Cruising the Mekong on a 5 star river ship

Five years ago I travelled from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam through to Siem Reap in Cambodia by road. It was a long and often tiring journey, so when I was offered the chance to do it again but by river I was very keen. Vietnam and Cambodia are fantastic countries that I wanted to return to and so the option of travelling on a 5 star river ship this time was very appealing.

Avalon’s purpose built ship for cruising the Mekong is quite easily the best on the river. The two main reasons being that it is one of the smallest with only 18 cabins and that these are spread across just two decks. This allows the ship to cruise right into the centre of HCMC by fitting under every bridge. For all other cruise ships, you’ll embark about 1.5 hours down river at My Tho.

Once on board, the atmosphere is very friendly and casual. The crew are almost entirely Cambodian with just the captain and his crew being Vietnamese. They knew everyone’s names by the second day and couldn’t be faulted on their attentive and friendly service all done with a great sense of humour too. The dress code on board is casual and with a mix of predominantly NZ, Australian and American passengers it was a very friendly and informal environment.

Everything really is included in this cruise fare with the only extras you need to think about being top shelf alcohol and anything you might want to buy as souvenirs on the shore excursions. Gratuities can be prepaid when booking or allow around $120 USD per person for the week. Otherwise there is more food and drink available on board then you could possibly eat and it was of the highest standard I’ve ever come across on a cruise. There were several Asian and western style dishes for every meal, whether on the buffets at breakfast and lunch or the a la carte evening meal. Additional services on board are a laundry, spa and small fitness centre.

There is just one opportunity to leave the ship for a local dinner and this is in Phnom Penh. The ship is so centrally docked that you can walk to several local restaurants or there will always be tuk tuks and taxis waiting too. I took this opportunity to do a Vespa Street Food Tour with a local guide and a couple of other passengers from the ship and it was excellent. I would highly recommend it for a great insight into the local life, history and cuisine of this buzzing city

Every day you have one or two shore excursions of around 1.5 hours each with the exception of the visits to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh (4 hours). With all of these, the ship is able to moor up on the river bank and you just walk off the ship or there may be a short ride on a sampan boat. The excursions revolve around the craft industries and livelihoods of the communities that live along the Mekong River and its religious monuments. As predominantly Buddhist countries, there are beautiful pagodas, temples and monasteries to be visited.  Ensure that you have clothing that covers your shoulders and knees for visits to these.

I’d always recommend doing this cruise in a northbound direction for two reasons. The first being that the temples at Angkor in Siem Reap really are the highlight so a great way to end the trip but also because the ship takes on its provisions for two back to back cruises in HCMC.

The time of year is another important factor, as during the dry season from around April till August, the Tonle Sap Lake runs dry and so on the northbound service, this means returning to Phnom Penh on the second to last day to overnight for a flight up to Siem Reap the following morning. My cruise, which departed HCMC on the 3rd August was the first one for the season to be able to cross the lake and I’m so glad we didn’t miss it. As the largest freshwater lake in Asia, it is immense and to reach Siem Reap, we disembarked just before where the floating villages are anchored and took a smaller sampan boat 30 minutes through these to Chongknea Pier. From here it was a 30 minute coach ride into Siem Reap.

I was blown away by the rate of change in both countries in the last five years. They are modernising so quickly and the ‘trendy’ districts of the big cities such as HCMC and Phnom Penh are starting to look a lot like any other in the world. Foreign investment means that roading and other infrastructure is rapidly improving but along with all of this so is the cost of travelling here. These are definitely countries to visit sooner than later.