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A French Landmark Back In Saigon

Le Meridien-2

SAIGON — A sign of the times in Vietnam’s southernmost city is Le Meridien Saigon. A member of the Starwood chain and arguably this city’s most modern hotel, it officially opened this weekend, still something of a secret to taxi drivers who haven’t ferried enough guests there in the weeks leading up to the ceremonial opening.

Modernity aside, it has all the things that are right about being in Ho Chi Minh City, the more modern and politically correct name, starting with its location. 

It towers over the Saigon River, providing fascinating views of traffic ranging from tankers to speedboats that negotiate between the water hyacinth plants that rise and fall with the Le Meridien-6tide. Around the corner is a quirky little street called Ngo Van Nam, home to restaurants like Quan Bui, recommended to us and home of the best food we’ve had in five days here since leaving the AmaDara after cruising down the Mekong River.

The hotel is staffed by the happiest, warmest and ridiculously friendliest people — and Le Meridien-4there are many of them, at every turn trying to help you out — you could hope to encounter in Southeast Asia, or anywhere else for that matter. There’s never a door unopened, nor a question unanswered, nor a business issue without a solution.

The rooms have all the current computer-driven necessities and gadgets, like energy-saving keys to the lights and electronic blinds to allow you to over-sleep, if inclined. That’s necessary, given the size of the windows that allow natural light to pour into the spacious rooms.

There’s a plethora of good eating in Vietnam, and this hotel has the most extensive dinner buffet we’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever.

While its facade smacks of modern architecture, everything inside has a taste of the French heritage that for 100 years was so much a part of Saigon, from the artwork decorating the walls to the music played on the sound system filtering into lounges and restaurants. Surprisingly, perhaps, French can be heard from the staff, as a second or third language…Vietnamese and English being the other two.

When the French left here — or were driven out — half a century ago, it’s unlikely they’d ever have foreseen one day a hotel called Le Meridien would be such a part of the Le Meridien-7landscape…right down to the French pastries in a shop off the lobby. The service is so personal that guests are cautioned when leaving the hotel about what and where is safe and what and where isn’t, and when you take a taxi the people at the front door know what cab you’re in and where you’re going — they give you a card with the hotel address to make sure the drivers know where your “home” is.

It is, after all, still new to the cabbies.

In the news…

• More than 12,000 cruisers yesterday in Vancouver from three Alaska ships
• Room service charge of $3.95 from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Celebrity cruises
• Free safaris among Oceania perks for North Americans cruising to South Africa

Today at portsandbows.com: Carnival's immersive shore excursions


Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas
11 nights
October 23, 2015
Dubai, Goa, Cochin, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore
Inside: $424
Cost per day: $38
www.royalcaribbean.com

First River Cruise: Mekong Riches

Our first river cruise — on AmaWaterways’ luxurious new AmaDara — is history. So it’s the first chance for us to compare it to what we’ve always known: ocean cruises.

This is not an all-inclusive comparison, as our “inaugural” was in a remote, somewhat virgin part of the river cruise world, Cambodia and Vietnam. There’s only a handful of AmaDarapassenger ships cruising the Mekong River. In Europe, the river cruise mecca, you might see that many in half an hour.

Given that caveat, here are some observations for anybody thinking about cruising the Mekong…

* It’s the best way to see this part of the world if you’ve never been there, and we hadn’t. Faced with such a different culture, customs in a Communist country and languages unlike anything resembling English, it’s comforting to retreat to the comfort of the AmaDara until you get your feet wet.

* Choose the time of year carefully. Right now is still monsoon season, which can mean heavy rainfall for at least part of every day. High season starts in November, for six months.

* Seeing the Mekong Delta is an eye-opener as to how dependent both countries are on the river. It is a working river in every sense of the word, the lifeblood for millions of people.

• There are fewer selections of shore excursions — usually no more than a choice of two — and in this area rarely do you walk off the ship and into an excursion. Bus and boat rides can take minutes to an hour or more to reach the destination on land, just like they do from ocean ships.

• The guides are wonderful and the shore excursions interesting, to say the least. Because river cruising is more expensive, shore excursions are usually included and onMekongthis cruise delivered a wide-ranging sample of the people, the lives they live and the obstacles they’ve overcome.

* A river ship like this is both comforting and confining. Everything is close and, with fixed meals and one main restaurant and maximum 124 passengers, a family feeling develops. Anonymity, for those who like it, is out of the question.

* Service is better than on the ocean ships. For example, the cruise director knew everybody by name — EVERYBODY — by the second day and he was always there to respond to the smallest of queries.

* Food reflects the local cuisines (pho soup in the morning), but there’s always comfort food on the menu for the less adventuresome. In that sense, it’s like ocean ships but the food quality is kicked up a notch or three.

* While you can’t walk anywhere, you have to be able to walk. There’s no elevator on the ship, no wheelchair accessibility to the ship and while shore excursions aren’t demanding, they almost all require lengthy walks in humid conditions.

* Getting on and off the ship is so much simpler. You pick up your boarding pass and return it when you get back.

* While it’s sold as a cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the rides at both ends can be lengthy…and we really did have to wait for a chicken to cross the road.

