Vietnam & Cambodia
Published on Thursday, November 01, 2012
Monday, March 29, 2010 - Siem Reap, Cambodia: Today most of us arrived in Siem Reap around mid-day and were whisked away to the beautiful Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. Built in the mid-1920s and imbued with an airy period elegance, the hotel offered a gracious welcome to this corner of Southeast Asia whose incredible archaeological riches lure visitors and adventurers from all corners of the globe. After checking in many of us took a refreshing dip in the lovely pool and rested after our long flights.
In the evening we enjoyed cocktails poolside where we had a chance to meet the expedition staff and fellow travelers before a sumptuous Khmer buffet and a dazzling Cambodian cultural performance.
Tuesday, March 30 - Ta Prohm / Preah Khan / Angkor Thom: Our first introduction to the Khmer Empire and its astounding temples was Ta Prohm, built in 1186 by King Jayavarman VII to honor his family. Since its discovery by French archaeologists in the mid-1800s, the thick walls and labyrinthine hallways have been left to the jungle elements. The roots of soaring silk cottonwoods and strangler figs embrace the ancient stones creating a mysterious, otherworldly scene.
We continued to Preah Khan “Sacred Sword,” a complex commemorating the victory of Jayavarman VII over the invading Chams. The bridge crossing the surrounding moat to the main entrance is lined with dozens of statues of gods and demons wrestling with the great serpent, naga.
After lunch we drove to the ancient city of Angkor Thom, originally built as a Hindu temple. Exquisite bas relief depicts apsara (celestial) dancers, epic battles, and scenes of daily life. Bayon, the massive centerpiece of the temple complex, is carved with scores of serene, smiling faces gazing in the four cardinal directions. Many of us ascended the steep stairs to the central shrine and were rewarded with splendid, up-close views of the huge carvings.
Wednesday, March 31 - Angkor Wat: Most of us opted for the 4:15 a.m. wake-up call to witness sunrise over Angkor Wat, the largest religious temple in the world. In the pre-dawn darkness, we successfully navigated the stone causeway bridging the moat and staked our spots, cameras poised. Though the day dawned rather overcast, the sun did make a brief appearance, silhouetting the majestic spires and casting a rosy hue over the clouds and lotus-studded, reflecting pond.
After a lovely garden breakfast at the Café d’Angkor, we set out to further explore the magnificent temple as our guides brought to life the celebrated stories illustrated in the intricate wall reliefs. Some of us climbed the precipitous steps leading up to the central tower—representing Mt. Meru, the home of the gods—for sweeping views of the complex and its surroundings.
After lunch we split into several groups, with most visiting Banteay Srei, renowned for its intricate and well-preserved, pink sandstone carvings. Others enjoyed free time to browse at the local market in Siem Reap and a small group enjoyed a tour of the Artisans d’Angkor workshop.
We parted ways temporarily this evening with Group B flying to Phnom Penh for an overnight at the magnificent Le Hotel Royal, and Group A staying in Siem Reap until the following morning.
Thursday, April 1 - Phnom Penh / Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam / Embark Clipper Odyssey: An early flight whisked the rest of us off to Phnom Penh where both groups embarked on a full day’s exploration of this bustling city of two million people. The stunning, golden-roofed buildings on the grounds of the Presidential Palace glinted in the bright sunshine. There and in the fabled Silver Pagoda, we saw many treasures that were thankfully saved during Cambodia’s years of turmoil. We also visited the National Museum, built around a tranquil garden oasis, to view many extraordinary sculptures spanning centuries of Cambodia’s long history. A sobering visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school turned into the infamous security prison, S21, by the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79 and a tour of the Killing Fields deepened our understanding of the atrocities committed against ethnic Cambodians and resident Vietnamese.
A short flight brought us to Ho Chi Minh City where we boarded the awaiting Clipper Odyssey for our exploration of Vietnam.
Friday, April 2 - Ho Chi Minh City / Mekong Delta: Today we boarded coaches and headed southward toward the Mekong Delta, wending our way through mazes of motorbike traffic in the city which eventually gave way to rural countryside of rice fields and lotus ponds. In the town of My Tho we boarded colorful riverboats for a delightful ride along the mighty Mekong River.
On Que Dua Island we walked along a nipa-palm-shaded path to watch how coconut candy is made. We were able to sample many of the different treats produced on the island and some brave (or foolhardy?) souls even tried a taste of snake wine! A short horse-cart ride brought us to a shady seating area where we paused for honey tea and plates of fresh tropical fruits. At the end of a path lined with handicrafts, we were greeted by the sight of dozens of sampans on a narrow tributary waiting to take us for a ride in the hand-hewn wooden boats.
On our way back to the Clipper Odyssey, we stopped at the Mekong Rest-stop for a delicious lunch of local specialties including a spectacular presentation of elephant-ear fish, huge fried rice balls, and morning glory greens.
