Authentic Asian Encounter: The magic of the Mekong

Janna Graber

It’s mid-afternoon and the market in Sa Dec, Vietnam, is bustling. Bubbling pools filled with live prawns, fish, and eels line the walkways, while nearby, a vendor smiles shyly, showing me her catch of the day. Tidy bins loaded with cucumbers, garlic, lemons, and coconuts stand ready for purchase, as a bike piled high with produce zips past, leaving the scent of lemongrass in the air.

The Sa Dec market, on the banks of the Mekong River, is an important part of daily life here, and it’s a pleasure to wander its stalls. Our guide is 30-year-old AK, a Vietnamese guide with AmaWaterways. As he shares stories with our small group, it feels like sightseeing with a local friend.

It’s just day two on our seven-day cruise with AmaWaterways, but already I’m glad we’ve come. For me, experiencing a new culture in an authentic way is an important part of travel. AmaWaterways has already done that, introducing us to locals who share their arts, livelihoods and crafts. Excellent local guides, like AK, add insight to the experience.

Our market visit is just one adventure during our “Charms of the Mekong” river cruise. The cruise runs from Ho Chi Minh City (once known as Saigon) in Vietnam to Siem Reap, Cambodia, following the wide, slow-moving Mekong River.

The market in Sa Dec, Vietnam is bustling with. bubbling pools of live prawns, fish, and other fresh seafood.. © Janna Graber

For centuries, the mighty Mekong has been a primary source of life in this fertile part of the world. It runs past villages, towns, temples, and farmland. From the deck of the AmaDara, my husband, Benjamin, and I have a front-row seat to it all.

We pass farmers with ox-driven carts working along the riverbanks, and fishermen in conical hats hauling in their nets. Floating villages gently move with the water, as barges give way to tiny Sampan boats on this gentle river highway.

Our floating oasis

We have cruised with AmaWaterways on several occasions in Europe, and enjoy their all-inclusive experience, so we were eager to see what their Asian cruises have to offer.

The AmaDara is built with a French-colonial design, with beautiful wood from its floors to its paneling to intricately its carved room dividers. Our stateroom is spacious, and has French and outside balconies. One thing we love about river cruising is that you unpack once, yet explore a different destination each day. While we plan to spend most of our time on excursions, or enjoying the ship’s lovely sun deck, gym, and comfortable lounge, we know we’ll sleep well each night.

The pace onboard is relaxing, the service exemplary, and we’re greeted by name each time we see the smiling staff. The cuisine onboard includes delicious local specialties, as well as classic Western favorites. Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine uses fragrant herbs and spices, along with exotic fruits and vegetables. Fresh-caught fish is a daily highlight, along with different types of noodles and rice. Soon, we come to feel very spoiled by the excellent food and careful service.

The main dining room offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can also dine at The Chef’s Table, a small specialty restaurant, where you can watch the chef prepare a daily tasting menu. Since, AmaWaterways cruises are all-inclusive, wine, house-brand spirits, local beer, and soft drinks are complimentary throughout the cruise.

With only 124-passengers maximum, the AmaDara doesn’t feel crowded. We are a mix of ages and nationalities. In fact, we’ve met eight Canadian women on a girls’ getaway, a group of couples from Hawaii, and many others, ranging in age from 25 to 80, who are eager to see Southeast Asia. At first, we’re pretty quiet around the other passengers. But as the days pass, and we all share experiences, most of us become as chatty as a school group. It’s just another benefit to river cruising.

Land of contrasts

Vietnam has undergone a fast-paced transition, yet we see timeless tradition alongside modern innovation. One afternoon, we stop at a family-owned rattan mat factory, where one of the family members show us how straw and silk threads are dyed by hand. and then fed into large, noisy traditional looms. After that, we visit a rural farm on Evergreen Island, where we meet an older farmer, and survivor of the Vietnam War. AK translates as the farmer welcomes us, then shares his story of life—then and now. Although I’m too young to remember the Vietnam War, many in our group, including several veterans, are deeply touched.

Kind, gentle, sophisticated

We sail overnight and arrive the next morning in Cambodia. Once a mighty empire led by powerful kings, Cambodia, today, is a mostly agrarian society. Their fertile farms produce rice, fruits, and vegetables. The country went through unimaginable war a generation ago, yet I’m touched by their resiliency. Cambodians have a well-earned reputation for being friendly and gentle—and I see this firsthand. We’re treated with kindness and a welcoming smile.

