From Clients: Dave Henry & Michelle LeBlanc.  Sailed on Aqua Expedtions in October, 2024
We started with a two-night stay in Ho Chi Minh City, though the locals still call it Saigon and so should you. The bustling, relatively compact downtown – known as District 1 - feels more ‘western’ than any other part of Vietnam, with the luxury hotels to prove it. The Continental Saigon, Rex and Reverie are all clustered around stately Nguyen Hue Boulevard near the city hall, cathedral, and old central post office.

This is where Vietnam’s modern, international food scene is happening too, with updated local fare, ethnic foods like Indian, Korean, and Thai, and all sorts of mashups. We even found a German beer garden.

Saigon is the most common starting point for a Mekong River cruise. Your operator will most likely pick you up at your hotel for the hour and a half drive to the Mekong River. We had chosen the Aqua Mekong river cruise and loved every minute of it. From the first step on board, with a generous and sincere welcome by the crew, it was obvious this travel experience would be a cut above.

It began with the river itself. From the perspective of the upper deck lounge, welcome beverage in hand, the first long look at the Mekong takes your breath away. Wide and calm, with the late afternoon sun reflecting off the river perfectly, it’s a photographer’s paradise.

Mekong Sunset 

Having been on several river and ocean cruises, we were surprised – no, thrilled - at the size of our cabin, with a full king-size bed, very private balcony, and a hotel-sized bathroom with a rain shower that defied its setting. Touches like individual air conditioning control, crisp linens, soft robes, lots of bottled water, fresh fruit, and a coffeemaker made the space feel even more welcoming.

After a delicious ‘sail away’ dinner – all the meals were great, with choices of local or ‘western’ dishes – and a slow, quiet overnight journey upriver, we spent our first day in the market town Sa Đéc, one of the places French novelist and playwright Marguerite Duras lived.
Our chef led us on a tour of the main food market and said, without exaggeration, “Vietnamese don’t shop at the market every day, they shop here twice every day.” It was a maze of stalls, people on foot and on mopeds, choosing from a massive selection of fruit and vegetables, seafood, and other proteins both familiar and exotic. Each day’s excursion was like that: easygoing, informative, and truly eye-opening.

Twice during the cruise, we chose bike rides; a great way to see how people really live in rural southeast Asia.  The first was on an island in the middle of the river, with access only by ferryboat. There were just three of us on the ride, so even though we were with a guide, it felt more like a casual spin than a guided tour. We stopped along the way for homemade popcorn – kernels roasted in an oven then whacked with an iron plate for a real pop - and fresh coconut water from fruit cut open by a young man in Manchester United sandals when we arrived at his tiny roadside stand.

The highlight was being invited, completely unplanned, into one of the island’s oldest homes. As we rode by the owner waved and said hello, like almost everyone did, and struck up a conversation with our guide. Next thing you know we’re in a hundred-year-old, two-story, wood-beam home filled with homemade tools for everyday life: wooden bowls and chopsticks, woven baskets and rugs, dried and tied branches with broad leaves for brooms, and a tiny elevated alter in the front yard.

The second bike ride – just two of us with two guides -- started in Koh Chen, a Cambodian village on the Tonle Sap River known for silver mining and craftsmanship. After an informative visit to a silversmith, we rode on raised roads across the low countryside, crisscrossed with flooded rice paddies. One of our guides, a modest and kind Cambodian farmer in his ‘real’ life, took us to a small farm where the woman of the family was proudly raising several water buffalo and a prized black cow from India. The kids of the house, two young boys and a tiny little girl, followed us around, always smiling, as if we were visiting royalty.

On the other end of the spectrum was the day we spent in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Frenetic and art-brut urban, there are scooters and tuk-tuks everywhere, low slung markets like mazes, and brand-new Chinese-funded glass towers reaching for the sky.

We started at the Royal Palace of Cambodia, a complex of nine massive buildings with living quarters, royal pavilions for royal entertaining, spaces for historical artwork, and Buddhist shrines that are all relatively new – from the late 1800’s. The flamboyant structures, with both Khmer and Indian architectural references, occupy a quiet compound, manicured and shaded, that feels almost like a botanical garden.

Far from the palace and its adjoining ‘embassy row’ neighborhood, we visited the famous old Russian Market, so richly dense it very quickly overwhelms, and recovered by sitting on a side street Cambodian (and Vietnamese) style, on tiny plastic chairs with a tiny plastic table, some peanuts, and good cold local beer.

The grand finale of our day trip to Phnom Penh was a late lunch at the very modern, very swank Rosewood hotel, served in the 37th floor restaurant with views of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, the capital's old town, the Royal Palace, the National Museum, and a hodgepodge of russet-red rooftops.

Even amongst these adventures and more, our favorite excursion was kayaking through a floating village on gorgeous Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems in the world, designated as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1997 over 25 years ago.

Kayaking in Vietnam

Setting off in a tandem kayak, again with two guides so that we were a group of just four, we paddled slowly on sparkling smooth waters past floating homes and grocery shops, boat repair places, houses of worship, and even city hall, all tethered together in clusters so they can float up in the rainy season and down in the dry season. Again, everyone smiled, and many enthusiastically said “hello!” Then we paddled into the dense treetop jungle behind the village, feeling very much like explorers from centuries ago, emerging to find our tender boat just a few yards away, and the Aqua Mekong anchored majestically in the distance. Simply put: best excursion ever.

A real treat every day was when we got back to the boat, the smiling faces of the crew greeting us along with cold towels and cool refreshments. From that moment on it was easy to settle into evenings in the social areas, where the full, well-staffed bar made local specials every day, or just about anything else you wanted, including cold local beer that went down easy, and some surprisingly big-name spirits (Macallan, Redbreast, etc.) from the western world.

There were activities onboard too; talks on local history and culture, traditional song and dance, and cooking classes from the engaging, well-trained Cambodian chef – our favorite was learning to make spring rolls like a pro.

Girl in Market

For the Aqua Mekong itinerary, there was a four-night option ending in Phnom Penh, but our six-night cruise ended up near the magical Cambodian city of Siem Reap, home of the massive and compelling Angkor Wat complex of temples, so a two-night visit there, or more, is a no-brainer.

We also chose to add three more stops in Vietnam: beautiful Halong Bay, the historical town Hoi An, and bustling Hanoi. Each place compelling in its own way, the three-week trip gave us real insight into the character of the very spiritual people of Vietnam and Cambodia, and the stunning beauty of their home countries.