There are cruise ships that sail various destinations, and then there are cruise ships built specifically for destinations. Avalon Saigon represents the latter -- and the destination is what this cruise is all about.
The 36-passenger river vessel, like its nearly identical sister Avalon Siem Reap, has a lower height and flat roof that allow it to fit under bridges and power lines most other ships can't, opening up the ability to cruise to and from Vietnam's most bustling city, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). This makes for effortless pre- and post-cruise stays, ultimately eliminating travel time in tour buses that otherwise would be required to access the city.
Beyond its unassuming yet efficient exterior (Avalon Saigon is by no means a sleek, modern-looking vessel), the ship provides a lavish, cozy oasis from which to relish the scenery and access the depths of the Mekong River, between Saigon and Siem Reap, Cambodia. While moseying along, cruisers can kick back in a beautifully appointed, glass-enclosed lounge flooded with natural light or a covered outdoor deck at the front of the ship, all while enjoying complimentary beverages -- one of several cruise fare inclusions.
Even in the cabins, views can't be missed, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows that stretch the entire length of one wall, and beds facing out to the water -- an Avalon Waterways staple that has earned awards. Beds can be configured as either one queen or two twins; there are no cabins with options for more than two passengers.
Design-wise, the ship boasts modern furnishings with Asian touches, such as decorative woodwork, paintings and sculptures created by local artists, and photographs of scenes from the region. Dark wood floors contrast with cream-colored walls, while floral-patterned linens and area rugs add pops of color throughout the ship.
However, the most captivating aspect of an Avalon Saigon cruise is the destination. Cruisers have a chance to explore both more developed cities and smaller, remote villages -- some seemingly untouched by tourism -- throughout Vietnam and Cambodia (and possibly even Thailand, depending on your itinerary). We sailed from Saigon to Siem Reap -- on the Lower Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake -- with tours and enrichment focusing primarily on the culture and history of Vietnam and Cambodia, led by guides from both countries.
Cruisers with mobility issues should be warned that neither the ship nor the shore excursion programming is designed for people who require wheelchairs or other mobility aids. The ship is not equipped with an elevator or accessible cabins. Additionally, most of the remote villages visited have no roads; where roads exist, infrastructure is poor, with uneven roads and damaged sidewalks.
Avalon Saigon keeps accommodations simple, with all 18 rooms sharing the same square footage and layouts. Each 245-square-foot suite is luxurious, open and airy, thanks to a 14-foot wall of glass with a sliding door that opens to let in the fresh air and tranquil sounds of the river flowing. (Just make sure to close the door when the ship is anchored or docked to avoid a mosquitoes invasion.) Beds face the windows, too, making naps and mornings a real treat. Sheer curtains offer privacy while the ship is docked, but for those sensitive to light, be sure to close the blackout curtains before you call it a night.
The dark wood flooring and cream-colored walls throughout the rest of the ship spill into the cabins, which are modestly elegant with Asian flair, evident in the floral-patterned bed trim and throw pillows, artwork, stained teak-inlay ceiling, light fixtures and real orchids. In each cabin, there are two nightstands, a desk and a small seating area with a bench-style sofa (with a generous amount of storage space underneath), table and chair. More storage space can be found in the wardrobe, which has multiple shelves and ample room to hang clothes.
Bathrooms are as spacious and well designed, featuring a massive glass-enclosed shower with rainfall option; single vanity with a large sink, shelving and plenty of counter space; and a toilet, all accompanied by gorgeous marble finishes. L'Occitane hand soap, lotion, shampoo, conditioner and body wash are included, along with shower caps, and sewing and vanity kits. Note: Tap water is not potable, so extra water bottles (replenished daily) are provided for drinking and teeth brushing.
Other cabin features include mini-fridges stocked with complimentary water, soda and local beer; wall-mounted flat-screen TVs with news and movie channels; safes; and full-size hair dryers (stored in the closets). Passengers also enjoy bathrobes and slippers. The latter are often worn around the ship, which is totally acceptable.
