Cruising the Mekong Delta

Author: Rob Ingram
Photography: Sharyn Cairns

It's years since I've given much thought to Rudyard Kipling. And then it was only about his name. Is it an anagram? Is a Kipling a small nap in the afternoon? Is a Rudyard a scrapyard for former Australian prime ministers?

But here I am suddenly trying to recall the words to Kipling's poem Mandalay. I can manage: "On the road to Mandalay / Where the flyin' fishes play / An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the bay!"

Then there's something about the spicy garlic smells, and the sunshine and the palm trees and the tinkling temple bells.

Okay, being on the road to Mandalay, Kipling was almost certainly chuggin' up the Irrawaddy, while I'm cruising serenely up the Mekong. But the flying fishes and the dramatic dawn, and the spicy garlic smells, and the tinkling temple bells are all here - and so is the same romance and the same sense of adventure.

The Mekong has been known as the River of Nine Dragons, but today it's the river of a million watercraft: canoes, sampans, bamboo rafts, fishing boats, work boats, ferries, barges, dredgers and tankers. Boats carrying kids to school, pigs to market and rice to the world. And the never-ending procession of clumps of water hyacinth hurrying downstream like pilgrims on a journey to a coastal holy place.

But to date it has never seen anything like our vessel - the cutting-edge-design Aqua Mekong carrying a maximum of 40 passengers in conspicuous style and sophistication on three-, four- and seven-day upriver and downriver cruises along the Vietnam and Cambodian Mekong.

Operated by Aqua Expeditions, the Aqua Mekong operation is the brainchild of founder and CEO Francesco Galli Zugaro. He began his association with small, luxury expedition ships in the Galápagos Islands, then created Aqua Expeditions to share the grandeur and importance of the Amazon River with a clientele of sophisticated adventure-seekers.

Zugaro rather wonderfully labels his product "nine-to-five adventure" - daytime excursions exploring fascinating cultures, religions, traditions and ecosystems, and returning to the luxury, service and style expected of a five-star hotel. There's a distinct Indochine aesthetic at work on the boat which was designed by Ho Chi Minh City-based architecture and interiors studio Noor Design. Local natural materials such as the timbers and artisan woven fibres are both sustainable and stylish, and exotic displays of fresh tropical flora throughout the beauty and complexity of the river's ecology.

The Mekong wasn't an obvious choice as Zugaro's second river. With two boats operating on the Peruvian stretch of the Amazon, he travelled through Africa, India and China looking for a new river adventure before discovering the appeal and interest of the Mekong as it flows through Vietnam and Cambodia.

"Then it all fell into place," he says. "A major attraction on our Amazon cruises is a visit to Machu Picchu, one of the world's most impressive man-made wonders. On the Mekong, we have Angkor Wat and its surrounding monuments and temples - two of the world's most incredible archaeological sites. How could we resist?"

For this reason, I'd recommend the upriver cruises, with the spectacle of Angkor ruins maintaining the sense of anticipation. Our seven-night cruise begins in Ho Chi Minh City with a transfer to My Tho, a port an hour away in the Mekong Delta, from where the cruise departs. Ho Chi Minh City is actually on the Saigon River and while Ho Chi Minh City is the politically correct name insisted upon by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam, locals invariably still call it Saigon and its international airport code is SGN.

Before choosing the Mekong as his second river, Zugaro had to satisfy himself that Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, in Cambodia - the embarkation and disembarkation points - offered the sort of upmarket facilities required by his target market.

Ho Chi Minh's Hotel InterContinental Asiana Saigon, Park Hyatt Saigon and the Caravelle are all genuine five-star properties and each radiates a distinctive character. The InterContinental is in tune with the pulse of modern Vietnam; the Park Hyatt captures the essence of modern Vietnam; and the Caravelle echoes a time and place when the world's attention was focused on Vietnam. For the famous correspondents who covered the Vietnam War - the Vietnamese still call it the American War - the Caravelle was base camp. Stop by their famous watering hole, the Saigon Saigon Bar, and raise a glass to their commitment - perhaps a Journalist's Juice, which is a befuddlement of whisky, amaretto, pineapple juice, lime juice and anise syrup and was probably the cause of many typographical errors.

Ho Chi Minh City today is home to a youthful population of nine million people who all finish work at the same time and all ride motorbikes, six abreast and not necessarily in the same direction. But despite the chaos in Vietnam's biggest city, Vietnam itself remains a rural society. Stressed residents' memories are of home and the rhythm of work in the paddy fields, of a life of harmony achieved through a strong relationship with nature.

