Cruising the delights of the mighty Mekong as a novice

Colourful fishing villages

I’m a cruising novice, apart from a two-day riverboat journey through the backwaters of Kerala and an overnight stay on a cruise ship in Fremantle that never left the dock.

After these previews of boat life, the time came to commit to a river cruise along the mighty Mekong River from Cambodia to Vietnam with CF Mekong Cruises. The timing was perfect with the launch of VietJet Air’s direct flights between Perth and Saigon five times a week, depositing you into the thick of it in just over six hours. Tours with CF Mekong start from Saigon or Siem Reap and include most activities, onshore excursions and transfers. 

I must admit that I approached the eight-day Discovery Cruise with some trepidation. With only 14 cabins, the teak-lined RV Tuom Tiou II’s very compactness was the cause of my concern. I soon discovered my hesitation about being in a confined space with strangers was unfounded as everyone was lovely, and the ship’s petite size allowed for a shallow hull, enabling us to go where larger ships can’t. The scenery, array of activities, lively company and incredible buffets of local and international dishes prepared by our chef would have put even the most reclusive of people at ease. Not to mention, the delightful staff always ready with a cool towel, icy drink and a warm smile.

After settling into our cabins, complete with ensuites and air conditioning (essential in this steamy part of the world), it was time to set sail from Koh Chen, about 300km from Siem Reap.

Our journey started along the Tonle Sap River, eventually flowing into the Mekong River, as rural scenes played out like a motion picture of makeshift homes precariously lining the river’s edge and floating fishing villages brightly painted in every colour of the rainbow. Arriving at Kampong Chhnang Kampong Chhnang Village, we’re introduced to the 70ish-year-old Mr Ry, who, in a flash, shimmies up a palm tree, as he does several times a day and night to collect the sap for palm sugar and wine. Mid-way up, he stops in a ‘look mum, no hands’ pose with a toothy grin.

We would soon become accustomed to infectious smiles. No matter how confronting the scenes before us were, the locals seemed to have a smile ready for us sweaty foreigners. We seemed to bring them as much joy while wobbling about on bicycles through rice paddies or being jostled around on the back of an ox-cart to the ancient Wat Kampong Tralach Leu Pagoda, where we received a blessing from a monk. 

On day four, we disembarked in Phnom Penh to explore the city’s grand colonial buildings and ornate traditional architecture, such as the Royal Palace and National Museum. A haggle at the Central Markets revealed a macabre side of some of my fellow passengers, who seemed to be on a quest to compare the juiciness of barbecued tarantulas. 

Phnom Penh’s royal palace

The crew seamlessly handled the border crossing on day five. The transition into Vietnam was so smooth that the only evidence that we were in a different country was that the river traffic became busier with tiny sampans bravely playing dodgems with huge barges and our floating hotel. 

The rustic riverbanks eventually became more cultivated with vegetation and buildings until making way for the imposing skyline of Saigon glowing in gold at sunset. An epic Vespa food adventure awaited us on our final night with Urban Venture Tours. As we climbed on the back of our Vespas behind our drivers, I wondered whose foolhardy idea it was to join the city’s seven million motorbikes at night. It turns out it was an invigorating idea as we sampled tasty banh mi, had cocktails at a sky bar, sat on tiny chairs on the pavement to slurp noodles and zipped through the back streets while being high-fived by children.

Our final day included an excursion to Saigon to delve into the country’s chequered past, including the Fall of Saigon at the mid-century Reunification Palace and a sobering visit to the War Remnants Museum, which is full of moving photos and artefacts. Back out on the streets, our moods lightened as K-pop dancers entertained against the backdrop of the French colonial-style Opera House. 

Saigon’s Reunification Palace

Too soon, it was time to bid our final farewells and board my flight home with VietJet Air. The airline spoiled me with an upgrade to Sky Boss, VietJet’s answer to premium economy, where I was treated to lounge access, dedicated seats at the front of the plane, free water, hand wipes and a care pack that included a blanket, face mask and an inflatable pillow. One of the flight attendants helped me place my hand luggage in the overhead storage, which was very much appreciated by this vertically challenged traveller and then went through the delicious menu with me that included comforting pho and flavoursome noodles. 

Since it was an early morning flight, I soon drifted off to sleep beneath my cosy blanket, soothed by evocative memories from the cruise, such as the soulful wander among the nuns and monks at the Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Meditation Centre. Floating through the mangrove-lined canals in the Tra Su Forest and on Unicorn Island on sampans, to dodging motorbikes piled high with household wares in markets are unforgettable images that linger long after returning home. 

Tra Su Forest

Carmen Jenner was a pampered guest of Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong (CF) Mekong Cruises (operated by Croisi Europe) and VietJet Air.