Hubert Burda Media

River of Life

Sailing between Phnom Penh and Saigon aboard the Aqua Mekong cruise vessel, we adjust to the timeless rhythms of a waterborne existence.


FLOWING FOR MORE than 4,300km between the Tibetan plateau and the South China Sea, and passing through six countries on the way, the Mekong is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia. To tens of millions of people who live around its banks it's the “mother river”, watering the rice fields of the Lower Mekong Basin – where its broad main channel and tributaries are replenished by drenching wet-season rains – and nurturing countless species of freshwater fish and other edible creatures.

The river is a vital artery for trade and transport, too, especially on the final 300km between Phnom Penh and the sea. Here, as it enters Vietnam, it divides into two major branches, which are themselves linked by a vast network of creeks and canals that dissect the watery flatlands.

It's on this section of the waterway, which bustles with riverboats, barges and even modest ocean-going ships carrying everything from rice, fish and vegetables to concrete, fuel and construction equipment, that I'm spending the next three nights and days. I'm taking the cruise vessel Aqua Mekong as it slowly journeys downriver from the Cambodian capital to My Tho, some 70km from Vietnam's commercial powerhouse of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Built for Aqua Expeditions, a small luxury adventure company that also operates a pair of sister vessels – Aqua Amazon and Aria Amazon – on the Peruvian reaches of the great South American river, Aqua Mekong entered service late last year. As well as sailing back and forth between Phnom Penh and the Mekong Delta, it also heads north up the Tonle Sap tributary and across the great shallow lake of the same name, whose northern tip almost touches the outskirts of Siem Reap, gateway to the fabulous ruins of Angkor. Thus, seven-, four- and three-night cruises are available in each direction, with departures from Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Saigon/My Tho.

Completed in mid 2014 and designed by Saigon architects Noor, whose portfolio also includes refurbished interiors at Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh (itself a popular dry-land stay for Aqua Mekong guests), the 60-metre-long ship contrasts sharply with other cruise vessels on the river, which are typically finished in kitschy, faux-colonial style. Instead, Aqua mixes polished tropical wood, matt-black steel plate and floor-to-ceiling glass on each of its three decks. The look is contemporary, purposeful and even stealthy, so you almost expect the boat's small fleet of skiffs (they're lowered into the river from davits at the stern) to carry platoons of commandos instead of tourists with cameras, as they dart hither and thither across the water.

Inside, gleaming wood predominates on the floors, ceilings, walls and furnishings – modern and simple, the vessel elegantly frames the watery panoramas that slowly slip by outside. There's accommodation for up to 40 passengers in 20 sleek if minimally furnished cabins, some with a private balcony. As daytime temperatures can be brutally hot, however, I'd suggest opting for the enhanced space of a cabin without the outdoor amenity, especially as there's plenty of room for lounging on the upper-deck divans and sofas, as well as in the small swimming pool.

Guest accommodation takes up most of the two lower decks, while public areas – including a large lounge and bar, a media room and a library – occupy the third level. This, too, is the location for the vessel's intimate dining room, which has already garnered plaudits for the food that emerges from its even tinier kitchen. That's down to the fact that the latter is overseen by star chef David Thompson, whose Nahm restaurant at The Metropolitan Bangkok is reckoned by many to be the best in Asia – and his team aboard Aqua Mekong do him full justice, preparing a stream of succulent edibles from morning till night, some Asian, some Western, but all beautifully prepared and delicious.

Indeed, mealtimes regulate each day while travelling slowly down the river (and as it takes almost three whole days to cover the roughly 275km between the voyage's beginning and end, I'm hard put to work out how we could go any slower, unless we got out and walked), with all activities slotted in between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tardy immigration processing on the first morning sees us held up and drifting in midstream just inside Vietnam while we wait for our passports to be returned, though that still leaves time to pile aboard the skiffs and jet across the water to the town of Hong Ngu, where we each board a rickety xyclo and are pedalled around the waterfront to view a typical market. Lunch over, we're off on the boats again, first to a fish farm and then to one of the many orchards that occupy the islands of the delta, where we sample the produce and are treated – if that's the correct word – to a surreal and discordant musical performance by a geriatric couple, who have us all trying hard to stifle our guffaws. As adventure goes it could hardly get softer, but it's certainly diverting and keeps us pleasantly amused until dinner time.

Likewise the next day, when I skip the morning excursion for a spa treatment, then join the rest of the guests for a jaunt to a floating market at Cai Be – it's apparently the biggest in the area, though by the time we breeze through it appears to have shut up shop for the day – and a bicycle ride along a canal-side levee to a sprawling heritage house, which ends in a soaking from a late-afternoon deluge. It's great fun nonetheless, made even more enjoyable by the knowledge that our mother ship lies waiting out in the river, ready as always to welcome us aboard, but this time with towels and the delicious promise of a hot shower.

And then before we know it, we're tying up in the morning sun at the wharf at My Tho. Our bus to Saigon – an hour or so's drive away – is parked on the dockside. We step off Aqua Mekong for the last time, locate our luggage and say goodbye to the crew who've lined up on terra firma to see us off. Although we've made few discoveries and had no life-changing experiences, our journey has added up to far more than the simple sum of its parts. The food has been marvellous and the company of our fellow guests never less than congenial, but what sticks mostly in the mind is simply the opportunity of easing into the gentle rhythms of a riverine existence, and the broad sweep of water under towering cumulus clouds that's served as the constant and timeless backdrop to three blissful days and nights on one of the world's great waterways.

+Prestige Hong Kong