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emdee Mar 6th, 2011 08:54 AM

Trip Report Vietnam/Siem Reap/Bangkok
 
Just back from a lightning trip to the east . Here is my first instalment.

We used Tonkin for some of our Vietnam hotel bookings and guides as well as our local flights upto and including our flight to Bangkok. Our flights from Toronto to Hanoi and Bangkok return were planned using FF miles.

The day before we were due to leave for Hanoi I heard of the tragedy in Halong Bay. I was a bit upset but Ms Nhung from Tonkin responded promptly telling me that the Violet was a newer and better boat and the trip was not suspended.

On arrival at Hanoi our ride was waiting for us and whisked us off to the Sofitel Metropole. We instantly fell in love with this grande dame of hotels and were vowed by the superior service. We were in the new wing prior to our trip to Halong Bay.

Our Halong Bay adventure will be coming up soon.

emdee Mar 6th, 2011 09:41 AM

I continue to write after being disturbed by the doorbell...
Woke up really early the first morning and DD and myself wandered the hotel while DH was still in bed. Sat down to have a cappucino in Le Club which had a lovely feel to it like a conservatory. The tea my daughter wanted ( number 14) was not available that early but the server provided me with the Cappucino at no charge. A nice touch indeed.

An hour later we enjoyed a lovely breakfast which included Tea 14 and numerous other offerings including what I would loosely call dim sum,a nice complement of fresh fruit and even diabetic jam.

Our driver had told us that we were to be ready for 7.30 am (Tonkin had set the time as 8.30 am in our itinerary)and coming off the long flight we took him at his word and presented ourselves on time. There began a long and arduous journey some of it in semi jet lagged stupor the rest of it gawking at the sights as we were first timers in Vietnam. Our restroom stop was the obligatory store where one could watch artisans at work!!! I positively hate these tourist traps though I was happy with the chance to stretch my legs. In one of our quick rounds of the premises I stumbled on these shell purses and added a few to my collection. I had previously bought these in French Polynesia at a truly exorbitant price so buying a few more at least lowered the overall cost per piece in my collection.

Finally the driver had finished his breakfast ... I guess this was the reason for the long wait and we were on our way.
We had earlier asked him to stop when he spied a jackfruit vendor and he did so. The price was rather high but since we are unable to obtain fresh jackfruit in Canada and it is one of DD's favourites we allowed ourselves to be fleeced of $17.00 for a large chunk suspecting that either the vendor saw us as perfect gulls or there was a bit of collusion between the driver and vendor. After the purchase we piled into the car and headed for misty Halong Bay.

If only we had read the itinerary we would have refused the early departure but we didnt so arrived one hour too early and had to sit with a host of smokers in a coffee bar while the boat was being cleaned. Finally we were on board and taken to our suite on board the Halong Violet (the name escapes me) which was of goodly size and had a nice balcony with diwans. For a boat not more than 12 or 13 months old it was poorly maintained maybe they kept it that way so it could qualify as a 'junk'. My first entry into the bathroom and I spied preused towels. Later realized that they would very kindly pick up used towels which we chucked in a corner to diffrentiate them from clean towels and fold them back mixing them with clean towels!!! Hollered for clean linen and the linen was replaced.

Lunch was served imminently it and was a delicious one - wish I could steal the chef. The food was consistently excellent. The sail around the Bay was wonderful and aftger a short rest the group ( I think there were 6 cabins) left for the floating village. Tiredness got the better of me and I declined to visit but my family did and they said it was just OK.

It was soon time for dinner and this was a real treat. Dinner was a barbecue in a cave wonderfully lit with a host of really delicious grilled tenderloin, shrimp, ribs as well as vietnamese curries and stir fries and of course mango, papaya and banana flower salad. A spectacular evening and the highlight of our Halong Bay trip besides the Bay itself which was gorgeous.

More later as I have to leave to pick DD at the airport.

Smeagol Mar 6th, 2011 10:44 AM

You should let Tonkin know the driver did not stick to the itinerary. We used tonkin and the driver arrived bang on 8.30am to take us to Halong. I think all of them make those "tourist trap" stops ours did but like you we were glad of he stop.
we LOVED the Sofitel. We went on Valentine junk, which we really liked and were pleasantly surprised.
Look forward to more of your report.

emdee Mar 6th, 2011 01:06 PM

I forgot to mention the second contretemps in our suite on the Violet. We had booked a triple room and when my DD sat on her bed she realized that it was in two pieces and a slight movement resulted in two separate squares certainly not a sleepable bed so we called the cruise director who promised a new bed. When the next one came it was broken and she actually fell down as she sat on it and hurt her back. The final solution was to put her bed on the floor and that is what she had to sleep on that night.

