Vietnam Cambodia, Viking vs AMAWaterways and maybe Avalon -- quality of guides?

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NY area
38 Posts
Joined Feb 2008
Hello, in the past week I have read all previous threads on this topic and very much appreciated all the info and experiences you have shared. We have sailed with Viking in China and with AMA Waterways in Russia.

The China cruise and hotels were wonderful and the guides were incredibly informative. The Russia cruise -- which we chose because AMA had the new ship the AMAKatarina, and we were on its second sailing -- was weaker in various respects. The problems of the maiden voyage of the AMAKatarina have been well documented here. We didn't encounter many of those and we're experienced travellers who don't get worked up about stuff like that. We're really there to explore and learn.

The AMA Waterways guides were disappointing, though. Whereas with Viking every bus had a tour director who was with us throughout the cruise, who spoke excellent English, and who could have taught at any U.S. university as far as I'm concerned, with AMA Waterways we had local guides whose quality varied dramatically and we were shepherded around by pretty young girls who openly said their goal in life was to get married. (No, I am not making this up.) The bus groups were arbitrarily set up and seriously on some days when one guide was completely incomprehensible and another was highly informed, there would be a near-stampede to the better bus.

Truthfully, this is not how I want to spend my vacation. Seems reasonable to expect a level of uniform excellence or even near-excellence.

Why don't we just stick with Viking in Vietnam, you are probably wondering. Well, in Halong Bay AMA Waterways includes an overnight on a junk. That sounds pretty appealing.

Avalon makes a claim about 7 hours less bus time on their smaller ship. Don't know much else about them.

Overall I just have a sense that Viking cared more and is better managed (am avoiding a bad pun here about a tight ship) but am totally open and eager to hear from people who can talk about the quality of the guides on any of these lines. Also would be grateful for info re the feel of a smaller ship vs. that of a bigger one, since Viking and AMA Waterways both have ships of different sizes and of course the Avalon Angkor is tiny.

371 Posts
Joined Feb 2011
Well, I don't know about Vietnam & Cambodia, but let me give you a guides view in general.

Short answer first: I think you are comparing apples and oranges. Standards of guides in different countries with cruise lines..

Most of the companies work with the same guides. That has several reasons:

In a few countries (Austria, China, Italy, Russia at least) guides have to be certified. Which means there is a thin line between "an informative stroll" and a "tour". Sometimes companies just 'hire' local guides to be with them, but do the tour themselves. Sounds like blackmailing? Yeah Seriously, a colleague of mine once got arrested / dragged to a police station out of an italian church for giving his group informations.

Besides, many cruise lines (at least in Western Europe) need a lot of guides. Just do your math what happens if there are 5-6 cruise ships mooring in a city. And they are doing that every second week at least. So companies often rely on local operators and have nearly no influence on the quality.

Then you mentioned the program managers / directors. There are two main concepts used: One cruise director on board managing everything. In that case local guides are 'alone' with the groups, have to do head counts as well. Or the cruise line has 3-4 program managers + a director on board. Using this system, every bus is equipped with a company's staff. At the moment Vantage, Grand Circle use this system, every other company prefers one cruise director. Viking is transforming from one to the other afaik, can tell you more after my first tour with them this season.

So in general, no matter if they use the 1 cruise director or 4 program manager system, the cruise lines often have to rely on local guides for various reasons (e.g. better with local stories - think of all the work the ships staff does + having to remember the stories for 20-30 cities in europe? ). Thats why they have surveys after the tour for quality control. At least with us in Nuremberg I never heard that anyone was not allowed to do tours any more. But we have our one quality control system as well.

I know, that was not really an answer to your problem, hope it still gave you an insight to what you experienced
NY area
38 Posts
Joined Feb 2008
Appreciate the info re how the cruise lines organize their guides. So I guess I prefer the multiple program director approach as opposed to having 1 tour director and a bunch of non-expert guides. Can anybody say what the various river cruise lines are doing in Vietnam?
Mackay Australia
786 Posts
Joined Jan 2010
I must admit that I have no experience in Vietnam but I do want to correct ingo_e about Cruise Director and Tour Directors. Tauck always employ a Cruise Director and at least three Tour Directors on all their cruises. Their local tour guides are very good and are monitored by the tour directors. Any time we had to use a bus a tour director was assigned to each bus and as most of them are locals themselves they can pass on information that is both informative and relevant to that particular area.
371 Posts
Joined Feb 2011
I must admit that I have no experience in Vietnam but I do want to correct ingo_e about Cruise Director and Tour Directors. Tauck always employ a Cruise Director and at least three Tour Directors on all their cruises.
Thanks. But basically it's the same: Either it is 1 person, or 1+ (2 to 3; depends on the ship's size). Just titles may vary from cruiseline to line.
3,671 Posts
Joined Jun 2009
we went with AMA and very happy with cruise AND tour guides,director,all staff in general.
Ship was great,good food,5 star hotels ,informative excursions.Really TOP OF THE LINE>
Did see the other ships and ours(AMAlotus) looked THE BEST. Had balcony in room and newest.
I also like the Halong Bay extension inc. That was also ONE of the reasons I chose AMA.Do read some of the review in Member section also.
But highly recommend AMA for this one.
Florida's Gulf Coast
1,545 Posts
Joined Apr 2003
We did our trip on AMA Lotus, and our guides, with the exception of one, were fantastic. Even the one we didn't love was a good guide, she just had a high-pitched voice and an accent we struggled with, and sort of shrieked into the VOX microphone. She was a lovely person otherwise. We started with a general tour manager, and he was with us from Hanoi until he put us in the van to the airport in Saigon. He also arranged for private tours in Saigon for those who were interested - a visit with a fortune teller, a drive out to some famous budding artists gallery, etc. He was the one who took a couple of different people to the hospital for various injuries - foot sprains and the like, and who you felt you could depend on for anything.

In addition to the tour manager, we had local guides everywhere assigned to our smaller groups, most of whom we stayed with for several days. Each one of them was open and engaging, and had fascinating stories of their families and their lives under difficult regimes. Usually you tend to hear what they think you want to hear or what the tour company/government thinks is appropriate, but we didn't find that here. They were all very candid, and those who were willing to sit and talk with them were rewarded with rich stories.

We also found that the local guides often knew villagers or folks in the markets we were tromping through. We were on one island, called Evergreen Island, home to about 700 people who live off the grid, and were invited up into a private home to join their anniversary party. They offered some sort of homemade whisky out of a liter Sprite bottle, and one of the group accepted with no ill effects. Our guide bought them three packs of cigarettes as a thank you. Things like that happen here, and I don't think they do in other places.

I would imagine the other tour companies have similar guides. We only saw a group from one other company, Viking, and they seemed to be enjoying their guide as well.
NY area
38 Posts
Joined Feb 2008
The info you get here that you can't find on the cruiseline's sites -- wonderful! I had also been stuck on the fact that Viking apparently brings a French professor onboard in Cambodia who speaks frankly about politics, but it sounds as though there will be plenty of opportunity to meet local people and speak somewhat openly. We just returned from a land tour of southern Africa where that didn't happen much and we don't want to make the same mistake twice.
Florida's Gulf Coast
1,545 Posts
Joined Apr 2003
A French professor sounds interesting, especially one that speaks frankly. If he in any way takes over a guide role, though, I wouldn't want that. We really, really benefited from the rapport our guides had with the locals. I would have loved to have had someone like that lecturing though.

