Magic of the Mekong: Cruising from Vietnam to Cambodia
All life passes before your eyes on a river cruise from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap - go before it's too late, says Peter Preston
The Mekong flows 2,700 miles from high Tibet to the South China Sea, the lifeblood of six different nations – China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is one of the world’s great rivers. It’s also one of the world’s great river cruising experiences across the wide, tranquil stretches from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam (the Saigon of yesteryear) and Siem Reap in Cambodia (everyone’s base for seeing the mighty temples of Angkor).
Travel doesn’t come more soothing than this: sitting on deck and watching the peasant life of bullock carts, fishermen and paddy fields slip by. But nor, many times over, can it be more vibrant, more pulsating: in the traffic-clogged, teeming life of Ho Chi Minh City or Phnom Penh, in the helter-skelter growth of factories and offices that is turning Vietnam into a Communist super-capitalist state. This is a trip where past and future blend bewilderingly, day after day. It’s a mixture that enchants and excites.
We started in the south, staying a couple of nights in the place so many billboards still call Saigon. See the War Museum with its rusted tanks, guns and memories of appalling conflict. Explore the Cu Chi Tunnels, the secret arteries of the Vietcong’s famous Tet offensive that shook America to its roots. Above all, eat some of the street food, made fresh in front of you – beef noodles, sticky rice, rice paper rolls stuffed with vegetables: plus, because the legacy of French colonialism lives on, crispy baguettes that would pass muster in Provence.
Saigon is a big, big city, sucking in country dwellers fast, almost nine million citizens now, maybe another four million over the next five years; Saigon is noise and people. But out on the Mekong – a quick bus ride away – there’s the peace of calm waters and open vistas.
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The steamers that glide up towards Siem Reap and back (constantly through most of the year) are cocoons. Some are wood-panelled, venerable, velveteen lush; some, like the one we travelled on, brand spanking new. But they all provide a high ratio of staff to between 40 and 60 passengers – and they must compete on food, drink, service, so standards are set high. Our cabin felt like a five-star hotel.
So, what shall we see today? A floating market. The house of the man who inspired Marguerite Duras’s famous novel, L’Amant. A bird sanctuary. A fish farm. A village that makes silver jewellery or one that carves stone. And, inevitably, one Buddhist temple after another. You sometimes moor beside a steepish bank and clamber up; sometimes you must hop on a sampan in mid-river.
We’re over the border now – leave your passports at the desk and it’s all automatic. Cambodia is not Vietnam. An Asian victim not an embryo tiger. Vietnam is speeding ahead while Cambodia lags far behind, growing rice, making cheap clothes and destroying the forests that made it green. The malignant legacy of Pol Pot, his Khmer Rouge and their killing fields refuses to die. And yet the ordinary people you meet, scraping a village living, are warm and cheerful and welcoming. Phnom Penh isn’t Saigon – too ramshackle, too chained to the Third World – but it fizzes with life and laughter.
Trees grow over the ruins of the Angkor temples in Cambodia
The crew on your boat will probably be Cambodian, a floating community. Tourism is their way out of poverty. Look how Siem Reap – a final bus ride away – has become a boomtown of hotels, restaurants and guided tours. And Angkor Wat, of course, is one of the wonders of our world, temples of ambition and energy a thousand years old. Go early in the day or late in the afternoon: the crowds (pouring down from China as well as the West) are enormous. There’s a grim feeling that so many tramping feet will soon erode the wonder. But, for the moment at least, just go.
Yet still, in an odd way, the most memorable moments of this cruise into history aren’t hewed from local sandstone. They’re back on the boat that brought you here, where, at dusk, the sky turns pink and red and gold, a vision rippling across the Mekong that your fellow passengers – often Australians, Canadians, Brits – climb on deck to share.
Will the great river, already in pawn to China’s thirst for water, remain so beautiful for long? Will Vietnam sprint so fast into commerce that the charm goes begging? Questions with that same Angkor Wat answer: go while you still can. Seize the memory now.
Peter Preston writes for The Observer and is a former editor of the Guardian
The great river cruises
Most Mekong cruises sail northbound or southbound between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh or Ho Chi Minh City. The best time to go is between November and February because it’s cooler and the rainy season is over.
This mighty river winds through all three of central Europe’s grand capitals: Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. In between, passengers are treated to showstopping scenery, notably in Austria’s Wachau Valley (pictured above), whose lush slopes are dotted with castle turrets.
Cruises typically run from Amsterdam to the elegant Swiss city of Basle, although boarding and disembarkation points vary. The most spectacular scenery is around the Rhine Gorge: sleepy medieval villages, fairy-tale castles, lush vineyards.
The river meanders past vineyard-clad hills, medieval towns and picture-postcard villages along one of Germany’s most beautiful valleys, between the historic cities of Trier and Koblenz. Many cruises combine the Rhine and Moselle.
Cruises usually begin in Paris, so passengers can enjoy the French capital before heading downstream. Other scenic stops include Giverny (where Monet painted his famous water lilies), Normandy’s cobbled capital Rouen and the pretty port of Honfleur, a favourite haunt of the impressionists.
Radio Times Travel offer
Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, 15 days from £1,799pp. Experience the excitement of the Thai capital. See the River Kwai, the vast serenity of Angkor Wat, and the palaces and museums of Phnom Penh. You'll also drift through the exquisite waterways of the Mekong Delta to the former Ho Chi Minh City - formerly and famously Saigon - on this wonderful tour. Read more and book.