When we visited Tonkin the next day we did complain about the bed and the driver and even showed them pictures of the two beds. In recompense the driver was asked to stay late with us the next night until we had finished our meal at La Badiane. Ms Nhung then gave us a credit ot $75.00 for the bed fiasco.

We did the usual touristy things in Hanoi Xichlo ride, puppet theatre Hanoi sightseeing tour. I was disappointed in our guide who acted more like a babysitter and ferried us places without really any added value. For example the sightseeing tour started at 8.30. When we reached the mausoleum the line up was 1.30 hr long so we chose to give it a miss. Other people in our hotel who were on the Violet were all told to get to the Mausoleum by 8.00 am to avoid the line. We then asked him to subsitute a walk through the old town area and he chose to delete a planned temple on his own. When I pointed that out to Tonkin I was told that it was a 'language' issue. I felt his guiding was wanting as he gave us very little flavour for the place which is what I look for in a guide.

We had two memorable meals in Hanoi - one in La Badiane and the other in Green Tangerine. We had picked these restaurants and Tonkin kindly made the bookings.

We were really sad to say goodbye to the Sofitel we were in the old wing on our return so got to experience both sides. The service was impeccable warm and friendly without the double bowing we experienced elsewhere.

Our flight on Vietnam Airlines to Hanoi was comfortable - we had paid a little extra to be in business and used the lounge.

Next: Ho Chi Minh City

Smeagol Mar 6th, 2011 09:54 PM

We had meals at both those places too and again like you really enjoyed it. Although the decor at La Badiane was a bit bland when we went in Nov 09.

I must admit as much as I was pleased with Tonkin travel and would use them again we did not use them for guides ( we used Hanoi kids) and I have since read not so glowing reports about some of the guides provided by TT. Think they really need to review this.

emdee Mar 6th, 2011 10:22 PM

In Ho Chi Minh we stayed at the Asiana Intercontinental. We had a suite so it was extra comfortable and also gave us access to the Club where we could have breadfast and evening apps and drinks. Once again the staff here were really warm and welcoming.
We used Tonkin guides here as well and the first day went off for the day tour Mekong Delta on the Cai Be Princess. We were lucky to have our own boat with reclining loungers from which to enjoy the pell mell that is the area. The arrangements were good and Dui was a decent guide explaining to us what we were seeing both en route and on the boat. We declined to visit the candy and puffed rice manufacturers having seen this kind of thing in the past but did enjoy the visit to the traditional home. Lunch in Le Longanier was disappointing but tolerable. We were assigned seats outside in the heat and after insisting we couldnt stand to be without a fan our chairs were put into the main foyer and we at least had a cool place to eat.

That evening we went to Xu for dinner and really enjoyed it. After that did some meandering around the Sheraton and visited Khai Silk for some purchases.

The next day we did the half day tour of Hanoi which we finished in two hours not being a fan of blatant anti american propaganda. We were irked here when the guide refused to take us elsewhere though he was booked for four hours. He advised that his tour was to specific spots only and only agreed to drop us at a designer store but would not wait for another 15 minutes for us to finish. There was a rigidness and union mentality which we didnt care for reduced his gratuity accordingly. A two hour tour merited a two hour gratuity only.

An afternoon rest with lunch at an Italian restaurant and another visit to Xu for some more delicious fusion food. I cannot recommend this place enough. Decor was a little club like but staff were wonderfully engaged and food was good to exquisite depending on the dishes.

The hotel had a nice bakery for us to purchase our lunch boxes for the airport and we were soon on to Siem Reap.

emdee Mar 8th, 2011 08:35 AM

Check in was a breeze at Ho Chi Minh airport but we had a major problem when security would not allow me to take my insulin on board. They insisted that I could only take enough for the flight and should have checked in the rest. This is contrary to what I have always been told in the western world - take all medications with you and never in your checked in baggage. After 15 minutes of high drama including attempts at convincing them that lack of insulin would be life threatening and my death would be on their heads a compromise was reached - the insulin including cold pack would be given to the purser on board who would give it to me on arrival at Siem Reap. This part went without a hitch.

Siem Reap felt like night and day - welcoming faces at the airport and Kim San waiting for us with a warm smile.

