Voyage to Vietnam for Exotic Aura, Bustling Cities, History and Cuisine

Ha Long Bay is home to three traditional floating fishing villages that date back to the early 19th century. (Photo by Getty Images / 12ee12)

As more cruise ships head for Asian waters, many are adding port calls or embarkation options in Vietnam. Cruisers love the country’s exotic aura, bustling cities, Vietnam War-era sites and savory Asian cuisine. In the Mekong Delta, luxury travelers can see rural life, while the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ha Long (or Halong) Bay has stunning eco-beauty. Here are some favorite Vietnam experiences for cruise guests. 

Taking a Wild Ride: Certainly, one of the most fun — and crazy — things to do in Vietnam is to hop onboard a pedicab (or cyclo-rickshaw or simply cyclo) for a frenetic city tour. On Viking Ocean Cruises’ “Ho Chi Minh City on Three Wheels” excursion, guests will zip around the city (formerly called Saigon) to see French-inspired architecture, including Notre-Dame Cathedral and the grand Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel. It’s a frenetic ride as cyclos share the road with bicycles, scooters, cars and trucks, many zooming by or beeping their horns. But it’s a fantastic way to observe daily life — from women in traditional “ao dai” attire to incense smoke wafting from temples or farmers transporting their crops to market.

Viking’s new 930-passenger vessel, Viking Sun, will make a Ho Chi Minh City maiden call on March 17, 2018. Launching in 2018, sister Viking Spirit will operate a new 15-day “Southeast Asia and Hong Kong” itinerary from Bangkok, departing September 23, 2018. Maiden calls include Ho Chi Minh City and Ha Long.

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Pedicab rides are offered by many other lines too and in other Vietnamese cities. During Queen Mary 2’s 13-night Singapore roundtrip on March 23, 2018, Cunard Line offers a pedicab sightseeing tour around Nha Trang to see a French Gothic-style Stone Church, colonial-era homes, Front Beach, the Cai River Bridge and Dam Market, where cruisers can get out to stroll or shop. This is a great spot to buy ceramics, embroidery, lacquerware or Vietnamese tea. 

In Vietnam, guests can hop onboard a pedicab for a city tour. Pictured are pedicabs plying the streets of Hanoi’s Old Town.

Soaring above Ha Long Bay: The majesty of Ha Long Bay — made famous in the French film “Indochine” — impresses at sea level, so imagine the stunning visual effect from the air. Guests traveling on Windstar Cruises’ 14-day “Icons of Southeast Asia” itinerary on the Star Legend from Hong Kong to Bangkok on January 20, 2018 can opt for a 25-minute seaplane flight, which will provide sweeping views of Ha Long Bay’s many islets, limestone pillars, coves, beaches, rock arches and green waters. 

Of course, Windstar also offers a more down-to-earth option — a Ha Long Bay cruise. Beyond the two-day port call in the bay, this Windstar itinerary also features two days at Ho Chi Minh City and one day at Nha Trang. Onboard the 212-passenger Star Legend, guests can spread out in spacious accommodations, including the top-end Owner’s Suites at 575 square feet with separate living and dining areas, a master bedroom, master bath, separate guest bath and private veranda.

Discovering Herbal Medicine and Street Food: Ultra-luxury Silversea Cruises’ newest ship, the 596-passenger Silver Muse, will visit Vietnam for the first time during its November 9, 2018 cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong. Guests will have a robust Vietnam experience with two full days at Ho Chi Minh City, one day at Hue / Da Nang (Chan May) and two full days at Ha Long Bay, the port for Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. Another voyage on March 21, 2019 sails from Singapore to Hong Kong with three days in Ho Chi Minh City and a day at Da Nang. 

