Meandering down the Mekong, some of the most indelible scenes are revealed when the sun rises and sets. The sky is painted shades of blush and orange, with streaks of white and gold.
As the longest river in South-east Asia and 12th longest in the world, the Mekong is the lifeblood for millions who live along its banks. As one plies the waters from Cambodia to Vietnam, life unfurls. Villagers bathe in the waters and trade along the banks. Men cast traditional fishing nets into the river pregnant with freshwater fish at daybreak, and, at day’s end, kids paddle around, holding large banana trunks as a floating device.
Throughout the day, all manner of transportation cruise the river – from sampans and long-tail boats to mid-sized boats bearing edible cargo. Ferries shuttle motorbikes and cars from one riverbank to another, and large vessels carry a mountain of rice husks, to be used as fuel or fish feed. Downstream towards Saigon, there are scores of floating fish farms lining the river. The fish farming industry, which took off around the mid-1990s, produces thousands of freshwater fish such as catfish and tilapia.
Chic Floating Home
To revel in a slice of what this region has to offer and go beyond the reach of guidebooks, we embark on a three-night journey on board the Aqua Mekong. This is the first five-star small luxury cruise to travel along the Mekong River between Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and Cambodia. CEO Francesco Galli Zugaro, who started his career with small, luxury expedition cruises in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, founded Aqua Expeditions, which also operates two popular cruises in the Amazon.
There is no greater luxury than personalised attention – and with a one-to-one crew-to-passenger ratio, one can expect just that. Upon boarding the boat with a 40-man crew, we are presented with cold towels and refreshing mocktails at the lounge area. Throughout the journey, each guest is greeted by his or her name, adding to the personalised touch. Cruise director Joni Aker is always on hand to assist with any request. She says: “We want our guests to feel as though they are at home.” By the fourth day, we are reluctant to leave our amazing floating abode.
The vessel is fashioned in the style of a floating resort, and designed with local sustainable materials such as timber and natural fibres. Standout features include the generous space and floor-to-ceiling windows, which lend unobstructed views of the waterways. Unlike bigger cruise ships, there’s no issue of overcrowdedness on Aqua Mekong, and no feeling of claustrophobia or seasickness on these gentle waters.
“We try to offer a range of cuisines that represents the countries through which the boat sails.”
– chef David Thompson
The 20 suites are furnished with plush king-size beds. Eight of the rooms are designed with large balconies, and the rest kitted out with comfortable daybeds next to sliding glass doors. The bathrooms feature dual sinks, rainforest shower, and organic hair and bath amenities. There are also nespresso machines for our caffeine fix.
The boat also houses spa treatment rooms, a screening room for movie nights, a sleek dining room, a well-stocked bar at the lounge, a gym, plus an inviting plunge pool at the observation deck. This breezy deck is possibly one of the best vantage points on board. There’s also complimentary Wi-Fi for those who want to post Instagram photos or check their Facebook feeds.
As the sun dips and the water glows, we set sail blissfully, southwards to Saigon. Away from Phnom Penh’s hustle and bustle, we sleep soundly, soothed by the gentle sloshing of the waters.
Instead of heading downstream from Phnom Penh to Saigon/ Ho Chi Minh City, you can choose to start your journey in Vietnam and head north to Cambodia and explore the Tonle Sap River, which connects to the Mekong. Aqua Expeditions operates three-, four- and seven-night cruises between Ho Chi Minh City, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Cruises carry a maximum of 40 passengers and 40 crew members. There is also a paramedic on board at all times. Prices start at US$3,660 (S$4,900) per person for three nights, and this includes accommodation, meals, housepours/wines/beers, excursions and transfers. For daily excursions, biking options are available for those who want to explore the surroundings on wheels.
Feasts on Board
A unique experience for foodies is the special ‘chef hosted departures’. Celebrity chef David Thompson of Long Chim restaurants in Singapore and Australia, and the award-winning Nahm in Bangkok, is Aqua Mekong’s consulting chef. Guests get the privilege of savouring the top chef’s cooking, as well as bantering with him throughout the journey. The effervescent Australian culinary maestro – well-known known for his boldly flavoured Thai cuisine – works closely with Adrian Broadhead (the cruise’s F&B manager) and a team of Cambodian and Vietnamese chefs. The brigade of chefs expertly fuses culinary traditions of the Mekong with fresh ingredients from the local markets.