Saturday, April 3 - Ho Chi Minh City: Our morning city tour began at the former Presidential Palace; the building made famous when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through its gates on April 30, 1975, signaling the end of the Vietnam War. Especially impressive was the basement with its strategic military maps, warren of tunnels, and the American-made telecommunications equipment still in place.
We stopped to view the neo-classical Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral, a popular spot for young couples to take wedding photos. We then visited the lovely Thien Hau Pagoda, dedicated to the sea goddess who is the protector of sailors, and lit a spiral incense burner for blessings on our own voyage. Afterwards we had some free time for shopping at the fascinating Ben Thanh Market. Here vendors called attention to their piles of sundries, curatives and palliatives, mountains of dried goods, brilliant bolts of fabrics, and colorful array of impeccably displayed produce.
As the Odyssey headed eastward down the Mekong toward the South China Sea, Kim Saunders and Judy Goldstein kicked off our lecture series on Vietnam, followed by Captain Peter Gluschke’s welcome cocktails and dinner.
Sunday, April 4 - Nha Trang: Today began at a more leisurely pace with no early wake-up call and lectures from Ron Wixman and Judy before lunch onboard.
As we maneuvered alongside, young Vietnamese ladies in pastel-hued traditional dresses, or ao dai, waved a friendly welcome to this busy resort town. Our group divided into snorkelers and those wishing to visit the Po Nagar Cham Towers, built between the 7th and 12th centuries. We also visited a Buddhist temple that was busy with worshipers and delightful children. Many of us ascended the 152 odd steps to view the huge white statue of Buddha at the top of the hill. We then watched rush mat weavers at work and visited a historic 140-year-old house for refreshments and a taste of some traditional Vietnamese music. Our last stop was to an embroidery studio where artists wove pictures of fine silk with multi-hued threads. Meanwhile, the snorkelers, enjoyed healthy corals and many species of fish in the clear, warm water and visited the Tri Nguyen Aquarium. Many also took advantage of the complimentary massage services; a relaxing end to a busy day.
Back onboard, we attended a special pool-deck barbecue for dinner. Our Indonesian chef Indra and his staff impressed with grilled prawns, lamb, ribs, a variety of side dishes, and a succulent whole roast pig.
Monday, April 5 - Qui Nhon: This morning as we disembarked the ship, a group of lovely ladies greeted each of us with a gift of a beautiful red rose. The area we would visit today was important during the reign of the Cham Empire and there are a significant number of ruins. Unfortunately, this area saw heavy fighting during the war and today, only four towers remain standing. The photogenic red brick towers of Bahn It stood in vibrant contrast against deep green foliage and bright blue skies. Our hike up a steep hill was rewarded by magnificent, stark red stone ruins, legacies of an 11th-century empire.
Our drive to the hamlet of Phu Phong passed through charming rural countryside of rice paddies where many farmers were busy harvesting their crops. Here we visited the Quang Trung Museum which celebrates the life and epic battles of Nguyen Hue who defeated invading Quing troops in 1788. We were also treated to a dynamic martial arts performance with traditional music and dance from Vietnamese hill tribes—named an “intangible treasure” by UNESCO. On board this afternoon, our lecture series continued with Ron speaking on the cultures of Asia and Greg Homel highlighting the avian wonders of the region.
Tuesday, April 6 - Da Nang / Hoi An / My Son: Two World Heritage Sites were on offer today. First we embarked on a morning journey to the religious center of the Cham Empire, My Son “Beautiful Mountain,” with 70 structures dating from the 7th to the 13th centuries. Nestled in a valley surrounded by lush mountains, it was easy to see why this site had been selected as a spiritual center.
Our drive to Hoi An provided a fascinating glimpse into country life, with farmers drying rice, peppers, peanuts, corn, and other mysterious foodstuffs along the roadside. Upon arrival in our second UNESCO site, we enjoyed a wonderful buffet lunch, including a pho station, at the Full Moon Restaurant. A tour of ancient Hoi An introduced us to its historic architecture, Japanese covered bridge, museum (housing many Cham artifacts from My Son), and the lovely Phuc Kien Temple. Hoi An is also famous for its fine silks and many of us continued our exploration of the town in the afternoon, perhaps picking up a “tailor-made” souvenir. On the way back to the ship we all made a quick stop a China Beach; a beautiful stretch of golden sand that was made famous as a recreation area for American GIs.
Wednesday, April 7 - Hue / Perfume River Cruise: Hue is the Imperial City of the Nguyen Emperors who reigned from 1802 to 1945. Our first stop here was at the Dong Ba Market, where we explored a labyrinth of stalls overflowing with goods from offering money for the dead to toiletry items and exotic herbs and produce to the freshest meats and seafood.
