A Day in Sa Dec and Cai Be aboard the AmaLotus

Journeys through the jungle in Xeo Quyt; just one of the adventures today in Vietnam aboard AmaLotus.

Journeys through the jungle in Xeo Quyt; just one of the adventures today in Vietnam aboard AmaLotus. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

AmaWaterwaysAmaLotus moored mid-stream last night just off of the picturesque Vietnamese town of Sa Dec. Modernization is much more obvious here than in Cambodia; on our boat journey from the AmaLotus into town for the start of our morning walking tour, cranes and excavators could be seen working on the harbour.

Heading ashore from the AmaLotus to our walking tour in Sa Dec, Vietnam. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Heading ashore from the AmaLotus to our walking tour in Sa Dec, Vietnam. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

But before we disembarked the ship for a day of adventures ashore, I once again made my way to the Saigon Lounge – as has become my custom – for a cup of coffee at 6:00am. I don’t know what kind of coffee is used aboard the AmaLotus, but it sure is good. It’s strong and flavourful without being overpowering, and it’s nice that coffee and cookies are available both in the Lounge and one deck up on the Sun Deck every morning from 6:00am onward.

The market in Sa Dec runs for blocks in all directions. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The market in Sa Dec runs for blocks in all directions. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Today, guests aboard the AmaLotus were treated to two amazing adventures: a morning walking tour of the local market in Sa Dec and a visit to the home of French author Marguerite Duras; and an afternoon excursion to Cai Be to see rice paper and candy manufacturing, along with the town’s very unique French Gothic cathedral.

Like their European river cruise excursions, guests had the option to choose between the morning tour in Sa Dec and a much longer, extended morning tour that also included a visit to nearby Xeo Quyt by motorcoach. Running until well after 1:00pm in the afternoon, this expanded tour also included a visit to one of the last remaining jungles to have been occupied by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War that ran for nearly 20 years between 1955 and 1975.

Nearly everything can be acquired at the market. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Nearly everything can be acquired at the market. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

I, of course, opted for the long tour! My personal thoughts whenever I visit a place is that if I’ve traveled thousands of kilometres to be there, I may as well make the most of it. However, I think it’s great that AmaWaterways continues to offer varying types and lengths of tours, as that really provides guests with the ability to make the choice that suits them best.

Our man in Vietnam. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Our man in Vietnam. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Ashore in Sa Dec, our respective groups took a stroll through the busy local market. Here, we got a fantastic look at the numerous kinds of things that were available for purchase – everything from fruits to spices to meats of all kinds.

There’s plenty of fish here, and the market is packed in the early morning hours with the fishmongers doing their thing. Snake blood is quite prized in this part of the world, so it wasn’t too much of a shock to see a woman, hands soaked in a sea of red, bleeding snakes. You could also purchase snake which, I am told, is quite good.

Every kind of seafood is present here. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Every kind of seafood is present here. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

What was fascinating to me was to see the shocked reactions on some of my fellow traveller’s faces when, for example, they came upon things like rats, or spiders, for sale. The reason I say that is because while it is very different and exotic from what we’re used to, I am not sure I can honestly say with a straight conscience that our food – North American food – is better. I mean, what’s in a hot dog? Does anyone really know? Or in soup that has “formed meat chunks.” Perhaps, in North America, we’re just better at hiding what’s in our food by smothering it with sixteen different kinds of cheeses and then baking it five or six times over.

Cutting heads of lettuce - with machetes. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Cutting heads of lettuce – with machetes. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Regardless of whether you’d partake in some of the more exotic foods or not, a stroll through Sa Dec’s market is exhilarating. At the end of it, we conveniently came to our next stop: the home of Marguerite Duras.

Duras lived in Sa Dec between 1928 and 1932. Here, she met Huynh Thuy Le, the son of a wealthy Chinese family. The two became involved in a passionate love affair that would become the basis for her award-winning 1984 novel, The Lover, as well as the 1992 Jean-Jacques Annaud film of the same name. In fact, the near-sister-ship to AmaLotus, La Marguerite, is named after the famous author.

