AmaDara - CLIA Asia River Cruise & Destination Forum.
Saturday, 7th April.
Arriving in Singapore, after a very comfortable flight with Emirates from Newcastle (via Dubai), we met our pre-arranged driver and were transferred to our home for the next three nights – The Quincy hotel. The Quincy is a modern, boutique style property situated a mere five minute walk from the famous Orchard Road and offers a great alternative to the huge resort style properties. The Quincy offers guest a number of free benefits including; free cakes, pastries and nibbles from 12pm – 6pm daily and a free bar and hot buffet from 6pm – 8pm daily.
After a quick shower and change we left to meet a friend to enjoy a Saturday night in Singapore. Tip: if, as we did, you intend to hop on and off the public transport as you explore the city it is well worth paying 20 dollars for a 24-hour public transport pass. This gives unlimited travel on both bus and the incredibly efficient MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) & LRT (Light Rail Transit) systems. The services are quick, regular and very easy to use. Cards can be purchased at any station.
Jumping on the MRT we headed to the Marina Bay area to view the gardens and the Marina Bay Sands hotel. The hotel dominates the skyline with its three towers supporting an infinity pool and nightclub on the 57th floor. More about the nightclub later but in truth we were not blown away by the hotel which felt very impersonal and more of a tourist attraction than a five-star property. Tip: If you want to sample local delicacies without wandering around Chinatown or Little India, the food court in the Marina Bay shopping centre is amazing.
Feeling less than impressed with the Marina Bay Sands hotel we jumped in a cab and headed to Clarke Quay, a relatively new entertainment area built along the waterfront with a large selection of bars and restaurants, many of which featured live entertainment. A great place to have a wander and soak up the atmosphere on a Saturday night. We settled on dinner and a drink at Brewerkz, a fantastic little micro-brewery. With a great range of their own brews and an interesting menu, a burger and a pint worked out at around £22 a head. One final pint in Clarke Quay, enjoying the atmosphere and listening to a great live band, before deciding to call it a night and head back to our hotel.
Sunday, 8th April.
After a pleasant breakfast we met our hosts from the Singapore Tourist Board who were going to look after us for the next two days. Our first stop this morning was the Marina Bay Cruise Centre, Singapore’s second cruise terminal, specially built to accommodate the new generation of mega cruise ships. Highly functional and efficient the terminal is designed to get passengers on and off the ships as quickly and simply as possible. This is not the terminal used by Star Clippers, they use the smaller Singapore Cruise Centre. The Singapore Cruise Centre was rejuvenated in 2011 and in our opinion offers a more comfortable passenger experience with the added benefit of being located next to the Harbour front and Vivo City Malls.
Today we were treated to lunch at The National Gallery where we sampled Violet Oon’s Peranakan cuisine. A stunning and popular restaurant, dishes on offer included Ngoh Hiang (a deep-fried pork and prawn roll), Beef Rendang and Ikan Goreng Chilli (fried fish with chillies). Tip: if you are a chilli lover (like Sam) you must try the Ikan Goreng, it was the hottest dish that Tony had ever tasted!! If the hundreds of chillies covering the fish does not give you sufficient heat, they serve it with an additional chilli paste on the side – check out our Facebook page to see a photo.
After lunch we headed to Singapore’s historic Chinatown which evolved around 1821 when the first Chinese junk arrived. A fascinating area to walk around and a must see is the historic Chinatown Heritage Centre. The only place in Singapore where the original interiors and living spaces of old shop house tenants have been recreated.
This evening we were first taken to Mount Faber to enjoy a Singapore Sling and sunset over the harbour front and Sentosa Island. After which we took a 30-minute ride on the Singapore Cable Car, from Faber Peak across the harbour to Sentosa Island and back again (Sam: “two fam trips, two cable cars, what are the odds?!”). Dinner this evening was at Clifford Pier, once the historical landing point of Singapore’s forefathers it has been beautifully restored and is now a stunning dining destination. Unfortunately the dining experience failed to live up to the venue with both the level of service and quality of food disappointing. Tip: We would still recommend a trip to Clifford Pier but only for a drink. If you sit outside on the terrace you will get a fantastic view of the nightly Marina Bay Sands light show.