Our first stop is Phnom Penh, a fast-growing city, home to 2 million of the country’s 15 million people. It’s a blend of traditional Khmer architecture, French Colonial influences, and modern skyrises. The top landmark is the Royal Palace, which was built in 1866 for the Cambodian King. Today, it’s the official residence of King Norodom. The gardens and several buildings are open to visitors, and we spend the afternoon exploring it with our Cambodian guide, Pun. One of the most unusual sights there is the Silver Pagoda, which has five tons of shimmery silver covering the floor.

Back onboard that evening, we’re treated to a children’s dance troupe performing traditional Khmer folk dance. Dating back to the Angkorean era, traditional Apsara dancing is graceful and sophisticated.

Buddhist blessing

Buddhist monks give visitors a blessing at Vipassana Dhura, the largest Buddhist monastery in Oudong, Cambodia. © Janna Graber

The next morning, we board a motor coach to visit Oudong, the former royal capital. These days, the city is a place of pilgrimage for Cambodians, who are devout Buddhists. Many come to visit Vipassana Dhura, the largest Buddhist monastery in Cambodia, and it’s a highlight for travelers, too.

Our Cambodian guide, Pun, once spent time as a monk. He gives us insight into the faith and integral role it plays in daily life here. We are invited to receive a Buddhist blessing. We take off our shoes before entering the temple, then quietly sit before two monks. When we are ready, they chant a Buddhist blessing ceremony, tossing jasmine flowers. Although we can’t understand their words, we feel the intent. It’s a moving experience that I’ll always remember.

AmaWaterways has tried to create excursions that are not only fun and enriching for guests, but benefit the local communities as well. We experience one of those in Kampong Tralach. Oxen are still used in daily farm work, and this small village has developed an agritourism experience that takes guests on an oxcart tour through town. It’s fun and unique, and we’re greeted by waving children along the way.

The author and her husband experience a local oxcart tour in Kampong Tralach. © Janna Graber

In the afternoon, we hop aboard a tuk tuk—a motorized rickshaw and Cambodia’s main form of transportation—and tour the city of Phnom Penh, stopping at the legendary Buddhist temple of Wat Phnom. Tuk tuks are an efficient and safe way to get around, and rides are usually only a few dollars.

Meeting the locals

Workers in the Oknhatey Village, aka Silk Island, raise silkworms, and use traditional wooden looms to create beautiful silk scarves. © Janna Graber

Just a few miles from Phnom Penh, but a world apart, is our next destination—Oknhatey Village, also known as Silk Island. Cambodia’ rich silk-weaving heritage stretches back to ancient times. The lush island is home to many silk artisans, who raise silkworms, and use tradition wooden looms to create beautiful silk scarves and clothing. After viewing the entire process, from silkworm to weaving to finished product, the silk scarves I purchase take on a deeper meaning.

Pun leads us on a walk through the village on the way back to our ship. He introduces us to several locals, who welcome us and share their stories (with Pun translating, of course). We stop at a local school and visit an English class. The children ask us to teach them three new English words, which we do, and then sing them a song. They listen politely as we sing a weak rendition of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Then, we ask them to sing. They jump up happily and sing us a rousing version of the same song, clapping with gusto. We have big grins on our faces as we continue through the village.

Solace of temples

By the end of our cruise, we’ve come to appreciate Cambodia in a new way. But it’s not the end of our journey. The cruise line transports us from the ship to the city of Siem Reap, home to the famous Angkor Wat. Many passengers have booked three-day extensions after visiting Angkor Wat, to continue to Hanoi for an overnight cruise on Ha Long Bay.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s best-known temple, is one of the many ancient temples at Angkor Archeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temples were built from the 9th to the 13th century by the kings of the mighty Khmer Empire, which once ruled what is now Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam. Their sheer power is evident in the massive stone complexes that climb into the sky.

Benjamin and I are eager to explore Angkor Archeological Park on our own. Many believe that the best time to view the temple is at sunrise. So we rise at 4 a.m. the next morning, and head to Angkor Wat. We join others in the dark, waiting for first light. We’re looking forward to a full day ahead exploring the temples—from Angkor Wat to Bayon Temple to Ta Prohm.

For now, we stand quietly and watch as the gentle gray skies turn pink above Angkor Wat.

Janna Graber is a Colorado native and longtime contributor to EnCompass. She has covered travel in more than 40 countries and is the editor of three travel anthologies, including A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel.