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Ron Knight

Age: 68

Occupation:retired

Number of Cruises: 7

Cruise Line: Viking River

Ship: Viking Saigon

Sailing Date: 2013-11-26

Itinerary: SE Asia and Mekong River

We are a retired couple who have travelled widely and frequently over the past two decades. We went on Viking's Magnificent Mekong tour of South East Asia in November 2013. Having enjoyed three previous Viking cruises, we knew what quality meant in the context of this organization. Therefore, although the land portion of the tour was excellent, we were very disappointed to find that the cruise itself was sub-standard.

The reason is simple: there is little that is "Viking" about the Magnificent Mekong cruise. The main problem is the ship itself. Company literature calls it the "Viking Saigon", implying that the ship has been built by or for Viking. However, its real name (stenciled on all the lifesaving equipment) is the "Saigon Pandaw". Viking leases the boat and crew from the Pandaw company which is incorporated in Singapore (www.pandaw.com) and runs its own (competing) cruises on the Mekong.

What are the differences from a real Viking river boat?

1) There is no indoor air conditioned lounge and viewing area. Instead, guests must congregate on the upper deck (#4) which is partially covered by a canvas roof. This roof does not extend over the deck railings, so when it rains, water drains onto the teak floor making it dangerously slippery. In the daytime, it's very hot and windy, and at night the bugs are biting.

2) There is no elevator. Travelling between decks involves steep narrow staircases, most able to handle single lane traffic only.

3) The dining room has a low ceiling and wooden walls and floors. As a result, the acoustics are terrible and guests have to yell (seriously!) to converse with the people sitting across from them.

4) The lecture/movie room on deck 1 is too small to accommodate 60 guests comfortably. It has a very low ceiling and therefore much of the movie screen is set below eye level. To make movie viewing even worse, there are two steel posts in the centre of the room.

5) The staterooms have"traditional colonial decor" according to Viking. That means the floors and walls are dark wood and the rooms have very spartan furniture and decorations. On the positive side, the bathrooms are larger than on Viking's European river boats. Although the single beds are comfortable, the low-pitched roar coming from the air conditioning fan makes sleeping difficult.

6) All staterooms are outside with "personal deck space", according to Viking's website. What they don't tell you is that the only deck space outside your door is a 4 1/2' wide walkway which extends the length of the ship. Your "personal deck space" is the inside 2' of this public walkway, containing a couple of wicker chairs and a small, square table. If you sit there, you have to move your feet every time another guest wants to walk by.

7) Although the Vietnamese food is nutritious, well-cooked, and attractively presented, the amount of choice is about 50% of what you would find on other Viking cruises. For example, on the worst day, at lunch, the only dessert choices were pineapple or watermelon slices and runny tapioca. Moreover, there was no option, as on Viking China cruises, to order Western-style entrees at dinner time if you are tired of the local food.

8) Viking literature says that, "getting on and off the ship frequently may include stairs or inclines". That's an understatement! Boarding the ship on the first day involved a metal ladder, laid at the wrong angle against a steep bank, and requiring guests to walk on the sharp outer edges of the rungs.

9) There is no exercise room, no boutique, no reception desk, no carpeting, no bathroom electric outlets, no TVs, no pianist, and only one computer for 60 guests to use.

Another major problem is that there is not even one full-time Viking employee on board to monitor quality. The crew is mostly Vietnamese and their English is minimal. The two Tour Escorts who wear Viking shirts are also Vietnamese citizens and are on contract to Viking from a local travel agency. They're all nice people but they institute some strange "Pandaw" policies, many of which go against Viking's own written policies.

For example, one of the Tour Escorts (Tin Tin) gave "special permission" to two cigar smokers in the room next door to light up outside our door (filling our cabin with stinky smoke). The other Tour Escort (Tony) instituted a high pressure, group tipping system where everyone was supposed to give him $50 on the first day so he could hand out tips during the land portion of the tour. The ship's captain decided one day to moor against a muddy bank where, as we disembarked, we had to pass a dead dog floating by the gang plank and then walk through smoke from garbage fires burning on the shore. The purser set a policy of only one key per cabin, likely assuming spouses would be doing everything together for every moment of the cruise. For the early "cafe breakfast", the chef chose to supply only coffee or tea and croissants, omitting orange juice, butter and jam. On the final day, the Tour Escorts suddenly announced a half day Cu Chi Tunnels tour which was not on the original itinerary (perhaps it was their own private enterprise venture). Anyway, they charged over double the price we paid with a local travel agency for a full day tour of the same attraction, including lunch. Our point is that these situations would have been unthinkable on a real Viking cruise.

We heard many other previous Viking customers complaining about the sub-standard quality onboard ship. And several first-time Viking cruisers said they would look to other companies for future travel. Our recommendation, for anyone wishing to go on a South East Asia tour and Mekong River cruise, is that you look carefully at AMA Waterways (http://www.amawaterways.com) or APT (http://www.aptouring.com( who offer itineraries very similar to Viking's. Both of their beautiful, sleek white river boats were docked next to our little squat, brown "Saigon Pandaw" at Phnom Peng. From our top deck we could see their gorgeous lounge areas and swimming pools. We certainly felt like the poor cousins of Mekong River cruisers.

There were rumours onboard that Viking is planning on having a new Mekong River boat built. If that is true, we would certainly applaud the decision. However, until the new ship actually appears, you might be wise to look elsewhere.

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