Broadcaster, former MP and BBC ’s The One Show presenter Gyles Brandreth had never been on a cruise – until he and his wife Michele decided to explore Vietnam and Cambodia by river. Here he shares his top tips…
1 CRUISING IS MORE THAN A “PACKAGE HOLIDAY”
I had preconceived ideas about cruising and package holidays: who wants to be cooped up on a ship with a bunch of strangers? Not me. What kind of intelligent, free-spirited grown man needs to have his holiday ‘organised’ for him? Not this one. But I had a problem. I wanted to visit Vietnam and Cambodia. My children had all been on back-packing gap-year expeditions to South-East Asia and returned saying that both countries are absolute “must sees”.
I didn’t have a gap-year to fill and, to be honest, my back-packing days are long behind me. I had only two weeks to spare and a lot to see.
On word-of-mouth recommendation (it’s the best kind) I went to Titan Travel and they said, without hesitation: “What you need, sir, is a Uniworld River Cruise. If you want to discover the timeless wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong Delta in just a fortnight, it’s the only way. And it’s not a mass-market cruise. It’ll just be you and 20 or 30 fellow travellers. You’ll love it.” To my amazement, I did.
2 WHEN PACKING FOR A RIVER CRUISE, LESS IS MORE
Titan and Uniworld advised us to travel light, with summery ‘smart-casual’ clothes plus a bit of ‘layering’ in case it got chilly. We ignored them and packed far too much. The guidebook we bought told us that the temperatures might range from 15°C to 40°C (as we were travelling in March), so we took clothes for all eventualities and something different for every day. A waste of space. On board our ship, and in the hotels we stayed at in Saigon, Hanoi and Siem Reap, the laundry service was tip-top, speedy and quite cheap.
To guard against the possibility of rain and the certainty of sun, the guidebook advised us to take umbrellas and hats, so we carted both half-way across the world – not necessary. This was a deluxe holiday: there were umbrellas handed out whenever one was needed. Conical straw hats are for sale on every street corner – priced at one US dollar each. Also, there’s no need to get local currency to use in Vietnam and Cambodia, the US dollar is acceptable everywhere.
3 HAVE A FLIGHT PLAN
We flew from London Heathrow to Ho Chi Minh City with a two-hour stop-over in Hong Kong. It’s a long journey and what you should do is have a proper flight plan: eat the main meal they give you straight after take-off, watch just one movie, then put on your eye-mask and sleep for as long as you can.
I got it all wrong. I ate everything I was offered (lunch, dinner and then three breakfasts in a row – one as we approached Hong Kong, one in Hong Kong airport, one on the onward flight to Ho Chi Minh City), watched movies non-stop and did not sleep at all. I started the holiday with indigestion, a migraine and jet lag
4 YOU CAN TRAVEL AT YOUR OWN PACE
On the first day you’re left in peace – we slept for five hours, then braved the streets of Saigon – bustling with humanity and four million motor bikes. All the “must-see” elements are sorted for you by the cruise line and in between you can go solo and feel like a traveller instead of a tourist.
5 BUT KEEP UP WITH THE GUIDES
The lotus may be the national flower of Vietnam, but this is not a holiday for lotus-eaters. To get the most out of a river cruise, you need to be into history and culture – ancient and modern. In two weeks, I learnt more than I ever dreamed I’d know about the heritage of Indo-China, the nature of Buddhism, the reality of the Vietnam War and the horrors of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.
This is a trip that requires an alert mind and good walking shoes. There’s an outing every day – most days two – and we had local guides; their English was always good and their insights – and personal stories – gave you the reality of their countries in a way no guidebook ever could.
6 START AS YOU MEAN TO GO ON
Uniworld is an American company and we were the only Brits on our particular trip. I liked that because I was on this holiday to discover the East, not to make new friends from the UK. In fact, gradually, we did make friends, but I think it’s important not to rush it.
7 ENJOY THE CRUISE
In Saigon, Hanoi and Siem Reap, we stayed in luxury hotels. In between, for seven nights, we were aboard the MV River Orchid. It’s a brand-new ship, but with an old-world colonial feel. Every cabin has a river view, but the real surprise for me was that it was so comfortable and well-appointed.
At first, I thought the ship was there to get us from A to B – or from Sa Dec in Vietnam to Phnom Penh in Cambodia – but then I began to realise that life on board was part of the experience.
I began the day with the sunrise and excellent fresh coffee on the top deck, watching the paddy fields and the pagodas, the fishing boats and the sampans float by. I ended it sitting outside my cabin looking up at the night-sky.
8 DON’T FEEL GUILTY
On board we lived in the lap of luxury. The ship’s chef delivered first-class Western, Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes. But these are poor countries and you realise this when you walk through the local market, or see inside the river houses on stilts where fishermen live with their families.
Uniworld supports an orphanage, and tourism is Cambodia’s fastest-growing industry, with arrivals growing from 200,000 in 1997 to two million plus today.
9 KEEP A DIARY
On this holiday there were once-in-a-lifetime treats in store on each and every day – without exception. You could never forget the visit to the tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War or the horror of the Killing Fields of Cambodia or the majesty of the many ancient temples at Angkor Wat – truly one of the wonders of the world.
What were the unexpected highlights for me? Travelling by sampan through the floating markets and canals of Cai Be; taking an elephant ride through the forest one morning before breakfast; being blessed by a Buddhist monk in a small temple; visiting the home and mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. I could go on.
There was so much to see, the only way I managed to stay on top of what I was seeing was to keep a daily diary. If I hadn’t, I suspect too much of it would have simply flashed past me in a colourful and extraordinary blur.
10 TRY TO TAKE A BREAK
Because every day was full of new experiences, we were on the brink of becoming punch-drunk. Then a veteran of nine Uniworld cruises said to us: “You must take a holiday from your holiday. I always do”. We followed his advice, opted out of one excursion, played backgammon on the sun-deck and saw a wedding party celebrating on the river bank.
Who could ask for more?
Have lots of single-dollar bills handy and offer one or two dollars to anyone who looks as if they might be expecting a tip of some kind. It’s less stressful than worrying about it.
Titan, in partnership with Uniworld, offers a 17-day Timeless Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia & The Mekong cruise throughout 2014, from £4,449pp, including flights, full-board cruise, hotel, excursions, drinks, most meals and Titan’s VIP Home Departure Service.
For more information on Uniworld click here
For your copy of the latest Titan/Uniworld brochure call 0808 115 1989 quoting CI7 MEK; titantravel.co.uk
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