Emerging from sleep to see daylight peeping round the window blinds, I couldn’t at first identify the noise. Certainly not the usual Saturday morning birdsong we enjoy at home. No, this was definitely strange music punctuated with chat, but through a loudspeaker. So what the …?
Cruise the Mekong and you never know quite what you will encounter next. I had expected the floating markets, the houses on stilts, and early morning fishermen, but a Buddhist wedding celebration at 7am? Through the picture windows of our cabin on board Scenic Spirit, we could see lines of chairs beneath an awning, each one dressed in coloured silk – all part of a traditional marriage party that continues two days and a night.
John and I were Asia virgins when we booked our Significant Birthday Holiday to Vietnam and Cambodia with Silver Travel Advisor partner Scenic, choosing their Treasures of the Mekong itinerary for its attractive sandwich of relaxed river cruising between two city stays. It also offered the chance to see two contrasting destinations linked by one river. Bustling Vietnam is the world’s 13th most populous country, whilst rural Cambodia comes in way down at 68th with 50% of the population under 22.
Between Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia, we would experience life in the mighty Mekong Delta, visit the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, and, leaving the river, explore the UNESCO-listed temples of ancient Angkor, once capital of the powerful Khmer Empire. The brochure and website offered a tantalising glimpse of what was to come, but just a few days into the two-week trip, reality was already far exceeding expectations.
This is a trip for the curious Silver Traveller, the person who wants a holiday that combines education, experience and entertainment. And to do it in style. Our tour began with two nights at the sumptuous Park Hyatt in HCMC, formerly Saigon, before we headed west by road to join the luxurious Scenic Spirit at the heart of the Mekong Delta for a week on the river. At the end of the cruise, three nights at the Park Hyatt in Siem Reap are the base for discovering the ruined temples of Angkor.
We travelled in March when daytime temperatures were in the low- to mid-30s, dipping into the 20s at night. Expect high levels of humidity, but hotels, restaurants and, of course, Scenic Spirit are efficiently air-conditioned, and excursions are well- timed and sensibly paced. Expect early starts – 8 to 8.30 – with lunch in the cool and then a second mid-afternoon excursion.
Some excursions involve the whole group – 68 guests on Scenic Spirit – and cover must-do experiences like the Liberation Palace in Ho Chi Minh City and the Royal Palace in Phnom Pen, but most days there were two or three Free Choice options too ranging from war history sites to a forest bird sanctuary, cooking classes to community projects.
Our ever-smiling Cambodian tour manager Mao was supported by excellent local guides, all of whom added an extra dimension to our trip with insights into the lives of their own families. The horrors of the Vietnam War (American War to the Vietnamese) and the Pol Pot regime in 1970s Cambodia still resonate today and don’t make easy listening, but whether you choose or not to visit the notorious Killing Fields or Cu Chi guerrilla tunnels, you’ll still come away with a much deeper understanding of both countries.
On a lighter note, we loved the excursions classified Scenic Enrich. These special experiences included High Tea at Raffles in Phnom Penh and a city lights tour by tuk-tuk; a blessing by a Buddhist monk; and a fabulous pop-up dinner and show at an Angkor temple, all just for Scenic guests.
Back on board Scenic Spirit, we luxuriated in one of the largest cabins on the Mekong, with our own charming butler who left different gifts on our bed each evening – traditional Cambodian Krama scarves, scented balm, good luck bracelets, and sweet tasting bars of puffed rice. So much more useful than towel animals! We also enjoyed outstanding Asian food at every meal – including optional crispy insects at the Street Food buffet lunch – though Western choices are always available. And on most evenings, we were moored mid-stream, making for blissfully quiet nights in gloriously comfortable beds. I can also recommend the treatments in the Scenic Sen Spa, exceptionally good value by Western standards at around 30 US Dollars for an hour’s aromatherapy massage, particularly welcome after an atmospheric but bumpy ride in a traditional ox cart!
Treasures of the Mekong is not a budget holiday and definitely ranks in the Special Occasion bracket for most of us, but there are no hidden costs and few extras. All excursions are included along with full board and free drinks on Silver Spirit, and lunch or dinner during city stays.
So what would I change about the trip? Reluctant though I am to rank anything perfect, this actually delivered even more magic than we’d hoped for. The whole Scenic itinerary was impeccably conceived and run, and we couldn’t fault the staff, the food, or the comfort. But what made it extra special for us was the fact that the trip was as much about people as places.
Scenic support a number of responsible tourism initiatives that bring much needed income into these re-emerging countries, Cambodia in particular. The incredible Phare circus performance where young performers from a charitable arts school weave extraordinary acrobatics around a human story in Phnom Penh.
The eco-village of Cheung Kok near Kampong Chan were children ran out to hold our hands and adults showed us their homes. And the talented youngsters who came on board to entertain us with traditional Vietnamese dance and music.
The cities were exciting; the temples overwhelming; and the river intriguing. But the people were something else. It was a real privilege to be part of their world, if only for two short weeks.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Scenic.