We proceeded to our hotel Residence D'Angkor and checked in. Our room wasnt ready so we left with Kim San to see Angkor Thom ,Bayon, Royal Enclossure, Phimeanakas, Terrace of Elephant. Kim San was a wonderful guide telling us just as much as we needed to know and also bringing us to the right temple at the right time. For example we were at Bayon at the perfect time with the evening sun on the myriad of faces and at the south gate for sun set. We dined in the hotel and prepared for an early start of 7 am the next day.

We really enjoyed the Residence - it was a welcome oasis tucked slightly away from the action but well located and proved the perfect place to recharge the body in between concentrated bouts of temple viewing. They also had a 2 for 1 happy hour which worked well for the family and I had a delicious cocktail of passion fruit and other juices one evening. The meals we had were fairly generic - given the extreme heat all or us felt deserted by our appetites.

The next day Kim's timing was once again perfect as when we got to Angkor Wat the tourists were leaving for breakfast after watching sunrise there and the temples were relatively empty. We were back at the hotel for some lunch & R&R by the pool from 11 to 3.30. That evening we visited the town of Siem Reap, Artisans d'Angkor and did some shopping and had dinner in a large tourist trap while watching an Apsara dance performance. To be fair to Kim this was at my choosing and request so I cannot blame him. The food was medioacre at best as was the dancing. Have seen better in the past.

In between all this activity Kim very kindly ferried us back and forth to the Bangkok Air office as we were looking to leave on an earlier flight so as to reach Bangkok at a civilized hour.

The next day we rose early and were at Angkor Wat to see the sun rise - obscured by a cloud to our disappointment. Kim's resourcefulness gave us a prime position for the view so we didnt have to trek from the outer walls. After a few early morning photo shots we were off to Banteay Srei temple and got there in prime time with just one other couple. This temple was exquisite in its pink sandstone with the rays of the early morning sun. The followed a visit to Ta Som and of course Ta Promh with its overgrown trees and numerous kodak moments.

We were able to change our flights so Kim took us to the Blue Pumpkin to pick up our lunch boxes and after a record setting packing of suitcases we were at the airport en route to Bangkok.

I have only good things to say about Kim San. A wonderful thoughtful warm guide with a quiet but effective manner. He was perfect for our needs never overwhelming us with details we could pick up from any enclopaedia but telling us just enough to place and enjoy the sites while also leaving us to enjoy the moment fully with welcome silences. I have no hesitation in recommending him ( www.angkor-guides.com) to anyone.

emdee Mar 11th, 2011 09:53 AM

We had changed our arrival time so arrived in Bangkok early evening before the traffic jams. We had booked Shangri La Krungthep Wing and enjoyed the facilities and extras for the time we were there. Out Butler Sophie was a real gem and provides us with daily plates of jackfruit and mango along with water etc.
The first day in Bangkok we had booked Tong tour to the Railway and Floating Market. Tong is a delightful young lady and we really enjoyed her warm friendly manner and special treats as we were floating along. Guaranteed that the tour is touristy and one we had done before many moons ago but it was still fun and we had never before eaten all the titbits she provided. Tour over she helped us with getting my daughter spetacles and contacts as luck would have it her husband is in the business and the job was done quickly with the specs dropped off at the hotel the next day.

That afternoon we went to Harmonique for lunch and food was excellent and then walked back to the hotel stopping on the way back to purchase a number of semi precious necklaces which were very moderately priced with what appeared to be whole sale shops.

The Krungthep wing is a real gem without the hussle and bustle of the other part of the Shangri La. We enjoyed the evening snacks and drinks each day.

Dinner that night was at the China House in the Mandarin Oriental and we enjoyed the Peking Duck but didnt do justice to it at all. It was however excellent and crisp.

We took the Ayutthaya trip with the Shangri La and it was well conducted for a group tour with a nice lunch on board the boat and return to the hotel in time for a swim with cool drinks by the pool. Since we were seeing this area immediately after Siem Reap it was quite interesting. We also visited the Bang Pa Palace on the way back and whizzed through the grounds on a golf cart. It was a really hot day so the breeze under a shady spot as we relaxed in our cart was very welcome as was the Hagen Daz in the cafeteria.