We then drove to an area just outside the citadel walls and walked through the arched entrance of this World Heritage Site. Though much smaller, this complex was built in a similar plan to Beijing’s Forbidden City. We passed under ornately decorated arches to view the throne room and inner sanctuary where no one but the king and his entourage were allowed on penalty of death. We paid a short visit to the Thien Mu Pagoda before boarding dragon boats for a cruise along the Perfume River. While some enjoyed the view, others engaged in a shopping frenzy; especially popular were the brilliantly hued silk pajamas.
Lunch at the Century Riverside Hotel was replete with local delicacies, during which we were entertained by a talented musical group who preformed traditional songs while playing an assortment of unique instruments, including tea cups.
Our last stop of the day was Emperor Tu Duc’s Tomb, built to resemble a miniature royal palace. As we returned to the ship, we stopped for a close-up look at the making of incense sticks at a colorful—and fragrant—roadside stand.
Thursday, April 8 - 17th Parallel & Vinh Moc: Zodiacs brought us ashore this morning amid outgoing fishing vessels. A drive through rubber plantations and pepper trees, with a quick stop at a colorful local cemetery, brought us to the Ben Hai River and the famous 17th Parallel. The dividing line between North and South Vietnam known as the DMZ was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the Vietnam War. Today, a peace bridge and monument mark the country’s reunification. We walked across this historic line before heading to our next stop, Vinh Moc. Between 1965 and 1972 one half million tons of bombs were dropped on this area and local citizens who chose to stay went to work digging underground tunnels, wells, and canals into the soft clay-like soil. Thirteen entrances connected family living quarters, school rooms, and even a maternity ward. Many of us explored these elaborate tunnels, humbled by the sheer tenacity of those who refused to leave their hometown. An on-site museum exhibits weaponry, maps, and photographs.
Friday, April 9 - Halong Bay: We awoke to the ghostly shapes of karst limestone formations rising from mystical Halong Bay. After observing the mysterious peaks from the deck we stepped off the Odyssey and into dragon boats for a leisurely cruise through this legendary World Heritage Site. The swirling mists created an otherworldly scene as we explored rocky island shores thick with vegetation. A stop to visit a huge cave was a highlight, the centuries of water erosion forming stlagtites, stalagmites, and bizarrely-shaped rock formations.
After lunch on the ship, we set off in groups for a Zodiac cruise to further explore the bay. Some adventurous souls even took a dip in the brisk, but inviting waters. We traversed tunnels into stunning green lagoons surrounded by sheer limestone cliffs, ever on the lookout for avian species and the rare Cat Ba langur, a primate endemic to the area. Though the sunshine was more of the liquid variety today, a floating hot chocolate bar (with a nip of rum or Bailey’s) helped to keep us warm in body and spirit. We also paid a visit to a colorful floating fishing village where adults and children alike waved a friendly “hello.”
Back on board the Clipper Odyssey Captain Peter hosted farewell cocktails and dinner followed by a wonderful slideshow presentation of photos highlighting special moments from our Vietnam voyage thus far.
Saturday, April 10 - Hanoi / Disembark Clipper Odyssey: We said goodbye to the lovely ship and its outstanding crew and drove overland to Vietnam’s political capital, Hanoi. Before checking-in to the Intercontinental Westlake Hotel, we were treated to one of the country’s truly unique, and oldest, forms of entertainment—a private performance at the Water Puppet Theatre.
After lunch we had two options to choose from; the Tay Phuong Pagoda or a bike ride through the countryside. This pagoda is still very much in use and was bustling with activity. The bike ride revealed smiling villagers and adorable children who seemed as interested in us as we were in them. Water buffalo grazing in the fields and farmers tending to their crops lent a timeless feel of Vietnamese life.
Sunday, April 11 - Hanoi / Farewell Gala Evening: Today early risers awoke before dawn for a walk to the Hoan Kiem Lake to observe the tai chi exercises that are a daily ritual for thousands of Hanoi residents. Those who chose to rise at a more reasonable hour began their day with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where we joined the lengthy queue and slowly, quietly, and with arms at our sides, made our way past the clear glass case where the revered leader was lying in state. We then toured the two houses where the Father of Vietnam had lived and worked and were impressed by the modesty of his accommodations. Next we strolled the courtyards of the Temple of Literature (or, more accurately the Temple of Literacy), the city’s oldest university dedicated to the teachings of Confucianism. Our last stop was the infamous Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton) which is now an informative museum. In the afternoon, many of us rode cyclos through the charming Ancient Quarter, while others visited the Museum of Ethnology.
This evening, our final in Vietnam, we attended a gala dinner at the ancient Co Loa Citadel. Torches lined the walkway, villagers greeted us warmly, and energetic drummers and lion dancers escorted us to the entrance. A stone courtyard, illuminated by the glow of red silk lanterns, served as our dining room. As we savored a sumptuous feast, singers, dancers, musicians, and even a master puppeteer, delighted us with superb displays of traditional entertainment. Here, in a timeless setting canopied by starlit skies, in the fine company of new friends, we celebrated our wonderful journey and the enduring magic of Cambodia and Vietnam.