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One River, Two Countries: Saigon to Phnom Penh in Luxury

A luxury river cruise carries passengers west and north on the Mekong: across countless villages, through bucolic scenery, to two countries, and with so, so much Southeast Asian culture.

The Mekong artery running through Southeast Asia feeds the culture of several nations. In its delta, Vietnam and Cambodia sit wrapped in its influence – a confluence of Southeast Asia’s shared history, cultures and suffering. There are pieces of colonial France stuck in Chau Doc and a little China in Saigon. Borders have made the history of much of Southeast Asia, but it’s the landscape and the people that have made the culture.

The Mekong brings to mind vistas of fishermen in thin, sharp boats floating through wildlife and pastoral beauty. That’s all well and good, but it calls for a slight upgrade of boat – say, to a decadent riverboat cruise.

Saigon to My Tho

ABOVE: Saigon will be the last major city travelers along the Mekong will see until they disembark in Phnom Penh.

There are a lot of ways to discover the Mekong, but any journey west and north should begin in Saigon.

Swarming with motorbikes, markets, and vibrant nightlife, Saigon’s vigor is infectious. Shoppers will want the rush of Ben Thanh Night Market, gamblers and chancers will shoot for the casinos at the Caravelle Hotel and the Sheraton Saigon, and the nightlife-minded will head for Lush Nightclub or Apocalypse Now. Chill Skybar, cocktails in a rooftop bar over the city, is also highly recommended.

ABOVE: The bow of the Aqua Mekong, a 62.4-meter luxury riverboat.

It’s only an hour and 20 minutes to the port, My Tho, and guests can promptly arrive and head on their way – but leaving Saigon that fast is simply foolish. Travelers who need a little excitement ahead of their pampering should plan for a day or two at least in Saigon.

The preferred method of travel from Saigon to Phnom Penn is the Aqua. After stepping out of the whirlwind of Saigon, it’s a welcome bed of luxury. The 62.4-meter Aqua Mekong is surprisingly spacious for a riverboat and pleasantly indulgent.

Carrying 40 guests, the Aqua Mekong is a smooth, comfortable cruise without the kitsch and in relatively exclusive company.

West and Up the Mekong

ABOVE: The outdoor pool on the top deck of the Aqua Mekong.

The wet road for this pleasure cruise is the “rice bowl” of Vietnam. The Mekong Delta is a paradise of lush greenery and winding waters. The river is a world of its own – amidst the intersecting canals and streams, farms and temples dot the shores, sharing space with the occasional relic or war ruin.

To experience all of these things, the Aqua Mekong’s expert crew have river boats to take guests to off-Mekong adventures. That said, there are plenty of indulgent treats on board.

ABOVE: Passengers board a smaller boat from the Aqua Mekong to adventure through the river.

There will be several important Vietnamese venues along the way, the first being Cai Be, famous for its floating market: crowded waters, shouting boatkeepers, and a general, meditative chaos. Next is Sa Dec, and although the city may be out of sorts with the rest of the trip, smart travelers will want to check out the flower village, featuring pleasant, watery fields of chrysanthemums.

ABOVE: A chrysanthemum farm in Sa Dec in Vietnam.

Going by Cu Lao Islet travelers will arrive at the famous Chao Doc. This city, perhaps more than any other, is the heart and spirit of the Mekong: bucolic yet bustling, ancient and efficient. The markets are the draw here, but do also have a walk along the riverside, and hit up the bird sanctuary if you have time.

Final Road to Phnom Penn


ABOVE: The cinema aboard the Aqua Mekong and the indoor bar.

Chau Doc is very close to the border, but following the Mekong north travelers will make their way into Cambodia via Vinh Xuong. Here, the river wends thinner, and the shore gets closer.

Arriving in Phnom Penh at the close of an easy-going Mekong cruise might come with a bit of a culture shock. The accommodations aboard the Aqua will have been pretty lush, and Phnom Penn can be a little rustic for some – but there is plenty of culture to be had.

ABOVE: The Aqua Mekong at night with the lights of the luxury cabins shining.

Cambodia’s capital is an enchanting snapshot of Asian culture – the buzzing streets are populated with bountiful markets and a panorama of delightful cafes, bars, and restaurants. It’s even home to the king of Cambodia himself.  A visit to the ornate Royal Palace and attached Silver Pagoda comes highly recommended.

The city’s tragic, turbulent past is still remarkably alive in Phnom Penh; it is amazing to see how quickly the country has come along after falling so, so far.

ABOVE: Two monks meet at a temple in Phnom Penh.

Like Saigon, Phnom Penn is a city one might spend a lifetime discovering. On your journeys though the markets and to the tourists sites, you’ll no doubt find smiling immigrants and expats – people who have been enchanted with the city for decades.

And, while this may be the end of the road for some, the Mekong, and the Aqua Mekong for that matter, goes on from there.