Emerald Harmony luxury river cruise: The newest ship on the Mekong

I'm playing with a forgotten mode on my camera, reducing the surrounding chaos to mere seconds of frenetic energy. Motos, tuk-tuks, barges, neon lights, all ramped to the max.

In the Mekong basin, there seems no more appropriate way to capture the passing parade. Life itself appears in time-lapse, the minutia of daily activity compressed in a blink of an eye, an ever-changing onslaught of humanity and its machinery, perpetually in motion.

There's also nothing languid about the latte-hued Mekong River itself, flowing with surprising alacrity for 4350 kilometres from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, supporting more than 70 million inhabitants in six different nations: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

But it's in its lower reaches – from Cambodia to its sprawling delta, known to the Vietnamese as Nine Dragons – that river life is at its most intense, with 23.5 million people in the delta alone sustained by the most concentrated biodiversity per hectare of any waterway in the world.

I am cruising this hectic and always fascinating river with Evergreen Cruises, sailing on an eight-day itinerary from Prek'kdam, just north of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, to the Vietnamese metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, still stubbornly called Saigon by all and sundry despite a name change in 1976.

Our Star-Ship, the Emerald Harmony, is brand spanking new, launched in August 2019 and specifically designed to sail in and out of Saigon via the Cho Gao Canal. This 29-kilometre man-made passageway is the main artery between the Mekong and the city, a short-cut teeming with barges loaded with sand, rice and other produce, but too shallow, narrow and hampered by low-slung bridges for most cruise ships.

Sleek and luxurious – almost a carbon copy of sister-company Scenic's Irrawaddy river cruiser, Scenic Aura – Harmony cuts a striking figure, the subject of many a photo taken by curious locals. And although petite enough to travel where its competitors cannot, there's no compromise on interior space, with even the smallest of the 42 staterooms and suites providing 23.8 square metres of floor space.

Upstairs on Deck 2, my Panorama Balcony Suite is marginally larger, featuring an indoor balcony with a window that slides down for photo opportunities. Silhouetted palms at sunset. Fishermen wearing conical hats casting nets from rickety canoes. Massive cranes, dredging the depths and dumping tonnes of sand onto houseboat barges, gaily decorated with evil eyes, pot plants and washing drying in the breeze.

While I don't have direct access to the outdoors (like the four Grand Balcony Suites or the two top-tier Owner's Suites), the searing heat and extreme humidity is more conducive to air-conditioned comfort, and I really don't miss an outdoor seating area.

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Instead, I become a permanent fixture on the back deck, watching life meander by from the cooling (or should I say, tepid!) waters of the swimming pool, soothed by the sound of the swishing wake. Meanwhile, there's ample space to relax in the air-conditioned Horizon Bar or the tranquil Lotus Lounge in the ship's bow; while for rare bursts of energy in the coma-inducing heat there's a small fitness room as well as a walking track and games area on the rooftop sundeck, which is mostly used for sunset cultural performances or balmy evenings under the stars.

A surprisingly popular addition to the ship's inventory is a self-service laundry room, a godsend for dealing with piles of dirty clothing that accumulate after sweaty shore excursions.

Generally, there are two port visits a day – a complimentary tour plus an extra outing, offered at an added cost. With the 72 passengers divided into three groups and with dedicated local guides, the excursions are intimate, eye-opening and manageable in the humidity. They generally focus on traditional culture in the small villages along the river.

In the former royal residence of Oudong, north of Phnom Penh, we are showered with lotus petals in a private monk blessing before chatting with nuns about life in the largest meditation centre in Cambodia; while in nearby Koh Chen, we visit silversmiths at work, the clang of metal on metal resounding through the pretty riverside village.

Swapping countryside for the Big Smoke, we explore the manic streets of Phnom Penh in tuk-tuks by night, our convoy of 39 three-wheelers quite the spectacle as we contribute to the waterfront frenzy.

Phnom Penh itself is a city in time-lapse. When I first visited 11 years ago, the highest buildings were Raffles Hotel Le Royal and the quayside Foreign Correspondents Club (currently closed for renovation); five years ago, two skyscrapers pierced the hazy sky.

Today, there are 23 buildings more than 100 metres in height; the riverside is ablaze with the neons of Chinese-owned casinos, gilded eyesores that apparently generate more gaming revenue than the entire GDP of Cambodia. But while frowned upon by locals – Cambodians themselves are forbidden to gamble in casinos – the influx of Chinese investment has transformed the former ghost town into a boom town, for better or worse one of Asia's fastest-growing cities.

Cambodia's proverbial elephant in the room, however, remains the tragic blight of the Khmer Rouge and its brutal genocide that wiped out half the population between 1975 and 1979. A visit to the Killing Fields, just one of 343 sites where intellectuals, men, women, children – anyone with a voice, as well as those without – were slaughtered and buried in mass graves.

Draped with colourful bracelets, a sprawling tree at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre evokes raw emotion – for it was against the trunk of this silent sentinel that children and infants were bashed to death before their parents, brutally murdered so they "wouldn't grow up and take revenge for their parents' death".

The resilience of the Cambodian people, however, is inspiring, their constant smiles, laid-back attitude and positivity a joy to behold. Back on board, we are treated to a lunch buffet in Reflections Restaurant featuring Cambodian street food, the waitstaff taking great delight in passengers' squeals and laughter as they nibble on crickets, water beetles and, yes, even tarantulas, shrivelled black appendages the stuff of nightmares.

With immigration procedures handled seamlessly by the Emerald Harmony staff, crossing the border between Cambodia and Vietnam has little impact on passengers. The scenery however, immediately changes, with river activity and shore infrastructure increasing tenfold, from chuffing barges and dredges, to fish farms lining the banks of the Mekong.

Our excursions, however, still seek out hidden treasures. Accessed only by boat, the bucolic village of Long Khanh represents a long-lost snapshot of Vietnam, its car-free streets lined with tamarind trees and orchards bursting with tropical fruits. Across the river, Evergreen Island illustrates the importance of seasonal flooding for local farmers, its rich soil supporting verdant fields of chilli, corn and bananas.

For most passengers, however, the highlight of the entire journey is the final leg through the Cho Gao canal, an illustration of Vietnamese industry at its most ruthless and manic. With sail times restricted by tides, boat traffic at high tide is at a premium, with nearly 1100 vessels a day – from cargo ships to gnarly wooden tugs pushing overloaded sand barges – jostling for space in the 200 metre wide passageway.

Our ship alone takes up a third of the canal. Yet smaller barges, skippers talking on mobile phones and steering with their feet, have no qualms about overtaking, squeezing past with centimetres to spare despite the unwieldy nature of their vessels.

On the Horizon Deck outside the wheelhouse, we watch our captain's steely concentration, concern written all over his face as a veritable swarm bears down in a maritime version of Frogger. On several occasions he picks up his microphone, announcing our approach via loudspeaker (he later tells me he was "politely asking them to give way"). In some instances, a sharp blast of the horn is the only way to alert oncoming traffic.

TRIP NOTES

Julie Miller was a guest of Evergreen Cruises and Tours.

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FLY

Vietnam Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh City, with transfers to Siem Reap for down-river itineraries. See vietnamairlines.com/au

CRUISE

An eight-day Majestic Mekong River cruise on the Emerald Harmony costs from $3125 a person with the option of land add-ons in Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City. See evergreentours.com.au

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