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Immersed in Cambodia and Vietnam’s hidden gems

The writer on an ox cart ride in Kampong Tralach.

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Immersed in Cambodia and Vietnam’s hidden gems

There’s more to be experienced on a Mekong River cruise than the delta region, as NANNETTE HOLLIDAY discovered while floating along estuaries and the Tonlé Sap River from Siem Reap to Saigon.

Children playing along the riverbanks wave, long boat fishermen protect their extended lines, and stilt houses stand like little wooden soldiers between the rice fields and native bushes.

It’s all so close and captivating. I almost feel like I’m intruding, but the villagers, who’ve rarely seen tourists, remain unfazed.

I’m aboard the RV Toum Tiou II (TT2) on its nine-day New Discovery Cruise from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (or reverse), meandering the chestnut Tonlé Sap and Mekong rivers away from the typical tourist trails.

The boutique teak, steel-hulled ship is the second-smallest of five operated by CF Mekong. Its old-world charm is captivating. The vessel feels intimate yet luxurious, with just 14 cosy ensuite cabins opening onto teak decks, a restaurant, sundeck bar and lounge staffed by happy, helpful Cambodians.

Traditional Cambodia – Each day’s off-ship activities are included, offering insights into the region’s culture and traditions.

At Andong Reusey Community Village outside Kampong Chhnang, artisans showcase their age-old crafts with unwavering passion. For 15 years, Sophat has walked around a solid tree stump, patting the clay on top with her hands and a paddle until she creates a perfect pot without any form of potter’s wheel in sight.

Next door, 72-year-old Mr Ry swings between his 30m high sugar palm trees, collecting palm juice. Then, he demonstrates how to make palm wine and offers us a taste. I gag. It’s bitter. It’s certainly not being added to my preferred drink list. I’m also not putting my hand up for his 73-year-old wife’s job – standing over a large cauldron, consistently hand stirring the palm juice daily, turning it into palm sugar – all for $US1.75 (about $AUD2.66) a kilo.

Over the following few days, other uniquely adventurous and insightful outings expand my knowledge of the people and region. These include a relaxing ox cart ride past emerald rice fields to 18th-century Wat Kampong Tralach Leu at Kampong Tralach, interactions with a monk and receiving his blessing. As a nun washes the lunch plates in a plastic bowl under her modest home, she imparts insights into her life at Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Meditation Centre in Oudong, Cambodia’s former capital. It’s awe-inspiring and humbling.

Gastronomic differences – The culinary adventures are equally memorable, from eye-opening foods including stuffed frogs, snakeheads and red ants with bananas at Oudong local market to fried crickets and tarantulas at Phnom Penh’s Central Markets, and exotic black eggs, duck embryos and  fried rats, plus loads of traditional Vietnamese foods and tropical fruits at  Sa Dec Markets.

With all meals included aboard TT2, it’s not necessary to experiment with unusual market foods unless they’re on your wish list. TT2’s chef prepares bountiful buffet breakfasts, copious lunches, lavish five-course Asian and Western dinners, and individual chef-cooked offerings are all too mouth-watering to refuse.

In Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, tours cover all the big-ticket items, entry fees and an English-speaking guide explaining every minute detail, along with local anecdotes, as we travel by air-conditioned bus from place to place among the city’s hustle and bustle. Nothing is rushed.

RV Toum Tiou II at Kampong Chhnang

Across the border – Crossing the border into Vietnam at Vinh Xuong, we notice an eerie mood change. The little Cambodian fishing boats are replaced by looming factories along the riverbanks, juxtaposing patches of fruit plantations, rice fields and unassuming cattle on the other side. Mercifully, the Mekong is miles wider here, as our cruising space is now shared with massive barges loaded with gravel and export goods heading  to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.

Three hours later, we float into Chau Doc on the Hau River, 250km west of Ho Chi Minh City, where brightly coloured floating fishing farms dot the shores. This border town is a kaleidoscope of multiculturalism, where Khmer, Chinese, Cham and Vietnamese communities provide a harmonious blend of cultures and traditions.

A 900m cable car ride up sacred Sam Mountain provides 360-degree views of the town, patchwork farming countryside, and Vinh Te Canal to the border. At Mieu Ba Chua Xu Pagoda, locals offer whole pigs, baskets of fruit and flowers while praying before the sacred Lady Chau statue. The relaxing afternoon rowboat ride through 850-hectare Tra Su Cajuput Forest, under lush towering paperbarks and over carpets of waterlilies, flourishing in the permanently flooded wetlands, exposes a veritable bird-lovers’ paradise.

Delta delights – At My Tho, a major port and the largest city in the Mekong Delta, some ride bikes or float in sampans along scenic palm-fringed canals and learn about fruit harvesting and glazed fruit production while enjoying unlimited samples.

Like all our outings, the tour is void of other groups of tourists. However, day trips to My Tho from Ho Chi Minh City are popular, and multiple buses arrive at 11am as we leave. We’ve enjoyed three hours without interruption, allowing more profound local connections.

As TT2 begins the final and unique leg of our cruise along the Cho Gao Canal, the entrance to Ho Chi Minh City, we relax over lunch and drinks. Only the five CF Mekong River Cruise ships can cruise this 29km canal: a water highway servicing more than 2000 commercial boats and barges daily. Being near the shore and seeing local life up close again is refreshing.

Sensational Saigon – Docking at Bach Dang on the Saigon River at sunset, the bright neon lights dazzle. We have two more nights aboard TT2, complete with tours, but tonight, five of us have chosen the only optional tour: the Vespa Nightlife Food Tour.

The colourful vintage Vespas and our drivers are waiting. The fantastic four-hour experience scooting around the city, slurping sky-high cocktails, staring at city lights, devouring the best Banh Mi in town, eating a seafood banquet with locals, and finishing with a super-smooth hot chocolate nightcap at Maison Marou Saigon delivers in spades while surrounded by the capital’s crazy city traffic.

The nine-day journey from Siem Reap to Saigon is an enlightening treasure trove of experiences. The scenery, cuisines, authentic activities and interactions with people in Cambodia and Vietnam, far from the regular  tourist haunts, produce a rare calm  and peacefulness.

All restaurant meals aboard, on-land tours, English-speaking guides and WiFi are included. Alcohol is not. However, a good selection is available and reasonably priced, or you can take your own aboard, and staff will happily refrigerate.

 Visit cfmekong.com/cruise-types/discovery-cruise/

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