You'll want to bring universal adapters and converters for hotel stays, but they aren't necessary onboard. Each cabin has myriad outlets, found over the desk, by the nightstand and in the bathroom. Note: There are also serveral USB ports.
Perhaps the most Southeast Asian influence onboard is reflected in the menus. Food served can be described as Cambodian and Vietnamese fusion (though menus can vary depending on the ship's itinerary) with local delicacies, innovative twists on classic dishes and even Western options for those who want a break from all the rich flavors and spices. Be warned: If you're craving pizza or cheeseburgers, you won't find them onboard. (If you do really want these foods, you can usually find them in the big cities.)
The ship does welcome special requests, including those due to dietary restrictions, which are most likely to be accommodated if made in advance. A few passengers on our sailing noted allergies to baker's yeast and gluten ahead of time, and the crew had sourced ingredients to make delicious rice-based breads for them daily. In fact, all bread onboard is baked fresh daily. Most of the provisions are sourced from the major cities of Saigon and Siem Reap from trusted grocers; Avalon Saigon crew do not shop at local markets for sanitary reasons.
Overall, most of the food we ate onboard was sumptuous, and the portions were perfect; there was always room for dessert. The best part about the dining experience onboard, however, is the service. The waiters are always friendly, attentive, professional and totally endearing. They remember passengers' names and drink preferences with an overwhelming sense of passion, sincerity and pride.
One fact we love is that no food goes to waste. Any food untouched by passengers -- especially during the buffet-style breakfasts and lunches -- is offered to the crew members in addition to the special meals cooked for them onboard. Leftovers from passenger plates are gathered and distributed to local farmers for their livestock.
The Dining Room (Deck 2): Avalon Saigon's only true dining venue is tucked away toward the back of the ship on the second deck. It's bright, cozy and modern with rustic flair, as the back wall is made up of gorgeous, intricately carved woodwork, created by local artisans; two paintings depicting daily life in Southeast Asia are found on the other side. (Avalon commissioned local artists to produce all the artwork throughout the ship.) Windows stretch the length of both side walls, flooding the room with natural light and scenery.
In the center of the dining room sits a small oval display table used for salads, soups, fruit and vegetables, juices and other side dishes during the buffet-style breakfast and lunch services. There's also a buffet-style table along the back wall, where chefs offer hot items and made-to-order dishes during breakfast and lunch. Dinner is the only sit-down service, where neither the center display table nor the hot table are used and diners order off a menu. Seating arrangements include four round tables seating six each, and eight square two-tops against the wall that can be combined for larger groups.
Breakfast is available early in the morning, so passengers have enough time to eat and get ready for the first excursion. The hot table usually features items like French toast, herb-crusted potatoes, grilled seasoned tomatoes and oatmeal, with the option for made-to-order eggs, pancakes and other items. On the center table, you'll find assorted fruit, yogurt, cold meats like smoked prosciutto and salmon with the fixings (capers, cream cheese and onions), and a variety of pastries. Juices, such as orange, peach, guava and grape, also can be found there. The most popular drink choices include naturally brewed ginger tea and Vietnamese iced coffee -- a guaranteed wake-up call.
Also buffet-style, lunch is served onboard every day between excursions. During this time, the standout item at the hot bar is usually a made-to-order Cambodian or Vietnamese noodle soup that rotates daily. You can order a vegetarian option or select one of a few proteins like chicken, beef and fish; then dress it up with your choice of toppings. Other hot lunch items might include pasta, a local meat dish, greens like spinach or beans, and mashed potatoes. The center table offers salads, assorted vegetables and fruit, a cheese and cracker board, hot and cold soups, and finger sandwiches.
For dinner, passengers sit down for a four-course meal (starter, soup, main, dessert) that tends to turn into a long affair -- especially with the endless flow of complimentary wine and beer. Each course includes at least one Western option. Starters might feature an apple raisin cocktail or Khmer (Cambodian) shrimp salad, while soups range from tomato and pumpkin bisque to Vietnamese oxtail and khao poun (Cambodian spiced pork).