Don't worry about AMA Lotus. They had some growing pains, but all is well now. They've also put the APT travelers on their own sailings, while they used to be mixed. We had a marketing rep from AMA with us (on vacation with her parents) and she said it was just too difficult to mix the two because the APT groups have pre-paid tips, room service, kettles, things like that. It just separated the ship too much and caused problems. In fact, the two Australian couples we had aboard with us had to book with a US travel agent because booking in Australia had them only able to book the APT sailings, most of which went the other way. We were also docked alongside La Marguerite in Phnom Penh and it was an all German group.
2,506 Posts
Joined Feb 2005
No other river cruise is like Viking in China. The only other time we had the same guide from start to finish was in Egypt with Uniworld. Our guides on all of our trips have been sooo good. One thing that really helps are the "vox boxes"===so much easier to understand. An example of how the guides float. Our program director on a Vantage Christmas Market trip was a local guide for the day in Arnhem with Viking. Try not to compare everything to Viking in China. Pat
392 Posts
Joined May 2005
If I were you, I'd look into why Avalon claims to have 7 less hours on a bus. What time of year are you planning to go? If you plan to make this trip during the dry season, roughly from December to May, you will not be on the boat from Phnom Phen to Siem Reap. The Tonle Sap Lake is too low during that time to make the trip. Instead, you will be bussed roughly 3-4 hours through not particularly interesting countryside. Perhaps Avalon's smaller boat can navigate the lake during the dry season, thus the claim.

Also, it is extremely hot from January on. We made this trip at the beginning of March and I have never experienced such heat and humidity as I did in Cambodia. And we live in NY with hot, humid summers. We were told by our guides that the best time to go is November. It might be a little chilly in Hanoi but the rest of the trip will be more tolerable.

If you plan to start your trip in Hanoi, I would arrive in advance of the tour and make your own arrangements to go to Halong Bay and spend the night on a junk. Easy enough to do and probably less money than any of the river cruise lines charge.
Camano Island, WA
985 Posts
Joined Apr 2003

Now that many of the "growing pains" of Amalotus have been worked out, perhaps the better way to choose between La Marguerite and Amalotus is the dates that you prefer and the direction of cruise that you prefer. We specifically chose Siem Reap to Saigon (on La Marguerite, as Amalotus had not yet launched) because having time in Siem Reap between our land trip in Vietnam and our Mekong cruise worked best for us.

Although I agree with Amyr that a francophone prof who speaks frankly might be interesting, I cannot see any particular value of such a guest speaker on a Mekong River cruise. Our guides provided loads of honest (i.e. "frank") commentary regarding the political situation in Cambodia, irrespective of the fact that none of them spoke French. Indeed, in our experience, in neither Cambodia nor Vietnam is French spoken widely amongst the younger (meaning under 60 or so) people. We should bear in mind that French is the language of the colonial power that many view as an historic oppressor.

Nonetheless, good baguettes remain a very nice reminder of the French imperial era in S.E. Asia.

Relax... You suggest that, "there will be plenty of opportunity to meet local people and speak somewhat openly". I would respectfully suggest that your sentiment is not very realistic, without regard to your choice of cruise boat, unless you speak Khmer or Vietnamese. Certainly, the local people were almost always extremely friendly and smiling; but aside from a handful of English words, such as "Hello", "How are you?", and "America?", they certainly could not discuss politics with you.

Amyr - It is quite excellent news to read that the APT groups have been for the most part assigned their own cruises, as they certainly can impact (negatively, for the most part) a trip on which other non-APT passengers are cruising. As I have noted in earlier posts, the APT group (about a third of our passenger load) considered themselves quite particularly entitled to take over any space into which they entered, make any amount of noise they wished (even in the dining room, where they shouted from table to table), and even declare that their tour company "owned the boat", thereby giving them some special right to disrupt the experience of everyone else on the boat. We enjoyed the cruise in spite of the rude APT group but would never again travel on any boat on which we were advised that there was a large APT contingent.

Relax... As between Viking and AMA on the Mekong, I suggest that you read some of the earlier threads on this forum regarding the boats. There is a serious choice between the Pandaw style that Viking and several other lines use (meaning cabins with windows that look out upon a public promenade) and the AMA style (with windows and balconies on the outside of the ship, offering far more privacy).

Whichever you choose, it is a great pleasure to cruise the Mekong along with a visit to Cambodia and Vietnam.

