. It was without a doubt the most uncomfortable vehicle I’ve ever been on. Needless to say the wiry little fellow doing the peddling had to negotiate between motor bikes and some cars but I was used to that by now. There’s no back support so you sit upright without moving for fear of shifting the rider’s balance. After about five metres my back was complaining.

See that bike in the background? Imagine yourself sitting on that little carriage
Oh my aching back

We stopped off at a rather larger factory where they manufactured the highly prized black silk. It’s a laborious dyeing process that thickens the fibres and gives it a lustrous shine. This factory has large old machines to weave silk. They’re relatively simple devices using templates as patterns. They look a lot like the punched cards of the early days of computing. And they’re very, very noisy. I’m sure the operators will have hearing problems in the future.

Inside the factory
Note the template that’s fed into the machine to create patterns

Then we had to get back on those bloody bucket things for a final trip beside the river to where our tenders waited to take us back to the ship. This was a classier neighbourhood with underground power and street lights.

My peddler and the road by the river. I couldn’t wait to get off

I’ve already told you about our dinner at l’Indochine. Tomorrow would be our last day of excursions.

Cruising the Mekong

It’s a busy water way

We left Phnom Penh and sailed down the Mekong toward Vietnam. There would be no excursions today although guests could join the chef for a cooking class in making fresh Vietnamese spring rolls or attend a lesson in fruit-carving. I think some of these activities were more for the benefit of passengers who joined as at Siem Reap because our group had already done some of these things at Ha Long Bay and at Hoi An. In any event, we took the chance to rest and watch the comings and goings on this very busy river.

A crane fills a barge with sand. I suppose it’s like dredging

We passed any number of cranes dredging sand from the bottom and loading up barges. I assume they would be headed for the building projects in Phnom Penh.

At one point our ship stopped and presumably dropped anchor. That would be where the Vietnamese border authorities came aboard to check passports and visas. Long had to leave us in Phnom Penh and return to Saigon for urgent family reasons but he had collected our documents a day or two before and his replacement handled the formalities without any more interaction from us. We didn’t see the officials come aboard and didn’t see them leave.

Packed above the gunwhales
I don’t think they could have crammed any more on there
This isn’t a fishing boat. We know this because it has eyes – and they scare the fish

The floating debris is water hyacinth (which is native here). It has been ripped off the banks and drifts on the river, providing habitat for small fish and places to land for herons and other water birds.

Sand bags? Cement? Seems you put on as much as you think she’ll carry.

I took the opportunity to take some sunset photos from the top deck.

The after-dinner entertainment that evening was a trivia night with teams of up to six people. That’s always fun so we joined the other folks upstairs and with Mike and Linda set ourselves up as a team of four. To our everlasting astonishment, we won! The prize was two bottles of sparkling wine. All of us were booked to go to Amalotus’s special fine dining restaurant, l’Indochine, the following night so we agreed we’d share the wine with our special friends that evening.

Way back when our cosy little group of ten who’d started together in Saigon suddenly swelled to twenty-seven, the ten of us agreed to make a booking at l’Indochine on the last night of the cruise as a kind of fond farewell. As it happened, Mike and Linda had booked on the same night, although they sat at a different table with another group. The original plan was that our tour guide, Long, would join us at our table but he’d returned to Saigon so we drank a toast to him and wished him well. He’d been an excellent host and we thought of him as a  friend.

Cheers

Next time we’ll visit villages in the delta.

On board the Amalotus

The Amalotus in the middle of the river

We set off from our hotel in Siem Reap at 8:30am for our five-and-a-half-hour bus trip to Kampong Chan, where we would board RV Amalotus. It’s a long drive through Cambodia’s countryside on the M1, which is a two-lane road. I always feel for the guides on these journeys. They’re supposed to tell us things about the country and he did his best, pointing out houses built on stilts to protect against wild animals and rising water, and indicating rubber plantations and the like. But to be honest, after a while it tends to go in one ear and out the other.

Taken from the bus

We made a major stop at what you might call a roadhouse situated near the long lake that starts near Siem Reap and feeds the Mekong. It was about the only place on the road that could accommodate buses and large numbers of people, and the place was crowded. The toilet facilities were adequate, if pretty basic. Inside, travellers could buy food, ice cream, cold drinks, souvenirs etc. We were warned to get back on the right coach – there would be more than one APT blue bus in the carpark because passengers from the Amalotus were going to Siem Reap. That also explains why the driver was taking his time rather than driving at the speed limit. Staff would be cleaning up and resetting everything for our arrival.

