Cambodia river cruising: the river of life

A Mekong River cruise provides a window into the lives of Vietnamese and Cambodian people, finds Andrea Black.

The sun is setting over the fast-flowing waters of the mighty Mekong, clumps of water hyacinth lap up against the Cruiseco Adventurer in the Vietnamese port town of My Tho. It's "cocktail of the day" hour, and we've exchanged thongs and shorts for frocks and heels. Our gaze is captured by a phenomenal transformation. Rosie, the Cambodian cruise manager, ascends the stairs resplendent in a striking purple silk gown.

"Purple is reserved for Tuesday," she tells us before explaining that for special events in Khmer culture a different colour is worn for each day to correspond with the planets. Tonight, it's Mars, and by the end of the seven-day cruise it seems she has worn the entire solar system, each outfit more extravagant than the last.

After a locally sourced a la carte dinner whipped up by the Vietnamese and Cambodian chefs in the Mekong Restaurant downstairs, we will be entertained by folk performances depicting life along the Mekong Delta. The artists have come on board from nearby Cai Be.

There are a growing number of colonial style river steamers like the Cruiseco Adventurer ferrying tourists up and down the Mekong Delta eager to immerse in local life. Each are keen to show passengers an authentic slice of life along the liquid highway, with onshore excursions including visits to rural communities, floating villages, pagodas and temples. But an authentic experience can be hard to gauge with the rapidly changing face of Vietnam and, to a smaller extent, Cambodia where, along the Mekong, manufacturing plants and barges are replacing fisherman's sampans.

It's clear this three-decked vessel has been cleverly designed. Before building a ship of their own, Cruiseco chartered another vessel, the Indochina Pandaw, to test the Mekong for two years. From this experience, they finessed the 68-metre long Adventurer, adding private balconies and internal walkways, and an indoor recreation room and bar. Previous customer feedback found the airconditioning a welcome retreat after a long day exploring temples and villages. Each polished-timber floored cabin offers good storage, spacious bathrooms, a window side sitting area and a flat-screen TV - not that it is needed. The constantly changing view outside the floor to ceiling windows offers plenty of entertainment.

The top deck is for leisure - among potted plants, there's a small outdoor pool and deckchairs under a shaded canopy. Inside, the Saigon Lounge features a bar, dance floor, computer nook and a well-leafed-through library.

The two-room day spa - booked out for aloe vera facials and foot massages for the entire week - looks out on to two permanently unused gym contraptions. It was agreed by all, their positioning - next to the lounge and looking onto the smoker's deck - was too public a place to be baring lycra. Not that there's any time for such endeavours - each day is filled with a new shore experience.

In Cai Be, we board a motorised long boat towards a floating market, where junks are lined up with tall wooden poles displaying which type of fruit or vegetable they are selling. It could be rambutan, mangosteen, sweet potato or turnips. Rosie picks up two bags full of fresh produce to give to her sister, who works for an NGO upriver in Phnom Penh and is too busy to shop.

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On land, we visit a Catholic church built in 1929, where Jesus hangs from a neon cross.

Then we dodge cyclists along the dirt roads of the port town and sample wine poured from huge glass jars showcasing fermented cobras marinating in rice wine. The wine, so they say, is good for virility: the longer the snake, the better the quality.

Later we visit a brickworks factory in Sa Dec. This is a more sobering affair. It's hot and heavy work unloading the beehive brick ovens. Among the piles of bricks are graves of workers who once lived on site. Via the local markets where lottery tickets, skinned frogs and rice rats are sold, we visit the house of Huynh Thy Le, the son of a wealthy Chinese family and the lover of author Marguerite Duras. The two became involved in a steamy love affair and tourists can recreate this passion by staying there for a night. Later we will pass by the home of Marguerite Duras across the riverbank.

Returning onboard, after being offered our daily ice-cold rolled towel and glass of fresh fruit smoothie, there's an announcement, followed by a few sniggers: 'Tonight you will be taking The Lover to your room."