Cheers, Fred
NY area
38 Posts
Joined Feb 2008
Freddie I get what you're saying about the French prof...what I'd read was that s/he could be more open than Cambodians who need to toe the party line. If not true, great. Excellent point you make about the language barrier otherwise. My spouse can go a long way talking both sports and politics by using proper nouns and exaggerated facial expressions lol but I guess we can't expect to have big conversations. I do find I can connect with kids and with women who are doing crafts just by participating nonverbally. Really treasured those too-few opportunities on our recent, rather hectic African trip.

Riverroad, we are planning on late Jan/early Feb. Work schedule rules out Nov. Counting on the AC when on board. Hope it will not all be intolerable! Have googled this topic and it sounds as though maybe you experienced a super-hot blip?
392 Posts
Joined May 2005
Relaxationspecialist, the weather was much more tolerable in Vietnam than in Cambodia. One day while touring the Angkor temples, I took 3 showers. Suggest researching the average temps and humidity in Siem Reap in January. But with global warming, are there really any "average" temperatures anymore?
Florida's Gulf Coast
1,545 Posts
Joined Apr 2003
I carefully researched the best time to go on this trip weather-wise, which seemed to be November, and you know what? Siem Reap was still brutal. It was the humidity, because for us, the actual temperature was never over 88 degrees, and everywhere we stopped, locals were wearing sweaters, hoodies, socks with their thong sandals, and sometimes gloves. For them it was winter. I struggled, and I say this as someone who's lived most of her life in Florida, as well as five years in the Saudi desert. I didn't even break a sweat on our mid-Summer South African safari.

At our doctor's suggestion, we brought along packets of powdered Gatorade (found at the grocery store) to add to the bottles of water they were always pressing on us, and it really helped! Kept us from getting the woozies out in the blazing sun. If you're taken aback by some of the funky ingredients in Gatorade, Pedialyte has powder packets too. We also ate bananas every chance we got. That being said, we were comfortable on all our bus rides and everywhere indoors, and many days on the river were pleasant enough for sitting outdoors on the shaded upper deck. Each new hotel room or ship cabin we entered was too hot for my taste for sleeping (76-78 degrees), and each time a call to our tour manager produced a maintenance engineer who turned a few cranks and out poured frigid air. If your room is too warm, they can fix it!

I'm with Freddie - while I would have enjoyed lectures by the professor, I'd be worried that if he's along for the whole cruise he might have too much of a starring role? All the Cambodian guides we met were happy to speak very frankly about the Khmer Rouge and its atrocities. They all told us the stories of how their families fared. One guide told us that her parents were teachers (particularly targeted by the regime) and her mother was sent up north to work in the rice paddies. She was along for the ride, being only 18 months old, and the women dug holes in the ground to plop their babies in while they worked since there obviously weren't any daycare facilities. She told of how much she enjoyed being in the hole because there were frogs and bugs in there to eat and she was hungry.

My favorite Cambodian guide told us all about his arranged marriage and how he didn't want any part of it because he had loved another girl. He told us how all of his older siblings had been killed, two older brothers he never knew on the same day, and how hard it was for him to take groups to the S21 prison. Of the younger siblings still living, they decided he had the most promise, so they pitched in and sent him to college. He's now expected to pay it back by providing for all of them forever. He's not bitter, that's just how it is in most families. He said that 80 percent of Cambodians over the age of 40 suffer mental illness (PTSD I suppose) as a result of the Khmer Rouge. I was reading along with the wonderful book When Broken Glass Floats, and it helped me to further understand what our guides were telling us as they have sort of a sing-song roundabout way of telling stories. Most of the tales (and the ones in Vietnam too) were told to us as we were speeding along in the buses, and even though it wasn't pleasant busing from Siem Reap to the ship (4 1/2 hours) our guide made it worthwhile. Also, we stopped along the way and those who wished to were able to sample tarantula!

Freddie's right, you won't be able to interact directly, but the right guide will have you involved with the locals in the villages and markets by translating and telling their tales so that you will feel like you are.

Oh, and Freddie? It's not just the baguettes, don't forget the chocolate croissants! I developed a severe addiction to those little lovelies.