We scrambled down that slope to where the man is standing bottom right.

I suppose I was expecting the Amalotus to be moored at a wharf. She wasn’t. At this time of year, the river is low and we had to negotiate our way down a steep slope to a narrow gangway onto the ship while balancing our carry-on luggage. A number of our less mobile friends found the task somewhat daunting to say the least. Staff were on hand to help guide us across the gangway, no more than two at a time. On board we were a little too enthusiastically welcomed with a squirt of hand sanitiser, a cold towel, and a cold drink, all offered at the same time, while we juggled hand luggage. We were immediately ushered into the dining room for a late lunch, the hotel manager fending off any requests to go to rooms. (I suspect that was to give Housekeeping time to finish setting up.)

Lunch was excellent, with a wide selection of items on the buffet and extra choices on the menu which were served at the table. In fact, the food was excellent on the whole trip. Breakfast was also buffet style but eggs were always freshly-cooked to your liking – fried, poached, scrambled, omelette. Dinner was full service, with a good selection on the menu and a handful of staples (like Caesar salad) if nothing else appealed.

After lunch we found our room. It was nice, with anything you’d need as well as a narrow balcony so we could sit outside and admire the view – and use the two chairs for drying hand-washed knickers. (One of the nice features of this tour was that it included two pieces of laundry per cabin per day but we left that for our shirts and shorts, and hand washed smalls.) We did need to contact Housekeeping on our first day, though, because our bathroom sink was blocked and the floor hadn’t been cleaned behind the bathroom door.

APT had organised a short afternoon tour, a tuk-tuk ride to a nearby island (they drove over a bridge). Pete and I stayed on board and joined everybody else on the sundeck that evening for the rather perfunctory safety drill. After that it was time for a pre-dinner drink. On APT’s European cruises all alcohol except the absolute top of the range offerings were free. We’d assumed that was the case here, but the fine print (which we hadn’t read well enough) stated that ‘local spirits’ were free. One glass of the house whisky was enough to have me revert to house wine from then on.

As the ship sailed we noticed a Scenic vessel – moored at a wharf just around the corner from where the Amalotus had been tied up to the river bank. Interesting.

Phnom Penh just up there

The following morning saw the Amalotus again tied up on the river bank with the towers of Phnom Penh visible in the distance. The two tours that day were a visit to Angkor Ban, a village of traditional stilted houses which the Khmer Rouge had not destroyed in their reign of terror. Later, passengers went to Oknhatey Island, known as silk island, to see the traditional process of silk weaving.

By this stage of the trip Pete and I felt the need to pace ourselves, so we stayed on board. It was entertaining just watching life on the river from up on the sun deck.

A mosque and a fisherman
A temple
Fishermen preparing their nets
Bringing in a catch
Hand fishing

There was one highlight – I was on our little balcony late in the day when a local farmer brought his cows down for a drink and a bath. He stood in the water washing the calf. It all looked suitably bucolic – until the farmer started to hit one beast to get it out of the river.

A farmer brings his cows and a calf down to the river

The following day we’d be hitting the bright lights of the big city.

Cruising the Danube

What I love best about river journeys is just cruisin’. Watching the river glide past, reflections, trees, birds, other boats, tiny settlements, distant hills, clouds. That photo up there was taken as we followed a curve in the river. The water was like molten silver, and the sun was hidden behind a thin veil of cloud. Gorgeous.

We were on our way to Passau, where most of the passengers would get off and catch the Majestic Imperator, Emperor Franz Joseph’s Imperial train, up to Salzburg. Needless to say, we’d done the trip in 2015 (all explained here) and you might say we were all Sound of Music’d out. Eight of us elected to stay on board, either because they were recovering from illness, or because they wanted a break from the relentless pace of sight-seeing. Our tour director told us that the stretch from Passau to Linz, where the Salzburg visitors would rejoin the ship, was one of the prettiest along the Danube.