The home of Huynh Thuy Lee - 255A Nguyen Hue Street in Sa Dec - was the setting for the novel and film, The Lover. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The home of Huynh Thuy Lee – 255A Nguyen Hue Street in Sa Dec – was the setting for the novel and film, The Lover. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

If you’ve never seen The Lover, you should – it is a fantastic movie, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it was filmed right where we were today, at the actual house of Huynh Thuy Le. Formerly utilised as a reception house for a branch of the Vietnamese government, it has only been open to the public since 2009.

A close-up of the sumptuous detail at the interior of Huynh Thuy Le. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

A close-up of the sumptuous detail at the interior of Huynh Thuy Le. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

After our brief visit, the folks who had elected to return to the AmaLotus left and were guided back to the waiting boats that would take them to the ship, while those like me continuing on were brought swiftly aboard two motorcoaches that would take us on the hour-long, 53 kilometre journey to Xeo Quyt.

Utilised as a base during the Vietnam War, the jungle at Xeo Quyt is surprisingly dense. Although sheltered from the force of the sun, it is probably ten degrees hotter inside the jungle than it is outside due to the humidity.

Walking through the jungle at Xeo Quyt, used during the Vietnam War. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Walking through the jungle at Xeo Quyt, used during the Vietnam War. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Although the pathways have been modernized for tourists, many of these are raised as much as two metres off the ground and have no handrails, so it is important to watch your step, lest you end up in the murky abyss below.

There are still party tents and command bases that remain here, as they were utilised by the Viet Cong. There are also underground tunnels, bunkers, and fox holes that help to illustrate just how formidable the jungle terrain was here, and how well the Vietnamese knew how to use it to their advantage.

Fox holes and tunnels still litter the grounds. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Fox holes and tunnels still litter the grounds. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The forest here is exceptionally dense. This passing boat could only be seen when it was right upon us. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The forest here is exceptionally dense. This passing boat could only be seen when it was right upon us. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

We took a fantastic, hour-long walk on a circular route through the jungle, even passing a section of land fenced off with razor wire and dotted with signs stating that land mines could be present beyond the fence.

Coming here also helps to understand what the American soldiers who were sent here during the Vietnam War were up against: a climate unlike anything they had ever experienced. Terrain that was totally foreign to them. And Vietnamese soldiers willing to do whatever it took to prevent them from their goal.

It was a very revealing and eye-opening hour.

The sign on the right warns of the dangers of landmines beyond this point. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The sign on the right warns of the dangers of landmines beyond this point. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

After our tour, we enjoyed a relaxing ride back to the AmaLotus, where we had just enough time to enjoy lunch before setting out to our next adventure: a tour of Cai Be.

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

At lunch, I restricted myself to the local specialties, which were tremendous. Vietnamese-styled soups and dishes, all with no nuts. I even had a local Vietnamese beer. One of the best aspects of river cruising: all the local ingredients and specialties, served within the comfort of a ship where you unpack once and don’t need to worry about the logistics of transportation.

But during lunch, dark clouds had been building. By the time my Blue Group was called, the skies were threatening to open up at any moment.

And did they ever!

After lunch, the monsoons came out as we neared Cai Be, pictured above. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

After lunch, the monsoons came out as we neared Cai Be, pictured above. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Halfway across the river on our boat ride into Cai Be, it started raining harder than I had ever seen it. The Monsoon Season was in full swing. But – because everyone on the AmaLotus had reminded us constantly to take either an umbrella or a poncho, I just ripped open my poncho pack and started to put it on.

The rain was coming in sideways at this point, but did I care? No! In fact, I felt better during the rain in the afternoon than I had all morning, because the humidity suddenly evaporated. Not everyone in my group appeared to agree, and there was suddenly a huge push to go back to the AmaLotus and scrap touring altogether, which I and about three others strongly resisted.

I flew 12,000 kilometres to see Vietnam, and I’d be darned if a downpour was going to stop me. Plus, I was already soaked, so it didn’t really matter much!

