Julie Peasgood and her husband Patrick embark on an unforgettable cruise-and-stay adventure in Vietnam and Cambodia with Scenic
“Have I got tarantula in my teeth?” This is not a question I have ever had to ask before. It’s true that I do have a lot of teeth and harbour a constant fear of food being trapped in them, but this is one type of protein that’s new to me. Also rich in zinc and folic acid, the deep-fried tarantula turns out to be far worse in appearance than in taste, which is curiously smoky and not unlike crunchy chicken.
Historically Cambodians have hunted spiders as an ingredient for traditional medicine, but in the 70s the brutal regime of the sinister Khmer Rouge left much of the population starving, so people were forced to seek them out for food. Now considered a delicacy in Cambodia, we are served them in Phnom Penh’s Romdeng restaurant, an excellent training centre for marginalised youth.
Just one of the initiatives that Scenic support, we learn that the local Cambodian diet also favours mice, ants and crickets, but thankfully these don’t feature on the menu. We spy them, though, in the huge Central Market, where we are transported by tuk-tuk after a city tour of the capital’s graceful colonial buildings. But I’ve had my fill of insects, and am far more interested in the miniature silk kimono I buy for my granddaughter for a few dollars, the kaleidoscope of jewel-bright coconut bowls gracing every stall and the hundreds of distinctive Khmer scarves available in every colour under the sun.
The Treasures of the Mekong itinerary is an adventure from start to finish: an enchanting cruise along the mystical Mekong River, flanked by magnificent hotel stays in Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap. And we’re immersed in Southeast Asian culture at every opportunity: why take a city tour in a coach when you can see the sights in style from an auto rickshaw – a tuk-tuk with bells on (and pretty curtains, too, if you’re lucky).
Our 15-day journey begins in Vietnam. Vivid, crazy and unforgettable, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) boasts 13 million people and nine million scooters and motorbikes, some of which are so laden with piles of plastic crates, bedding, pots, pans and families that they look like huge motorised snails circling round the city. And tomorrow the bravest in our party can ride pillion on a vintage Vespa, experiencing a night-time tour that takes in as much as you can eat of the finest Vietnamese street food.
My husband Patrick and I did toy with this idea, but we just weren’t sure we’d have any appetite left after getting up close and personal with those other 8,999,998 bikes. Besides, we’re destined for a fine dining treat that’s a mere elevator ride away within our luxurious hotel.
Square One at Park Hyatt Saigon (the city is largely still called by its original name) has garnered an impressive collection of rave reviews, and we can now affirm that its reputation is well deserved. Service is keen yet gracious, and our soft shell crab followed by salmon cooked in a clay pot, is succulent and wonderfully aromatic. This is the first of our Scenic Free Choices, a range of carefully chosen, all-inclusive excursions and dining experiences that are tailored to individual requirements, so you can move at your own pace be that active, moderate or relaxed.
The next morning sees us very relaxed and ready to board a speedboat along the Saigon River. We zoom past hundreds of water hyacinths to reach the famed Củ Chi Tunnels, a living museum 40 miles outside Ho Chi Minh City.
Extending for more than 155 miles, this subterranean network of miniscule tunnels gives a sobering insight into the horrors of the Vietnam war, and the sheer resourcefulness and ingenuity the Vietnamese people in defending themselves. Now increased in diameter to accommodate broader Western bottoms, I crouch along one of these ‘tourist tunnels’ for about 20 metres. Although it’s 40 per cent bigger than it was, it is still claustrophobic, and my mind boggles at the feat of engineering, let alone the bravery, of the Viet Cong soldiers.
Our morning eye-opener is balanced by a more light hearted afternoon visit to Beˆ́n Thành Market, one of Saigon’s oldest and most authentic landmarks. Humid and vibrant, the labyrinth of stalls are crammed full of local arts and crafts, lacquer ware and bamboo. Much of it is tacky but it’s still great fun, plus you can practise your bargaining skills to your heart’s content (aim to pay half to two thirds of the original price that’s quoted, and then proceed to walk away if you’re not succeeding).
