Most days on Avalon Saigon include two excursions -- one in the morning, with a lunch break onboard the ship, and another in the afternoon. On days when there's only one excursion, passengers can enjoy free time either in town, if the ship is docked, or while scenic cruising to the next destination. Excursions are included and the same for all passengers. In other words, there aren't multiple options from which to choose. That model fits this itinerary perfectly, as the line invests all its time and resources into each individual experience; authenticity, careful planning and attention to detail are evident. The ship's maximum capacity of 36 passengers also fosters an intimate feel.
The tours themselves are extremely off the beaten path in nature, with an emphasis on daily life, war history, and temples and Buddhist culture. We loved the balance between major sites like Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and Vietnam's Cu Chi tunnels (a network of secret underground tunnels used during the war) and smaller, lesser known sites, such as local temples and remote villages along the river.
Every experience is eye opening, educational and humbling -- some even emotional. Cruisers on our sailing found it difficult to hold back tears during our visit to the killing fields in Phnom Penh, where eerie remnants and a haunting aura cover the site of brutal torture and the murder of millions of innocent Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime. Meanwhile, the chance to meet a retired Vietnamese communist captain made for a touching moment, with some happy tears. Other standout moments included visiting a local school in Cambodia to help kids practice their English and receiving a traditional Buddhist water blessing at a mountaintop monastery.
What makes the tours even more special is the fact that your cruise director joins you on every excursion, and you have the same guide for the duration of your time in each country. (For example, since our cruise included time in both Vietnam and Cambodia, we had one guide to take us around Vietnam and another for Cambodia.) Our guides hailed from the countries we visited, and our cruise director was from Vietnam, so all offered a firsthand experience and had extensive knowledge of each destination.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
While days tend to remain pretty quiet, with the exception of two presentations (one on each country) that are offered in the Panorama Lounge at some point during each cruise, nights on Avalon Saigon are a bit more eventful. A pre-dinner cocktail party is held nightly, while other nights might include games or a movie in the lounge (via a large projector screen). Toward the end of each sailing, there's also a crew talent show and dance party, and passengers are encouraged to join.
Enrichment activities are offered on most nights, with one dedicated to supporting a local organization. During our stop in Phnom Penh, children from an orphanage in the city came onboard to perform a traditional Cambodian dance, and passengers had an opportunity to try out the dance themselves. On another night, a demonstration revealed the many ways Cambodians use scarves -- and many cruisers tried out the techniques throughout our cruise.
It's worth noting, too, that Avalon is partnered with a number of local schools, orphanages and organizations throughout the destinations they visit. The line routinely rotates between them, while switching up the villages it visits every year, to keep the itineraries fresh and also to avoid commercialization.
Nightlife onboard tends to be sparse after dinner, due to the (positively) exhausting nature of shore excursions and the fact that there's only one bar on the ship. However, you will occasionally see small groups gather for a drink or two in the lounge, at night. When the ship is docked overnight in Phnom Penh, however, you might see folks head out for a night on the town, whether for dinner or drinks, or to shop the night markets.
The Panorama Lounge (Deck 2): Avalon Saigon's only bar can be found in the Panorama Lounge, and it's a hot spot between shore excursions and right before dinner for cocktail hour. The gorgeous space is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows and looks out to the Panorama Deck -- meaning you'll never miss a sunset or other photo-worthy moment. The color scheme is light gray and teal, with matching floral patterns in the throw pillows and area rug. Seating options include sofas and chaises, while small glass-top cocktail tables also are scattered throughout, making for a comfortable, social haven that never feels crowded.
The lounge is where early risers gather for coffee, tea and light bites in the morning; where passengers hydrate with a cold beer or Vietnamese iced coffee (warning: they're addicting) after the first tour before lunch; and where cocktail hour is held each night. It's also where after-dinner movies are played; you can get away with rocking your PJs in public. Movies include "Good Morning Vietnam," "Indochine" and "The Killing Fields." They can be streamed in the cabins, as well.
The Panorama Deck is the ship's only sun deck, nestled at the front of the ship on Deck 2. It's covered to shield passengers from the strong sun and occasional rainstorms that are common in this part of the world any time of year. Still, it's a popular spot to kick back with a good book or nap during the day on one of the many padded faux-wicker lounge chairs. It's also the best spot to catch the sunrise and sunset. Ceiling fans help to keep the space cool, while servers make the rounds taking drink orders.
Complimentary instructor-led tai chi classes are offered at the beginning of the cruise, before breakfast, and continue each morning based on demand.
A reception desk is located on Deck 2, just outside the Panorama Lounge. This is where passengers can make spa appointments, exchange large bills for smaller ones and settle their onboard accounts. The cruise director is the go-to for any cruise-related questions; he or she usually hunkers down in the lounge and offers passengers a direct number at which he or she can be contacted. The lounge also offers a few games and books.
Wi-Fi is available at no extra cost, but it's only accessible from the lounge and sun deck. Don't bet on a strong connection. Internet is spotty and slow to load; sometimes it's even nonexistent. If you wish to stay connected, consider opting for an international data mobile plan if your provider doesn't already include coverage abroad.
While there's no onboard shop, passengers can purchase locally made goods from a small display by the reception desk. Among the items available is jewelry from a company called Landmine Designs, which employs young women in a poverty-stricken Cambodian land mine village, providing them with education and enabling them to earn a full-time wage while working from their homes.
Laundry is available, but there's no facility onboard. Instead, passengers send out clothes to be washed or pressed, paying per item.
Smoking is allowed only on Deck 1, port side, on a small sliver of deck space used as the primary embarkation/disembarkation point.
On Deck 2, passengers will find a small spa with one massage table and a chair for basic treatments like massages, facials, pedicures, manicures or foot reflexology. Because there's only one room, appointments should be made in advance and booked around shore excursions to avoid schedule conflicts. Prices are substantially less than what you'd see in the U.S., but we noticed they were a bit higher than the facilities along the streets of Vietnam and Cambodia. Expect to pay $30 for an hourlong massage, for example.
Be aware, too, that massage techniques in Southeast Asia are markedly different from those in the States, with more focus on the stomach and buttocks. You also are encouraged to remove all your clothing, including undergarments. If you're not comfortable with either of these, let your therapist know, and he or she will respect your requests.
Just below the spa, on Deck 1, is a similarly sized fitness center. It can accommodate about three people at a time, with one treadmill, one spinning bike and a small space to use yoga mats, dumbbells ranging from 5 to 12 pounds, and exercise bands. There's an outlet in there for charging, as well as complimentary water bottles. Some passengers even took the yoga mats up to the sun deck for a little early-morning stretching.
Although kids are allowed to sail on Avalon Saigon, you're not likely to see any onboard. Shore excursions and other programming are mature in nature; there also are no dedicated youth programs or menus. Older teens with an interest in history and culture would fare well but likely would have to stay in a separate cabin since none have room for more than two passengers, and there are no connecting cabins available.