Asia

Experiencing the Not-So-Familiar Vietnam

written by | Posted on July 1st, 2011

mekong river programs The 12th largest river in the world, the Mekong River, winds its way from the Tibetan plateaus of China’s Yunnan province, through the rainforests, plains and rice fields of five Southeast Asian countries—Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam—before meeting the South China Sea. But it’s in Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia where the Mekong Delta offers up its richest catch of cultural bounty and as a result, it’s rapidly becoming one of the most popular river cruising destinations in the world.

AMA Waterways, for example—the first North American river cruise company to put its own ship on the Mekong in 2009—added a second ship, the AmaLotus, to meet demand. It now has two itineraries, the 16-day land/cruise Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong program, with two nights in Hanoi, an overnight cruise on Ha Long Bay, three nights in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the 7-night Mekong Delta cruise and a 2-night stay in Saigon. The second option is the 7-night cruise-only program. The 2011 itineraries, which run through Dec. 27, 2011, run from $1,559 to $2,449 on both programs.

Viking River Cruises, which sold out its initial Mekong cruise program in just 30 days, has been offering its 15-day Magnificent Mekong Journey that includes two nights in Hanoi with a visit to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison and a cyclo tour of the old town; three nights in Siem Reap, Cambodia, with tours of the famed temples of Angkor Wat Archeological Park; and two nights in Ho Chi Minh City, introducing guests to the city’s gracious colonial architecture. The centerpiece of the trip is an 8-day river cruise among lush Mekong River landscapes with stops in Phnom Penh and a variety of small riverside villages including Cai Be, located in the picturesque Mekong delta. All-inclusive pricing starts at $3,399 pp, and guests can add one or both of the Explore Moreland extension programs visiting either Ha Long Bay, Vietnam or Bangkok, Thailand.

Avalon Waterways—part of the Globus Family of Brands—will unveil the new Avalon Angkor this year. “Named after Angkor Wat and featuring only 16 staterooms, this is the first and only passenger ship built to cruise all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, exclusively eliminating seven hours of drive-time on land for travelers,” explains Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways.

Designed and constructed by traditional craftsmen, the Avalon Angkor is hand-finished in brass and teak with its deluxe staterooms measuring 172 sq. ft. and open to the outside with floor-to-ceiling, sliding glass doors and balconies. There’s also a sun deck with panoramic views and 24-hour bar as well as spacious dining room, relaxing massage area and fitness equipment.

Avalon Waterways will sail the Avalon Angkor on a new 14-day Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia & The Mekong River itinerary from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok priced from $3,819. “With the Angkor, Avalon takes cruisers to difficult-to-reach villages, providing them a unique experience with immersive access into the diverse cultures and histories found in Vietnam and Cambodia,” says Clark. “The Mekong excursions we provide cruisers, including a visit to Phnom Penh—the sight of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and one of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields—as well as onboard lectures, are not only eye-opening but also life-altering.”

The 7-day cruise portion of this journey also includes visits to the Governor’s Palace and Temple of Literature in Vinh Long; a local fish farm and a walking tour through an outdoor market in Chau Doc; experiencing Prek Bang Kong’s silk weaving tradition; exploring Khmer Houses, a local school and Buddhist Monastery in Prek Bang Kong; receiving a traditional water blessing on a hilltop in Wat Hanchey and taking an ox cart ride past rice paddy fields in Kampong Tralach. Avalon cruisers also have the option of extending the Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia & The Mekong River experience by adding Luang Prabang or Hanoi and Ha Long Bay to their itinerary.

Of course, it’s not just the major river cruise companies that are offering Mekong River cruise programs. The land tour operators like Brendan Tours also offer river cruise itineraries to meet demand, and according to Ney from Brendan, it’s not an easy task. “The demand for the Mekong cruises is just phenomenal and we really don’t have enough space and it’s not just us—nobody has enough space. So we’ve added to the program and you can see we have a ship called the Jayavarman, it’s a five-star ship.