April 2018 saw CLIA (cruise line international association), host a river cruise conference, held in Asia for the first time ever. A very profound statement was made by Stuart Perl, the managing director of Amawaterways UK, summing up the difference between river and ocean cruising; “Ocean cruising takes you into a country and river cruising takes you through it”.
My colleague Helen and I listened with great anticipation, as we knew we were soon due to spend 4 nights on the Mekong river with Amawaterways, in order to really immerse ourselves in the product and region. We boarded our vessel, the Amadara, in Phnomh Penh, not naturally an embarkation port as we were starting further downstream, only to taste just 4 nights of what was a 7 night cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh. Stepping onto our vessel, we were greeted by a host of AMA staff, with wet towels and traditional sweet cordial. Having just 4 decks with 62 cabins, I soon navigated this beautifully decorated river boat, with its warm woods and colonial feel.
Cambodia was an eye opener from the start and much more advanced and progressive than I had anticipated. Despite Cambodia’s war-torn history, the people hold a deep respect for each other and their King, of which was reflected in their care and worship of his home, the gold encrusted Royal Palace of Phnomh Penh. Unfortunately, we had boarded at the tail end of the Cambodian part of the cruise itinerary and had a half day glimpse of this ancient yet newly emerging modern country. I would love to go back and visit Angkor Wat in the north and the Killing Fields in Phnomh Penh, of which guests onboard had the chance to experience.
Our first full day onboard the Amadara, was scenic cruising which allowed us to drink in the atmosphere of the calm Mekong river life, as well as enjoy the ships swimming pool and spa facilities. Crossing the border from Cambodia into Vietnam onboard, meant a small boat was sent ashore with an AMA waterways representative, along with all guest passports and Vietnamese visas and simply returned stamped after half an hour. Being onboard a river cruise ship meant everything was taken care of, and all we had to do was enjoy the experience of the local cultures.
If our visit to Cambodia was just a taste, Vietnam was a full three course dinner! Each day we had a choice of tours included in the package, led by professional local Amawaterways’ guides. Our first stop was Tan Chau, where we boarded a small wooden boat to evergreen island. Wandering through this township of local Mekong dwellers, showed the simple life of the local fishermen. No sign of modern life emerged here, just children’s beaming smiles, old ladies rubbing coconut into milk by hand and the local cafe of just hammocks and coffee cups! We then had the opportunity to ride a Trishaw through the village, pulled along by a lone cyclist, as well as visit a local silk making factory and of course purchase a few hand-made products. Returning to the ship for lunch was a welcomed relief from the humidity outside and the crew greeted us each time with wet towels and a cool local drink. During lunch, the Amadara slowly brought us downstream. The afternoon allowed us to enjoy the scenery along the Mekong at sunset, followed by dinner and comical entertainment, ‘AMAs’ got talent’, hosted by the crew. Evening entertainment was limited each night, as the focus of river cruising is making the most of included shore excursions by day, to truly experience the destination you are in.
Our third day onboard took us to Sa Dec, hosting a daily fresh produce market. The experience was eclectic, with mopeds delivering produce and families of four at the same time, and the market vendors selling everything from live freshly caught seafood to whole pigs’ heads and local spices, sweets and teas. The afternoon offered a more historical tour to Xeo Quyt, showing the true war- torn history of this now serene and peaceful country.
Our final day brought us into Ho Chi Minh city, a bustling metropolis of 8.6 million, with double the number of mopeds! I would certainly suggest adding a few nights stay to your cruise, as well as the pre-cruise Halong Bay extension, to truly complete your Vietnam holiday!
After this experience of a lifetime, I am truly passionate about the region. River cruising certainly did take us through the life of the Mekong and I would return in a heartbeat!
Written by Zoe Vasilaki of Century Travel