As we mentioned earlier the Marina Bay Sands Hotel is home to a nightclub, Ce La Vi, located on the 57th floor and this is where we headed after dinner for a late night drink. This is where the rich and beautiful of Singapore gather and it offers patrons stunning views of Singapore’s skyline. Well worth a visit but very expensive.
Monday, 9th April.
After another wonderful breakfast we were taken to Fort Canning Hill for the Graves, Guns and Battles Tour. Fort Canning is the underground, former British Command Centre known as the Battlebox. It is here where the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese was made in February 1942. A fascinating and poignant excursion and a must do for anybody with any interest in British or world history.
Leaving the Battlebox we all piled onto trishaws (two per trishaw) for a mad ride around Little India. Disembarking from the trishaws, it was only a short walk for lunch at The Banana Leaf Apollo, one of Singapore’s most famous Southern Indian restaurants. We were served an amazing selection of curries and sambals, including the restaurants signature dish – fish head curry. Sam became a hero to the group by eating four fish eyes (he was content with two but the table next to ours hadn’t touched theirs and he wasn’t going to let them go to waste!!), apparently the best part of the dish!
After a couple of hours of relaxation back at our respective hotels we headed to The Gardens by the Bay. Situated on reclaimed land, Gardens by the Bay allows guests to explore flora from around the world displayed in huge, cooled eco-domes. We ate at the open-air food market located in the gardens, Satay by the Bay. A wonderful selection of food stalls selling local and Asian food. Great value and fantastic quality. Tip: we are not vegetarians but the Bok Choy with Garlic was simply amazing.
After dinner we wandered down to the central area of Gardens by the Bay to watch the twice-nightly Gardens Rhapsody show. There are some amazing things to see and do in Singapore and this free show definitely one not to be missed. Difficult to describe, a mythical enchanted forest surrounded by huge artificial trees supporting a network of walkways, you will enjoy an amazing 15-minute sound and light show. The show we saw was based around songs from the movies and included tunes from Harry Potter, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Magnificent Seven and Jurassic Park.
Singing as we left the gardens (maybe not out loud but certainly in our heads) we boarded the coaches for a 40 minute drive to Singapore Zoo where we experienced a magical night safari. This is the world’s first safari park for nocturnal animals and is one of Asia’s most popular excursions. Sitting in an open-air tram, the 45 minute journey gives you the chance to see over 2 and a half thousand animals from over 130 species including the endangered Asian Elephant and Malayan Tiger. Tip: Take one of the optional 20 minute walking tours which we found got us much closer to the wildlife.
Tuesday and Wednesday, 10th & 11th April.
A morning transfer from our hotel to the airport to catch our flight to Ho Chi Minh City to attend the first ever CLIA Asia River Cruise & Destination Forum. This two day conference was designed to allow agents to gain first-hand knowledge of this important and growing river cruise destination. We were two of only 70 UK agents to attend and feel that the knowledge we have gained will enable us to ensure we can tailor-make the perfect itineraries for all our clients wishing to travel to this beautiful destination.
During a packed two day agenda we held meetings and listened to presentations from the owners and directors of the most important cruise companies operating in this area as they detailed the unique benefits of their cruises and their plans for the future. Companies we met included; AmaWaterways, APT, Avalon Waterways, Belmond, Croisi Europe, Ganges Voyager, Pandaw Cruises, Scenic and Uniworld.
The conference was amazing and both Sam and I can’t wait to talk to people and help them plan their perfect trip.
Ho Chi Minh City is truly fascinating and we were lucky enough to be hosted each evening at places that we think should be must do’s for anybody visiting this city.
On Tuesday we were hosted at the Caravelle Hotel, one of the most famous hotels in Ho Chi Minh City, originally built in a French Colonial style, during the Vietnam War it was home to the majority of the American Press core and the daily press briefings were held on its rooftop. Many famous people, including Bob Hope, have stayed here. Hosted by Scenic we enjoyed an amazing (free flowing) drinks and canape reception on the rooftop.
