Dolphins and dancing on a Jules Verne river cruise from Cambodia to Vietnam

The Mekong links these two neighbouring countries and it’s a fascinating waterway

RV Tonle Pandaw As a mature single traveller, it’s with great excitement rather than anxiety that I set off alone. My days of backpacking are long over (although never say never!) and these days I love comfort, a bit of luxury and no single supplement.

The Mekong rises in the Tibetan Plateau, cutting across six countries, and Jules Verne’s Original Mekong Cruise travels from Kampong Cham in Cambodia to My Tho in Vietnam, following the old river trading route. It was lovely to meet and get to know the couples and other lone adventurers who’d selected the same one-week itinerary.  

The 180ft RV Tonle Pandaw is a teak and brass retro-styled vessel and, with just 28 cabins, it’s a friendly size. We cast off at sunset with a Singapore Sling on the Sun Deck and, after a four-course dinner with excellent wines, were briefed about optional daily excursions.

Irrawaddy dolphin You don’t expect to see dolphins in a river but round-headed Irrawaddy Dolphins regularly surface to breathe in the Mekong at Kratie in Cambodia’s northeast. There were once several thousand but now these shy freshwater mammals are an endangered species.

Our Cambodian guide, Somnang, who secretly learnt English in fear of his life, told us that many dolphins disappeared during the brutal 1970s Khmer Rouge regime. Kratie Province is now a World Wildlife Protected area so hopefully the dolphins will thrive again as Cambodia recovers from its darkest days.

Monk at Royal Palace The country is 95% Theravada Buddhist, with meditation the religion’s key to enlightenment. You’ll see many saffron-robed monks around and Somnang found spending time as a monk himself helped heal his soul.

The traditional elevated houses we passed along the banks are on stilts because the Mekong regularly floods in the rainy season. Huge bunches of ‘black noodle’ utility wires dangle in loops along streets and chickens peck in the dust around curled snoozing dogs.

Families live upstairs and keep their ‘BMWs’ on the ground –  a Cambodian jokey name for their ‘hybrid vehicles’, an ox-cart driven by a modern white Khmer ox, a cross between a large Brahman and smaller local cattle. As the water recedes, farmers plant jasmine rice and Cambodian’s grains are totally organic. The crop is cut and the dry fields burnt so the ash can fertilise the land.

RV Tonle Pandaw at riverbank Cambodian cuisine makes use of local of herbs, leaves, pickled vegetables, dipping sauces and edible flowers. The salads on the cruise were sensational as were the fish dishes, such as barramundi fillets with lemongrass.

Each day the RV Tonle Pandaw anchored and sampans ferried to us ashore.  Depending on the height of the water and erosion of the bank ­– which water hyacinths help prevent –alighting can be a bit tricky, but crew members are always there to assist. My balance isn’t great so I took every proffered hand and never ended up with a soggy sandal.

We visited a school, planted a rosewood tree, watched martial art Bokator, rode in an ox-cart and learnt about silk production. I knew the silk moth’s cocoons were boiled to unwind the silk strands but I didn’t realise that the silkworms can then be eaten. (The taste is said to be pretty pungent…)

Silk making in Cambodia Usually we were back on the boat by dusk for cocktails but a special treat in Phnom Penh was a tuk-tuk trip through the neon-lit nightclub district to the 1929 elegant Raffles Hotel for drinks in the Elephant Bar gardens.

Next day we took bicycle rickshaw rides to Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace complex, dressed in respectfully demure clothes. I expected the Silver Pagoda to have a gleaming spire but its floor is silver and not its roof. The regal buildings are an uplifting contrast to the nearby Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former Khmer Rouge detention centre.

Not everyone in our group wanted to visit this site or the Choeung Ek Monument, a Buddhist stupa erected at one of the many Killing Fields, but the Cambodian government encourages visitors to understand the country’s past and it’s a spiritual place.  

The Killing Fields Culture was quashed by Pol Pot but now the ancient arts of Aspara dancing and shadow puppetry are making a comeback and, on our last night in Cambodia, we were entertained onboard with wonderful performances of both. The puppet tale of women killing a threatening wild beast and then a man trying to take the credit received enthusiastic applause.

We sailed into Vietnam just before Tet, the very important Lunar New Year, and there were lucky orange and yellow chrysanthemums on every doorstep.  Everyone was in holiday mood as we took local limos (horse carts and motorbike wagons) to stop off at a Taoist temple, woodworking centre and the home of an octogenarian basket maker.

In the countryside, roast rat – known as ‘jumping chicken’ – was once popular with villagers but now the rodents usually end up at python farms.  Cobra in alcohol is believed to cure male impotence but the snake must be soaked at least two years to neutralise the venom. We had no volunteers keen to taste this tipple but honey tea with kumquat was a refreshing sweet ’n’ sour drink.

Gao Giong bird sanctuary The Gao Giong bird sanctuary has been created in the inland wetland of Dong Thap Muoi where canals weave through a mangrove forest oasis. We were paddled in small boats on this eco-tourism outing by local women in lotus pink Vietnamese ào bà ba costumes. All was silent except for the sound of ripples in water until we turned a corner and heard the loud clattering of hundreds of nesting storks.

At a Vietnamese pancake cooking display, rice flour and coconut milk batter was fried into crispy crêpes while we snacked on papaya and mango with chilli salt. The chef’s tiny pet dog sat with us quietly, dressed in a sweet striped pinafore. 

My garden is my joy so later I paid close attention to a tree-grafting demonstration in Cho Lach flower village. The plantsman made it look easy but he does splice hundreds every day.

Saigon celebrations Vietnam has its own traumatic history but as the Year of the Pig arrived, Ho Chi Minh City – formerly Saigon – was a very happy place. Nguyen Hue street festival was a mass of blooms enjoyed by smiling families. Before we left the RV Tonle Pandaw, we celebrated with the crew, too, learning a few serene dance moves to Southeast Asian tunes, then we were encouraged to keep swaying with a little burst of Abba which kept us on our feet.

More information

The Original Mekong Cruise with Jules Verne costs from £2,895pp including flights (from Heathrow), all port charges, transfers, seven-night full-board cruise with most drinks, and the services of local guides and representatives. Departs 14 September & 9 November 2019, and 18 January, 15 February & 14 March 2020. No single supplement applies (subject to availability) on 14 September 2019 & 18 January 2020 departures.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Jules Verne.

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Beverley Watts

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