Although I’ve written about what a Mekong River Cruise is Really Like, this post is going to focus more on the river cruise company (Avalon Waterways) I sailed with this past February and March. So if you’re currently researching various Mekong River cruises , here is my complete Avalon Mekong River Cruise review.
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I will say this, my stateroom onboard the the Avalon Saigon truly impressed me. Of course it didn’t hurt that the Saigon was only two years old (it was built in 2018) and has only 18 staterooms. I’ll say more below on the benefits of the small size of the Saigon and why Avalon has the advantage in this regard when compared to other river cruise ships sailing the Mekong. But having only sailed on major cruise liners prior, I absolutely loved the spaciousness of my stateroom, not to mention, since I was traveling alone, it literally was all for me.
The “living” portion of the stateroom featured a queen size bed (or you can have two single beds arranged), a sette, a small table with a chair, a ceiling fan, and a television. The bed was great and I always had a good night’s sleep. (The fact that I was truly spent from the intense sun and temperatures probably also contributed.)
All staterooms feature floor to ceiling windows, allowing you an unobstructed view. However, as I mentioned previously in my What a Mekong River Cruise is Really Like, there’s basically no scenery on the Mekong, so it’s perhaps wasted a bit? Also, the sun is so intense during the day that I never had my shades open due to both wanting to keep my room cooler and privacy (a river cruise ship is quite low to the water level and we were constantly going by locals out and about on the water). Additionally, we were advised that after 4PM, shades should also be closed to prevent bugs from “congregating.”
And for being a cruise stateroom bathroom, it was still quite spacious (when I think of the tiny, almost closet size bathrooms I’ve had on cruise liners…). The shower pressure was always strong and a treat since I ended up taking multiple showers some of the days between all of the sunscreen and bug spray applying I was doing and flat out sweating profusely. Bath products were L’Occitane.
All staterooms came with metal water bottles that you were able to refill at water stations on the lower deck, and each day housekeeping would also refill the carafe of water that you would use to brush your teeth. The staterooms also came with a mini refrigerator that was stocked with complimentary soft drinks and local beers. But as was also the case with my hotel room in Saigon, the fridges were never really cold, at least not to my American standards where no, I don’t really enjoy drinking lukewarm Coke.
As being hot is something I greatly loathe, I always kept my room ridiculously cold. Your room key is what also controlled the electricity. However, after realizing that this also impacted the air-conditioning, I quickly got myself an additional key to keep in the room at all times so I would not return to a fiery stateroom after being out in 95 degree temperatures all day. Definitely do this.
Television was satellite and while there was a wide range of channels, it often didn’t work due to the remoteness of where we were (this was especially the case in rural Cambodia). But one of the things that was nice was that each night there was a feature film shown that was about either Vietnam or Cambodia. These included Good Morning Vietnam, Indochine, The Killing Fields, The Quiet American, and more. Most of us were asleep by the time they were shown (9PM), but the touch was nice all the same, especially if they were movies you hadn’t seen before.
For anyone who’s interested, I was in stateroom 102 which is on the Mekong deck and only has one neighbor to the one side.
Okay, on a ship like the Saigon which is extremely small, there’s not really much in the form of amenities, at least not what one is used to when sailing on an ocean liner or perhaps even one of the larger river boats in Europe which I’ve read are much bigger. There was a fitness center but since it was so small and our sailing comprised just over 20 people, the ones who used it worked out verbal agreements amongst themselves.
There was a spa but to my knowledge there were only two staff members who did spa services. I contemplated getting a massage but then never did. The prices were quite reasonable but when on the ship, I was literally content to just stay in my air-conditioned room doing nothing but relaxing.
The “big” amenity is the open-air observation lounge with a shade system. Well, once again, there’s not much scenery and for someone like me, pale and prone to heat exhaustion, I just couldn’t stomach sitting out there “relaxing” in the heat of the day. I did go up to the air-conditioned panorama lounge a couple of times as there and the lounge outside are the only areas of the ship with WiFi. And because you’ll be sailing in mostly extremely rural areas, the WiFi is spotty at best. And even when using my data, it could be like pulling teeth in terms of slowness and responsiveness rates.
For the record, there IS laundry service on-board (I had sadly been misinformed). I did wash out a few undergarments in my bathroom sink but also had shirts and pants done. The prices were quite reasonable and articles were returned the next day. I wish I had known this as I spent way too much on having my laundry done at my ultra plush and swanky hotel in Saigon.
My favorite of the amenities though was the nightly cocktail hour. Each night in the panorama lounge, cocktail hour took place complete with a drink of the day and various hors d’oeuvres offerings. Coffee, tea, soft drinks, and local wines and spirits were complimentary throughout the day too (this I heard was not the case on European river cruises). It was just a nice way to relax and unwind.
Once I found out the bar staff would make a Vietnamese-style iced coffee (coffee with condensed milk), these became my drink of choice.
This was one of the things about the Avalon ship that I was “slightly” disappointed by. The food was good but I didn’t think it was incredible by any means. I had heard many people rave about the elegant and upscale offerings on-board their river cruises (mind you they were European river cruises), and I just didn’t find that to be the case on the Saigon. Perhaps a lot of it had to do with the fact that due to the locale and the extreme temperatures, casual dress was recommended for dinner and this carried over to the food as well.
