A document with the word caa on it.

Oct 16, 2023

8 min. read

To the sound of vigorous drumming and clashing cymbals, a traditional lion dance lights up the upper deck of our ship as it crosses from Vietnam into Cambodia. We are at the halfway point of our cruise on the Mekong River, and the colours and cacophony of the dance—múa lân in Vietnamese—are both a delightful spectacle and a blessing for our journey. A lion dance is performed to mark a special occasion. In our case, the animated movements are intended to bestow happiness, wealth and good fortune upon the guests on the ship.

And we can feel the results—guests relax and sip local Angkor beer while taking in a view of the silk-producing town of Tân Châu. A sense of calm and relaxation melds with the excitement for everything that the mighty Mekong will allow us to experience. A river cruise feels like the perfect way to travel, as our ship meanders the seemingly endless waterway. Just a few days earlier, when we departed at sunset from bustling Ho Chi Minh City, we were a group of strangers setting out on an adventure, full of anticipation but not entirely sure what to expect.

For the nature lovers

The Mekong River is the world’s second-most biodiverse river system after the Amazon basin. It travels 4,350 kilometres south from China to the Mekong Delta in southwest Vietnam, passing through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia along the way. The surreal and misty landscapes that we casually drift past are home to innumerable small villages and rice paddies that yield 25 million metric tons of rice a year. The aquatic biodiversity rivals that of the Amazon and is the most concentrated per hectare of any river in the world. The waters host more than 1,200 species, including the remaining global populations of Irrawaddy dolphin and the giant freshwater stingray, which can weigh 590 kilograms.

Immerse yourself in the local culture

We discover all of this along our journey. The ship—and all its glorious trappings—is one thing. The shore is something else. Most river cruise itineraries include daily trips ashore. This is the time not only to stretch your legs but also to immerse yourself in the local culture. In Sa Déc, once the largest city on the Mekong Delta, we savour lotus tea and candied ginger at the home of Mr. Huynh Thuy Le, the inspiration for Marguerite Duras’ 1984 novel, The Lover.

A boat gliding through a serene, flooded forest with lush greenery.

At the nearby market, vendors sell fresh watermelons and bamboo shoots, live river prawns and mangrove crabs. We enjoy local ingredients both on land and back on the ship, where the menu reflects regional cuisine, such as duck breast with red cabbage and tamarind. Fresh, fruit-centric desserts are irresistible: the mango sticky rice with coconut sorbet is a particular guest favourite. On another day, a visit to the 850-hectare Tra Su Bird Sanctuary presents a visual feast, with hill mynah birds and painted storks soaring above wetlands accessible by small boats via narrow canals.

Cruise into Cambodia’s Capital: Phnom Penh

Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh demands more than a day to take everything in. Afternoon tea at Raffles Hotel Le Royal is a treat for the eyes and the taste buds. Built in 1929, the hotel showcases French colonial architecture accented by the works of local artisans. Tea at the Elephant Bar pairs scones and clotted cream with a cognac-and-champagne cocktail called the Femme Fatale, created for Jackie Kennedy when she visited in 1967.

Elegant bar with a classic wooden counter, mounted wall art, and decorative hanging lamps.

This is the beauty of our river cruise—the ability to combine luxury indulgence with visits to significant sites and monuments. We wander the gilded century-old Throne Hall at the Cambodian Royal Palace, decorated outside with statues of Buddhist deities and inside with ornate thrones and golden busts. An exhilarating 300-step climb brings us to the seventh-century hilltop temple at Wat Hanchey and the sight of many cheerful young monks, their orange robes contrasted against a striking blue pagoda.

Discover ancient temples

At the ruined temple of Ta Prohm, giant tree roots cling to the walls and doorways of this 12th-century Buddhist site, to eerie effect. Finally, to close out our shore adventure, we visit Angkor Wat—at 162 hectares, it is the largest religious monument complex in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This is a lot to take in over the course of a week. But the adrenaline surge that results from visiting these iconic sites becomes a daily addiction. And being able to retreat to a luxury ship at the end of the day provides time to decompress, reflect and review—made all the more rewarding with a delicious cocktail and the company of people who started out as fellow guests and are now fast friends.

Tips for booking your own Mekong river cruise

For maximum comfort, travel during the dry season—from November to April, when temperatures and humidity are lower.

Check with your doctor about any vaccinations that may be required for your destination.

Pack light moisture-wicking clothes, comfy shoes, insect repellent, sunscreen and a good camera and binoculars for wildlife-spotting.

Take your time. Booking extra days before and after your cruise lets you experience more of the region and helps you acclimate before the cruise and unwind afterwards. For example, before departing on a Mekong cruise like this one, take the time to navigate Ho Chi Minh City’s sea of motorbikes. Visit the Saigon Central Post Office and the neo-Romanesque Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, whose 19th-century architecture evokes the French Indochina era.

See the Independence Palace, which was captured in 1975 by North Vietnamese forces to end the Vietnam War. There is so much to see—get in touch with CAA Travel to arrange the perfect “extra” days on your vacation.

Ready for a river cruise?

Book your river adventure with CAA and discover all the wonders for yourself. A CAA Travel Consultant can help you find a cruise that’s just right for you. Visit caasco.com/plantravel to get started.

Share this article: