Marvels Of The Mekong
Mad motor-scooter traffic, crowded streets and the energy of an economic boom collide with leafy colonial boulevards and incense-smoky temples: Ho Chi Minh is a city with character. I plunge into covered Ben Thanh Market, slurping noodles and bargaining for lacquer bowls. Then I take a guided tour of the nearby French-style Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica Cathedral, wonderfully ornate post office and disturbing War Remnants Museum.
After two hotel nights, excitement builds as I head into the rice-lush Mekong Delta, where I drive past fish farms and roadside eateries. With about 90 other passengers, I board Travelmarvel’s trim colonial-style ship RV La Marguerite in My Tho and get my first look at the Mekong, muddy and tangled with water lilies. The ship is surprisingly spacious, with large colonial-style cabins that feel like rooms in a boutique hotel.
Over the next week, I spend hours watching flotillas of rice barges and boats as kids ‘halloo’ from bridges. Ports along the Mekong offer an insight into everyday Vietnamese life: At Cai Be an entertaining guide takes us to a family sweet factory, where young girls sit twisting caramels into plastic wrappers and rice is popped in vast woks. I’m happy to buy some bags of the nougat-like sweets that provide the workers in this backyard business with an income. Later, in Cambodia, we visit a Travelmarvel-sponsored local school at Koh Ouk Nha Tay village. The kids, who sing and practice their English questions, are full of endearing enthusiasm.
I also enjoy stops at Angkor Ban, with its venerable wooden farmhouses, and multicoloured Wat Hanchey, a temple complex high on a hilltop above the Mekong, providing a new angle on the river from above. As we sail, I’m entertained onboard with fruit-carving classes and dance performances, while fellow passengers provide plenty of friendly banter over meals. I enjoy the ship’s food, especially the local dishes such as soup noodles and greenmango salad. The Cambodian curries are the highlight; I find myself tucking in almost daily.
Early one morning the ship sails into Phnom Penh. The sky is pink and retirees in pyjamas practice tai chi on the waterfront. The Cambodian capital is elegant in places like Sisowath Quay and the Royal Palace, and Central Market provides an Aladdin selection of jewellery and clothes. In contrast, the afternoon tour of the Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge’s infamous S-21 jail is confronting.
Our excellent guide, Pisith, makes it personal by talking about the experience of his family, who lost two uncles and his 13-year-old sister to the Killing Fields. He comes from a family of intellectuals, among the most persecuted of groups. “I want you to be a witness to our history,” he says with quiet dignity. It’s lovely at the end of the day to get back to the calm air-conditioned order of the ship for a gushing shower and a cold beer.
Finally, we leave the Mekong for a coach transfer to the bustling tourist centre of Siem Reap so we can visit Angkor Wat. This is a vast temple complex, and while Angkor Wat itself is the most famous, I find others even more appealing. Bayon Temple is decorated with smiling Buddha carvings, and Ta Prohm, made famous by Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, is a fabulous tangle of fallen-down walls from which giant fig trees sprout – and it’s the highlight of a cruise with many great moments.
Words by Brian Johnston.