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Wednesday, 01 January 2014 00:00

Cambodia, Vietnam & Riches Of The Mekong

Written by  Elena Skye

ASIA-SEASIAFrom our stateroom balcony on an AmaWaterways river boat, we watched traditional Cambodian boats, long and narrow, float by on the brown muddy water of The Mekong River, captained by men and women in umbrella-shaped Vietnamese hats. We were assured that they really do keep you cooler in the sweltering Southeast Asian heat. It truly felt as if we had gone back in time.

The Mekong River is steeped in history and offers magnificent cultural treasures for anyone with an adventurous spirit. Cambodia and Vietnam are relatively new to the world of tourism, only beginning in the late ‘70s when the American embargo was lifted and diplomatic and commercial relations were established. In that short time, the countries have become adept at hosting outsiders and showing off their exotic beauty. 

The AmaLotus river boat has 62 staterooms and comfortably carries 180 guests. Its beautifully appointed cabins and public rooms guarantee that no matter how hot or underdeveloped the areas you visit are, you explore in comfort and elegance. The ship has an Internet library with three computers and a lounge with free wifi. Three spa rooms offer facials, nail services and a full array of massages. There’s a workout room and a sauna onboard, as well as a small swimming pool on the sun deck. 

Breakfast and lunch on board are buffet style with an “action station” where Cambodian and Vietnamese dishes are offered. Dinner is a sit-down affair. There is unlimited wine with every lunch and dinner and complimentary local beer, house brand spirits and soft drinks throughout the cruise. 

Off Ship Experiences

The full 16-day “Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong” trip includes two days in Hanoi and an overnight stay on a traditional wooden junk docked in Ha Long Bay. Guests then fly to Siem Reap in Cambodia to spend a few days exploring Angkor Archeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with time to visit the lively city of Siem Reap. Travelers who choose to only do the eight-day cruise fly directly to Siem Reap the night before embarkation and can visit Angkor Wat that morning. 

The itinerary keeps you busy, offering morning and afternoon shore excursions most days. The guides are Cambodian and Vietnamese and many have lived in the villages you visit. They tell stories that inform in an intimate way.

A visit to the Cambodian Killing Fields is a moving experience. The Cambodian government has built a memorial to honor the thousands of people who died during Pol Pot’s reign of terror and there’s a small museum nearby which gives visitors an idea of what happened during this grim period in Cambodia’s history. And though Cambodia is still reeling from its devastation, the Cambodians have moved on with an inspiring lack of bitterness. 

In Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, we visited Wat Phnom, a temple built to honor the woman who founded the city according to legend. We had time to take a tuk tuk (the Cambodian word for “rickshaw”) to the bustling central market to explore the city on our own. The tuk tuk drivers were also willing to give a city tour for a modest fee. 

A visit to an orphanage in the small town of Kampong Cham was heartwarming. The children met us as we walked up from the river, taking us by the hand to guide us over wooden planks to a room where they had set up paintings, embroidered purses and wallets to sell. We were encouraged to buy their artworks or bring them notebooks, pens or personal items like toothpaste and soap. A stop at a local market gave us ample opportunity to buy appropriate items and the children were thrilled.

We arrived in Vietnam on the fourth day of the cruise and began our exploration with a visit to a Buddhist temple where we received a blessing from three monks who chanted and sang for us, and then covered us in fragrant jasmine petals. There was also a visit to a factory where we watched the making of rice candy and were offered samples, along with snake rice wine. 

In Sa Dec we visited the childhood home of author Marguerite Duras, author of the book The Lover, which takes place in Vietnam. The house has been turned into a museum, and we were served jasmine tea and candied ginger while we listened to a lecture about Duras’ life and writing. 

A visit to the market in Sa Dec was exciting and offered a fantastic array of market goods, including colorful Vietnamese produce, eels, frogs and fish, many displayed still alive, and exotic items like pig eyes and coagulated pig’s blood (a powerful health tonic). With its live chickens and roosters, bulk grains and herbs, the market was extremely busy with local business. We also passed the fascinating floating markets where commerce is done from boat to boat.

Ho Chi Minh City has a cosmopolitan feel - it is a lively city, full of motorbikes. It’s a pleasure to walk down its wide, elegant boulevards and admire the French colonial architecture, although you’ll want to take care when crossing the streets which are crowded with buzzing motorbikes. There are bookstores to peruse and plenty of bars, restaurants and coffee shops where one can sit for hours people watching. Notable tourist stops include The War Remnants Museum, the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, and the Notre Dame Cathedral. There’s ample opportunity to try the Vietnamese street food including the Bahn Mi, the Vietnamese sandwich that is becoming so popular in the
United States.

But more than anything, the warmth and natural graciousness of the Cambodian and Vietnamese people is probably their greatest natural treasure

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