Up the Mekong: The One Cruise You Should Book This Fall

Book one of the 18 rooms onboard the Avalon Saigon and experience life along the river and the intricacies of an ancient society.

Fall and winter are cruise season - when millions of people, many of whom un-ironically call themselves "cruisers," pack up their suitcases and board a ship to sunnier climes. I am not (typically) one of those people.

I have been on cruises before - usually with my elderly relatives (avowed cruisers) or for a story. These experiences have almost always been on a river cruise where the boats are smaller, the people are not as rowdy, the sights are more interesting, and the confinement on board is not as long.

But I was never a huge fan - until last Fall when I fell in love with one particular cruise, the Avalon Saigon trip from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

avalon saigon
The Avalon Saigon. Avalon

I have been to Vietnam before - as have quite a lot of people. Fifty years after the Vietnam War ended, the country is one of the more popular destinations for Americans. But many stick to the beaten path between Ho Chi Minh City, Danang, Hue and Hanoi - perhaps venturing to see Halong Bay. Fewer think to take a riverboat up the mighty Mekong and see life on the river and the intricacies of an ancient society where some people live in houseboats, some in homes on stilts, but all using the 3,000-mile-long river for their livelihood. It's a part of Vietnam and Cambodia that travelers rarely get to see.

Avalon Saigon cruise
Inside one of the 18 suites on board the Avalon Saigon. Avalon

Even better - the Avalon Saigon is so intimate, there are only 18 cabins on board and it was built low enough that it can leave directly from Ho Chi Minh City and pass under the bridges (other companies boats must leave two hours outside the city as they can't fit under lower bridges surrounding the former Saigon).

The trip started with two days in Ho Chi Minh city where I went to the opera, some local markets and had some pajamas made by one of the hundreds of tailors in town in-between visits to the museum chronicling the American War and the Cu Chi tunnels - part of the Viet Cong's tunnel network built during the war.

cruise mekong
A sampan loaded up with fruits and vegetables heads down the Mekong Rover. Paula Froelich

We set sail on the third day, up the Mekong Delta, passing huge sampan boats full of ducks, pigs and other goods headed for market. Over the next few days, en route to Cambodia, we passed by rice paddies, fish farms and fruit orchards, before stopping in the small island villages of Cu Lao Gieng, where villagers specialize in making the wooden sampan boats that are used up and down the river. The next day we took a smaller boat into Vin Long. It was here we had the opportunity to meet with a husband and wife, both former Viet Cong soldiers.

Cruise vietnam
The author with a couple that fought for the Vietcong during the Vietnam War. Paula Froelich

When one passenger asked, "How do you feel about Americans coming to visit?" the couple smiled and replied, "That was a long time ago. It was war. That war is over - we welcome you."

For these villagers - and all that we met on the journey - the war was not over when the Americans left in 1975 - that year the Khmer Rouge took power in Phnom Pen. During the four years the Khmer Rouge were in power - and sporadically for decades after, villages on the Vietnam and Cambodia border were bombed and pulled into the fighting (The Khmer Rouge officially were sacked in 1979 but remnants remained until 1999).

cruise vietnam
Two women who live in a small village in Vietnam near the Cambodian border. Paula Froelich

It was a vital and living history lesson many of us had not learned in school. And while the trauma of the past was seemingly over for the Vietnamese, once we crossed into Cambodia - it became more vivid.

In Phnom Pen, after a visit to one of the many Killing Fields surrounding the city, where the Khmer Rouge had murdered almost two million people, or almost a quarter of the entire population, almost everyone we met had been a victim of the Khmer Rouge.

Killing  Fields
The memorial at the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Pen, Cambodia. Paula Froelich

At the Toul Sleng Prison - a former high school turned prison - we met one of the 12 people (out of over 20,000) who had survived its horrors.

It's a surreal experience - to go sightseeing at the National Museum and Royal Palace with its striking Silver Pagoda one day and meet genocide survivors another - and put the entire trip and the recent history of Cambodia into perspective.

Khmer rouge
Four of the almost 20,000 people killed at the Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Pen, Cambodia. Paula Froelich

It was with this perspective that we left Phnom Pen and veered onto Tonle River, making our way to Tonle Sap Lake and the ancient temples of Siem Reap.

En route, we stopped at the site of the 8th-century temple of Wat Hanchey, before walking through the rural village of Angkor Ban before hitting the floating village of Kampong Cham in the Tonle Sap lake where more than five thousand people live on boats amongst the mangroves and everything - schools, churches, markets - are mobile.

As the days passed, the mountains in the distance grew larger and every night after sunset, the skies would dance with all the colors of the rainbow playing amongst the clouds as the moon rose. Around us were lotus farms as well as fish and crocodile farms, and fishermen casting their nets.

The sky over the Mekong River after Sunset. Paula Froelich

The trip ended in Siem Reap with a day exploring the Ancient wonder, Angkor Wat and some of the surrounding temples of Angkor Thom and Banteay Srei (made famous by the movie, "Tomb Raider").

The main site is 402 square kilometers and surrounded by a massive moat representing the cosmic ocean that separates it from the impenetrable jungle.

The entire complex is a shrine to the gods and fell into disrepair as the jungle took it back over the centuries until rediscovered in the 20th century.

Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom outside of Siem Reap was the last and most longlasting capital of the Khmer Empire. Paula Froelich

The next two days were spent temple hunting and meeting with locals, including women who are part of the Landmine Design project.

While the war ended technically in 1979, it dragged on for many for decades. Much of the country is still littered with landmines and women, in particular, are in a harrowing situation.

Many of the boys become monks in rural monasteries around the country where they receive an education, food and housing - the girls are not so lucky.

According to the women I met (who asked not to be named) and the LMD organizers, up to 65 percent of women in rural areas are trafficked over to Thailand many under the age of 18. They leave for jobs and safety and enter a life of hell - LMD helps clear the landmines and 25 local women are employed by the organization, making jewelry and selling it to tourists who now make up 40 percent of the country's economy (most of it based in Siem Reap).

On the way home, I realized the cruise was not just a vacation. It turned out to be a moving, life lesson - one that I still think about every day.

Siem Reap
A prone buddha lies by the serene pool at the Anantara Angkor in Siem Reap. Anantara Angor

Pro Tip: Spend a few extra days pampering yourself in Siem Reap at the Anantara Angkor, a five-star hotel with the most knowledgeable staff in the city. Not only did they get us exclusive entrance to many of the temples, as well as point me to the best shopping in Siem Reap, but when my friend broke her back (YES, BROKE HER BACK!) in a bizarre accident, they not only sorted out a competent doctor - they helped us immeasurably with the airport and transportation.

Double Pro Tip: Always get emergency medical insurance for your trip.

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