Luke Nguyen is a famous Vietnamese-Australian Chef, he has hosted numerous TV shows, appears regularly on Australian MasterChef and owns a number of restaurants (and a cookery school) including the Red Lantern restaurant in Sydney. Luke’s parents fled Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War and Luke was actually born in a refugee camp in Thailand before his parents settled in Australia. It had always been his ambition to open a restaurant in Vietnam and in 2017 this ambition was realised when he opened Vietnam House. Courtesy of APT we were lucky enough to dine here and in all honesty it was one of the best meals we have ever had!! Our menu for the evening was:
Handmade noodles rolled with Salmon, cured in mountain pepper, lemongrass and kumquat
Netted spring rolls with lobster and fresh herbs
Smoked duck & galangal salad
Garoupa fillets in an XO sauce, char grilled in banana leaf
Jumbo river prawns, wok tossed with basil & seafood sauce
Wok tossed Australian beef tenderloin with smoked mash
Thien Ly flower, wok tossed with garlic & oyster sauce
Garlic fried rice
Vietnamese coffee flan
Pandan crème brulee
Tip: Whenever you are in Ho Chi Minh City you simply must eat here and as Vietnam is so cheap prices here, although expensive by local standards, are cheap in comparison to European prices.
Tip: Luke Nguyen is an ambassador for APT and accompanies two cruises a year on the Mekong. Not surprisingly 2018 / 2019 are already sold out however 2020 goes on sale shortly so if you would like to Travel with Luke contact us now.
Tip: Luke will be accompanying for the first time an APT cruise in Europe. The cruise will be a 7-night sailing from Paris and during the sailing Luke will cook for guests at a restaurant in Paris and at a vineyard during the cruise. He will also host cooking demonstrations onboard ship. This cruise will go on sale in May and will certainly sell out almost immediately. If you want the chance to sail with Luke please contact us now to register.
Thursday, 12th April
Sam and I were lucky enough to have been invited by Kristin Karst, the co-owner of AmaWaterways, to join her and Stuart Perl, UK Managing Director, on a 4-night sailing onboard the AmaDara. This was the vessel featured on the recent ‘Cruising with Jane McDonald’, so as you can imagine we were very excited.
After a very short flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh we transferred to the AmaDara, our home for the next five days. The AmaDara is a beautiful and well-appointed vessel accommodating up to 124 passengers in suites and staterooms, all with both a French balcony and an outside balcony. After time to unpack we met Stuart and Kristin and dined in the Chef’s Table Restaurant. Located at the aft of the ship the Chef’s Table Restaurant seats up to 28 passengers and offers a multi-course degustation menu with paired wines. All guests have the opportunity to dine there, at no extra charge, at least once during the cruise.
After dinner we travelled by tuk-tuk to the luxury Sofitel Hotel for a cocktail reception with the senior managers of this hotel chain. This is a stunning hotel and Sofitel hotels are used by AmaWaterways on their 11 and 15 day Mekong packages.
Friday, 13th April.
After an early breakfast we joined our coach for an excursion to Cambodia’s Royal Palace. Set in beautiful grounds the Royal Palace comprises numerous buildings, the majority of which you are allowed to wander freely around. The Buddha room is well worth a look, with over 1500 Buddha’s on display including a huge gold and diamond encrusted Buddha, reputedly worth £45 million.
Returning to the ship, the rest of the day was at leisure as we sailed from Cambodia across the border back into Vietnam. The border crossing is easy as the ship simply anchors and Vietnamese customs come on board and check passports (which are held by AmaWaterways so guests aren’t disturbed) before allowing the vessel to sail on. At this point the Cambodian tour guides disembarked and we were joined by four Vietnamese guides who would accompany us for the rest of the cruise.
Saturday, 14th April.
After breakfast we boarded our tender for the short journey to Evergreen Island and a walking excursion through a local village finishing at a traditional Rattan factory. Supposedly one of the poorest villages in Vietnam, the people were extremely friendly and virtually every house had three satellite dishes to allow them to receive not only 100’s of Asian TV channels but also worldwide sports channels including the English Premier League. One strange custom the Vietnamese adhere to is the burying of relatives in the front garden, erecting an elaborate marble tomb on top of the deceased. You soon get used to seeing one or more tombs in virtually every garden you pass.
