The guard quacks menacingly as we approach a roadside incense factory shaded by branches of a jackfruit tree. Gabbing geese blab noisily as their crouching owner, Uncle Do, dips bamboo sticks into a basin of soft, sage-green powder, gently flutters the sticks, and then dunks them into water. Uncle Do fashions 10,000 sticks a day, first grinding sun-dried leaves of the silk cotton (kapok) tree, before drying the splayed colourful clusters on Tiger Island.
It’s an important job, explains our guide, Jack: “Incense is the link between the spiritual world and physical world. The smoke is an offering and goes to heaven.”
The spiritual world guides daily life in Vietnam and it is more visible than I expected in the Mekong Delta: Gothic spires on Catholic churches rise out of higgledy-piggledy towns, a colourful Buddha statue reigns over mythical figures at a Taoist temple, a riot of twisting pink and green dragons embellish a church of Cao Dai where worshippers pray to Buddha, Christ, Lenin, Victor Hugo and Shakespeare, and the bows of river barges resemble water creatures with glaring big black eyes to scare spirit monsters of the river.
Uncle Do’s holy smoke is being made on Tiger Island, the first of our stops on a new four-night cruise route from Can Tho, 3.5 hours from Ho Chi Minh City, upstream to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and vice versa. The new Victoria Mekong takes the Song Hau distributary, away from all other Mekong cruise ships, and is the first ‘eco-cruise’ in the delta.
Tiger Island, ringed with bamboo, mango and banana, is hemmed in by fish farms where red tilapia in their thousands thrash about in pens. We explore on foot and motorbike rickshaw passing market stalls stacked with chopped watermelon and twitching fish in bowls. The main road is a tribute to nature: framed with mango and jackfruit trees, red hibiscus and pink bougainvillea, bonsai gardens, and coconut husk piles; and one-storey homes bear pretty baby blue fretting embellished with dragon detail.
Not only is Vietnam’s Delta the “kingdom of the tropical fruit”, according to Jack it’s also the rice bowl of the country, delivering 40 million tonnes of grain each year.
I had been tempted to think of Vietnam’s delta as full of quiet and quaint activity but while home businesses tick away amid hidden canals under wild and fragrant greenery, larger channels form major highways. From our cruise we watch barges piled with rice, sand, fruit and veg plough by, dwarfing smaller sampans from which fishermen cast their nets in the early morning light. Floating gas stations have set up shop near a floating market – anchored boats piled high with potato, pineapple and coconuts to lure buyers – and clanking ferries, rammed with motorbikes, the transport mode of choice for Vietnam’s growing middle class, crisscross the river.
Cambodia’s Mekong River, by contrast, is quiet: a lush green mantle of forest disturbed only by slim golden pagoda spires. That is until we reach Phonm Penh at sunset; once a sleepy Southeast Asian capital, it is now rampantly energetic with billboards, construction and a cool line in speakeasies and garden restaurants.
Victoria Mekong’s all balcony 35 cabins are huge. There’s a small pool on deck, a spacious, light-filled lounge, cinema, massage rooms and a restaurant serving up predominantly fragrant Vietnamese cuisine. The purpose-built ship is fitted with solar panels, is plastic-free, recycles river water for drinking and fresh water and glides effortlessly and silently at an emission-reducing six to eight knots per hour, which cuts costs, too, and reduces riverbank erosion by creating no waves.
With four nights on the river, the slow travel journey connects buzzing Saigon to Phnom Penh, and features unique off-the-beaten-track highlights – home businesses of Tiger Island, Long Xuyên floating market, and the city’s museum, an enterprise which makes rare, highly prized black silk – worn by Hollywood stars – at Tan Chau, a rare Taoist temple and consultation with a fortune teller; and an optional (plus additional payment) journey through the bird and paperbark forest wonderland at Tra Su.
The cruise includes a welcome drink; breakfast, lunch and dinner; free flow of soft beverages all day (mineral water, soft drinks, tea, coffee); local beers; house wine by the glass during lunch and dinner; drinking water in room and during excursions with complimentary refillable bottle; transfers to/from meeting point/ship if included in programme; group offshore excursions included in programme; all entrance fees during offshore excursions; transportation during offshore excursions; tour guides services (English speaking) during cruise; onboard entertainment; internet throughout the boat (subject to cellular network signal); additional complimentary room benefits subject to room category; insurance (passenger liability); taxes, fuel, river pilots; local anchorage fees; ship crew gratuities.
The rise of Mekong river cruise
Before the coronavirus, cruises on the Mekong were booming. Companies launched itineraries, innovated with interiors, facilities and cuisine, and were exploring little known routes to introduce cruise passengers to the charms of this monumental waterway, lifeblood to many in Southeast Asia.
Emerald Waterways’ new ultra modern 84-passenger Emerald Harmony was purpose-built to sail directly into Vietnam’s powerhouse Ho Chi Minh City (other cruises depart from My Tho or Can Tho). APT’s new AmaMekong, with 44 all balcony suites, was designed to sail the lower Mekong and will be the only ship on the river featuring a menu designed by acclaimed Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen. The region’s fragrant cuisine is a highlight, too, for Aqua Expeditions’ Aqua Mekong, which will host Australian chef David Thompson, renowned for his Thai food. Vietnamese-owned Lotus Cruises’ Mekong Jewel boasts 34 glamorous suites that “redefine elegance and luxury for the sophisticated traveller, graced with soft lines and rich tones of French colonial design”, according to Lotus marketing manager Stefan Nguyen.
Heading into under-explored Laos, Heritage Line’s Anouvong will cruise the Upper Mekong between intriguing, low-key capital Vientiane, former royal capital and Unesco wonder Luang Prabang and the Thai border at Huay Xai. Sales and marketing director Andreas Schroetter describes it as “a game-changer when it comes to cruise journeys on the upper reaches of the Mekong.” With just 10 cabins, blending Laotian craft and French glamour, Anouvong will take guests to riverside communities, an elephant sanctuary, soft jungle trekking, kayakings. The Upper Mekong will see a second luxury ship with the launch of Lotus Cruises’ Mekong Muse.