Cruising the mighty Mekong, every day is a chance to learn from the locals, finds Kristie Kellahan.
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. Happy we are, so we clap away, laughing with the gaggle of Cambodian kids who are singing and skipping with great enthusiasm along the dusty road leading to the river where our ship is moored.
We must be a strange sight to their eyes: a group of about 50 tourists, mostly Australian, hitching a ride to the ship on the backs of bullock carts driven by their fathers and older brothers. To us, it’s a novel shore excursion. For them, it’s a way of life.
It’s baking hot under the midday sun and the road is bumpy, but the joyful noise the children make is an instant mood-lifter. They hand us pictures they’ve drawn in anticipation of our visit. Mine reads “I love Dog” with a picture of a religious-looking cross and a bearded man, so I’m left wondering if the little boy who drew it is fond of our Father in heaven, or puppies.
Back on the ship, RV Cruiseco Adventurer, we refresh ourselves with cold draft beer and afternoon cocktails while the children wave to us from the shore.
Cruiseco’s seven-night voyage from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap (11 nights total if you take the option to spend two nights on land at the beginning and end of the cruise) is full of opportunities like this to meet the locals in villages of Vietnam and Cambodia. In between the big cities, life on the river remains largely untouched by tourism and we are regarded with eager curiosity.
In the Vietnamese port of Cai Be, we transfer from ship to sampan boat to tour the floating markets, snapping colourful shots of frenetic overwater trading as flowers, fruit and clothing change hands.
Stopping in Sa Dec village for a few hours, we visit a French colonial mansion known as The Lover’s House. It was the real-life setting for Marguerite Duras’s award-winning L’Amant, an autobiographical tale of her scandalous love affair with a much older Chinese man. Later, we’re given copies of the racy DVD version of her story to watch in our cabins, prompting some giggles the next morning over breakfast.
The mood is far more reverent the day we venture to a Buddhist monastery and meditation centre for a special blessing ceremony. Orange-robed monks chant, pray and then shower us with fragrant fresh petals. Diligent novice monks mobilise at the end to sweep them all up.
There’s an emphasis on learning about local cultures while onboard, and a series of hands-on workshops, displays by local performers and documentary film nights, led by the wonderful cruise director, Rosie, are complimentary inclusions.
A fruit tasting on the sun deck is a delicious opportunity to try jackfruit, durian, custard apple and lychees. By the time we reach the bright lights of Phnom Penh, we have been instructed in how to wear the national Cambodian costume, fold napkins and make Vietnamese spring rolls.
Phnom Penh is a study in contrasts. Guests spend a grim day at the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, learning about the brutal recent history of Cambodia. In the evening, we venture off the ship and into a rapidly developing capital city where night markets, cool bars and night market stalls beckon. Most guests return early to the ship to chat in the lounge and enjoy the free beer.
Purpose-built for the Mekong in 2012, the ship is chartered by Cruiseco and promoted through Cruiseco-affiliated travel agencies. With accommodation for 60 passengers, RV Cruiseco Adventurer appeals mostly to Aussie travellers over 50. The many inclusions – all meals, shore excursions, transfers, local beer and spirits, tips – make it easy to switch off and relax after embarkation.
Thirty spacious cabins and suites resemble upscale hotel rooms with timber floors, elegant decor, flatscreen TVs and DVD players. At 21.5 square metres for cabins and 50 square metres for deluxe suites, these are some of the roomiest accommodations cruising the Mekong. Suite passengers enjoy the added luxury of a deep bathtub and separate sitting room with a second TV and DVD player.
Cruisers won’t be disappointed by the food, with three meals served each day in the Mekong Restaurant on the Upper Deck. Expect local flavours mixed with Western favourites: fresh spring rolls and lemongrass chicken soup might be offered alongside beef roast with baked potatoes.
The breakfast buffet includes the usual fare of eggs, bacon, pancakes and cereal, with the addition of Asian specialties such as pork noodle broth. At lunchtime, adventurous eaters might like to try dishes from the live action station, where chefs whip up fried noodles and banh mi. A buffet offers several salad and cold meat choices. In addition, passengers may choose an a la carte appetiser, soup, main and dessert from a menu listing various choices from East and West.
At dinnertime, there is no buffet, just a la carte options. Again, passengers may choose Western or Asian dishes, or mix and match. Seating is open, at tables of four or six. Vietnamese house wine is included at lunch and dinner.
There’s an easygoing atmosphere onboard, a relaxed dress code and plenty of space for everyone, except in the pool and gym, which are disappointingly small. Two rooms are designated for spa, massage and hairdressing services. It’s a good idea to book early to avoid disappointment.
Encouraged to mingle, we soon find ourselves bonding with fellow travellers during cocktail hour each evening in the Saigon Lounge. Rosie delivers the next day’s briefing, always resplendent in elaborate silk dresses. In traditional Cambodian style, each day of the week is assigned its own colour, and Rosie proudly wears the rainbow.
Cruise Line: Cruiseco
Vessel: RV Cruiseco Adventurer
Star Rating: NA
Passenger Capacity: 60
Total Crew: 28
Passenger Decks: 3
Entered Service: 2012
Length: 68 metres
Facilities: Reception, restaurant, galley bridge, house, sundeck with lounge, library, bar, health club, gym, spa and whirlpool.
Bookings: Regular departures on RV Cruiseco Adventurer are offered between September and March for cruises from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Siem Reap, and vice versa. Seven-night cruise from $1,999 per person, twin share; 11-night packages from $4,499 include the cruise, international flights and two hotel nights before and after the cruise.
Highs: Authentic cultural immersion, from learning about Cambodia’s complicated history to chanting with monks at a meditation retreat and shopping at local markets.
Lows: The gym is just one treadmill and one exercise bike, located between the bar and the smokers’ deck.
Who should go: Over-50 active travellers who love to mingle with like-minded cruisers.
Best suited to: Over-50 active travellers who love to mingle with like-minded cruisers.
For more information see cruising.com.au.