After a visit to a Rattan factory and the chance to do some shopping, we climbed aboard trishaws for a journey through town to a silk factory. These trishaws take just one person with the passenger sitting on a very narrow bench with no real space for your legs, fun, exciting, uncomfortable and probably best done only once!!
We stopped at the silk factory that produced the black silk for the dress worn by Angelina Jolie at the premier of the film ‘Maleficent’. The factory shop was unfortunately out of black silk dresses but I did buy Joanie a lovely silk scarf and silk fridge magnet, so brownie points were scored.
Climbing back aboard the trishaws we were transported through the town back to the jetty for our tender back to the AmaDara. After dinner we were entertained at the Crew Talent Show which comprised of groups formed from each department of the ship judged by four passengers in an X-Factor style contest. Not a lot of talent on show but great fun nevertheless!!
Sunday, 15th April.
With a choice of excursions this morning, Sam and I selected the long excursion which visited Xeo Quyt, a hidden forest base used by the Viet Cong leaders during the Vietnam War. Covering 60 acres, this base was home to 20 Viet Cong leaders and although 1.5 miles from the nearest US base it was never discovered. A fascinating excursion and well worth a visit.
Arriving back onboard AmaDara in time for a late lunch, we decided not to take the afternoon excursion and instead opted for a leisurely afternoon on board relaxing with a couple of cold beers up on the sundeck. This evening, before our final dinner onboard, the Cruise Manager invited all guests into the lounge to meet the crew. A wonderful chance for guests to be introduced to and thank the crew who have provided such wonderful service throughout the cruise.
The final dinner onboard upheld the high standards that had been set throughout the cruise and was thoroughly enjoyed by all. If you have sailed with AmaWaterways (or really any cruise company for that matter) you’ll know that breakfast tends to be a buffet, with an action station where a chef cooks eggs to order (fried, scrambled, omelettes etc.), lunch was a buffet with a small selection of additional dishes that were cooked to order and dinner was à la carte. If, at dinner time, nothing appealed to you could always order a steak or that night’s pasta dish. Tonight happened to be the birthday of one of our party and so at the end of the meal the crew presented our table with a cake. Having just had a four course meal no one was particularly hungry but we tucked into a slice regardless.
Tonight was karaoke night and so after dinner the majority of the group gathered in the lounge for a night of singing. After a slow start (it seemed like everyone was reluctant to go first) we found ourselves enthusiastically singing away until the early hours.
Monday, 16th April.
An early start today with all cases to be outside staterooms by 07.00 am, ready to be collected by the crew. After an early breakfast we said our farewells and then boarded our coach for the 90 minute transfer from My Tho port to Ho Chi Minh City. All passengers are dropped off at the Sofitel hotel and those not booked on a post-cruise tour can leave their luggage there free of charge.
As our flight wasn’t until 23.55 we had a day to explore the city and decided to walk to the War Remnants Museum, a fascinating and thought-provoking museum detailing the Vietnamese War from its beginnings in 1950 right through to 1975. After leaving the museum we wandered around the city before having lunch in an Asian fast food restaurant in the food court of one of the many shopping malls – starters, pork noodle main courses, coke and water for less than £7.00!!
Tip: Ho Chi Minh appears to have very few traffic laws (or at least few that are enforced) with bikes being driven on pavements, the wrong side of the road and straight through red lights. Take care when walking around the city and when crossing the road. The best approach is to wait for a gap and then slowly and calmly begin to cross, you’ll find that the bikes simply swerve around the pedestrians. Whatever you do, never run.
Returning to the Sofitel we enjoyed a final cold beer (two actually!) before taking a taxi to the airport for our return flight with Emirates (via Dubai) to Newcastle. The taxi again proved how cheap Vietnam is, 35 minutes from the hotel to the airport (in rush hour traffic) cost less than £6.00.
It was a long journey back and Sam and I were both shattered when we finally landed in Newcastle, a good 30+ hours after we disembarked the AmaDara, but it was a fantastic trip and we have no doubt the knowledge and experience gained will prove invaluable.
Please visit our facebook page to see a collection of photo's taken during the trip - https://www.facebook.com/The-Vacation-Company-129421010477019/?ref=bookmarks
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