Think a river cruise is about sitting and watching the world go by? Not on a Viking cruise, which takes John Honeywell to the heart of the action on the Mekong
The river is at the heart of a Mekong river cruise, but for many the main attraction is hundreds of miles away. The temple complexes at Angkor Wat together form the biggest religious monument in the world – made famous in recent years by Angelina Jolie and Tomb Raider.
A visit to them, and a hotel stay in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, make for a natural partnership with a cruise on the Mekong. But it’s worth reflecting that, as a result, the cruise then forms only half of a two-week holiday – or even less for those who add an extension to Ha Long Bay at the start or Bangkok at the end of the fortnight.
Some of the 56 passengers on my Mekong Adventure with Viking Cruises in January have either not been briefed or have not listened to their travel agents, and after five nights of hotel stays they are wondering when we will be taking to the water.
We spend two days in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, where we trudge in solemn single file past the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh and we watch with curiosity the early-morning sessions of Laughing Yoga in the city’s parks.
We bask in the serenity of the Temple of Literature – dedicated to Confucius – and we are driven in battery-powered electric cars for a whistlestop tour of the frantically busy old town. Shops are piled high with unthinkably large quantities of everything from sandals to T-shirts, and flowers to cooking pots.
A short-hop flight takes us to Siem Reap, where the Sofitel Hotel is a comfortable base for two days of temple explorations, a tour of the local night market and an evening at a local circus, where disadvantaged youngsters show off their newfound acrobatic and theatrical skills – not to mention the afternoon excursion to a school founded by our local guide and financially supported by Viking. There is little time to relax
by the hotel’s vast outdoor pool.
The Angkor Wat temples, built 800 years ago, were lost to the jungle before being rediscovered by French archaeologists in the 19th century.
They survived the Khmer Rouge regime that brought the country to its knees in the 1970s and 1980s, but came under attack more recently as invading bounty hunters from Thailand stripped the temples of statues, carvings and other treasures to be sold to collectors in the West.
Now the greatest threat to the stunning edifices comes, ironically, from the two million tourists who arrive each year to clamber over the monuments.
Before long, the sandstone structures will be roped off and visitor numbers will be restricted. A new visitor centre is already under construction and eco-friendly electric transport will soon replace the swarms of tuk-tuks and minibuses that pack the surrounding parks. It is a four-hour coach trip to join our ship at Kampung Cham, along roads that vary from highway to cart track every few miles.
The seven days’ travelling on the Mekong – with two of them spent tied up in the bustling city of Phnom Penh – go by in a blur of one-off experiences that will be remembered for years.
For the energetic, each day begins before breakfast with a tai chi session on the sun deck. Excursions, shepherded by indefatigable cruise directors Henry and Kong, together with local guides, take us to homes where families weave silk scarves, to be blessed by monks in a Buddhist monastery, and to a silversmith village where six-year-old children learn their craft by turning tin cans into ornaments.
We visit a fish farm and an agricultural community where smiling women break off from picking spicy chillis to pat the bulging stomach of the visiting Happy Buddha – as I become for the day.
More sombre is the visit to Cambodia’s Killing Fields, with a heart-wrenching description of the Pol Pot atrocities from a local guide who was one of the few members of his family to survive.
We sweat in a Vietnamese brick factory as men lift unfeasibly heavy baskets of rice husks to fuel the kilns and women wheel barrowloads of clay as easily as if they were vacuuming a carpet. And we shiver at the exotic fish and meat – including live eels and dead rats – in the market stalls at Sa Dec.
It is all go. Even spread over 15 days, this is by no means a relaxing holiday. In the last couple of days in Saigon we pack in a visit to the Reunification Palace, souvenir shopping in Ben Thanh Market and lunch in the noodle shop favoured by Bill Clinton. And if it’s good enough for a former president, that’s plenty good enough for me.
Book it: Viking operates Mekong cruises from January to April and July to December, alternating downstream itineraries from Hanoi with upstream itineraries from Saigon. Fares from £3,799pp including return flights from the UK, all excursions, complimentary drinks with lunch and dinner onboard. Most lunches and some dinners during the land tour portion are not included.
Passengers familiar with the Viking longships on European rivers will find the Viking Mekong a completely different proposition. It’s chartered from Pandaw, which operates a second, almost identical, vessel.
Dark woods, mahogany, teak and polished brass are the order of the day rather than Scandinavian chic. Accommodation is in 28 cabins on two decks. Each has floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors, and easy chairs outside on the communal walkway. The saloon bar, forward on deck 2, is a colonial-style club with comfortable chairs. Upstairs on the sun deck is another bar with casual seating both in the sun and under the shade of a canopy. The ship’s stairways are quite steep and there is no lift. Depending on the port of call, the narrow gangway can offer precarious passage on to a muddy riverbank – this is not an ideal holiday for anyone with limited mobility. Air conditioning is powerfully effective and the showers are adequate.
The restaurant occupies almost half of the main deck and guests sit at tables accommodating eight or 10. Breakfasts are mostly buffet service, with a cook preparing fried eggs and omelettes. Lunch is a mixture of buffet and waiter service – with dishes chosen each day after breakfast. Dinner is a four-course menu, and one evening featured a Khmer banquet with (optional) specialities including deep-fried crickets, frogs, and tarantula. Unlimited bottled water is provided for teeth-cleaning and to take on excursions.
Passengers on this cruise were about 70% American and 30% British. Many had cruised with Viking in Europe; several of the Brits were P&O regulars. Among the Americans were lawyers, investment managers and the former head of corporate communications for an internationally famous jeweller.
Ship’s crew $10 per person per day; Cruise director $10 per person per day. $50pp for assorted tips to local tour guides, bus drivers and so on (distributed and administered by the cruise director). Total per person for two weeks: $260-plus.
Neil Barclay, head of sales at Viking Cruises, says: “The Mekong remains a popular choice for guests who have travelled with us around Europe and are looking to explore new areas of the world. “We tend to sell out very early on and we encourage people to look out for new dates being opened. Since direct air links have opened up to Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, the region has become increasingly accessible and guests love learning about the history and culture on offer along the route throughout Vietnam and Cambodia. Our itinerary takes our guests to Vietnam’s major cities at the beginning and end of our routes – as well as three nights in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat – offering a fascinating contrast from life on the river.”