Take Me to the River

Cruising up the mighty Mekong river, a journey into the unknown. Bringing you up close to Vietnam’s traditional riverside life.

Cruising the mighty Mekong brings you up close to Vietnam’s traditional riverside life.

It would take a mighty stretch of the imagination to describe My Tho, gateway to the Mekong Delta, as a glamorous embarkation point. The sun might be bouncing off lazy swirls of water that has travelled more than 4300 kilometres from its source deep within the mountains of Tibet. The water’s surface may also reflect the golden cables of Rach Mieu Bridge, which crosses one of the waterways that make up the ever-shifting Delta - known locally as ‘nine dragons’. But no amount of sparkle and glitter could make My Tho, with its crane-filled skyline and passing cargo boats, anything other than an eyesore. 

Not that it matters. As soon as our bus from Ho Chi Minh City arrives dockside, we tumble out to get a look at our home for the next seven nights. The custom-built Cruiseco Adventurer, which launched in 2012, is nothing like the teak-and-brass river cruisers that are tied up alongside. Those boats, with their colonial-era styling, feature tucked-back cabins that open onto walk-around promenade decks. The Adventurer has none of that caught-in-a-time-warp vibe. Instead its contemporary design - all blocky, geometric lines in glass and steel - gives each of the 30 cabins its own private balcony. 

We canter up the gangplank - over the tangle of water hyacinth squeezed between ship and shore - to inspect our cabin. We like what we see. Our twin beds are positioned to make the most of the floor-to-ceiling views. There’s a cosy nook with armchair and a coffee table in front of a set of glass doors, polished timber floorboards, and a bathroom with a designer washbasin and a very spacious shower. Most importantly, there’s air conditioning that you can adjust to suit your own preferences. 

As for the rest of the ship, there’s both an air-conditioned lounge and an open-air shaded area up top for those who like to sprawl on a deckchair and watch the world go by while staying out of the fierce tropical sun. Pot plants bring a touch of the jungle to the top deck while the tiny whirlpool - as blue as Listerine - looks so inviting we vow to have sundowners in there soon. The dining room is tucked into the middle deck, while at the rear of the ship are the spa treatment rooms, alongside two pieces of gym equipment. The spa, which offers therapies ranging from an Indian head massage to a fresh-carrot facial, is booked up quick-smart. 

The River’s Edge

We cast off and set sail upstream, on a journey towards the unknown. Everything about the Mekong seems exotic, so most of the 48 passengers - they include an artist, a policeman and a doctor - spend their first few hours aboard simply watching Vietnam scroll past. The Mekong appears to be a transport super-highway, with a lot of cargo travelling through its lower stretches and into the South China Sea. 

Cruiseco’s chief executive, Steve Lloyd, says this part of the Mekong is where he’s noticed the most change in recent years. Things grow quieter, calmer, the further we push on. There are stops at provincial towns Cai Be and Sa Dec, where we head ashore to dive into local life. At markets we admire the wares of ladies wearing the conical straw hats (non la) that are a quintessential part of the Vietnamese national look. The women sit on low stools selling trays of prawns, fish, octopus and crabs, cooled with blocks of ice. One bowl holds live eels; others showcase three varieties of snail. Home cooks squat to inspect mini-mountains of fruit and vegies, with everything from limes and pineapples to potatoes and tomatoes. They browse buckets of lotus blooms, bunches of bananas and bags of Java apples.

Tourists flock to Sa Dec to see the former home of Huynh Thuy Le, the older man immortalised in Marguerite Duras’s 1984 erotic novel The Lover. The French author’s real-life youthful liaison with the wealthy Chinese heir inspired her prize-winning bestseller. The house’s 1917 facade (which was tacked on to the original 19th-century timber structure) is as ornate as anything you’d see on a Parisian avenue: it’s all elegant archways and balustrades, carved scrolls and leaves. The blooms of black mould mottling the white paint, and courtyard lotus pots framing the scene give away its humid waterside location.

Inside the high-ceilinged three-room house, we’re served tea by a woman wearing a fairy-floss-pink ao dai (long tunic split to the waist) and pants as we sit before a gilded altar to a deity that’s worshipped for power and prosperity. In 1992, The Lover was turned into an R-rated film. Copies of the DVD are given to us during the cruise, to watch in the privacy of our cabins. For the rest of the voyage, the movie and the lead actor’s attributes are a hot topic of conversation over dinners of eastern and western fare, such as crisp river prawns with sticky rice or roast lamb with ratatouille.

Cambodian Crossing

Before leaving Vietnam, we pile into bicycle rickshaws and are pedalled around Tan Chau. We head to factories that make fabric and straw mats, but it’s more fun being part of Vietnam’s road traffic, where cyclists balancing their wares in makeshift baskets mingle with motorbikes carrying families of four or a load of pigs.

Back on the river, we visit a family living in a floating tin shack that doubles as a fish farm. We gather around an opening cut into the floor to see the tilapia writhing in their pen; I marvel that the kids don’t venture near the platform’s unfenced edges.

To cruise the Mekong is to swing between life’s extremes. From this we cross the border to Cambodia and dock at Phnom Penh. Before we know it, we’re click-clacking over the silver floor tiles of the Silver Pagoda in the Royal Palace complex. The pagoda houses a gold Buddha encrusted with 2086 diamonds. We lunch underneath the canopy of a sprawling tree in the courtyard of Raffles Hotel Le Royal, a landmark that over the years has hosted famous faces such as Somerset Maugham and Jackie Kennedy.

From Phnom Penh, we leave the Mekong to veer up the Tonle Sap River towards Siem Reap. Along the way, we visit a village where the salesmanship of textiles is so intense that it’s a relief to return to the ship. Lloyd says that in some places, villagers have started selling factory-made scarves instead of handmade ones. (His message to those who want to experience the Mekong is to see it now before it changes too much.)

The journey is also filled with simple moments that stay with you. I receive a lesson in Cambodian from the village kids running alongside my oxcart as it bumps along a track above flooded rice paddy fields. Later, as we reboard the Adventurer to be greeted with cold towels and iced tea, the same children gather into a riverbank choir to sing a chorus of If You’re Happy and You Know It.

The last stretch of our 550-kilometre route takes us onto Tonle Sap Lake - South-East Asia’s largest freshwater lake. The river and lake edges are sometimes hard to define as they’re crowded with homes on stilts, floating churches and goose pens. It’s hard to farewell the Adventurer and its crew as we disembark for Siem Reap, but we know there’s something wonderful waiting for us. In between swanning around Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor and its huge emerald-green pool, we dive into the extraordinary temple complex of Angkor Wat. This architectural masterpiece is the largest religious monument in the world and the country’s most celebrated attraction. What a way to finish this journey.

Katrina Lobley - Published in Voyeur April 2016
Quick Facts 
Population 8 million
Time Zone GMT + 7
Languages Vietnamese (official), French, English and Cantonese
Currency Vietnamese dong
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