On our third day in Bangkok Tong was supposed to send us a guide to take us by boat to the palace and river Wats. Tong called us early in the morning and told us she was let down by her guide and should I wait until 9 she would send me someone else. Tong had explained before that she was not available on that day and Getz was to come and take us around. Since we were all ready and knew the route on water taxis we decided to go it alone. This turned out to be a boon because we were faced with another extremely hot day and were anxious to return to the air conditioned comfort of the Shangri La.
Lunch was a real highlight for me - Lord Jim at the Mandarin Oriental. Loved the food but was afraid the young lady who showed me the ladies would topple over when she bowed. Another nice restful afternoon by the pool with late check out at the Shangri La and we were soon in the airport enjoying the comfort of the Thai Lounges.

dgunbug Mar 12th, 2011 04:38 AM

Sounds like you had a great time. Thanks for taking the effort to write a report.

dogster Mar 12th, 2011 02:32 PM

Yup, thanks for writing.

Here's a present for you emdee, apropos nothin at all.
http://thedogster.wordpress.com/the-azamara-army/

D'ye think La-a-a-arry will approve?

mostinterestingman Mar 13th, 2011 01:40 PM

Thanks for the Siem Reap guide tip. May go next year.

rhkkmk Mar 13th, 2011 02:43 PM

great report...

emdee Mar 14th, 2011 11:13 AM

Thanks all of you.
Thanks dogster shall read when I have a moment. Hope you chased up the rice pudding and the thick crepes. I am back on Azamara next January and I want to be sure they have learned the art. Read somewhere else that you didnt enjoy Regent. Probably because I was not on board.... We will be going to French Polynesia on June 29th on the Paul Gauguin my favourite ship . Still a few cabins left if you want to come along and I can attest to the drinks on board - very very good. Crepes and rice pudding also excellent!

emdee Mar 14th, 2011 11:52 AM

Our final stop was a brief 48 hours to enable us to see the lights of Tokyo. We have been to other parts of Japan but Tokyo had eluded us.

After a somewhat comfortable flight( if you dont count slipping down in your seat) by Thai airlines Biz we landed bright at early in Narita and took the train down to Tokyo station. Our hotel the Four Seasons had told us that we were to call them from the aiport and tell them exactly which car we were in and they would send someone to help us with the bags and also show us the way to the hotel.
Of course as luck would have it we were unable to use the public phones or my DH's bberry. So he emails a few people in north america and once he gets someone online gives them the details - they call Tokyo and a smiling welcoming Four Seasons porter awaits us at the Station. Seeing the maze of the Tokyo station and the mass of commuters which totally puts our Union Station ( in Toronto) to shame we are thankfully of the help and direction and after a good 10- 15 minute walk we are at the hotel.

Ours room is not ready so we leave our bags in the hotel and after minor refreshing of our persons ( no amount of face washing can make us look any more haggard than we feel) we go back into the station in order to reach the Tokyo Museum.

The Museum was inundated by young kids eager to see their heritage and I guess was an OK way to spend a chilly Tokyo morning. We also visited the Electronics district which we felt was quite fascinating. Back at the hotel we sat down to a wonderful 3 course lunch including wagyu burgers with truffle mayonnaise ( big yum) and a delicious red wine sorbet with a fig creme brulee ( double yum). The bread was also delicious.

Exhausted by the overnight flight we were happy to find that we were upgraded to a very large suite close to 750 sq feet a monstrous room by Tokyo standards. All three of us sunk into blissful but recharging oblivion for an hour before setting out for a later afternoon and evening of sightseeing and walking.

A taxi to Ginza area gave us a chance to look at the high end stores without expending any energy or money. We made sure to stop at the Laduree store to purchase some macaroons ( a little bit of sugar heaven). And continued to a couple of other areas in Tokyo finally ending up in the Shinjuku district to view the mass of humanity as well as the lights both at ground level and from atop a government building ( spectacular sight that was actually free). My family dragged me back to reality when I almost purchased a $450 Lanvin scarf with the mistaken belief that it cost $45. The Shinjku area was also home to Pierre Herme and we purchased a few of his macaroons as well.

Dinner was in the Station at A Wolfgang Puck Pizza place - how original can one get in Tokyo!

Our return to the hotel was a bit of a nightmare getting lost in the maze of Tokyo station and Shinjuku as well so we were relieved to finally get to the Four Seasons. On our return a bottle of Moet which my DD had received as a birthday treat from the staff of Thai airways was chilled and brought to our room along with a cute cake and wishes including a card from the hotel staff. The hotel staff at the four seasons were constantly warm and welcoming and we really enjoyed our brief ( albeit expensive) time there.

On our return to our hotel diabetes be hanged and with a double shot of medication I proceeded to compare the relative merits of the two macaroons. My assessment is as follows: Pierre Herme brings a lusty shot of flavour into the mouth - powerful, heady almost made me swoon. Laduree has that delicate french crust to the macaroon the flavour soft but melty - mouth watering to be sure.