For the menu, Thompson tries to curate a combination of robust Thai dishes and more delicate Vietnamese, Cambodian flavours, along with Western meals, to suit different palates. Most of the dishes served represent the countries through which the boat sails.
Dinner might involve a dish of aromatic beef satay and grilled river prawns served communal style, or an Aussie-style barbecue replete with delicious salads and sides. For lunch, there may be one-dish meals such as a piquant Bangkok-style chicken laksa or anise-scented Vietnamese beef pho, sprinkled liberally with fresh herbs and crunchy bean sprouts. After a day out in the sun, it really isn’t hard for us to make the hearty dishes disappear.
The kitchen uses only the best-quality ingredients. Broadhead shares: “For instance, we serve Tajima Wagyu from Japan for the barbecue dinner, and Cape Grim beef from Tasmania for the beef pho.” He adds: “We get our cheeses from Europe and smoked salmon from Norway. And we try to source for fresh fish from the coastal region of Cambodia.”
One of the highlights of the chef-hosted journey is the culinary masterclass by Thompson. In the morning, the chefs take the passengers on a tour of a market in the town of Sa Dec in Dong Thap province, Vietnam. Makeshift wooden tables are crammed with all manner of flora and fauna including tilapia, snakehead fish, catfish, river sprats, fermented shrimps, slippery eels, skinned field rats, pig’s heads and dried tree frogs. A woman pushes a cart displaying various cuts of fresh pork, while others crouch on the ground selling bamboo shoots, lotus flowers, perilla leaves, fish mint and the ubiquitous basil – all essential to the cuisine of this region.
In the afternoon, back on our floating home, the chefs demonstrate how to make a traditional Cambodian green curry. Using mortar and pestle, they pound “kroeung” or a Khmer-style spice paste made of galangal, lemongrass and turmeric, for the base of the curry. They also introduce us to “prahok”, a pungent Cambodian fermented fish paste, which is used to season the dish.
“I wanted to make this green curry which showcases delicious and delicate Cambodian flavours,” says Thompson. The curry partners rice noodles, and is topped with ingredients such as sliced water lily stem, loofah flower, mint leaves, shredded banana blossom, a scattering of bean sprouts, and more “prahok”. During the informative session, guests are encouraged to question the chefs and ask for tips. The class concludes with a tasting session.
The Ultimate River Safari
To allow passengers to immerse themselves in life amid the communities lining the Mekong, two excursions are offered daily. Four professionally trained English-speaking guides lead small groups on these expeditions ashore in the mornings and afternoons. The affable guides who grew up along the Mekong River have profound insider knowledge of the region, and willingly share their knowledge on history, tradition, culture and communities.
Hop aboard Aqua Mekong’s specially designed 10-seater skiff or launch boat, which glides through tributaries, weaving through flotillas of water hyacinth plants along the way. When you reach land, you can choose to go on foot or cycle around the countryside and villages.
The itineraries vary at times, and may include a local rickshaw or xe loi ride around town, or a visit to Long Son Pagoda on a hilltop where we witness a soothing chanting ceremony by temple monks. Here, you have a bird’s eye view of emerald green paddy fields woven into the tapestry of the land.
A good holiday operator knows that there is nothing more precious than authentic local experiences. So Aqua Mekong’s team may take you to a villager’s home, where you will be warmly greeted like long-lost family. We find ourselves ushered to a table laden with a bounty of local fruit, sweet treats and rice-paper rolls stuffed with snakehead fish meat and herbs. The brave can wash down the food with homemade rice wine. With such rare hospitality, it’s best not to overthink it. Just drink up the potent moonshine and thank your hosts. We also enjoy an energetic “unicorn” dance (similar to Chinese dragon dance) and traditional folk songs performed by the friendly villagers.
“We want our guests to feel as though they are at home.”
– Joni Aker, cruise director
On another day, in another village, watch the ubiquitous rice paper being made from scratch. Batter is ladled from a big vat and poured onto a crepe-like pan. When the rice paper starts to solidify, it is carefully flipped onto bamboo racks to dry. There are peanut and rice crispies, and coconut candy being crafted and hand-moulded, to boot.
As your skiff heads back to the cruise anchored in the middle of the river, use your zoom lens to capture folks having a snooze on hammocks, teenagers perched on sampans and little kids swimming. Give them a wave, and you are guaranteed the heartiest welcome.
Indeed, while pampered by all the luxurious material spoils one can ask for, it is the priceless warmth of the local people that makes a journey like this truly exceptional.