Watching how rice paper is made. It's also surprisingly tasty with a little bit of soy sauce. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Watching how rice paper is made. It’s also surprisingly tasty with a little bit of soy sauce. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

To satisfy everyone, our tour guide re-arranged things so that we toured the rice paper and candy factories first before walking the short distance to the French Gothic cathedral. It was a plan that worked perfectly, as the worst of the rain had let up by then.

At the factories, we were invited to sample traditional coconut candy, freshly-made rice paper rolls, and to enjoy some jasmine tea, which was superb. We also had the opportunity to try what’s known as the “Asian Viagra” – Snake Wine, or Rượu thuốc, literally meaning “medicinal liquor.”  Large, venomous snakes are inserted into an enormous cask of rice wine and are left to steep there for many months.

Different varieties of traditional Vietnamese liquor; this one is made from rice wine and scorpion.

Different varieties of traditional Vietnamese liquor; this one is made from rice wine, with a cobra and scorpion. Naturally, bringing this kind of liquor home is out of the question. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The one I, along with a few others, tried was made from Cobras. The alcohol neutralizes the deadly properties of the cobra venom, while the cobra blood is thought to have curing effects for everything from hair loss to sexual dysfunction. I didn’t notice anything different in particular, but I do have to say: it tasted mighty good, and went down as smooth as a fine glass of scotch.

Some images from the afternoon:

Making popcorn, the traditional way. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Making popcorn, the traditional way. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

One of the guests aboard the AmaLotus gets adventurous with one of the rather large pythons at the factory. Don't worry - he's safe! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

One of the guests aboard the AmaLotus gets adventurous with one of the rather large pythons at the factory. Don’t worry – he’s safe! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Enjoying jasmine tea and some treats before heading back into the rain! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Enjoying jasmine tea and some treats before heading back into the rain! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Cai Be's French-style Cathedral. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Cai Be’s French-style Cathedral. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Inside the Cathedral;a salute to Our Lady of Neon Lighting. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Inside the Cathedral;a salute to Our Lady of Neon Lighting. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Re-boarding our boats for the scenic trip back to the mid-stream anchorage of the AmaLotus! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Re-boarding our boats for the scenic trip back to the mid-stream anchorage of the AmaLotus! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

This evening was a bittersweet one, as it marked our last night aboard the beautiful AmaLotus. Shipboard accounts could be settled in cash from 1:30 to 6:00pm, or by cash or credit card from 8:00 pm until 10:30pm. It was an easy and efficient process, but if you plan on paying by credit card, ensure you have a PIN-enabled one. I met one fellow traveller who had to go and get cash from her stateroom because her non-PIN credit card would not go through.

Another fantastic dinner is served aboard the AmaLotus. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Another fantastic dinner is served aboard the AmaLotus. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, there was a traditional folkloric presentation in the Mekong Lounge, followed by the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail & Crew Presentation. This was followed by another sumptuous, multi-course meal in the Mekong Restaurant. I know there’s the old joke about people on cruises doing nothing but eating, but I have to say I’ve looked forward to dinners more aboard the AmaLotus than on any ship I can think of, save for perhaps those onboard Silversea ships.

Tomorrow, we arrive in the Vietnamese port of My Tho, near Ho Chi Minh City, and although our cruise will come to a close in just a few short hours, there’s still another day of adventures ahead on this great journey down the Mekong!

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Trip Report through Cambodia and Vietnam aboard AmaWaterways AmaLotus concludes tomorrow from Ho Chi Minh City! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or by using the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport

 

3 Responses to AmaLotus Live Voyage Report – Day 8

  1. Vanny says:

    I read l’Amante in French class in university. If I ever make it to Sa Dec, I will have to read it again. I wonder how true the movie stays to the book. How exciting to visit her house!

    I have to agree with your thoughts about some of our food in North America. Do people even know what goes in a hot dog? Great point, Aaron!

    • Aaron Saunders says:

      I don’t know what goes into a hot dog…and I am afraid to ask!
      I have seen The Lover but I have not read the book; I think I will have to. I hear the movie sticks fairly close to the plot.

  2. Vanny says:

    I mean l’Amant

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