Mekong River region is a perfect place for you to spend your holiday. Travelling by cruise is the best way to explore this region. Here are some tips for a river cuise.
When packing for a river cruise, less is more
Titan and Uniworld advised us to travel light, with summery ‘smart-casual’ clothes plus a bit of ‘layering’ in case it got chilly. We ignored them and packed far too much. The guidebook we bought told us that the temperatures might range from 15°C to 40°C (as we were travelling in March), so we took clothes for all eventualities and something different for every day. A waste of space. On board our ship, and in the hotels we stayed at in Saigon, Hanoi and Siem Reap, the laundry service was tip-top, speedy and quite cheap.
To guard against the possibility of rain and the certainty of sun, the guidebook advised us to take umbrellas and hats, so we carted both half-way across the world – not necessary. This was a deluxe holiday: there were umbrellas handed out whenever one was needed. Conical straw hats are for sale on every street corner – priced at one US dollar each. Also, there’s no need to get local currency to use in Vietnam and Cambodia, the US dollar is acceptable everywhere.
Travel at your own pace but keep up with guides
On the first day you’re left in peace – we slept for five hours, then braved the streets of Saigon – bustling with humanity and four million motor bikes. All the “must-see” elements are sorted for you by the cruise line and in between you can go solo and feel like a traveller instead of a tourist. The lotus may be the national flower of Vietnam, but this is not a holiday for lotus-eaters. To get the most out of a river cruise, you need to be into history and culture – ancient and modern. In two weeks, I learnt more than I ever dreamed I’d know about the heritage of Indo-China, the nature of Buddhism, the reality of the Vietnam War and the horrors of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.
This is a trip that requires an alert mind and good walking shoes. There’s an outing every day – most days two – and we had local guides; their English was always good and their insights – and personal stories – gave you the reality of their countries in a way no guidebook ever could.
Enjoy the cruise
In Saigon, Hanoi and Siem Reap, we stayed in luxury hotels. In between, for seven nights, we were aboard the MV River Orchid. It’s a brand-new ship, but with an old-world colonial feel. Every cabin has a river view, but the real surprise for me was that it was so comfortable and well-appointed.
At first, I thought the ship was there to get us from A to B – or from Sa Dec in Vietnam to Phnom Penh in Cambodia – but then I began to realise that life on board was part of the experience. I began the day with the sunrise and excellent fresh coffee on the top deck, watching the paddy fields and the pagodas, the fishing boats and the sampans float by. I ended it sitting outside my cabin looking up at the night-sky.
Keep a diary
On this holiday there were once-in-a-lifetime treats in store on each and every day – without exception. You could never forget the visit to the tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War or the horror of the Killing Fields of Cambodia or the majesty of the many ancient temples at Angkor Wat – truly one of the wonders of the world.
What were the unexpected highlights for me? Travelling by sampan through the floating markets and canals of Cai Be; taking an elephant ride through the forest one morning before breakfast; being blessed by a Buddhist monk in a small temple; visiting the home and mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. I could go on.
There was so much to see, the only way I managed to stay on top of what I was seeing was to keep a daily diary. If I hadn’t, I suspect too much of it would have simply flashed past me in a colourful and extraordinary blur.
Try to take a break
Because every day was full of new experiences, we were on the brink of becoming punch-drunk. Then a veteran of nine Uniworld cruises said to us: “You must take a holiday from your holiday. I always do”. We followed his advice, opted out of one excursion, played backgammon on the sun-deck and saw a wedding party celebrating on the river bank.
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