Vietnam and Cambodia are booming as cruise destinations, both for river and ocean lines. by Sue Bryant
The allure of Indochina shows no sign of abating, with more ships than ever sailing on the Mekong on a variety of routes between Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
According to the latest figures from CLIA UK & Ireland, river cruising grew by 6% in 2014 – yet the Mekong was up a staggering 55%, even in the face of increased competition from the Irrawaddy as Myanmar opens up to tourism. “The Mekong is different from the Irrawaddy in that in Myanmar, the price point is quite high,” comments James Hill of GoRiverCruise. “It’s hard to achieve an Irrawaddy cruise for less than £3,500 per person. On the Mekong, you can do one night before the cruise and then a seven nighter for less – and there’s a lot more capacity so there are more offers around.”
New ships continue to be launched on the Mekong, southeast Asia’s longest river. The most recent is AmaWaterways’ AmaDara, carrying 124 in colonial style. Each cabin has two balconies: a step-out veranda and a French balcony, while there’s a speciality restaurant as well as the main dining room. Other creature comforts include wifi, a spa, a fitness centre and a sun deck with swimming pool. AmaWaterways is offering free flights – a saving of £800 per person – on an 11-night cruise-and-stay taking in Siem Reap and the cruise, now from £2,229.
AmaDara and AmaWaterways’ second Mekong ship, AmaLotus, are also sold by APT, which offers fully immersive tours of Indochina, including hotel stays in top properties in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, a luxury junk in Halong Bay and a choice of imaginative excursions. APT’s four-star brand, Travelmarvel, uses La Marguerite, a ship originally used by AmaWaterways, on the Mekong.
Emerald Waterways starts service on the Mekong in 2016, with packages including Halong Bay, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat and a cruise on the 64-passenger Mekong Navigator, a luxurious ship belonging to US cruise line Haimark and chartered by Emerald. There are itineraries of 12, 16 or 19 days, the most detailed taking in an extensive tour of Vietnam. Start with two nights in Hanoi and then cruise on a junk in Halong Bay. There are three nights in the pretty town of Hoi An, one in Hue and two in Ho Chi Minh City before the cruise, with all sorts of extras like painting and cookery lessons, cyclo tours and an evening sampling Vietnamese street food.
Sister line Scenic is also upping its game on the Mekong in 2016, using the 68-passenger, all-balcony Scenic Spirit, the first ship specifically built for the line in Indochina. Scenic Spirit is positively palatial – all-suites, all-balcony, multiple restaurants, a spa, pool and open air cinema. The product is differentiated from Emerald by being completely inclusive, with all drinks covered and a choice of shore excursions.
Other lines operating on the river include Uniworld, which charters the Pandaw ship River Orchid, built in 2013 and adapted to offer Uniworld’s all-inclusive product. Viking also leases a ship, Viking Mekong, from Pandaw, while CroisiEurope uses the four-star Indochine.
The next frontier for Mekong travel is the Upper Mekong. Pandaw, the longest- established of the cruise lines in Indochina, is the only operator offering expedition cruises from Vientiane to Jinghong in China. New for 2016, the Laos Pandaw offers a 14-night cruise operating from September 2016 to April 2017 with overnight stays in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Chiang Saen (for the Golden Triangle) and Jinghong. Flight inclusive prices start from £4,995 per person sharing a main deck stateroom. Even more adventurous is a new cruise in Vietnam, featuring Halong Bay and the Red River, a 10-day itinerary from Halong Bay to Hanoi and on into remote and undiscovered Northern Vietnamese towns and villages. Flight inclusive prices start at £2,995 per person.
Several tour operators also sell Mekong river cruises, putting a different spin on some of the packages. Travel Indochina has added the chic Aqua Mekong to its Luxury Asia River Cruising portfolio – a new ship with just 20 cabins, highly rated cuisine created by a top-ranked chef and complimentary wine, local beer and soft drinks. There’s also a fully-equipped fitness centre, library, outdoor evening cinema, observation deck and a river-facing pool at the bow. “Our new 2014-16 Luxury Asia River Cruising brochure reflects our efforts to source more exclusive experiences for our customers,” comments Lesley Wright, head of Commercial at Travel Indochina UK. “We have developed an extensive portfolio of quality cruise experiences and carefully-crafted itineraries to offer a wider choice for travellers who prefer this style of exploration, and really want to get to the heart of Asia.”
