Sailing on the inaugural cruise of the AmaDara on the often bucolic, totally exotic Mekong River meant passing paddy fields of shimmering rice stretching to the horizon, golden Khmer pagodas and Buddhist stupas, floating villages built on stilts, floating markets whose wares are sold from colorfully painted boats, and cone-hatted fishermen silhouetted against dazzling sunset skies.
Cruising along with us, AmaWaterways’ owner and CEO Rudi Schreiner, who, with years of designing riverboats and charting their itineraries, reminds us that “while this newest ship in the fleet now provides the highest luxury on the river, the actual key to memorable river cruising is the destination itself.” And on this, the 124-passenger AmaDara delivers the most fascinating river cruise this lucky-to-be-aboard guest has ever taken. Consider a handful of favorite excursions and onboard cultural activities that capture the specialness of the 16-day Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong cruise.
Highlights in Cambodia’s corner of the Mekong Delta include Oudong, the royal capital of Cambodia in the 17th century. It’s a miraculous place, home to the nation’s largest Buddhist Monastery complex, where relics of Buddha lie in a silver-covered stupa, while saffron-robed monks glide among sacred temples and provide the chanting chorus for our very special blessing ceremony.
Cambodia’s modern-day capital is Phnom Penh, where we anchored overnight, leaving time by day to gape at the walled-in Royal Palace, whose dazzling monuments include the Silver Pagoda, paved with 5,000 silver floor tiles—that’s five tons of the precious metal—and a gold Buddha decorated with 2,086 diamonds. I visited the National Museum, home to an outstanding collection of Khmer sculptures, while most passengers opted to visit the Killing Fields, a grim reminder of a recent atrocity-filled past.
On crossing into Vietnam, it doesn’t take long to realize we’re in a very different country. Our cruise manager Trieu Son describes the national differences this way: The Vietnamese like to grow rice, the Cambodians like to watch rice grow, and the Laotians like to listen to the wind blow through the rice as it grows. Here, the roads are good, tractors join buffaloes in working the rice fields, women dress in the form-fitting ao dai, and everyone wears the iconic conical hat to shield the sun.
The Mekong here is swifter and wider, the riverside villages bustling. We travel by small skiff to Sa Dec, which during the Vietnam War housed an American Swift Boat base. Today’s riverfront villas betray a French influence, particularly where we take tea—in the Huynh Thuy Le house of the wealthy Chinese lover of French teenager Marguerite Duras (her novel “The Lover” tells all about that affair).
The markets here overflow with produce, including snake wine that is simply wine in which a cobra has been macerating; ditto scorpion wine. We small-boat on to Cai Be, where floating markets have been a way of commerce since the 19th century, and all transactions are conducted on the water. Particularly luscious tropical fruits—melon, durian, sapodilla and bananas—are piled high on wooden sampans with painted eyes on the front prow to scare away attacking sea monsters.
People experiences are well integrated into AmaWaterways’ planning, in part because the Cambodians and Vietnamese are warm and open, and also due to the smart and caring direction of Hanoi-born cruise leader Son, who shared with us his story of growing up and living in Hanoi. Ditto kudos to the guides who explain their lifestyles and political views fairly freely. Super fine are the folklore troupes who come aboard, performing traditional dances based on each country’s legends, accompanied by musicians playing extraordinary handcrafted instruments. And AmaDara’s native-son chef Pheara coached us through a cooking lesson starring the traditional Vietnamese pho bo (rice noodles and beef) and goi cuon (Vietnamese hand roll).
On one excursion, students at the ODA Free Village English School, supported by AmaWaterways, showed us how to write the script of their Khmer language. In Cambodia, in the village of Koh Chen, known for its silver and copper crafts, we visit another school, attended by lively students interested in knowing where you live; what you do; how old you are.
The Cambodia experience is framed by three days pre-cruise touring Angkor Wat, a huge UNESCO World Heritage Site wonderland of Khmer temples. Accommodations for the visit are in the laid-back, French-styled city of Siem Reap at the 238-room Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort Hotel. It’s a sprawling, comfortable, welcoming hotel; cruise-only passengers spend the first night here with time to hail a tuk-tuk to go shopping at Artisans d’Angkor or join in the swinging local cafe scene.