There are usually five choices for the main course, with items running the gamut from a duck and bean curd hot pot and Vietnamese spicy spaghetti to one of the Western choices, which always include chicken, salmon or tomato pasta. Among the desserts usually on offer are a cheese plate and fruit selection, plus rotating treats like Key lime pie and ice cream with warm cherries. Side dishes, breads and included drinks also are listed on the menus. Always noted are vegetarian and heart-healthy options, as well as chef's recommendations. Passengers should make special dietary requests when the cruise is booked and check in with the cruise director once onboard.
Panorama Lounge (Deck 2): Down the hall from the dining room, the Panorama Lounge serves pastries, tea, coffee and juices for early risers. The bar also has three large jars of light snacks, including cookies, dried fruit and nuts, which are perfect for munching on throughout the day. At night, during the pre-dinner cocktail hour, the lounge serves hors d'oeuvres, such as spring rolls, fish balls and rice chips to accompany the free drink of the day. Bear in mind: If you order wine, beer or other spirits during cocktail hour, it will cost you since those drinks are only covered during meals.
You'll want to leave the formalwear and dress shoes at home because they won't be necessary. Avalon Saigon's dress code is super casual, with passengers sporting light, comfortable, loose-fitting clothing day and night. Passengers are even encouraged to wear flip-flops or their room slippers around the ship. (After shore excursions, passengers are required to remove their footwear for cleaning before boarding the ship.) Given the hot, wet climate, good items to pack include linen pants or capris, T-shirts, long cotton dresses and rain jackets. Scarves also are great to have on hand for cool nights, but bear in mind they're not sufficient for the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh or temples in the Angkor region, where covering the shoulders and knees is required. Sleeves are a must; you'll be denied entry if you're in a tank top, even if your shoulders are covered by a scarf.
The cruise fare covers your accommodations, all shore excursions (including tips for drivers and guides), all meals and most beverages onboard, and a pre- and post-cruise stay at a luxury hotel. (Cruisers can also choose to book just the sailing sans pre- and post-cruise stays.)
Among the beverages included are unlimited local beer and local spirits, soft drinks, coffee, tea, bottled water, wine at lunch and dinner, and a cocktail of the day. We loved our "border colada," a local twist on a pina colada, which was served as we crossed the Vietnam-Cambodia border at sunset.
Extras, such as spa treatments, gratuities, visa fees, airfare and transfers, are not included. Avalon's suggested tip rates are $7 to $9 per person per day for the cruise director and $10 to $12 per person per day for the crew. Cruisers have the option to prepay tips with a credit card before their cruise, or after the cruise with cash. As always, passengers are welcome to tip more than the suggested amounts for exceptional service.
The local currency onboard is the U.S. dollar, which also is accepted by most stores, restaurants and vendors on land, but they require crisp bills with no tears or blemishes. We recommend bringing smaller bills (10s, 5s and 1s) since you'll likely receive change in local currency. Bigger cities like Saigon, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have ATMs if you run out of cash. Most restaurants also accept Visa or MasterCard credit cards.
Shopping aside, you might also want to have some cash on hand for optional donations during shore excursions, where you can buy school supplies for a local classroom visit or donate an offering to Buddhist monks who perform a traditional water blessing on passengers.
Most days on Avalon Saigon include two excursions -- one in the morning, with a lunch break onboard the ship, and another in the afternoon. On days when there's only one excursion, passengers can enjoy free time either in town, if the ship is docked, or while scenic cruising to the next destination. Excursions are included and the same for all passengers. In other words, there aren't multiple options from which to choose. That model fits this itinerary perfectly, as the line invests all its time and resources into each individual experience; authenticity, careful planning and attention to detail are evident. The ship's maximum capacity of 36 passengers also fosters an intimate feel.
The tours themselves are extremely off the beaten path in nature, with an emphasis on daily life, war history, and temples and Buddhist culture. We loved the balance between major sites like Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and Vietnam's Cu Chi tunnels (a network of secret underground tunnels used during the war) and smaller, lesser known sites, such as local temples and remote villages along the river.
