The captain had said it was worth getting up early. And when the lovely Captain Johannes Tysse speaks – his persuasive, mellifluous, voice drifting over the airwaves – you listen. He wasn’t wrong.
We entered the Saigon estuary just after 6 am and saw the sunrise over the river, dense jungle on either side. Breathtaking.
The river meandered through the jungle, twisting and turning, passed the occasional hamlet where life has probably remained unchanged for centuries. It was a good two hours before the tall skyscrapers appeared on the horizon as we approached the city and a further hour before we actually arrived. What a way to arrive. The ship docked slap, bang, right in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City.
Arriving by ship you get a real sense of the area, size of the city and its location, which we would not have experienced in the same way if we had arrived by air.
A quick change into lighter clothes with lashings of high factor sun-tan lotion, we boarded the shuttle bus for the 5 minute ride into the main square. We could have walked, but the Azamara bus was complimentary and we had been up for some considerable time by now! The shuttle buses at each port run every 30 minutes to a convenient downtown location throughout the day into the evening. This makes getting around very easy.
On first impressions, the compact centre of the city, Dong Khoi, feels very different from the capital, Hanoi. Wide, elegant, boulevards with upmarket shops, colonial French architecture happily set amongst modern buildings and flowers everywhere. But get away from the centre, as we did later in search of a highly recommended local restaurant, the area had the same ramshackle mixture of buildings we saw in Hanoi and we were the only Westerners around. The restaurant, when we eventually found it was well worth the hunt. The menu listed pages of vegetables, options for how you wanted them cooked and you then chose the type of meat or fish to accompany the vegetables. Not the usual way of doing things, but deliciously tasty.
We arrived in the middle of Tet, the New Year celebrations, the biggest holiday across many SE Asian countries, and the city had gone into overdrive to welcome the Year of the Snake. One of the main streets had been pedestrianised for the occasion and decorated with the most beautiful tropical flowers, orchids of every shade, blossom trees and yellow chrysanthemums everywhere, the air heady with their scent. It was only 10 am and already crowded with many people dressed in their finest, traditional, clothes promenading through the flowered streets.
It was great to experience the Tet celebrations. However, there was a draw back. Think Christmas Day in the UK: only the odd corner shop or tourist shop open. So it was disappointing not to see Ho Chi Minh City as it usually is: buzzing with bikes, people and the liveliest city in Vietnam. We could easily cross the street here – where’s the fun in that? Apparently the motorbikes here make Hanoi look positively sedate. And, with a population of 10.5 million in the city and over 5 million bikes I can quite believe it.
We went to the rooftop bar of the Hotel Rex for a refreshing drink. With temperatures hovering just below 40c and high humidity, many such stops were required. Right in the heart of the city, the Rex was home to US officers during the war. They surely wouldn’t recognize it now. I ordered an iced tea and the waiter asked if I wanted a Saigon Iced tea. I quickly looked at the menu to check: gin, tequila, bacardi, midori, vodka, lemon juice and 7up. No wonder the officers stayed here! No Lipton’s would be fine, thank you.
After a full day in the city and lunch in the local restaurant we chose to have dinner on board. We ate at the Windows Restaurant, which is buffet service, but what a buffet! The choices on offer are varied and plentiful; a stylish and delicious ‘eat as much as you like’ affair – and believe me some people do! Having over-faced ourselves somewhat at the beginning of the trip, we have now settled down, safe in the knowledge they will not run out of food as plentiful supplies come on board at each port! With a few knowing glances from Branco and clothes feeling a tad too tight, we are now back to eating a little more sensibly and still enjoying delicious food.
In addition to the buffet in Windows Restaurant, chefs cook different types of food to order: Seafood, Asian, Paella, etc., which the waiters will bring to your table and, of course, they are always there to top up your wine glass if it looks dangerously low. So, good service in the self-service buffet. There are three areas to this restaurant including one outside at the back of the boat, so it rarely feels busy and has mostly been our restaurant of choice, as you can wander in any time between 6 – 9.30pm and it’s extremely casual.
We nipped into the Cabaret Lounge to finish off the night. With different nightly acts, some brought in locally at each port, there is something to suit every taste. Tonight we saw an excellent magician, last night a fantastic pianist. Had we had the energy we could have enjoyed disco dancing, but perhaps another time, early start tomorrow.
Our day excursion to the Mekong Delta, just under a two hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City, was interesting but not as enjoyable as our previous cycle excursion. There was very little activity on the river due to the Tet holiday and having seen photographs of floating markets and fishing boats crammed onto the river this was rather disappointing. However, it was still interesting to see the area, go on a local boat through the channels and see life on the islands. The Delta covers an area of 40,000 sq. klms. and is the second largest area in the world for growing rice, where it is still harvested by hand and is little changed. So we would love to visit again, but not during the Tet holiday where it is taken very seriously in Vietnam!
Back on ship we sailed out of the city at 4pm, following the winding Saigon river once again out to the South China Sea. We sunbathed on the Pool Deck as we left the city behind us. We have loved every minute of Vietnam. We have seen so much in such a short time, which has given us a good feel for the country.
Sitting in the Jacuzzi as we sailed down the Saigon river I watched the sunset over the dense jungle. A memorable way to leave the city, and Vietnam.
Read Chapter 1: Introduction: Is a cruise going to be the right choice for me?
Read Chapter 2: We’re on our way! Hong Kong
Read Chapter 3: Down time onboard the ship
Read Chapter 4: Vietnam: Hanoi and Halong Bay
Read Chapter 5: Vietnam: Denang and Anhoi
Read Chapter 7: Thailand: Bangkok
Read Chapter 8: Thailand: Ko Samui
Read Chapter 9: Singapore
Read Chapter 10: Azamara Club Cruises: the verdict
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Azamara.