We’d opt for Silversea’s “Saigon Street Foods Experience,” which begins with a tour of the Fito Museum, devoted to studying Vietnamese herbal medicine and pharmacy; cruisers will learn how the Vietnamese balance their diet with herbal medicinal treatments. Next, they may visit Saigon Food Street (26-28-30 Thu Khoa Huan Street) and then stroll through the city’s famous Ben Thanh Market

Ho Chi Minh City‘s Ben Thanh street food market has stalls that serve fresh, made-to-order dishes. (Photo by Getty Images / Asian Dream)

Check out the market’s food stalls that offer fresh, made-to-order dishes — everything from spring rolls (goi cuon) to hue cakes (banh beo) or Vietnamese noodle soup (pho). Then it’s on to the Ngon restaurant, which serves street vendor cuisine throughout Vietnam. After exploring the food stalls, a light Vietnamese lunch is served. 

Exploring Cham Pa Culture: Oceania CruisesNautica sails a 33-day “Captivating Far East” voyage on March 7, 2019 from Hong Kong to Singapore, with calls at Ho Chi Minh City as well as Chan May (for Hue and Da Nang exploration). At Chan May, cultural buffs can take Oceania’s full-day excursion to the impressive Museum of Cham Sculpture (or Cham Pa Museum) in Da Nang and also the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An, a 15th-century trading port along the Thu Bon River

Founded by French scholars in the early 20th century, the Cham Pa Museum showcases artwork from the Cham Pa Dynasty of central Vietnam. It’s an unexpected cultural jewel, as cruisers likely will “ooh” and “aah” at hundreds of sculptures and sandstone carvings. Within Hoi An’s “Old Town,” it’s fun to walk along narrow streets and peruse the historic homes, temples, pagodas and bridges. Next is a tour of the Hoi An Museum of History and Culture, which displays porcelains, huge bells, photographs and maps, and visits to Phuc Kien Temple and the Japanese Bridge.

Overnighting in the Delta: Launching next spring, the 600-passenger Seabourn Ovation will ply Asian waters during its inaugural year. Multiple 14-day itineraries between Singapore and Hong Kong will call at Thailand and several Vietnam ports, including Ha Long Bay (for Hanoi touring) and Ho Chi Minh City. If cruisers have been to Ho Chi Minh City in the past, we’d suggest Seabourn’s “Night in the Mekong Delta” overnight excursion to Cai Be, just two hours — yet seemingly a world — away. 

Cruisers often will see buffalo in the fields and farmers planting rice and fruit trees, before arriving at the Mekong Riverside Boutique Resort & Spa for an overnight stay. Check out the resort’s vegetable and fruit garden. Guests can also choose to go swimming, kayaking, fishing or biking. It’s fun to finish out the day with a sunset cocktail; cooking lesson focused on spring rolls; and dinner with local Mekong entertainment. The following morning, cruisers will visit a floating market, small villages and farmers’ homes. 

The Japanese Covered Bridge in Hoi An was constructed with a roof so that it could be used as a shelter from both rain and sun. (Photo by Getty Images / FabVietnam_Photography)

Going Underground at Cu Chi Tunnels: A seven-night “Classic Mekong” itinerary is operated by Pandaw on multiple dates in 2018 and 2019. For example, on December 29, 2018, Mekong Pandaw sails upstream between My Tho (for Ho Chi Minh City) in the Mekong River Delta and Siem Reap, Cambodia. Port calls include Sa Dec and Chau Doc, Vietnam, as well as at Phnom Penh, village(s) along the Tonle River (depending on water levels) and Kratie

This itinerary also heads much further north in Cambodia than other river itineraries typically go. The reward? Guests have the chance to spot rare Mekong River dolphins. To explore more in Vietnam, we’d opt for Pandaw’s two-night pre-cruise stay at the InterContinental Saigon Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a great way to dust off the jet lag, and also offers an “included” tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, a maze of underground passages built by the Viet Cong during Vietnam’s 20th-century conflicts. En route to the tunnels, cruisers can gaze at country scenes while learning more about cashew nut farming, duck breeding, rice farming and rice paper production. 