* On river ships the rooms are bigger, more comfortable and close to everything — obviously.

* The landscape is so different, a refreshing change from watching the waves go by, and there are photo ops left and right, every day, all day.

As a first river cruise, “Riches of the Mekong” is going to be a tough act for us to follow.

In the news…

• Fur Carnival ships sailing to Bermuda from April through November next year
• Today first chance for booking immersive cruises on Crystal Esprit from 2016 to 2018

Today at portsandbows.com: Regent Seven Seas’ sweet suites


Holland America Nieuw Amsterdam
7 nights
October 19, 2015
Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Alicante, Motril, Gibraltar, Cartagena, Rome
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $85
www.hollandamerica.com

Cruise Internships For ‘Students’

Call it an industry within an industry. Or call it an opportunity to see distant shores and get paid. Or just call it an unbelievable opportunity.

‘It’ is a cruise internship.

The industry has grown to the point that there are websites dedicated to helping students who are looking for an internship in the cruise business, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise since there are websites dedicated to…well, you name it. For those of us with some vintage, it’s like turning the clock back a few decades and wishing these things were available then.

Of the internships we’ve been reading about — most of them cater to young people attending maritime schools or wanting to work in the hospitality business — one jumped out.

The one from CroisiEurope.

Yes, right, who really has heard of CroisiEurope. More about that later. First, the opportunity…

CroisiEurope has a three-month internship (just one) for a student who is “passionate 7743_12_90_0_phpLZa2otabout travel and has a knack for photography and writing…”

Aha, a future cruise blogger!

“…to explore 14 countries across Europe and Asia aboard 10 ships as they develop their writing and photography skills.”

One student only, from the U.S. or Canada. Applications close in three weeks, on March 22. Here’s the link: Photo Tour Internship.

CroisiEurope?

It’s billed as the largest river cruise line in Europe, with 41 ships (hmm, Viking had 52 last year). CroisiEurope is going to be 40 years old next year. It has ferried more than 200,000 passengers along the rivers of Europe and Asia. It’s a family-owned business, launched in 1976 by Frenchman Gérard Schmitter. It claims to have the “best value in river cruises at great prices.”

While comparing rivers and ships is not an exact science, we found a CroisiEurope “Romantic Rhine” cruise in July starting at $250 per day and a Viking “Romantic Danube” cruise in the same month starting at just over $335 per day.

All of which makes “cruise internship” even better.

For students, that is. However, there’s no age restriction.

Today at portsandbows.com: All the latest cruise news

Royal Caribbean Vision of the Seas
15 nights
April 11, 2015
Tampa, Key West, Funchal, Gibraltar, Malaga, Barcelona
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $39
www.royalcaribbean.com

Wait-And-See Time If Your Cruise Includes Russia

Was it just a few weeks ago that the world was watching Russia because that's where the Winter Olympics were? Is that short a time all it takes for the world to be watching Russia for wintry reasons far more serious…wintry, as in Cold War?

The world includes people who go on cruises because, since safety trumps everything when you're a tourist, there are trips to Russia on the line this year. Compared to what's happening in the Ukraine, this is incidental. Collateral damage, as it were. Yet it's a disruption for people with upcoming cruises booked in and around the Black Sea.

At least seven cruise lines have ships scheduled to visit Sevastopol this year. That's in Crimea. That's where the Russian Navy has blocked the harbor.

Odessa is a Black Sea port on many cruise-ship itineraries, and some river-cruise itineraries. It's in the Ukraine, but not in a potentially volatile part of it…for now.

It's not just safety that could sour plans. If travel visas are banned, it affects every St. P-Philipp Hienstorfer copycruise that touches the Russian shoreline, no matter how far it is from the troubled Crimea region…such as St. Petersburg (above), which both ocean and river ships frequent.

So far, nothing has been canceled or re-scheduled, but the start of the cruise season is just weeks away.

Cruise lines are watching. So is the rest of the world.

This time, it goes far beyond Sochi. This time, there are no gold medals.

Carnival Sensation
4 nights
April 20, 2014
Port Canaveral (return): FreeportNassau
Inside: $289
Cost per day: $72
www.carnival.com

River Cruising Ports Unique…and Some Anonymous

North America's most prolific river cruiser, American Cruise Lines, has boats on the water in 30 states. That means many river ports, too many to mention here, but some of the "big ones" may surprise you.

This year, the cruise line polled its passengers to see which stops they like best. Call it river cruising's Top Ten.

hooper-lighthousePoughkeepsie, New York? Hannibal, Missouri? And the one they like best…St. Michael's, Maryland — a placew river cruisers recognize by Hooper's Lighthouse (right).

Nothing against these hamlets, which are clearly enchanting places that people enjoy visiting. But how many people outside driving distance have even heard of them?

There are some on the "favorites" list that fit the recognition category…the kind you don't have to ask the state. Nantucket. Astoria. Savannah. Glacier Bay…

Wait a minute — there's a river in Glacier Bay, where ocean-going ships cruise?

River cruising is full of surprises, isn't it? Maybe that's why it's growing so fast.

Caribbean Princess
7 nights
January 25, 2014
Houston (return): CozumelRoatanBelize
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71
www.princess.com

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