Mist burning off the castle at Passau

The day dawned misty, as it had for the past week, but it burned off quickly, with a brilliant blue sky. Soon we were off, sailing between forest-clad slopes through a series of bends and curves. This probably used to be a bit like the steep slopes of the Rhine Gorge thousands of years ago. There were still some rocky promontories here and there. Unfortunately, the wind picked up, an icy blast whistling across the water, so I only ventured out to take photos a few times, and there wasn’t much in the way of reflections. A few weeks later these slopes would be a picture of gold and russet. Here and there I caught a hint of the glories to come.

That evening after our fellow travellers had rejoined us we were treated to a spectacular sunset, with the ship, and the river, in just the right place to generate a magnificent display. This would have to be my favourite picture from the whole trip.

Tomorrow we cruise to Melk, the Wachau Valley, and Durnstein.

Sunset reflections with ducks

 

 

Europe 2016 – a river cruise with Scenic

AMZU1-2017MAINWe joined Scenic’s Scenic Jade at Amsterdam along with one hundred and nineteen other passengers for a fifteen day cruise on the Rhine and the Moselle, back to the Rhine and up to Basel in Switzerland. It’s seven hundred and forty-two kilometres as the crow flies, but the rivers wind around a bit. Most of the passengers were Australian, but there were a few Americans, Canadians, Brits, and a couple from New Zealand. The crew was mainly Eastern European. I don’t think anybody lives in Romania anymore. The captain, the cruise director, and half the hotel staff were Romanian.

You might recall we did a European river trip last year, on APT’s Amavenita. You’ll find the blog posts here. Given that, it’s pretty obvious we’ll be comparing ships ‘n trips. So let’s look at the ships. Here’s Scenic’s explanation of their ships and here’s APT’s. As I explained last trip, the size of the river boats is dictated by the locks, so Scenic Jade is the same size as Amavenita, and the two ships are set up in a similar way – three decks, most passengers on deck two and three, sundeck above with collapsible fittings for getting under low bridges, restaurants and bar up the front. We’d made a last minute change to our booking, moving from the second deck up to the third, because we’d get a better laundry service. I can see you rolling your eyes. Laundry is just about the only extra you have to pay for on the ships. And it costs. Washing a t-shirt will set you back €4.20. That’s around AU$6.30.  You can hand wash your smalls of course, but drying them is not always easy. We had a special deal last year, where we could have two items each washed and pressed each day for free, which was great. We expected to get a similar deal from Scenic, but we misread the T&Cs. There are some advantages to being on deck three, but not all cabins get free laundry.Scenic Jade

Anyhow, we ended up in the last cabin before the really posh suites on deck three, above the engines. We figured that if the really posh suites were directly above the engines it couldn’t be too much of an issue.

cabin
Not much room between bed and chair

However, we did have a little less room than in the normal balcony suite. If I sat at the desk posting pictures to FB on my laptop, it was a very tight squeeze to get between the chair back and the bed.

shower
A very fancy shower

Apart from that, the room was perfectly adequate, with a great shower where you could wash under coloured lights, using a variety of nozzles. I suspect we might have appreciated it more when we were younger. 🙂 Certainly the location forced a bit of exercise. It wasn’t too much short of a hundred metres from our room to the public lounges, a trip done around six times a day.

20160512_173405
Scenic Jade’s lounge

We both preferred Scenic Jade’s dining room, set up with tables and chairs, whereas Amavenita had cubicles with couches around tables. It looks nice, but it’s not so practical for older folks and buffet meals. All food and drinks are included in the price of the cruise, the only exceptions being a few special beverages like Johnny Walker blue label. We had to settle for JW black, or Chivas, or a single malt. Breakfast and dinner are served as a buffet spread, supplemented with specials if required. Dinner was ala carte. Not that anyone went hungry on either trip, but for us APT offered more variety, and the food was better quality. APT’s chefs matched menus and wines to the region in which we were travelling, and the ‘light lunch’ options (soup and sandwiches sort of thing) were more to our taste.

The trip to Europe from Australia is no picnic, so it’s a good idea to break the journey, or to arrive early to acclimatise to the change in time zones and seasons. We arrived early, and took the opportunity of seeing a little more of the Netherlands than just Amsterdam. I tell you a little about our trip to Leiden.

So – on to the journey.  Next time.