South-east Asia’s main river is tipped as the hot destination for keen cruisers
If there’s a river of the moment, it’s the Mekong. Numbers are still small, as the boats are generally boutique-style, but the main operators say they’re sold out for most of 2012 already, such is the desire of the travelling public to explore the remote villages and magnificent temples along the river’s course.
Ama Waterways started the Mekong craze among the big, contemporary lines with its colonial-style La Marguerite, in 2009 and enjoyed such success that a second vessel, AmaLotus was launched in 2011, sailing between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City on an eight-day meander along the vast, slow-flowing river, past tiny villages, rice fields and temples.
For a more inclusive holiday, add on AMA’s tour options, so you get an overnight in Hanoi, a night on a wooden junk in stunning Ha Long Bay, a whole day at Angkor Wat and two nights in Ho Chi Minh City.
Uniworld is launching its own river cruiser on the Mekong in September 2012, the River Saigon. Itineraries will include a 17-day cruise through Vietnam and Cambodia, starting with a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels (the passageways used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War).
Other highlights include visits to Buddhist monasteries and floating markets, with the undisputed high point being a tour of Angkor Wat, the jungle-shrouded temples that are today protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Viking River Cruises
Viking River Cruises offers the Mekong using the 66-passenger RV Tonle, another beautifully crafted ship finished in brass and teak and elegantly designed in French colonial style; this one belongs to locally-owned Pandaw River Cruises.
Some fantastic excursions are included, including a tour by small boat to the Kampong Chnang Wetlands and a Sampan boat excursion and a visit to a floating market Avalon will launch new Mekong cruises in April 2012 on the new, 32-passenger
Avalon Angkor, the only ship that can sail all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap across the massive Tonle Sap lake, cutting out a lengthy coach journey.
The basic itinerary is a 14-day tour including three nights in a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City; seven nights on the river; two nights in a hotel in Siem Reap; and one in Bangkok. Hanoi and the scenic Halong Bay, or a couple of days in Laos, can be bolted on to this.
APT works closely with partner AmaWaterways and has two Mekong itineraries next year, on AmaLotus or La Marguerite; 15-, 18- and 22-day tours which include Vietnam and Cambodia.
Best of the Rest
Colonial-style cruisers are sold by operators including Noble Caledonia and eWaterways, both of which offer variations on the same itinerary. It’s also possible to cruise the northern reaches of the Mekong, beyond Thailand’s Golden Triangle and into Laos, where Mekong River Cruises, has three pretty, wooden vessels.