A cruise along the Mekong river through the heart of Vietnam and Cambodia on Viking Mekong is a journey every traveller should make, says Cruise International Editor Liz Jarvis
Hazy morning sunshine filters through the ancient sandstone of Angkor Wat as we make our way across the bridge over the moat that surrounds it, illuminating small holes in the walls that are impossible to miss. “Bullets,” says Phin, our guide. “From the Khmer Rouge.”
Our journey into Vietnam and Cambodia had started in Hanoi, where we were thrust into the noise and chaos of the former North Vietnamese capital. Just crossing the road in Hanoi is a challenge; everyone rides scooters and motorbikes and ignores red lights and pedestrian crossings. The only way to get from one side of the road to the other, in fact, is to brazen it out, holding hands as you dash across (screaming optional).
From Hanoi, a short flight to Siem Reap for Angkor Wat, and full-on Indiana Jones/Lara Croft territory. The challenge is to climb as high as you can in the sweltering heat, although the steps get progressively more treacherous with each level; you’re rewarded with extraordinary views of the temple and jungle. In the afternoon, we visit Angkor Thom, best known for the remarkable Bayon Temple, with its giant carved stone faces and tree roots.
We board Viking Mekong in Kampong Thom. With its polished teak deck the ship is exactly what you want it to be: authentic and relaxing. The staterooms have all the essentials (plus the occasional gecko in the shower), and sliding doors so you can sit outside the balcony, watching the ever-changing scenery along the banks of the Mekong. On the top deck, which is also where you congregate for evening cocktails and the day’s briefing, there are loungers and a bar.
Service is at all times attentive and every single crew member knows your name, a simple touch that makes you feel instantly at home. There are bottles of water on offer when you leave for an excursion and cold towels when you return. The food is consistently excellent (apart from the evening when we’re offered deep-fried spiders and other I’m A Celebrity-style jungle treats which I’m not brave enough to try). Everyone sits at tables of eight so you get to know each other quickly, and we discover that some of the American guests on board are revisiting the places where they were stationed during active service in Vietnam and Cambodia. Lectures and films on board complement the itinerary.
Highlights include a visit to the Udon Monastery where we sit on the floor while two monks chant at us (I’m still not entirely sure what they said) and then shower us with lotus petals, before tying an amulet (in this case a red wool bracelet) on our wrists. We leave feeling a little more blessed than when we went in, and with a privileged insight into the daily lives of the monks and nuns who live at the monastery. In Phnom Penh, we take a thrilling cyclo tour to the Royal Palace, with its glittering pagodas.
At Kampong Cham, by the Twin Holy Mountains of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei, we are chased by macaque monkeys and see giant painted Buddhas. Then, chillingly, a temple housing hundreds of skulls, a vivid and poignant reminder of the devastation caused by Pol Pot’s regime.
Most poignantly of all, we visit the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former prison where so many were tortured before being brutally murdered; we arrive just as the skies darken and rain starts to fall, and we walk round in silence. It’s impossible not to be desperately moved by the fact that 40 years ago Cambodia lost over a third of its people under the Khmer Rouge, some relatives of those we’ve met during our week here. The Cambodian people are warm, hospitable, gracious and dignified.
The Magnicent Mekong itinerary doesn’t shy away from what happened in Cambodia or indeed Vietnam, but there is also lots of positivity during our tour. We’re treated to a superb performance by the Phare Cambodian Circus, a group of kids from deprived backgrounds. A visit to a local village where Viking has installed a well and supports the school brings home the reality that for so many living in Cambodia life is a daily struggle, and meeting the schoolchildren and learning about their ambitions is a humbling experience.
The Mekong is an endlessly fascinating river, wider than you might expect and brown (from the silt), but we see some vivid orange and crimson sunsets, and when it’s stormy, which it is fairly frequently during the rainy season, the river becomes wonderfully atmospheric, the grey skies contrasting with the coffee-coloured water and lush green of the jungle.
At Cái Bè in the Mekong Delta we visit floating markets and in Tân Châu and Vinh Hoa we’re given more insight into the Vietnamese rural way of life. It’s noisy, chaotic and smelly and it feels as though we’re really absorbing the country rather than simply observing it.
This was my first experience of a Viking river cruise, and I was impressed by both the ship and the itinerary, which not only gives you incredible access to the monuments and landmarks in the countries you’re visiting, but also the chance to meet local people and understand their culture and way of life.
Learning more about the history of Vietnam and Cambodia gave us all lots to think and talk about. All the excursions were excellent, well-planned and led by local guides with outstanding knowledge; the hotels we stayed at were all luxurious (special mention should go to the Sofitel Hanoi, where the Graham Greene cocktail – named after the novelist – is a must-try).
Our journey through Southeast Asia ends in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, with its wide boulevards and French architecture, and landmarks including the Reuni cation Palace and Notre Dame cathedral. It’s a fitting conclusion to what has been an exceptional, life-affirming trip. And I’m still wearing my amulet.
GETTING THERE: The 15-day Magnificent Mekong cruise from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City is priced from £3,299pp, departing 2017, including all meals on board, wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, plus 14 guided tours. Visit vikingrivercruises.co.uk for more information.
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