Breakfast featured both a European-style breakfast spread as well as hot plates featuring items like pancakes, waffles, some regional breakfast options as well as an omelet station. Lunch was a similar style and included both Western and regional dishes, a nice variety of both cold and hot options. Prior to the start of the sit-down breakfast, a coffee and tea station with breads was set out for early risers.
Dinner was a four-course meal and included an appetizer, soup, entree, and dessert. I early on went for either the appetizer or soup but never both. You also always had the option of ordering a Western-style entree (i.e. hamburger, chicken breast, etc). I did this on two occasions since by the time of the cruise, I had been in Asia for a couple of weeks already and needed a break from Southeast Asian cuisine.
I’m enough of a foodie to discern authentic and quasi-authentic. None of the regional food was the same as what I had gotten in Hanoi. I know a lot of this has to do with the demographic of the passengers, but keep this in mind if you’re a genuine Vietnamese (or even Cambodian) foodie. Hopefully like me you’ll be spending time in the countries alone either before or after your cruise and can really search out some authentic fare, that’s why a food guide to Hanoi will come in handy.
Wine and beer were free-flowing at lunch and meal times and you could have as many refills as you wanted.
I did like the fact that the day’s menus were posted on the TVs in the ship as well as on a station in your stateroom.
I know that due to the small size of the Saigon, having a pool, even a small lap-style one, wasn’t really an option. But a hot tub or whirlpool on the deck would have been nice. To go to Southeast Asia and not be able to swim was a bit of a disappointment because there really was no entertainment or diversion onboard. Perhaps that is the advantage of sailing on one of the larger ships on the Mekong.
I’m someone who can’t eat large meals and much prefer to have smaller meals or snacks throughout the day. Save for the three meals a day offered and the cocktail hour hors d’oeuvres, there wasn’t any option for snacks at any other time. I know room service couldn’t really be a thing due to the smallness of the Saigon, but I just wish at any time of the day there had been a snack station where one could have gotten a croissant or crackers. I think this is something that could be easily added. I had some snacks I had brought with me but it wasn’t as if any of the stops included trips to the local supermarket to “stock up.”
The land portion of the river cruise:
Most of the people on my cruise (and I think this is the case for anyone who does a Mekong River cruise, regardless of the outfitter they sail with), will do the itinerary option that includes time in both Saigon AND Siem Reap, the latter of course being the home of the famous wonder of the world, Angkor Wat. There were four people on the cruise however, who just did the seven night cruise portion.
I did the 12 night northbound itinerary which meant that the tour originated in Saigon which is where the first three nights were spent. Our hotel was the Reverie and I can safely say I had never stayed in more luxurious or deluxe accommodations (and probably never will). It’s located in the city’s Times Square building which is a high-rise in District 1, basically the city’s most affluent/Westernized area. My room was MASSIVE and so incredibly plush (it was a shame I didn’t have anyone to share it with). It was about a 15 minute walk to sites such as St. Joseph’s Cathedral and Reunification Palace.
Breakfast was included each morning and was an elaborate spread, not to mention you were greeted by name too. I did order room service one night (a delicious bahn mi sandwich) and as I mentioned above, spent a small fortune (for Vietnam) on laundry. I didn’t partake of the pool (my legs were too ghastly at that point because of my bicycle accident) but it was incredible, situated outside with a prime view of the skyline.
The cruise portion of the itinerary ended in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh where we then flew to Siem Reap. We flew on Cambodia Angkor Air and it was about an hour flight between the two cities. The last two nights were spent at the Park Hyatt. It was still a lovely hotel and swanky, but not on the scale of the Reverie. And perhaps nothing would be.
Welcome and farewell group dinners were held in both Saigon and Siem Reap, the latter being particularly special as it included regional folkloric dancing during the meal.
For the 13 day, 12 night journey, I definitely felt there was adequate free time. In Saigon on the second day, the afternoon was free and on the third say when we visited the Củ Chi tunnels in the morning, the afternoon and evening were free. In Siem Reap, on the day we arrived the evening was free and then the following day after visiting more temples in the morning, we had the afternoon free until the farewell dinner.
During the river cruise portion, I found there to be decent breaks between morning and afternoon excursions and several days only featured one excursion depending on where we were sailing to and from. And of course, you could always skip going on an excursion if you wanted to.
There was a cruise director who was with us the entire 13 days (Khan, who was Vietnamese). His English was excellent and he was a lovely man. We had a local guide in both Vietnam and Cambodia who were also with us guiding the entire time we were in their respective countries.
The reason to sail with Avalon:
The Saigon is the smallest of the river cruise ships sailing the Mekong. And because of this, the Saigon is able to begin the voyage in the city of Saigon. We were told that on other river cruises, passengers are bussed a couple of hours away to where they board their ship, deeper into the Mekong, those ships being too big in the water around Saigon. So it was definitely a major benefit in that regard to sail with Avalon and not have to endure an hours long bus ride.
Another reason to sail with Avalon is that for some of its itineraries (the Mekong is included) on select dates, the dreaded “single supplement fee” is waived. This was a huge incentive for me to book with Avalon as it’s often around $1000USD. I did get somewhat screwed on the single supplement fee the hotels charged ($650USD), but you can’t win them all…
Have you ever sailed with Avalon River cruises before?
Is a Mekong River cruise something you’d consider?