Strolling through Imperial Hue: On October 16, 2018, Azamara Club Cruises offers a “Vietnam and Thailand Intensive” sailing on Azamara Quest from Hong Kong to Singapore. Vietnam port visits include Ha Long Bay, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City, where the ship docks not far from the Rex Hotel in a district famed for nightlife. This voyage also calls at Bangkok (Klong Toey) and Koh Samui, Thailand. On this itinerary, we’d opt for Azamara’s shore excursion to the Imperial City of Hue. 

It’s easy to imagine Vietnam in the Imperial era while gazing at Hue’s magnificent Citadel; its design is similar to that of Beijing’s Forbidden City. Cruisers will pass through Hue’s Mon Gate to the Imperial enclosure and view the Palace of Supreme Harmony. The tour then heads for the Tu Duc Tomb (also known as Khiem Tomb), one of the most beautiful Imperial Tombs, in a setting notable for its frangipanis, pines and a lotus pond. This Hue excursion concludes with a traditional, multi-course Vietnamese meal ashore while cruisers watch a royal dance. 

Chau Doc, a port of call on Pandaw’s Mekong Pandaw, will give guests a chance to gaze at rural scenes like rice farming. (Photo by Getty Images / NGUYENTHANHTUNG)

Floating Along, Tasting Wines: For 2018, AmaWaterways has expanded its exotic Vietnam / Cambodia offerings. The 124-passenger AmaDara will sail seven-night Mekong voyages between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap. The line also offers 10-night cruise-and-land programs with three nights on land in Siem Reap so guests can explore the ancient Angkor; and 15-night cruise-and-land programs that overnight in Ho Chi Minh City, Siem Reap, Ha Long Bay and Hanoi.

What’s nifty? AmaWaterways, which has a plethora of European wine sailings, will begin its first wine-hosted cruise in Asia on March 26, 2018. The “Riches of the Mekong” voyage will be hosted by Sbragia Family Vineyards from California’s Dry Creek Valley, so guests can expect special onboard wine lectures and tastings. On AmaDara sailings, we’d opt for the 502-square-foot Luxury Suites, although all accommodations have private twin balconies (a French balcony plus a full-size exterior balcony).

An Evening in Saigon: On March 12, 2018, Crystal Cruises’ 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity will sail a 16-day “Far East Vistas” voyage from Manila to Singapore, with three days in Hong Kong in addition to Vietnam calls. During time in Ho Chi Minh City, we’d suggest taking Crystal’s four-hour “Evening in Saigon.” Guests are transported to the iconic Hotel Majestic, with French Colonial architecture; it was a favorite Vietnam War-era haunt of journalists and spies. 

Travelers taking this excursion will head to the Majestic’s rooftop terrace for pre-dinner cocktails and traditional entertainment (Vietnamese music, dances and costumes). They’ll then continue to a deluxe local restaurant for a dinner of such dishes (among others) as crabmeat spring rolls, banana flower salad with grilled beef or sautéed rice in lotus leaves. 

Separately, in 2018, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic’s guests visiting Ho Chi Minh City will be treated to a private, catered dinner and traditional Vietnamese musical experience at a lovely French Colonial home where Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. resided during his Vietnam War-era service as U.S. Ambassador under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. This private event was offered on one departure last year, but for 2018, the line is expanding the program to all departures of “Vietnam and Cambodia: Along the Mekong River, including Angkor and Saigon,” operated by the 48-passenger Jahan.

The One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi is a Buddhist temple rising from a square-shaped, lotus pond. (Photo by Getty Images / vinhdav)

Into the Heart of Hanoi: Debuting in September 2018 is Avalon Saigon, Avalon Waterways’ new 36-passenger Suite Ship on the Mekong River, a sister to Avalon Siem Reap. Among its voyages in 2018, Avalon Saigon operates new 18-day “Heart of Cambodia & Vietnam” from Siem Reap to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. For “let’s do it all” travelers, one good option is the 16-day “Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong River with Hanoi and Ha Long Bay” itinerary, as it has robust Hanoi city sightseeing.  

