‘Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world,’ says French novelist Gustave Flaubert. He’s right. Traveling – by any means – makes one deeply understand that the world is so vast and that there’s so much more to discover. Agnes Alpuerto goes on a trip from Cambodia to Vietnam through a ‘path’ less traveled and sees the beauty of life in the trans-boundary waters of the Mekong.
If you think you’ve seen much of Cambodia and Vietnam as you went on hiking or hopping from one side of the border to the other, well, you still haven’t.
There is, undoubtedly, a beautiful sense of pride and serenity when you’ve travelled on foot – or through any land transportation – from province to province, taking a peek at the daily lives of the locals, and finally reaching one of the borders to Vietnam.
But there is also an equally enchanting feeling of fulfillment and tranquility when you see these two beautiful countries and the lives they nurture through the very thing that connects them, the Mekong.
Mekong river snakes more than 4,000 kilometers from the plateaus of Tibet to the South China Sea, flowing through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The river, considered the world’s twelfth longest river and the seventh in Asia, is home to hundreds of types of fish as well as dolphins, crocodiles and other marine creatures. Millions of people live on its riverbanks and on the water itself, and spend most of their lives lauding the abundant yields of the “Great River”.
But even with all the glory of the Mekong, it remains one of the most underrated waterways in terms of leisure navigations.
There is no better way to discover the splendor and mystique of Mekong than to travel through it. It is through a cruise that you get to have a closer look and wider understanding of the rich cultures that lie on the riverbanks of Cambodia and Vietnam, the beliefs and traditions deeply rooted in every social group, the means of living of the ‘boat people’. After all, rivers flow to where concrete roads cannot.
And yes, there’s also no better way to witness the beauty of sunrises and sunsets than on the sundeck.
But Cambodia’s cruise industry is still relatively low and unpopular, especially among the Khmers.
“The Mekong cruises are not considered exotic to Cambodians or Vietnamese. Hence, most of those who go on cruises are Westerners. In fact, there aren’t many Southeast Asians on the cruise ships in Cambodia,” said Naidah Yazdani, the Asia Director of Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong, one of the pioneers of the Mekong cruise industry in the kingdom.
Most long cruises run from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, giving travelers a chance to see the majestic Angkor Wat before moving towards the bustling city of Phnom Penh and to the storied cities and provinces of Vietnam before making its final berth at the commercial and cultural city of Ho Chi Minh. Presently, there are more than 20 ships cruising this route.
The cruise prices can range from middle to high, depending on the duration of the cruise, the itineraries and the services the trips offer.
Nevertheless, each cruise presents an experience that goes beyond expectations – river view, boat amenities and services, dine and wine, site visits, community immersions, and the mere fact that you can take a break from the noise and haste of the land.
On board the Lan Diep
For an expatriate like me, every chance to know Cambodia – and what lies behind it – in an uncommon way is very much valued. So when my fellow expats and I were told of a five-day Mekong river cruise, we didn’t have second thoughts, not even any worry on the length of the trip nor the possible presence of unfriendly crocodiles.
The journey started on October 8. We went onboard the RV Lan Diep, a luxurious and stylish wooden boat run by the Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong (CF Mekong), at the Phnom Penh Autonomous Port and waited for the boat to pull its anchor up. We set sail at 5 o’clock, with the mesmerizing sunset as our background.
There were 31 passengers – a big Cambodian family, a group of Australian tour operators and us, four Filipino expats – whose excitement was palpable in the air. There were 22 crew members who worked all around the boat, all of them Cambodian. Captain Tranh Minh Duc is a Vietnamese national.
RV Lan Diep, an 11-year-old three-story boat, is 51 meters long, 10 meters wide and almost seven meters tall. It has a total of 22 cabins that oozed quality and elegance, without being intimidating. Instead, the cabins – spacious and comfortable for solo travelers or for the whole family – resemble that of a home away from home, or even more than that.
The river vessel boasts its strong metallic hull that is gently embedded in an exquisite wood colonial-styled finishing, inspired by the Mekong’s ancient tradition of river boat building.
We had a delightful dinner inside the boat’s sophisticated restaurant, with all the crew wearing traditional Cambodian attire. It was, to say the least, a great start for a great week-long escapade on the Mekong.
We reached the little city of Chau Doc, Vietnam on the second day of the cruise. Sitting along the banks of the Hau Giang River, Chau Doc borders with Cambodia. Significant influences of Chinese, Cham and Khmer peoples and cultures are evident even at first look, making the city a tourist attraction.
We got off the boat and boarded passenger vans for a trip to Ba Chua Xu Temple and Tay An Pagoda.
We went back to the city’s main port and boarded a smaller boat for a tour at a fishing farm. We visited a farm of basa cat fish and discovered that 80 percent of the fish harvested from the fish farms are exported to other countries.
We also immersed ourselves in the Cham community and saw how they go about their lives adjusting to the highs and lows of the water level. To say that the Cham people and everyone living on the riverbanks or in the middle of the river are resilient would come as an understatement.
On our third day, we left on an excursion to Sa Dec, a provincial city in Dong Tháp province in southern Vietnam. We visited the famous residence of Huynh Thuy Le, the lover of French-born Marguerite Duras who immortalised the romance in her semi-autobiographical novel, The Lover.
We also took another small local boat to a brick and pottery factory on the inner parts of the river in Vinh Long, and went further to a workshop of pop rice, rice wraps and coconut candy – a common and well-preserved business in Cai Be.
On the fourth day, October 11, we boarded another local boat to the Unicorn Island across My Tho city, the capital of Tien Giang Province. With our local tour guide, Mii, we went into a honey orchard and a souvenir shop where we were also treated with fresh cuts of locally produced fruits and a couple of Vietnamese songs sang live by a group of local musicians.
We also passed through ‘water coconut’ canal through smaller local boats that can accommodate only four passengers at a time and witnessed the raw beauty of water coconuts standing proud on the riverbanks.
We went back to RV Lan Diep and watched as we sailed towards our final destination – Ho Chi Minh City. We were half a day earlier than scheduled, as we were supposed to reach Saigon on Friday morning. We docked at Saigon Port at dusk.
Since it was our last night on the cruise, Captain Duc and the crew of RV Lan Diep shared a toast with all the passengers. The dinner served was a combination of seafood, meat and vegetables – an obvious effort of the boat to cater to all food preferences of the passengers.
But of course, the river vessel will never be worthy of bearing the Cambodian flag if its crew won’t lead a couple of Khmer songs and dance performances. To the cheerful tune of traditional and modern Khmer music, everyone danced their hearts out and celebrated the beautiful week on board the lovely wooden boat on the waters of the majestic Mekong river.
We hopped out of the cruise boat on Friday morning and went on our separate ways – to airports and bus stations that would bring us back to our homes, back to our ordinary routines.
But that week, no matter how short it may seem, has given me, my fellow expats, the Cambodian family, and the Australian travelers a new perspective of Cambodia and Vietnam, and how the Mekong river has become an essential part of the trade, culture, tradition, beliefs and lives of the people of these two nations.
The trip made us realise that the Mekong is not just a home to marine creatures or the trade route for merchants of floating markets. The Mekong is a home to diverse communities and a great pride of the countries it links.
How to experience the real and raw beauty of Mekong? Go on a cruise.