Oblivion came soon to our tired bodies. After a fine breakfast at the hotel - their mango brioche is to die for and their yoghurt ginger breakfast amuse bouche was wonderful- we set out by taxi for the Imperial palace which was really only a fifteen minute walk away. Our feet were tired from the previous day's walking on the hard Japanese pavements so we indulged ourselves.

After a walk around the area - we were unable to enter we returned back to the hotel and left for Narita shortly after.

The flight after was Air Canada direct to Toronto arriving on Saturday March 5th.

DD stayed on a day extra visiting the Fish Market and lunching in Michelin starred restaurants and speciality sushi places and returned Sunday March 6th.

What a difference a week makes. We found ourselves lucky to be at home in our beds when earthquake and Tsunami struck Japan the following Friday. I am convinced our guardian angels had a handle in this.

Miriam

emdee Mar 14th, 2011 12:31 PM

I hate to proofread so forgive all the errors grammatical and other. My Indian high school teacher would likely shudder.

Dogster, I guess my family were the token brownies on the all white Azamara but we are used to that. From time to time have received some snooty treatment more recently on the Halong Bay trip from a couple of your compatriots. From what I read your friend La-a-a-arry would have a bird. I have fallen from my perch twice already and I havent read all that much.

emdee Mar 14th, 2011 04:36 PM

Dogster,
Read your report ... riveting stuff. Rudi and myself had our differences of opinion. He was very cool when I said that his Indian buffet was not up to snuff - tell us we need to learn at the cc meeting was not what he wanted! He also pushed past my daughter at the outdoor buffet so his family could get their first ... the food was finishing fast ... not. Finally I criticized his thick crepes - I was persona non grata.

My DD had her own skirmish with Elvira. Elvira had this thing about DD's camera equipment - DD would fight her each time we entered the ship. Finally Elvira would remember to Azamize herself and would let DD pass.

Waiting for the final ports that is if you didnt escape in Mumbai.

emdee Mar 14th, 2011 04:36 PM

Dogster,
Read your report ... riveting stuff. Rudi and myself had our differences of opinion. He was very cool when I said that his Indian buffet was not up to snuff - tell us we need to learn at the cc meeting was not what he wanted! He also pushed past my daughter at the outdoor buffet so his family could get their first ... the food was finishing fast ... not. Finally I criticized his thick crepes - I was persona non grata.

My DD had her own skirmish with Elvira. Elvira had this thing about DD's camera equipment - DD would fight her each time we entered the ship. Finally Elvira would remember to Azamize herself and would let DD pass.

Waiting for the final ports that is if you didnt escape in Mumbai.

AskOksena Mar 14th, 2011 06:11 PM

>>>We had changed our arrival time so arrived in Bangkok early evening before the traffic jams. We had booked Shangri La Krungthep Wing and enjoyed the facilities and extras for the time we were there. Out Butler Sophie was a real gem...<<<


Many thanks, emdee, for the beautiful writing and bringing back a rush of past and present memories of Khun Sophie, her delightful colleagues, and that sweet slice of Bangkok business travel heaven, the SL Krungthep Wing. (Any chance you indulged in the hotel's 24-hour, in-house massage treatments with some memorable masseuses? Special place, indeed.)

And, loved your descriptions of Tokyo and Tokyo Four Seasons. (Just Tokyo Park Hyatt and Peninsula for me (us) - to date.) Helps to bring back much needed good memories of fine people and place; rather dispiriting of late with good family friend in Kyoto with still unaccounted for relative. You are a lovely writer, emdee.

(And to briefly 'highjack' post, warm shout-out to 'dogster'. D, have you turned it up a notch with SQ J ex-MEL? If so, kindly post 'tr' on SQTalk.com . Suspect you'll make grand entrance and ruffle some 'Solitaires'. (That will warm my heart.) This lowly SQ PPS wishes you Good Luck - and stay safe.)

Thanks again, emdee, hope you soon return to Bangkok (five days out for work for me) and Japan ( ~ 14 days out for meetings - 'fingers crossed' for all). And, as always, sweet and smooth (SQ) rides to all of you.

macintosh (robert)


... "Sweet dreams" ...

(Khun _, Room 1___, Krungthep, 200_)

julia1 Mar 16th, 2011 11:36 AM

Bookmarking - thanks so much for writing!

Ubd Mar 25th, 2011 08:31 PM

Hi emdee
You had the wonderful trip report. It is very interesting!


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