The cruise officially ends with a transfer from the AmaDara to Saigon (no one uses the official name, Ho Chi Minh City). If feasible, clients won’t regret buying the cruise/land tour, which adds two nights in Hanoi, one night in Ha Long Bay, and three nights in Siem Reap pre-cruise, and two nights in Saigon post-cruise. Most travelers won’t be coming this way again, and the sights are fabulous. The 8-night cruise-only starts at $2,999 pp dbl; the 16-night land/cruise itinerary from $5,198 pp dbl.
life on board
On its inaugural cruise, the good ship AmaDara proved indeed tailor-made to luxury river cruising on the Mekong. Unlike the rivers of Europe, the Mekong has no locks to pass through, so cruise vessels can be larger, and AmaDara is indeed the longest and widest on the river. The top deck comes with these welcome essentials: a pool big enough to actually swim in; a canopied area with lounging chairs; a bar; and a panoramic view of guaranteed breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. Gleaming dark wood floors everywhere are just one element of the decorative mix of Colonial and Asian styles, from the atrium lobby and the Saigon Lounge with panoramic-view windows, to the Mekong and Chef’s Table restaurants. Meals, too, are a blending of Western and Asian cuisine, and through a blur of delicious food memories and appropriate wines to match, the lamb curry with vegetable, lentils and rice, plus a Phnom Penh pumpkin custard, sit at the top of
the hit list.
In our stateroom (and all cabins), a wall of glass is created by the twin balconies: one French, the other full with a table and two chairs. If you upgrade the reading lights, then we can say our cabin didn’t miss a beat in layout and furnishing: comfy beds and upgraded bedding, ample closet and drawer storage, bath with a true people-size shower, quality amenities, and charging stand for the Vox audio system headsets. And the piece de resistance, sensational silk bathrobes with embroidered dragons climbing
up the back!
Who’s the audience for Riches of the Mekong? “Foremost, repeat river cruise travelers,” says Gary Murphy, AmaWaterways’ v.p. of sales/co-owner, “and then first-time travelers to Southeast Asia who want to travel in exotic lands as seamlessly and comfortably as possible.” And, after having traveled on both the Mekong River and on the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, Judie Parr CTC of TravelAdvocates in California suggests “when choosing between, I would pick the Mekong first, for it has a more developed infrastructure.”
This passenger would just like to relive the whole Mekong experience again, but next time, in the cooler season: November through March.
TOUR OPERATOR INTEL
Scott Avera, v.p., product development for Alexander+Roberts, is a fan of river cruising in Southeast Asia. “While the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar is the latest in cruising buzz, the Mekong River cruise is an excellent way to connect Cambodia and Vietnam, and for seeing the Mekong River area of southern Vietnam in particular, this is the way to go.”
Further, adds Avera, “we use AmaWaterways here; in fact, all over the world. Their cruises offer just our style and perfect service. And travelers should know that cruising in this part of the world is different from Europe; it’s rather slow-paced cruising, matching closely the rhythm of
Avera says that there is strong interest for travel to Southeast Asia, especially for people who come back to Asia for Cambodia and Vietnam after they have been to China and Thailand. Avera points out that “more than half our bookings combine Vietnam and Cambodia, and in our Small Group Discoveries, we add Laos, which works well, giving clients a country that is really unspoiled and little known.” Highlights of the 15-night Visions of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & Thailand tour include exploring the Mekong Delta, savoring Hanoi’s culinary scene, enjoying the temples and beaches of Hoi An, joining Laotian farmers in their fields for a hands-on experience in rice cultivation, and visiting four World Heritage Sites. It’s priced from $6,599 pp dbl, with departures scheduled January to March, and October and November.
Also available is a shorter 8-night Visions of Vietnam program, visiting Saigon, the Mekong Delta, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay for an overnight cruise; priced at $4,199. Extend this tour to Angkor Wat with a 4-day package, priced at $1,199 pp dbl. And on Alexander+Roberts’ roster of journeys, you’ll find an exciting new Private Journey product: a 10-night Hill Tribes of China and Vietnam, priced at $5,499 pp dbl. “This is the perfect product for clients who are really into Asia,” says Avera, “going far off the beaten track; visiting places where no one goes.”
In Asia and elsewhere, Avera is committed to the concept that food is an essential element of tourism, and Hanoi’s central market offers a unique and delicious dine-around experience. This writer is grateful for that commitment, for his company treated me to an Evening Food Tour in the Old Quarter, in the company of a very special guide. First stop was at Bia Hoi corner to try the local brew, sipping away as the world bustles by; then walking the stalls learning about noodles and breads—the French influence here has produced wonderfully crusty baguettes. Next, tour participants settle down to a flame-grilled Vietnamese barbecue of beef, chicken, tofu and vegetables on skewers; finally, the evening ends in Hanoi’s best-known ice cream parlor, Trang Tien. alexanderroberts.com or alexanderroberts.com/rewards/login.aspx