Day three features an excursion to the War Remnants Museum and intriguing Reunification Palace before travelling south to My˜ Tho, where we board the elegant, custom-built Scenic Spirit. Sipping our glasses of Champagne, we discover the beautifully designed pool area; the chic, airy sun deck with its open-air cinema; the well-equipped laundry room; the fitness centre and sweet-smelling spa; the cosy library and observation lounge and the masseurs in the main River Café lounge, offering 10-minute complimentary tasters to ease any accumulated shoulder tension. I also love the sophisticated Crystal Dining Room, where chef Solomon rules the roost, serving everything from the freshest oysters and the fleshiest lobsters to a daily array of delicious Asian dishes.
And then there are the cabins: 34 sparkling, state-of-the-art suites, each with a private sheltered balcony. The Royal Panorama suites also sport baths and a private Jacuzzi, but even the basic Deluxe suites are without doubt the largest I have ever seen on a river cruise ship.
They are thoughtfully designed too, with numerous secret storage areas and substantial wooden doors to separate the bedroom from the lounge, meaning I can write or bask by the balcony while Patrick reads or watches the large TV (complete with an excellent selection of films).
Best of all are the beds: with hydraulic controls they are wonderfully comfortable, and the ‘pillow menu’ has me in raptures. I opt for the age-defying pillow, with its 100 per cent cotton cover treated with Vitamin E to keep my skin moisturised whilst I sleep. Bliss.
Scenic Spirit has an almost one-to-one staff-to-guest ratio, and then there is our personal butler, who brings us morning tea or whatever we fancy. The company advise that you won’t need your wallet on board as everything is included, all excursions, drinks and gratuities, and other than specialised spa treatments and souvenirs from the tiny shop. This is indeed the case.
Champagne is also available – by the glass or bottle – at any hour of the day, but even I couldn’t cope with bubbles at 8am. Besides which the aromatic detox shots, which appear every morning, are energising me and doing a power of good.
Energy is a prerequisite on our cruise, as Scenic fill each day with a variety of enticing trips and we’re keen to sample as many as we can. Highlights in Vietnam include a sampan cruise past one of the Mekong’s floating markets; enjoying home-made sweets at a coconut candy workshop in Cái Bè; taking tea in the tranquil 19th century home of French novelist Marguerite Duras in Sa Đéc; travelling to visit a tiny silk factory on saluks (tricycles) and meeting a native family in their home on Tân Châu’s verdant Evergreen Island. We’re also treated to an early evening Vietnamese lion dance on the sun deck; a spectacular sight with the sun slipping gradually below the horizon.
In Cambodia there are more fascinating experiences in store: the Royal Palace with its renowned Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh and a thrilling city tuk-tuk tour at night. The chance to enjoy high tea and cocktails at Raffles Hotel; the outstanding Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom where huge tree roots embrace and envelop the ancient stones, and the bleak Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, originally the barbaric torture headquarters of the Khmer Rouge regime, where everyone is shocked and silenced by the atrocities committed here.
Of all our many excursions, our favourites are Scenic Enrich experiences: once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to delve into local history and culture to discover hidden gems – usually not possible without an expert guide.
My favourite begins when we see our transport assembling on the river bank; each pair of oxen pulling their ancient wooden cart is almost biblical, and we begin our journey to Wat Kampong Tralach with a magical ride in an ox-cart.
We pass fields of lotus flowers, their heads waving gently in the early morning sunshine and a tiny township with what appears to be early morning wedding celebrations. Our trip culminates in a Buddhist monk’s blessing in Oudong Temple where I am showered with jasmine flowers. I am in seventh heaven.
Patrick’s favourite Scenic Enrich moment takes place a couple of days later in Siem Reap, when we visit the incredible Phare Cambodian Circus. The performers are young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who undergo two years of training. The show is breathtaking, polished, and jaw-droppingly good – Cambodia’s Cirque du Soleil, only quirkier.
Scenic has saved the best until last, because it’s hard to choose between the blessing, the circus, and colossal Angkor Wat; stunning at dawn when we set cameras aside to toast the sunrise with more Champagne, and even more resplendent in the evening. Visitors are not normally allowed in Angkor Wat after dark, but Scenic has special permission, so we are blessed with a concert featuring mesmeric Apsara dancers and a farewell gala dinner, in front of the candlelit temple ruins. It is an image forever stamped on my mind.
We return to the sanctuary of the distinguished Park Hyatt hotel, where I reflect on our phenomenal itinerary of the past fortnight. The Mekong may not be a pretty river – it is sludgy from silt – but it is a busy, working, life-affirming one, with a power and dignity that I feel privileged to have witnessed, and will never forget.