Wendy Wu Tours has also launched new river cruises for 2016/17 in its ‘Discovery Tours’ collection, designed to suit more adventurous travellers. Mekong Odyssey is a 21-day epic through Vietnam and Cambodia incorporating a seven-night Mekong River Cruise on the Mekong Pandaw with excursions such as a visit to a Cham Tribal village, a ride on a traditional sampan boat, a walk around the village of Chong Koh to watch the local silk weavers and a visit to a catfish farm. Other destinations include Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Angkor Wat and Siem Reap.
Transindus has launched a new brochure with a wide range of experiential tours, from cooking classes in Hoi An or Luang Prabang to a Vespa tour in Ho Chi Minh City. An 11-day Discover Laos tour costs from £3,090 and includes a combination of cruising the Mekong on the 24-passenger Vat Phou and staying in Luang Prabang.
Don’t overlook the fact that Vietnam is a popular ocean cruising destination as well (Cambodia less so, although several of the major cruise lines do call at Kompon Som for Phnom Penh). The main ports of call along the Vietnamese coast are Hanoi, the capital; Ha Long Bay; Da Nang (for the antiquities at Hue and the charming town of Hoi An); Chan May; and Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon. Smaller ships sail right up the Saigon River to the city centre, which is preferable to being out at Phu My, 80 miles away, where larger vessels have to dock.
Most ships overnight, as there’s so much to see, from the busy markets and Chinatown to the war museums and trips to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong hid out during the war. Tauck has introduced a new, 13-day Treasures of Southeast Asia itinerary for 2016, combining Hong Kong with a nine-night Vietnam cruise on Ponant’s L’Austral. Along the way, guests have lunch at the Press Club in Hanoi, cruise Ha Long Bay, tour Hoi An and Hue and sail right into Ho Chi Minh City. Tauck will offer three departures in October and November, 2016, from £5,795 excluding airfare.
Why sell Cruises to Vietnam and Cambodia?
The Mekong is the most efficient way to travel through Cambodia; it’s effectively a highway from which you can observe daily life while enjoying the creature comforts of a luxury ship. both destinations feature popular ‘bucket list’ places – Angkor Wat, Ha Long bay, Ho Chi Minh City. but Angkor Wat is often sold as an optional add-on to a Mekong cruise so be careful clients don’t miss out.
Access has improved with Vietnam Airlines adding a new Dreamliner and increasing frequency from the UK; there will be daily flights to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City by summer 2016. Appeals to the type of cruiser who has discovered river cruising in Europe and falls into the ‘You’ll never get me on a big ship’ category.
much less packing and unpacking than you’d get on an escorted tour. brits staying up to 15 days with single entry into Vietnam no longer need a visa; so you can fly into Hanoi and join a northbound Mekong cruise to Siem reap without needing a visa.
Where do you go?
A typical Mekong cruise sails between Kampong Chhnang, south of the vast Tonle sap lake, and my tho or other ports on the Mekong Delta. Siem reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat, is either a six to seven-hour drive from Kampong Chhnang, a short flight or a sail across the lake, but the latter is only a reality a few weeks of the year because of water levels. the journey between the Mekong Delta ports and Ho Chi Minh City is done by road.
Typical add-ons include Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital (from where you fly straight to Siem reap), and Halong bay, which is close to Hanoi. Other possibilities include extending in Hong Kong, Bangkok or Singapore; staying in a resort on the Mekong Delta for a few days; visiting Laos; touring Vietnam overland; or for the very ambitious, combining an Irrawaddy cruise with the Mekong (essentially joining two completely separate itineraries to create a two-centre).
Who sails the Mekong?
All the major river cruise lines offer cruises on the Mekong: Amadeus Cruises amadeuscruises.com
Amawaterways amawaterways.co.uk apt aptouring.co.uk aqua expeditions aquaexpeditions.com
Avalon Cruises avalonwaterways.co.uk
Emerald Waterways Emeraldwaterways. co.uk
Riviera Travel rivieratravel.co.uk
Uniworld uniworld.com/uk or titantravel. co.uk
Viking Cruises vikingrivercruises.co.uk