We are each handed a DVD of the R-rated movie based on Duras' book, set in French-occupied Vietnam in 1929. It's too risque to be watched in the public room, they say. The movie isn't a patch on the book, and much more entertaining is seeing the fabulous Rosie, tonight in a bejewelled green gown, sing Pretty Woman at the piano bar. Every day she is on the tours explaining how people live along the Mekong, handing out extra water bottles and sharing a joke along the way. Rosie is so loved that former passengers lobbied for her to stay with them in three different states on her recent holiday to Australia.

Visits to rural villages are broken up with a day and a half in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. After a visit to the Royal Palace and the National Museum, we lunch at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal sipping a cocktail "femme fatale" named in honour of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who visited here in 1967. "It's a champagne cocktail as red as her lips," says our guide pointing to the framed photos in the lobby.

Back on board, the mood is sombre after the group's afternoon excursion to the Khmer Rouge's S21 Detention Centre and the Killing Fields. We all decide to explore nightlife along the shores of Phnom Penh but not before sizing up the competition.

On the starboard side we've pulled up next to another vessel full of Australians, the RV AmaLotus. We all pace deck 3 checking her out from every angle.

"See if you can see through the windows to one of the cabins," someone whispers.

Passengers in white linen sipping gin and tonics greet us from their vessel and peer into our world. We circle, exchange pleasantries and retreat to the airconditioned lounge.

On this tour we've already visited the rooftop bar of the Caravelle, our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, and another famous former journalist haunt during the late '60s and early '70s, the rooftop bar at the Rex. Tonight we will try another, the Foreign Correspondents' Club featuring the giant gecko clambering up the wall named "big boss". It's clear that journalists, who were holed up here during the war, loved a good view, and a stiff drink.

On the last night onboard before stepping ashore to visit Angkor Wat, a staff member hand delivers a letter in an open envelope. It's addressed to "Terry and Kerry, Cabin 210" who will be staying in the same suite as us on the cruise back down the Mekong beginning the next day. I try to object, he walks away, so I open it anyway. In it, a fellow passenger has offered tips on the highlights of the trip - the usual stuff - "In Phnom Penh visit the central market and haggle for bargains", "be sure to visit the 'action station' every day at lunch onboard for great Vietnamese and Cambodian soups". They forgot to mention that along the Mekong, it's the people that make the journey, whether it be the staff onboard - Cruiseco only employs local cruise staff and guides - or the dwellers along the river.

Along the way we've been blessed by monks and welcomed inside a villager's stilted home where three generations live in the one room. We've held hands with children who have sung and presented us with hand-drawn cards. We been taught how to fold a towel into the shape of an elephant, and to dance in the traditional Cambodian Apsara style, Rosie confounding us with her graceful moves and dexterous hands.

Tonight, as a finale, Rosie, dressed in orange silk for Monday to represent the colour of the moon, and dripping in jewels complete with a huge hairpiece, attempts her first ever rendition of I Will Always Love You.

It's a touching moment but the mood lifts with what comes next. It's the river cruise karaoke favourite, Creedence Clearwater Revival's Proud Mary and the dance floor is full. Just before the chorus, Rosie rightly belts out "people on the river are happy to give".

The writer travelled as a guest of Cruiseco.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Singapore and then on to Ho Chi Minh City or Siem Reap. Ph 13 10 11, see singaporeairlines.com.au

CRUISING THERE

The Cruiseco Adventurer has 11-night packages from Siem Reap to Saigon or vice versa from $4499. The cruise tour includes return economy class airfare from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide or Perth (includes air taxes), 7-night luxury river cruise in a balcony cabin between Saigon and Siem Reap, including local beers, spirits and soft drinks, two nights at the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon and two nights at the Raffles Hotel D'Angkor in Siem Reap, sightseeing with expert guides and all transfers as well as breakfast daily, lunch and dinner. Phone (02) 9492 8520; see cruising.com.au.

MORE INFORMATION

vietnamtourism.com; tourismcambodia.com.

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