Our Vietnam and Cambodia river cruise begins with a couple of nights in Ho Chi Minh City, surely one of the most dynamic and engaging destinations in Asia. Eight million people and 7 million motorbikes can't be wrong.
Buzzing with the excitement of embarkation day, we gather in the lobby of the Caravelle Saigon, a hotel with so much history guests ought to be handed footnotes along with their room keys. It was here in the 1960s that the Australian and New Zealand embassies were based, along with war correspondents for NBC, ABC, CBS and many other major news organisations. It is claimed that by the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, journalists could cover the explosive action without leaving their bar stools on the hotel's rooftop.
Many of the cruise passengers have spent the previous nights enjoying cold beer and warm night air on that same rooftop, refreshing and refuelling after gruelling days tracking down the city's best banh mi sandwiches or being fitted by Vietnamese tailors with nimble fingers and lightning-fast results.
We are greeted by Rosie, a beaming young Cambodian woman who seems genuinely honoured to be our cruise director. No craving-induced request is too challenging for this dynamo, which we will discover during the week's voyage as she produces, Aladdin-like, Wi-Fi modems, jackfruit, raincoats, salt-and-vinegar chips, a portable hammock and access to one of the most covetable hotel swimming pools in south-east Asia. (It's at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, a refreshing oasis in the sweltering mid-March climate.)
Our group boards two coaches, bound for the port town of My Tho, where we will settle in to our floating home for the next seven nights. RV Cruiseco Adventurer was purpose built for the Mekong in 2012. The ship can spaciously accommodate 60 passengers; it normally cruises with at least 50 onboard.
During this seven-night cruise we will visit small towns along the Mekong River's banks, where tourism is still in its infancy and we, as visitors, will be greeted with as much curiosity as we display. In the Vietnamese trading port of Cai Be, we will transfer from ship to sampan boat to tour the floating markets, a riot of cheerful over-water trading as flowers, fruit and clothing change hands. Stopping in Sa Dec village for a few hours, we will visit the old French colonial mansion known as the Lover's House, designated a Vietnamese national relic for its pivotal role in Marguerite Duras' award-winning autobiographical tale of her scandalous love affair with a much older man. Blessings will be bestowed on us by monks at a Buddhist monastery and meditation centre. In Kapong Tralach Pleu, a bumpy oxcart ride under the baking midday Cambodian sun will be made even more memorable by the village children's sweet antics as they skip, run, cartwheel and sing to us as we clip-clop along the dusty roads leading back to the luxury of our ship.
Fitted out with 30 spacious cabins and suites, the RV Cruiseco Adventurer is a welcoming, air-conditioned home away from home. The private quarters resemble upscale hotel rooms with timber floors, elegant decor, flat-screen TVs and DVD players. At 21.5 square metres for cabins and 50 square metres for deluxe suites, these are some of the roomiest accommodations cruising the Mekong. Suite passengers enjoy the added luxury of a deep bathtub and separate sitting room with a second TV and DVD player.
Guests are encouraged to retire for early nights or lazy afternoons of movie-watching. The night before we are scheduled to arrive in Sa Dec, we are supplied with individual DVD copies of The Lover, which is deemed too racy for us to watch together in the communal lounge.
The Saigon Lounge is where we gather to watch other films – The Killing Fields, ahead of our arrival in Phnom Penh, and a documentary about the ancient wonders of Angkor Wat – as well as performances by local folk dancers and singers who are invited on board to entertain in national costume.
As the ship's sole lounge/bar, this space is a high-use zone and we meet here each evening to chat with other guests over pre-dinner cocktails and listen to Rosie give the briefing on the next day's itinerary. It is also the public area where guests sit during the day to read, access Wi-Fi or enjoy a coffee or alcoholic beverage.
There is an emphasis on learning about the local cultures of Vietnam and Cambodia while on board, with hands-on opportunities to learn how to wear the national Cambodian costume, fold napkins and make Vietnamese spring rolls.
The local approach extends to the onboard Mekong Restaurant, where an effort is made to spice up the menu with south-east Asian flavours while catering for passengers who demand meat-and-three-veg at dinnertime. Alongside the Vegemite and scrambled eggs on the breakfast buffet, guests will find stir-fried noodles, colourful Asian fruits and heart-starting pork noodle broth. By lunchtime, the buffet is complemented by an action station where white-hatted chefs whip up daily specials to order, including pad thai, laksa and roast chicken stuffed with lemongrass. Dinner is an a la carte affair of appetiser, soup, main and dessert. Again, passengers may choose Western or Asian dishes, or mix and match. For example, Vietnamese rice paper rolls for appetiser, tamarind broth with shrimps, slow-braised pork ribs or steak frites. House wine, a Vietnamese red or white, is served free of charge at lunch and dinner. Seating is open, at tables of four or six.
By the time we reach the twinkling harbour lights of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's rapidly developing capital, we've read up on the brutal modern history of this complicated nation and have some idea of what to expect. Still, guests return ashen-faced and sombre from a day's excursion to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
The pain is still raw in this part of the world, and understandably so, but so is the ambition and drive for a brighter future. We venture off the ship that night with Rosie for an after-dinner cocktail at the legendary Foreign Correspondents' Club, walking past night market stalls and pavement dining where young people nosh on Italian, American and Chinese cuisine.
Later, a tuk-tuk ride through the mostly deserted midnight streets delivers us to Eclipse Sky Bar, a sophisticated rooftop restaurant and bar atop the city's first "intelligent" office building. Filled with beautiful people, it reminds me of Bangkok's sky-high watering holes. There are still a few days of cruising ahead of us before we reach the unforgettable sights of Angkor Wat, but for now there are cocktails, and laughter, and a city view worth toasting.
FIVE MORE ASIAN RIVER CRUISES
According to cruisecritic.com.au, more than 30 cruise lines operate Asian itineraries across more than 200 ports in 17 countries. Here are just five worth considering.
1. River Kwai in Thailand: a new way to see the Land of Smiles. See cruiseasia.net
2. The mighty Irrawaddy River in Myanmar was once known as "the road to Mandalay". See scenic.com.au
3. On a Ganges cruise, the bustling city of Kolkata is just one of the highlights. See aptouring.com.au
4. The Yangtze River should be part of any bucket list trip to China. See wendywutours.com.au
5. Red River cruises reveal insights to life in northern Vietnam, including Halong Bay. See pandaw.com
Kristie Kellahan travelled as a guest of Cruiseco and with the assistance of Journeys Within.
RV Cruiseco Adventurer was purpose built for the Mekong in 2012 and is promoted through Cruiseco-affiliated travel agencies. Regular departures are offered between September and March for cruises from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, and vice versa. Seven-night cruise from $1999 a person, twin share; 11-night packages from $4499 include the cruise, international flights and hotel nights before and after the cruise. See cruising.com.au
Jetstar flies to Ho Chi Minh City from Sydney and Melbourne. See jetstar.com
Don't miss the opportunity to stay at Jaya House RiverPark, a gorgeous 36-room boutique hotel set on the banks of Siem Reap River. See jayahouseriverparksiemreap.com
EdenStar Saigon Hotel & Spa is well-located in Ho Chi Minh City, with an impressive outdoor pool and fitness facilities. See edenstarsaigonhotel.com
With so much to see and do in Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, it's worth staying extra days before and after the cruise. Journeys Within offers independent, customised tours curated with local knowledge. . See journeys-within.com