Discovering the delights of Vietnam and Cambodia
As we walked through the village excited children followed in our wake, asking our names and offering theirs in return. Sitting in the shady doorways of small wooden houses their mothers looked up and waved, before continuing to work on delicate pieces of silverware and jewellery. Other families snoozed in hammocks while cockerels strutted around in lush green foliage.
It was another unforgettable snapshot of daily life during our journey through Vietnam and Cambodia, and the scene soon resembled the Pied Piper of Hamelin as the giggling youngsters tagged along practicing their English.
Last year singer Jane McDonald raised the profile of the Mekong during her Channel 5 series Cruising With Jane McDonald, but nothing can adequately prepare you for the real thing. Rising in China’s Tibetan plateau and flowing 2,700 miles through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before emptying into the sea at Vietnam, it is Southeast Asia’s longest waterway and known as the ‘Mother of Rivers’. Our journey began in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City – albeit most people still refer to it as Saigon – and covered 416 miles. Each day brought a kaleidoscope of new sights and experiences in two fascinating countries which, for many years, were off limits to all but the most adventurous travellers.
I was lucky enough to be sailing on AmaWaterways AmaDara, the same 124-passenger vessel featured in Jane’s programme. It’s a lovely colonial-style ship, with gleaming wooden decks and comfy cabins – each one with a private balcony – and decorated with materials and paintings evocative of old French-Indochina. There are also plenty of modern comforts, including a spa, panoramic lounge and piano bar, spa and expansive sun deck with a pool and an al fresco watering hole. With drinks included in the fare, this became my favourite spot to savour a cocktail and watch the unfailingly spectacular sunsets.
Divided into four different coloured ‘families’ we would gather in the lounge before heading out separately on excursions, which made the shore trips much more intimate than mass group tours. Guides were with us for the duration in both countries, enabling us to really get to know them and obtain a first-hand insight into their respective homelands.
Some days brought the atmospheric village walks and on others we boarded smaller boats that took us into the Mekong’s lush narrow backwaters into the heart of timeless floating markets and fishing villages where families live on the water. We visited silk factories, filled with jewel-bright fabrics, and small rug weaving workshops where the hand-made products had been made in the same way for decades.
The Mekong is primarily a working river and we shared it with a multitude of tiny one and two-man (or woman) fishing vessels where locals cast nets in the same way they have done for centuries. There were also large barges with menacing eyes painted on the prow to ward off potential predators.
From vast paddy fields to hectic cities where it’s common to see entire families riding one motorbike, it was an amazing trip. The excursions also took in bustling markets which are fantastic for picking up inexpensive souvenirs, a school and incense-filled temples, including one where we were blessed by monks. One day we trundled through a village in ox carts, the next on spluttering motorised tuk-tuks and another on bicycle trishaws powered by wiry men. Not only did this local transport provide more really authentic experiences but it also supported the communities, and the trishaw owners were clearly proud to wear their ‘uniforms’ of AmaWaterways’ T-shirts. The one constant throughout was the warm welcome wherever we went.
Back on board the majority of crew members are also from riverside towns, many of whom have been given career opportunities through AmaWaterways. One night a group of Khmer dancers came aboard to perform the traditional music and dance typified by the girls’ graceful hand movements and agile lads imitating cheeky monkeys. They were all underprivileged youngsters taken under the wing of a not-for-profit organisation and trained in new skills to provide them with an income. One of the older monkey dancers was invited to spend a couple of days aboard with the possibility of training as one of the line’s wellness instructors. It was heartening to see.
The cruise ended with a couple of days in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Set in beautiful gardens, the Royal Palace in is one of the finest examples of traditional Khmer-style architecture and includes the ornate silver pagoda, paved with 5,000 silver tiles and with a solid gold Buddha adorned with 9,500 diamonds.
From here, passengers can add on a land-based stay in Siem Reap, which is highly recommended. The town is the gateway to the 12th century temples of Angkor, the world’s largest religious complex. The scale of the temples is awe-inspiring and the first afternoon we drove deep into the heart of the jungle to Ta Prohm, which lay hidden for years before the site was cleared in 1924. Massive tree roots are now entwined with ancient buildings featured in the Lara Croft film Tomb Raider. The next day brought the landmark temple of Angkor Wat, where the distinctive beehive towers reflect in the still lake.
To make the most of this type of cruise you need a sense of adventure and reasonable level of fitness. There’s quite a lot of walking and sometimes you have to disembark on uneven river banks, although there’s always someone to give you a hand. The upside is that you get totally immersed in a very different and captivating culture and feel you are exploring relatively unchartered waters. During the entire trip we only saw a handful of other hotel boats and, away from the main tourist attractions, I took countless photos of everyday life including a street vendor with a banana-laden bike and roadside stalls selling everything from sizzling freshly-cooked snacks and petrol syphoned into old fizzy drink bottles!
At the start of our cruise we visited the Central Post Office in Saigon. Designed by Gustave Eiffel, of the Parisian tower fame, and built between 1886 and 1891, the elegant building with its vaulted roof and hand-painted maps is one of the city’s top sights. It was certainly a fitting place to buy postcards, but after so many extraordinary experiences it was very hard to summarise the many highlights of Vietnam and Cambodia in just a few words.
Tel: +44 (0)800 320 2336
Number of Facilities On Board: Two restaurants
Number of Cabins: 62 cabins and suites, with complimentary Wi-Fi available in the lounge.
Price Band: Medium to high
Insider Tip: Take advantage of the free daily yoga, stretching and exercise classes which far exceed the number found on many other river ships.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Factfile: AmaWaterways offers the seven-night Charms of the Mekong itinerary from £1,737, including all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, and an open bar with local beer, house-brand spirits and soft drinks. Extensions can be booked for a choice of land stays in Ho Chi Minh City, Siem Reap, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay from £281.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs courtesy of AmaWaterways