Along the Mekong, the river becomes their identity. Life here becomes a rhythm of tides and seasons. An ancient culture is superimposed on the most modern of backdrops. As we dock in Phnom Penh, a vibrant city whose growth is fuelled by a decade of strong economic growth, I spot an elderly man at the water's edge casting a traditional circular fishing net used by the river people for centuries. He is silhouetted against a huge electronic KFC billboard as luxury European cars and the inevitable swarm of motorcycles roar past above him.

When our cruise departs we settle into generous, airy cabins each with floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto expansive river views, some with balconies, some without. Beds rated Californian King - and able to host a modest-sized swingers' party - plus a chic twin-vanity bathroom reinforce the luxury image.



The boat features such thoughtful additions as two spa treatment rooms, a screening room with theatre-style seating, and indoor dining room with the option of outdoor private dining, a library-games room, a plunge pool with private cabanas, and a fitness centre.

But, listen up food lovers, with the greatest respect to the fascinating cultures, religions and ecosystems, most passengers disembark talking about the food. When Francesco Galli Zugaro first pondered the food element of his Aqua Mekong experience, the clouds parted and a blinding ray of light illuminated an image of Thai and Indochina food guru David Thompson.

Following the acclaim of his Darley Street Thai and Sailors Thai restaurants in Sydney, Thompson's Nahm restaurant in London became the first Thai restaurant ever to gain a Michelin star. His Nahm restaurant in Bangkok was recently named Asia's best, and his new Long Chim restaurant at Singapore's Marina Bay Sands complex is creating high excitement there.

Thompson has created the menus for the Aqua Mekong dining room and a chef from within his organisation is in the kitchen at all times. They say you should be careful of what you wish for, but wish for Bangkok-based West Australian Annita Potter in the kitchen and former Tetsuya's sommelier Greg Plowes managing the dining room - cool professionalism on cruise control.

Dishes served at lunch and dinner alone would probably cost hundreds a day if presented at Nahm Bangkok, and for Aqua Mekong team Thompson sources ingredients from Mekong River markets and regional producers - items such as Mekong prawns and catfish, crab, duck, the famous Kampot pepper, jackfruit, longan, betel leaves and banana blossom.

The food captures the essence of the place and the whole Aqua Mekong experience. It's exotic, fragrant, surprising and adventurous. Taste, texture and seasoning each provide highlights and, as always, Thompson pulls off the rare trick of using robust ingredients to create subtle elegance. And there's no doubting the authenticity. Thompson and Plowes were in an obscure Ho Chi Minh City marketplace one day when they encountered an elderly woman cooking a rice porridge for the market workers. You get to try it for breakfast - rice porridge with pork and chilli - and rolled oats will never taste as good again. For the less adventurous, there's a Continental breakfast buffet and regular Mediterranean food options at lunch and dinner.

But the first-hand insight into life along the Mekong is - and should be - the indelible experience. Four high-speed tenders allow passengers to enjoy excursions ashore or to visit floating villages two or three times a day. Guided walking and cycling tours are offered at most stops, and the ship's shallow draft and its fleet of tenders gives it an advantage over other river cruisers which need to dock.

Countless temples and monasteries maintain an important link to the divine and to ancestors, even the hallowed Angkor Wat being ranked "living heritage" because it remains a place of worship. Excursions to villages still coming to grips with European visitors and to private homes show that, as with their spiritual beliefs, the Vietnamese and Cambodians have maintained their traditions in architecture and lifestyle. Open courtyards allow the spirits to circulate, and luxuriant gardens remain ungroomed respecting what nature has endowed them with. And each evening, there's the Kipling-esque sense of romance as the setting sun turns the Mekong the colour of pewter and the riverbank trees stand out against pink-tinged storm clouds.

We visit villages dedicated to silk-weaving, silversmithing, mat-making and pottery and we sit with the venerable Mahayana Buddhist monks of Long Son Tu Temple and those at the floating monastery at Moat Khla, and we try to understand their lifestyle and they try to understand ours. And away from the busy, muddy highway of the Mekong's floating traffic there's the beauty and serenity of the sunken forests and the 22,000-hectare Prek Toal Core bird sanctuary on Tonlé Sap Lake.

