The Magic of the Mekong

By Erin Campbell

To the sound of vigorous drumming and clashing cymbals, a traditional lion dance lights up the upper deck of our ship as it crosses from Vietnam into Cambodia. This is the halfway point of our cruise on the Mekong River, and the colours and cacophony of the ceremony—múa lân in Vietnamese—presents a delightful spectacle. It’s also a blessing for our journey—and it bodes well for the events to come.  

We are just a few days into a week-long cruise and our 279-foot-long ship has become our home away from home. Every day the chatter among the guests becomes more excited. We are past introductions at this stage. Most likely, many long-lasting friendships are being forged—for there is a lot to talk about. That spectacular dance, for one.  

A lion dance is performed to mark a special occasion. In our case, the animated movements are intended to bestow happiness, wealth and good fortune upon the guests on the ship. For this we are grateful. And we can feel the results—guests relax and sip local Angkor beer while taking in a view of the silk-producing town of Tân Châu. A sense of calm and relaxation melds with the excitement for everything that the mighty Mekong will allow us to experience.  

A river cruise feels like the perfect way to travel, as our ship meanders the seemingly endless waterway. Daily shore excursions take us to floating markets, temples and wildlife sanctuaries. Every day we see something new, and every evening the discussions among the guests turn to convivial recollections of the day’s remarkable sights, sounds and flavours.  

Just a few days earlier, when the ship departed at sunset from Ho Chi Minh City, we were a group of strangers setting out on an adventure, full of anticipation but not entirely sure what to expect. No amount of reading and Web surfing can prepare you for such a visually rich setting, unfolding day by day and uploading new additions to our visual memory banks.  

Buddhist monks from all over the world pilgrimage to the magnificent Angkor Wat. (Dick Hoskins/Unsplash)

For many, this river cruise is like no other excursion. Some first-time river cruisers remark on the unique blend of cultural immersion and daily activities mixed in with ample time for leisure and social interaction. With 34 staterooms onboard, the ship can carry up to 68 passengers. Not too many and not too few…the optimal number, really, affording opportunities for social gatherings and time for peace and quiet, as you prefer. Perhaps a rejuvenating Cambodian Khmer massage at the end of a day of sightseeing? This can be arranged.  

The Mekong River is the world’s second-most biodiverse river system after the Amazon basin. It travels 4,350 kilometres south from China to the Mekong Delta in southwest Vietnam, passing through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia along the way. The surreal and misty landscapes that we casually drift past are home to innumerable small villages and rice paddies that yield 25 million metric tons of rice a year. The aquatic biodiversity rivals that of the Amazon and is the most concentrated per hectare of any river in the world.  

Here are some tips for booking your own Mekong river cruise. 

For maximum comfort, travel during the dry season—from November to April, when temperatures and humidity are lower. 

Add extra days to tour around destinations like Angkor Wat, adjacent to the city of Siem Reap, or Ho Chi Minh City. 

Pack light moisture-wicking clothes, comfy shoes, insect repellent, sunscreen and a good camera and binoculars for wildlife-spotting. 

Take your time 

Booking extra days before and after your cruise lets you experience more of the region and helps you acclimate before the cruise and unwind afterwards. For example, before departing on a Mekong cruise like this one, take the time to navigate Ho Chi Minh City’s sea of motorbikes. Visit the Saigon Central Post Office and the neo-Romanesque Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, whose 19th-century architecture evokes the French Indochina era. See the Independence Palace, which was captured in 1975 by North Vietnamese forces to end the Vietnam War. There is so much to see—get in touch with AMA Travel to arrange the perfect “extra” days on your vacation. 

We discover all of this as we journey. The ship—and all its glorious trappings—is one thing. The shore is something else.  

Most river cruise itineraries include daily shore excursions. This is the time not only to stretch your legs but also to immerse yourself in the local culture. In Sa Déc, once the largest city on the Mekong Delta, we savour lotus tea and candied ginger at the home of Mr. Huynh Thuy Le, the inspiration for Marguerite Duras’ 1984 novel, The Lover. At the nearby market, vendors sell fresh watermelons and bamboo shoots, live river prawns and mangrove crabs. We enjoy local ingredients both on land and back on the ship, where the menu reflects regional cuisine, such as duck breast with red cabbage and tamarind. Fresh, fruit-centric desserts are irresistible: the mango sticky rice with coconut sorbet is a particular guest favourite. On another day, a visit to the 850-hectare Tra Su Bird Sanctuary presents a visual feast, with hill mynah birds and painted storks soaring above wetlands accessible by small boats via narrow canals.  

Cut through brilliant green duckweed dotted with lotus flowers as you row along the canals of Tra Su bird sanctuary. (HongHanhMacThi/Alamy)

Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh demands more than a day to take everything in. Afternoon tea at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal is a treat for the eyes and the taste buds. Built in 1929, the hotel showcases French colonial architecture accented by the works of local artisans. Tea at the Elephant Bar pairs scones and clotted cream with a cognac-and-champagne cocktail called the Femme Fatale, created for Jackie Kennedy when she visited in 1967. 

This is the beauty of our river cruise—the ability to combine luxury indulgence with visits to significant sites and monuments. We wander the gilded century-old Throne Hall at the Cambodian Royal Palace, decorated outside with statues of Buddhist deities and inside with ornate thrones and golden busts. An exhilarating 300-step climb brings us to the seventh-century hilltop temple at Wat Hanchey and the sight of cheerful young monks, their orange robes contrasted against a striking blue pagoda. For many in our group, the adventure peaks at the ruined temple of Ta Prohm, where giant tree roots cling to the walls and doorways of this 12th-century Buddhist site, to eerie effect. But then we visited Angkor Wat—at 162 hectares, the largest religious monument complex in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is awe-inspiring.  

This is a lot to take in over the course of a week. But the adrenaline surge that results from visiting these iconic sites becomes a daily addiction—you just want to see more and more. And being able to retreat to a luxury ship at the end of the day provides time to decompress, reflect and review…made all the more rewarding with a delicious cocktail and the company of people who started out as fellow guests and are now fast friends.  

Book a river cruise adventure with AMA to discover its wonders for yourself. An AMA Travel counsellor can help you find a cruise that’s just right for you. Visit AMAtravel.ca to get started.