From Saigon to Siem Reap: The best way to experience the mighty Mekong River

It's moments before dawn after my first night on the Mekong Delta and I'm already up, lowering the nifty, automatic blinds in the stateroom of my ship, Scenic Spirit, to greet not merely the new day but the beginning of an Indochina river journey.

We are anchored midstream on the river and as the blinds slowly, almost teasingly, part, soft, floss-like pink beams pour into the room while outside a singularly spectacular sunrise, drawn straight from the publicity collateral for Miss Saigon, is revealing itself.

Fortunately, there are no belligerent Vietnam War-vintage military choppers to complete the picture, only the living tableau of a solitary, silhouetted wooden fishing boat. Its conical-hatted rower stands with twin oars raised in the traditional manner.

The craft drifts across an increasingly fiery red ball hoisting itself above the Mekong River's distant eastern bank as I laze in wicked luxury here, the one-bedroom balcony suite akin to a five-star hotel suite on shore.

From my bed, I survey my floating palace for the next week on this cruise from Saigon in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia.  Rippling, choc-shake-coloured waters lap to just below the panoramic window of my suite. Never did I believe that the famously muddy waters of the Mekong could appear so alluring.

Broad and brown, even in the flattering dawn light, the Mekong extends 4350 kilometres, and even though its length makes it "only" the world's 12th longest river, it's regarded as the most productive on the planet.

The Vietnamese call the aquatic and agricultural riches of the Mekong Delta  the "nine dragons",  a reference to the tentacle-like tributaries, or, more accurately, distributaries, that flow into the South China Sea. They alone  support roughly the equivalent to Australia's total population. Overall, 60 million people along the river and its tributaries depend on fish and crops to support themselves and their extended families.

This is not my first time on the Mekong Delta. I was here a decade or so ago, when this part of Vietnam was more or less a tourism backwater. . Then, in order to get from Vietnam to Cambodia by river, it was necessary to take a series of ships and boats of all different styles and sizes. It's only in recent years that cruise lines, including Scenic, have established the Mekong as an increasingly popular river-ship route.

Further up river from where we're anchored is the small yet bustling Mekong Delta city of Sa Dec, which has attracted tourism due to the fact it's the principal setting for The Lover. A novella by the French writer Marguerite Duras, The Lover tells the story of a chance, illicit and ultimately doomed dalliance during the late 1920s and early 1930s of French colonial era rule.

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Duras would likely approve of Scenic Spirit's elegant Indochine-style interior design, with its walls decked out in chocolate-hued timber panelling festooned with appealing artworks. And, as we later discover this day on an excursion by sampan, many of the major sights and aspects of daily life from the author's French colonial era youth in Vietnam have survived.

After breakfast I take an excursion by sampan to the waterside community of Cai Be, reached after entering a network of canals off the main river.

We pass a French-era Catholic church – one of many in the Mekong Delta – built between the late 1920s and early 1930s. Its slender spire protrudes incongruously above the rusting tin rooftops of huddled waterside shanties, that sit like a row of irregular, badly decayed teeth, below it.

Surrounded by such a vast and intricate waterworld encompassing almost 40,000 square kilometres, here in the dry season it's difficult to conceive that the Mekong Delta for much of the year it is effectively submerged by monsoonal rains.

Yet it still manages to remain Vietnam's food bowl, feeding a rapidly developing nation now nudging a population of 100 million and helping to make the country one of the world's largest exporters of rice, or "white gold", as the Vietnamese often refer to it.

But rising sea levels, even by just a metre, due to climate change, could one day see the wet season disastrously extended to the entire year with those stilted houses typical of the Mekong having to be built even higher to combat water levels .

Furthermore, large-scale dam construction to generate hydro power by China and Laos up river poses a significant threat to the river's complex ecosystem, impeding the full migration of fish even as far as Mekong Delta itself.

After lunch back on board the ship, there's the opportunity in the middle of the afternoon to again take to the river on another sampan excursion, this time to Sa Dec and the family home of Huynh Thuy Le, a member of a wealthy local Chinese family and the man Duras loved.