First, cruisers visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and “Uncle Ho’s” cottage on stilts; Hoan Kiem Lake (the Lake of the Restored Sword); and the Temple of Literature, Hanoi’s first university. As we’ve learned from a past visit, watch the tile roofs carefully; some may appear to be “moving,” but it’s just the resident lizards on an outing. Travelers also will see the One Pillar Pagoda rising from an elegant, square-shaped lotus pond, plus the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Presidential Palace and the 1960s-era prison, called the “Hanoi Hilton” because U.S. servicemen were imprisoned there. 

After lunch, cruisers will be whisked through Hanoi’s Old Quarter via “cyclos.” Here, streets have shops specializing in one type of product (such as silver or housewares). Silk Street (Hang Gai Street) is home to tailoring shops and high-profile silk and clothing boutiques. For those with time to shop, clothing can be made to order, but Khai Silk and Tan My Designs have high-quality, ready-made clothing. Silk ties, scarves and silk bags are good buys. Be sure to bargain vigorously, even if fixed prices are posted.  

The Notre-Dame Cathedral is one of the French-inspired architectural structures in Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo by Getty Images / HuyThoai)

Exploring Rural Vietnam: During a 14-night Hong Kong to Bangkok “Icons of the Orient” cruise on April 8, 2018, guests onboard Regent Seven Seas CruisesSeven Seas Voyager will go ashore at several Vietnamese ports, including Nha Trang, Chan May (for Hue / Da Nang) and Ho Chi Minh City. At Nha Trang, guests can immerse themselves in Vietnam’s country lifestyle on the line’s “Nha Trang’s Rural Life” excursion. So why not meet the locals, see buffalo and ducks, and watch farmers in the fields? 

Along the way, Regent’s guests will tour a temple, visit a farmer’s home and stroll through a market. Cruisers can also watch a village family weaving floor mats from sedge or baskets from banana leaves. Tour goers will also taste tropical fruits and enjoy a coconut drink, before visiting a Buddhist pagoda and a local rice-paper workshop. 

Further south, some Mekong River cruises will take cruisers ashore at Sa Dec or Cu Lao Gieng Island. Luxury travelers can visit both on the same day on Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s two-week “Timeless Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong” itinerary between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Sa Dec, a sleepy former provincial capital, was the childhood home of French novelist Marguerite Duras, while serene Gieng Island has a surprising array of religious structures. 

At Sa Dec, Uniworld’s cruisers will journey along narrow canals by boat and then visit a local market to peruse fresh fish, clothes, flowers and such oddities as snake blood kept for sale. They’ll also see the Huynh Thuy Le House. Duras’ novel, “The Lover,” was reportedly based on her doomed love affair with a wealthy Chinese landowner’s son who lived in this house. At Gieng Island, once part of Vietnam’s largest Catholic parish, cruisers will view a largely abandoned Franciscan monastery and Providence nunnery, plus a still-active, Baroque-style church. Operating this itinerary is the 68-passenger, all-suite Mekong Navigator, a new addition to Uniworld’s fleet with French Colonial styling and 584-square-foot Grand Suites. 

An AmaWaterways guest is seen taking part in a rice paper workshop at Cai Be. (Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways)

Delving into Water Traditions: Kids of all ages love traditional Vietnamese water puppet shows, so on its river itineraries that include a Hanoi visit, Scenic Enrich” will transport cruisers to a water puppet show and provide a backstage pass so they can learn more about this ancient art. Among the itineraries where it’s offered is Scenic Spirit’s 27-day “Grand Indochina & Luxury Mekong” itinerary operating between Hanoi and Luang Prabang, Laos, on multiple 2018-19 dates. 

In a very different type of water experience, at Cai Be in the Mekong Delta, Silversea Expeditions’ guests can get their hands into the culture by working alongside local farmers who will teach them the art of “bailing ditches” or catching fish from man-made trenches or ponds. The 120-passenger Silver Discoverer departs February 16, 2018 from Phuket, Thailand, to Ho Chi Minh City, with calls at ports in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Viking River Cruises and other lines also sail within or to Vietnam, so there are plenty of good options for those wishing to explore Southeast Asia via a cruise.

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