Daniel Allen joins luxury line Scenic in Vietnam to find out how a voyage along the Mekong offers colour, commerce and culture
With tendrils of morning mist still clinging to the surface of the Mekong, Cai Be market is in full swing. Women in conical straw hats (non la) paddle heaped mounds of fruit and rice on low wooden sampans, weaving their way between larger vessels, their sterns draped in flapping laundry. Slow-moving barges laden with sand and shingle navigate around the floating melée, black-eyed prows low to the turbid water. In the distance, the delicate spire of a Catholic church rises somewhat incongruously above a mass of stilted houses. Good morning, Vietnam.
A short drive southwest of Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon), the Mekong river is one of the world’s great waterways. From its source among the snow-clad peaks of China’s Tibetan Plateau, it flows over 4,350km before eventually emptying into the South China Sea.
The Mekong’s vast, labyrinthine life support system makes the perfect place for a leisurely river cruise. The so-called “rice bowl” of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta presents travellers with a seemingly never-ending expanse of greenery. Most of the country’s fish, fruit and rice come from the region, and it shows: almost everywhere something is flowering, fruiting, or being harvested. Upriver, across the Cambodian border, Buddhist temples house young armies of shaven-headed, saffron-robed monks, while Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s thriving capital, retains a provincial intimacy.
The Mekong takes its name from the Thai and Lao mae nam, meaning “mother of rivers”. A voyage on its lower stretches today takes place on waters that still nourish some of Southeast Asia’s most captivating culture and scenery.
By mid-afternoon, Scenic Spirit – one of a growing fleet of luxury Mekong cruise ships – has moored outside the town of Sa Dec. Passengers are ferried ashore, past paddy fields and cattle egrets.
The market stalls of Sa Dec display the Mekong’s largesse in all its glory. There are bowls of purple-shelled crabs and gigantic sea snails, pails of translucent shrimp and every type of fruit, vegetable and spice imaginable. There are chickens and ducks and pigs and fried grasshoppers and river lobsters – a Noah’s ark of regional produce that is perused and purchased by local shoppers.
On the outskirts of Sa Dec, the so-called “Lover’s House” was once home to Huynh Thuy Le, son of an affluent Chinese family, who had a love affair with a 15-year-old French schoolgirl. This young girl was Marguerite Duras, who used the experience to inspire the writing of her best-selling novel and subsequent film, The Lover. For those that have viewed Jean-Jacques Annaud’s masterpiece in Scenic Spirit’s on-board library of Indochinese-themed films, the experience is especially poignant.
Cruise ships on the Mekong are typically luxurious affairs, with an array of mod cons and multi-stop cultural programmes. Most sail northbound from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap (or vice versa). The best time to travel is between November and February, when the weather is cooler and the rainy season has finished.
Home to some of the most intensive agriculture on the planet, there is little left of the forest that once covered this region. This makes a visit to Tra Su, an 850-hectare wetland close to the Vietnamese city of Chau Doc, all the more rewarding.
The following day, propelled by Vietnamese women in blue tunics, a small group of Scenic guests patrol Tra Su’s dappled waterways and corridors of gnarled mangrove trunks, pushing their way through a living carpet of lilies and water lettuce. Dotted among the vegetation, an array of surprisingly tame birdlife – from black-crowned night herons to bronze-winged jacana and glossy ibis, this enchanted forest is an ornithologist’s utopia.
“This forest is a beautiful reminder of how vibrant life used to be right across the delta,” says Cuc, one of Tra Su’s small army of rowboat ladies. “I’m glad this piece survived. Tourism can help to protect it.”
Crossing the border, Scenic Spirit arrives in Phnom Penh at dawn. Under a pastel-hued sky, a smattering of fishing boats put-put across a tranquil Mekong, their bodies and nets silhouetted against the river’s sun-kissed waters.
In Cambodia, the Mekong becomes noticeably quieter. Gone are Vietnam’s barges of rice and riverside wharves. Thanks to its traumatic past, when the country endured the mass killings of the Khmer Rouge regime, the country is far less developed than its southern neighbour.
Guests spend the morning on a tour of the sleepy Cambodian capital, but, with three-quarters of Cambodia’s population still rural, it is away from the big city that the country really comes alive. From impromptu monk’s blessings and ox cart rides to traditional handicrafts and children’s diving competitions, a journey on the Mekong offers a fascinating snapshot of contemporary Cambodian life.
While the people of the Cambodian countryside are invariably poor, Buddhist beliefs give them a gentle serenity. At Koh Chen, a small island in the Tonle Sap River around 30km from Phnom Penh, Scenic guests are welcomed into open-air silver workshops and boutiques. While there’s no pressure to buy, many choose to purchase an ornate bowl or stunning piece of jewellery.
The last major stop on the cruise is Wat Hanchey, a hilltop pagoda and temple complex near Kompong Cham. An important centre of worship during the Chenla Empire (550-800 CE), it boasts a heavily eroded, Chenla-era sanctuary in red brick, complete with well-preserved inscriptions in ancient Sanskrit.
As a gong clangs, a procession of young monks files into the wooden canteen, each clutching a plastic bowl. On a nearby terrace, a group of us admire the pagoda’s magnificent views of the Mekong. Broad and lazy, the river is wide here, and flanked by tobacco plantations and sugar palms.
Centuries ago, the Vietnamese called the Mekong “Cuu Long”, or the Nine Dragons (on account of its nine main channels). Today, both for comfort and cultural immersion, a waterborne voyage is the only way to experience their many moods.
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