Every experience is eye opening, educational and humbling -- some even emotional. Cruisers on our sailing found it difficult to hold back tears during our visit to the killing fields in Phnom Penh, where eerie remnants and a haunting aura cover the site of brutal torture and the murder of millions of innocent Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime. Meanwhile, the chance to meet a retired Vietnamese communist captain made for a touching moment, with some happy tears. Other standout moments included visiting a local school in Cambodia to help kids practice their English and receiving a traditional Buddhist water blessing at a mountaintop monastery.
What makes the tours even more special is the fact that your cruise director joins you on every excursion, and you have the same guide for the duration of your time in each country. (For example, since our cruise included time in both Vietnam and Cambodia, we had one guide to take us around Vietnam and another for Cambodia.) Our guides hailed from the countries we visited, and our cruise director was from Vietnam, so all offered a firsthand experience and had extensive knowledge of each destination.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
While days tend to remain pretty quiet, with the exception of two presentations (one on each country) that are offered in the Panorama Lounge at some point during each cruise, nights on Avalon Saigon are a bit more eventful. A pre-dinner cocktail party is held nightly, while other nights might include games or a movie in the lounge (via a large projector screen). Toward the end of each sailing, there's also a crew talent show and dance party, and passengers are encouraged to join.
Enrichment activities are offered on most nights, with one dedicated to supporting a local organization. During our stop in Phnom Penh, children from an orphanage in the city came onboard to perform a traditional Cambodian dance, and passengers had an opportunity to try out the dance themselves. On another night, a demonstration revealed the many ways Cambodians use scarves -- and many cruisers tried out the techniques throughout our cruise.
It's worth noting, too, that Avalon is partnered with a number of local schools, orphanages and organizations throughout the destinations they visit. The line routinely rotates between them, while switching up the villages it visits every year, to keep the itineraries fresh and also to avoid commercialization.
Nightlife onboard tends to be sparse after dinner, due to the (positively) exhausting nature of shore excursions and the fact that there's only one bar on the ship. However, you will occasionally see small groups gather for a drink or two in the lounge, at night. When the ship is docked overnight in Phnom Penh, however, you might see folks head out for a night on the town, whether for dinner or drinks, or to shop the night markets.
The Panorama Lounge (Deck 2): Avalon Saigon's only bar can be found in the Panorama Lounge, and it's a hot spot between shore excursions and right before dinner for cocktail hour. The gorgeous space is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows and looks out to the Panorama Deck -- meaning you'll never miss a sunset or other photo-worthy moment. The color scheme is light gray and teal, with matching floral patterns in the throw pillows and area rug. Seating options include sofas and chaises, while small glass-top cocktail tables also are scattered throughout, making for a comfortable, social haven that never feels crowded.
The lounge is where early risers gather for coffee, tea and light bites in the morning; where passengers hydrate with a cold beer or Vietnamese iced coffee (warning: they're addicting) after the first tour before lunch; and where cocktail hour is held each night. It's also where after-dinner movies are played; you can get away with rocking your PJs in public. Movies include "Good Morning Vietnam," "Indochine" and "The Killing Fields." They can be streamed in the cabins, as well.
The Panorama Deck is the ship's only sun deck, nestled at the front of the ship on Deck 2. It's covered to shield passengers from the strong sun and occasional rainstorms that are common in this part of the world any time of year. Still, it's a popular spot to kick back with a good book or nap during the day on one of the many padded faux-wicker lounge chairs. It's also the best spot to catch the sunrise and sunset. Ceiling fans help to keep the space cool, while servers make the rounds taking drink orders.
Complimentary instructor-led tai chi classes are offered at the beginning of the cruise, before breakfast, and continue each morning based on demand.
A reception desk is located on Deck 2, just outside the Panorama Lounge. This is where passengers can make spa appointments, exchange large bills for smaller ones and settle their onboard accounts. The cruise director is the go-to for any cruise-related questions; he or she usually hunkers down in the lounge and offers passengers a direct number at which he or she can be contacted. The lounge also offers a few games and books.
Wi-Fi is available at no extra cost, but it's only accessible from the lounge and sun deck. Don't bet on a strong connection. Internet is spotty and slow to load; sometimes it's even nonexistent. If you wish to stay connected, consider opting for an international data mobile plan if your provider doesn't already include coverage abroad.