The Khmer Empire, centred on Angkor at its peak, was once one of the most powerful in South East Asia and Cambodians have always regarded the Mekong as the Silk Road on water. Today, Cambodia still poses something of a paradox. Few nations ever managed to express mankind's creativity with such beauty in their art and architecture, but suffered such brutality and inhumanity as the Cambodians did at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Today's capital Phnom Penh has as much charm as the Cambodian people themselves. It gives the impression of still growing into the role of a political, commercial and economic centre . Take away the chaos of peak-hour traffic and it's more big village than hectic metropolis. On its pretty tree-lined boulevards, people stroll and chat and enjoy the sidewalk society inherited from its days as an exotic outpost of the French Colonial Empire. It remains a bistro and boutique sort of town with French colonial villas and Art Deco architecture dotted among its important modern buildings. But most of all in a country that can never forget its horrific past, it's youthful, energetic and optimistic as its resilient population picks up the pieces and reassembles their society, culture and lives. Cambodian government has been as rocky as a sampan in the cross-currents of the mighty Mekong but now - much to the relief of the global community - it's reasonably stable largely as a result of massive investment from China and Korea.

And so to our final destination, Siem Reap and the famous temples of the Angkor region. A city of less than a million people, Siem Reap attracts more than two million tourists each year drawn by one of the world's most important archaeological sites. Most visitors are staggered by the sheer size of the World Heritage-listed archaeological park, which extends over 400 square kilometres.

The Khmer Empire of the 9th to 14th centuries encompassed much of South East Asia, and the Angkor complex embraces scores of temples and palaces and a fascinating infrastructure of canals, moats and roads that remain the rich heritage of a powerful civilisation. Temples such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm are exemplars of Khmer architecture and imbued with symbolic cultural, religious and social values.

There is a popular myth that French naturalist Henri Mouhot stumbled upon the ruins of a civilisation unknown to the Western world in the mid-19th century. The current belief is that he merely popularised their existence in the West. But we're all Henri Mouhot when we first set eyes on the famous temple of Angkor Wat. The awe and wonderment of first seeing it evokes the jaw-dropping sense of being the first to ever do so.

There's a whole lot more Mekong beyond Siem Reap, of course - it reaches all the way to China's Tibetan Plateau. But where better to stop than Angkor where the heightened sense of emotion makes you pause to recollect the journey that brought you here.



GETTING THERE
Vietnam Airlines has direct daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh City and vice versa. The largest carrier in Indochina, Vietnam Airlines also operates five daily flights between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap to offer seamless connections to Aqua Mekong. Should you be joining or disembarking Aqua Mekong in Phnom Penh, Vietnam Airlines operates three daily flights between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. 

Aqua Mekong
Aqua Expeditions operates three-, four- and seven-night upriver and downriver cruises between Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia. Cruises are priced from around $4,100 per person twin share for three nights and include suite accommodation, all meals, drinks (house wine, beer and soft-drinks), WiFi, transfers to and from vessel and meeting points in Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, and entrance to itinerary attractions. More information, call 1800 243 152.

STAY
Ho Chi Minh City
InterContinental Asiana Saigon is a slick high-end property with every comfort and convenience while capturing the vibe of modern central Saigon. Cnr Hai Ba Trung St and Le Duan Blvd, Ho Chi Minh City, + 84 8 3520 9999.

Siem Reap
Park Hyatt Siem Reap radiates a relaxed residential ambience by fusing contemporary luxury with the charm of authentic Cambodian hospitality. Sivutha Blvd, Siem Reap, + 855 6321 1234 

EAT
Ho Chi Minh City
Pho Hoa
In a city overflowing with great food not only in hotels, restaurants and markets but on sidewalks, Pho Hoa is the undisputed champion of authentic pho - the renowned staple of Vietnamese cuisine.
260C Pasteur St, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, + 84 8 3829 7943

Siem Reap
Chanrey Tree
The best of both worlds, Chanrey Tree is a cool, chic space remaining true to the traditions of Khmer cuisine. Pokombo Ave, Siem Reap, + 855 6376 7997

DRINK
Ho Chi Minh City
The Saigon Saigon Bar, Caravelle Hotel, maintains a colonial ambience and still echoes with the memories of its wartime activity. 19-23 Lam Son Square, Ho Chi Minh City, + 84 8 3823 4999

Siem Reap
The Living Room, Park Hyatt Siem Reap, is a chic bar-lounge bordered by two colonnades and with an intimate club ambience. The curry cocktail is a must. Sivutha Blvd, Siem Reap, + 855 6321 1234



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