Despite being a standard stop on Mekong River cruises, the proceeds from Western cruise-ship visitor admissions, I soon discover, don't appear to have been poured back into the building's  upkeep, especially the positively unromantic guest rooms at the rear. However  our female guide does provide a good, if breathless, sense of the sensual nature of the book, every bit as steamy as any monsoonal day in Vietnam. Yet, as a reading of The Lover attests, Duras enjoyed a more public and no less intense love affair with the Mekong Delta itself.

"Never in my whole life shall I ever again see rivers as beautiful and big and wild as these,' she writes, "the Mekong and its tributaries going down to the sea, the great regions of water soon to disappear into the caves of the ocean. In the surrounding flatness stretching as far as the eye can see, the rivers flow as fast as if the earth sloped downwards."

After visiting the house we wander along Sa Dec's pleasant shophouse-lined canal-side promenade. A barge passes our group that is laden with such a fearful quantity of hay that the boatman at its stern can barely see over it, requiring the assistance of a spotter at its bow.  

Further along still there's an extensive riverside market, spread all the way along the street and fully operational even in the late afternoon.  The sellers, invariably straw-hatted middle-aged or elderly women, elect to spread out their produce on colourful cloths on the ground, even though there's perfectly adequate open-sided modern marketplace building directly behind them.

These are the true fresh food people. The exquisite produce which ranges from tropical fruits and vegetables to eels and frogs, must be of the highest quality as the competition for customers is intense.

Back out on the river, having left the maze of canals behind us as well as another French-era Catholic church rising from ramshackle rooftops, we make our way back to the Scenic Spirit.

We pass a miniature skyline of the cranes of barges dredging sand for export to markets such as Singapore and, notably, to feed Saigon's construction boom. It's another reminder, if one was needed, that the Mekong for much of its length is a authentic working river.

Ensconced on one of the Scenic Spirit's upper decks, with its small but perfectly formed palm-fringed swimming pool, dusk is drawing its first shadows across the river. I rather fancy my chances, over a cooling cocktail, of scoring a Miss Saigon-style sunset as captivating as that sunrise. There's still plenty of time, after all, with Siem Reap, our final destination, still a delectable week away up river.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO AND SEE

EXPLORE HO CHI MINH CITY

Saigon is booming with its own Bangkok-style "Skytrain" in the works. But Vietnam War sights such as the Reunification Palace, stormed by North Vietnamese in 1975, and the War Remnants Museum, are still essential tour stops.

TAKE A TWO-WHEELED FOOD TOUR

Saigon is one of Asia's food capitals and a novel way to experience its culinary delights is on a special foodie night tour aboard an Italian Vespa scooter, stopping at various street-food locations throughout town.

EXPLORE THE CU CHI TUNNELS

A  legacy of the "American War", as the Vietnamese call the Vietnam War and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the south, this network of tunnels is a subterranean labyrinth of military passageways able to be explored.

VISIT A TRADITIONAL VIETNAMESE MANSION

A harmonious blend of French and Vietnamese architectural styles, the canal-side Ba Duc Ancient House in Cai Be was built in 1850 and reconstructed in the 1930s with Gallic touches added, including a garden of ornamental plants and fruit trees.

GO BIRDWATCHING BY BOAT

Speedboats deliver visitors deep into the green sunken forest heart of Tra Su Bird Sanctuary where they transfer to quiet paddle-boats for the chance to view of the many species of wading birds that inhabitant the Mekong Delta.

TRIP NOTES

CRUISE

Scenic's all-inclusive 13-day Treasures of the Mekong cruise and land tour from Saigon to Siem Reap, Cambodia starts from $7695 a person. The price includes a one-bedroom balcony suite aboard Scenic Spirit with butler service, five exclusive "Scenic Enrich" experiences, a choice of almost two dozen "Scenic Freechoice" activities , multiple breakfasts, lunches and dinners and complimentary drinks throughout the cruise. See scenic.com.au

FLY

Singapore Airlines and its affiliate SilkAir operate daily flights to and from Saigon and Siem Reap. See singaporeair.com and silkair.com

MORE

traveller.com.au/Vietnam

Anthony Dennis travelled to Vietnam and Cambodia as a guest of Scenic Cruises.

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