While there's no onboard shop, passengers can purchase locally made goods from a small display by the reception desk. Among the items available is jewelry from a company called Landmine Designs, which employs young women in a poverty-stricken Cambodian land mine village, providing them with education and enabling them to earn a full-time wage while working from their homes.
Laundry is available, but there's no facility onboard. Instead, passengers send out clothes to be washed or pressed, paying per item.
Smoking is allowed only on Deck 1, port side, on a small sliver of deck space used as the primary embarkation/disembarkation point.
Although kids are allowed to sail on Avalon Saigon, you're not likely to see any onboard. Shore excursions and other programming are mature in nature; there also are no dedicated youth programs or menus. Older teens with an interest in history and culture would fare well but likely would have to stay in a separate cabin since none have room for more than two passengers, and there are no connecting cabins available.
Active baby boomers from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand tend to make up the majority of Avalon Saigon passengers, but occasionally you'll see some Gen-Xers onboard. While many tend to be seasoned travelers drawn to more off-the-beaten-path itineraries, Avalon Saigon also hosts a number of American Vietnam War veterans who wish to return to Vietnam for the history aspect, as well as the opportunity to meet a retired Viet Cong captain -- one of the standout experiences outlined on Avalon Waterways' Mekong River itineraries. (Note: The term "Viet Cong" has a negative connotation in Vietnam, so locals prefer the term "Vietnamese Communist.") Although children are permitted to sail, they're rarely seen due to the itinerary's mature nature.
On Deck 2, passengers will find a small spa with one massage table and a chair for basic treatments like massages, facials, pedicures, manicures or foot reflexology. Because there's only one room, appointments should be made in advance and booked around shore excursions to avoid schedule conflicts. Prices are substantially less than what you'd see in the U.S., but we noticed they were a bit higher than the facilities along the streets of Vietnam and Cambodia. Expect to pay $30 for an hourlong massage, for example.
Be aware, too, that massage techniques in Southeast Asia are markedly different from those in the States, with more focus on the stomach and buttocks. You also are encouraged to remove all your clothing, including undergarments. If you're not comfortable with either of these, let your therapist know, and he or she will respect your requests.
Just below the spa, on Deck 1, is a similarly sized fitness center. It can accommodate about three people at a time, with one treadmill, one spinning bike and a small space to use yoga mats, dumbbells ranging from 5 to 12 pounds, and exercise bands. There's an outlet in there for charging, as well as complimentary water bottles. Some passengers even took the yoga mats up to the sun deck for a little early-morning stretching.
Number of Crew:24
Crew Nationality: Internation
Officer Nationality: Internation
Language(s) Spoken:< Multiple Languages
OverviewThe all-suite Avalon SaigonSM, our newest Suite Ship® in Asia, was specifically designed to offer the best cruise experience on the Mekong River. She is one of only two ships in the industry, along with her sister ship the Avalon Siem ReapSM, cruising from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap* (or vice versa) eliminating hours of motor coach travel time, which means you enjoy more cruising! The ship has been meticulously crafted to offer all the modern features you expect, yet it retains the colonial charm fitting to Vietnam and Cambodia. While the number of guests on the ship may be small, the ship isn't. Built as long and wide as other ships that carry twice as many guests, the public spaces never feel congested. From the air-conditioned Panorama Lounge to the open-air observation lounge, there is plenty of seating and spots to relax. Plus, our lounges are located at the front of the ship, not the back, so no matter where you sit you'll always have a great view. Our crew embodies the spirit first, no matter what. From the reception staff and bartender to wait staff and room attendant, we always deliver exquisite service that's comfortable and friendly, never stuffy! With Avalon, our ship becomes your home away from home. *Cruising to Siem Reap is dependent on water levels.
Health and Beauty
Dining InformationDinner Gratuity Policies
Ship´s crew 12 Euros per person per day
Cruise Director and/or Local Host 3 Euros per person per day
Local Guides (delivered at the time of service) 1 Euro per tour