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Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, is one of Asia’s loveliest cities, an ancient city still retaining a unique identity and cultural traditions. First stop on our city tour is at Hanoi’s political and diplomatic epicentre, Ba Dinh Square, dominated by the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Here, the former Vietnam President lies embalmed in state. Nearby, we visit a simple wooden stilt house where Ho Chi Minh lived and iconic One Pillar Pagoda. Continue to West Lake – the largest of Hanoi’s numerous lakes – for revered 6th century Tran Quoc Pagoda, marooned on a small islet and 11th century Quan Thanh Temple. At a local family home, meet a master puppeteer, born into a Red River Delta family of traditional water puppetry performers. This unique folk art was practiced for centuries in flooded paddies in this northern ‘Delta region’. Watch a private water puppet show performed on the rooftop, then learn how to make and manipulate the puppets.
From Hanoi, drive southeast and embark on the Ginger Cruise Ship, a luxurious ‘floating home’ resembling a traditional junk boat. The Ginger initially cruises through Halong Bay, one of Asia’s most magnificent natural splendours and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, a spectacular seascape of over 1,600 limestone islands and islets jut out of emerald green waters. Amongst many wonders, we sail pass a lighthouse built by the French over a century ago. Cruise deeper into the karst maze of Lan Ha Bay, equally stunning, but relatively less crowded. This tranquil section of Halong Bay only recently opened to tourist boats. Disembark at Viet Hai Village, on Cat Ba Island, for a leisurely cycle ride to a quiet valley village, where we meet friendly villagers.
Drift past Tra Bau’s secluded seascape in kayaks or bamboo boats. Later, disembark the Ginger and transfer to Siem Reap. This Cambodian town is gateway to Angkor Archaeological Park, containing the stupendous temples of an ancient Khmer civilization, which we explore. Watch the sunrise, then enter Angkor Wat temple complex, one of the world’s greatest ancient wonders and largest religious monuments. Surrounded by a 190m (624ft)-wide moat, the central tower amongst five stunning towers symbolises Mt. Meru, believed to be central to the Universe. Other temple forays include Ta Prohm, a 12th century Buddhist temple, distinguishable by overgrown fig tree roots bursting through its massive stone blocks.Later, explore Angkor Thom, an entire inner walled city that served as a Khmer royal capital from 1181. Its centre piece, Bayon Temple, is iconic for the giant, serene faces of King Jayavarman VII, carved into stone towers. Conclude the day with a sunset boat ride to Prasat Chrung Temple.
Beyond Siem Reap, our chef for the day accompanies us to a private organic farm, then a neighbouring authentic Khmer village. Guided by chef, we engage with the villagers, witness local traditions and hand-pick fresh ingredients for our cooking class. As a goodwill gesture for the village hospitality, we donate goods to the Head Villager during a special ceremony. Returning to the farm, chef conducts a bespoke hands-on cooking class, where we create a traditional Khmer three-course lunch, later enjoyed for lunch at the farm house. Later, get acquainted with some of Siem Reap’s stand-out artisan workshops and galleries. A highlight is socially-committed Artisans d’Angkor, renowned for reviving and promoting traditional Khmer craftsmanship, such as exquisite silk production and silver plating.
Drive to Kampong Cham and embark on the Jayavarman, a luxurious and artful cruise ship that marries French Colonial and Khmer design. Cruising along the Mekong River, we learn about NGO-funded educational projects for young Cambodians, with local school children performing a delightful music recital on board. Disembark at pre-Angkorian, Wat Hanchey. Located atop a riverside hill, this 7th century Buddhist temple reveals some of Cambodia’s most spectacular Mekong River views. Wat Hanchey also exemplifies the superb architecture typical of the Chenla Empire and was an important centre of worship during this era. Don’t miss the remarkable brick sanctuary with well-preserved, ancient Sanskrit inscriptions.
The Jayavarman cruises along the Mekong River bound for Angkor Ban. Explore this century-old rural village, still seemingly unaffected by modernity and maintaining age-old traditions. Note the simple wooden dwellings constructed by hand. Warmly welcomed by the villagers, experience local life first-hand and participate in daily activities. Back on board, take part in a special Buddhist monks’ blessing ceremony. Continue to Koh Oknha Tey, a small pastoral island set in the midst of the Mekong, renowned for its high-quality silk weaving. Exploring the picturesque village and silk workshops by Tuk, we learn about hand-made silk production at source, from the silkworms to the finished product. The Jayavarman passes the confluence of the Mekong and Tonlé rivers before anchoring mid-river near Kampong Chhnang.
Take an early morning Tai Chi session, enjoying the spectacular marshlands backdrop. Onshore, explore Kampong Chhnang’s amazing ‘water world’ wetlands and floating villages. During a walking tour through bucolic countryside, stop at a quaint village, where our guide introduces hand-produced specialty crafts, Khmer pottery and palm sugar. Further forays deep into the wetlands reveal rustic stilt-houses and fish farms. The Jayavarman glides along the meandering Tonlé Riverand its lush foliage, bound for Kampong Tralach. Local children wave enthusiastically while bringing their livestock down to the riverbanks. Later, the ships anchors at Phnom Penh. Take a stroll along the river promenade and soak-in the vibrant atmosphere.
Phnom Penh is a rapidly developing capital city, but centuries of momentous history and Khmer culture is still evident. This former ‘Pearl of Asia’ was one of Indochina’s prettiest French colonial cities. Our full-day city tour starts at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, containing Prison “S21,” the most notorious of numerous detention centres established by the Khmer Rouge regime. Head beyond Phnom Penh to ‘The Killing Fields,’ where countless Cambodians were executed. Left in their original state, both haunting sites are testament to the 1970s mass genocide. Cultural highlights cover the Royal Palace and National Museum, the latter, housing one of the world’s largest Khmer art collections. On board, enjoy a private lecture on Cambodia’s modern history, hosted by a University of Phnom Penh Professor
Bid a fond farewell to the Jayavarman, disembarking at the pier. With our guide, leisurely explore Phnom Penhby cyclo, a traditional bicycle-powered carriage. This charming city still retains a rich blend of Khmer and French colonial architecture, infused with rustic charm and elegance. Head through the city’s bustling downtown streets and main quarters, taking in sights such as the Post Office and Central Market, besides venturing into humbler neighbourhoods. Our guide regales us with the history behind the architectural facades, ranging from the abandoned to well-preserved. Discover old churches and Chinese temples hidden down quiet alleys.
Saigon is the nation’s largest city and rapidly developing modern metropolis. Despite this, centuries-old former Saigon is living testimony to momentous history. Drive north to the Cu Chi Tunnels, an immense network of secret underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during French and USair and ground strikes. Within this major supply route, tunnels up to 10m (32ft)-deep contained field hospitals, command centres and living quarters. Touring the underground tunnels provides a better understanding of its extraordinary history. An afternoon city tour takes in historic landmarks and French colonial-era buildings. Highlights include the late-19th century and French-built, Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office. We also tour Independence Palace, former South Vietnam Government HQ and key spot of Saigon’s Fall – now a historic relic-museum. Later, attend the former residence of the US Ambassador to South Vietnam, a beautifully restored colonial villa, for a cocktail reception and traditional performance, followed by a magnificent gala dinner.
Transfer to Tan Son Nhat International Airport for your onward flight.