Saigon/ My Tho / Mekong RiverArrive early in the morning and meet your guides and porters. Board an air-conditioned bus for the scenic 1.5-hour countryside ride to My Tho and meet the Aqua Mekong. Settle into your elegantly appointed, river facing suite as the vessel begins to cruise and thus begins one of life's most memorable and photogenic adventures. Take in the beauty of the Mekong as the ship sets sail.
Mekong River / Sa Dec / Gieng IsletDisembark in the morning and explore Sa Dec town. Roam around the fresh produce and spice market before making your way to the colonial house, which was once occupied by French writer Marguerite Duras. The house, built in late 19th century, is interesting in itself as a harmonious combination of Western and traditional Vietnamese architectural styles. After lunch, cruise by skiff to Gieng Islet, a small island, to walk or cycle around this peaceful religious enclave on the Mekong Delta. Visit Cu Lao Gieng Church, which was built in 1875 with materials imported from France. It is impossible not to admire its imposing bell tower that appears to pierce the sky high above its low-rise neighbors. At the Convent of the Providence Order and Catholic Church, interact with Sisters or Father to learn of the religious influences on the surrounding communities, which we may visit to admire the indigenous pagodas and wooden houses built in the early twentieth century in traditional Vietnamese design and shaded by bonsai trees, as was the local custom.
Bassac River / Gieng Islet / Chau Doc
Journey by sampan into the Tra Su Cajuput Forest, floating deep into the acacia flooded forest under dense tree canopy. The 845 hectare preserve is a colony for 70 bird species, including the rare painted stork and Oriental darter, as well as bats, snakes and endangered turtles. Flora is equally abundant with over 140 specified floral varieties including 22 tree varieties, 70 types of grasses, 13 species of aquatic plants, nine varieties of fruit trees and many medicinal herbs of great value in traditional Vietnamese medicine.
Sail onward to the village of Chau Doc, which sits along the Hau River, a tributary of the Mekong. Head to the shore by skiff then by road for a change, about 4 miles to Sam Mountain, the highest point in the Mekong Delta, and home to dozens of pagodas that dot the mountainside, some even set in caves. Make the easy climb to the mountaintop for the most captivating views of the surrounding countryside’s rice fields, and into Cambodia. At the peak, sit with the venerable Mahayana Buddhist monks at Long Son Tu Temple for a private audience. Enlightened, head back down at the foot of Sam Mountain, stopping to visit the Temple of Lady Xu, one of the major religious sites of the Mekong Delta.
Bassac River / Chau Doc / Vinh Xuong Border - VietnamIn the cool morning, cruise south towards the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Pause to head by skiff towards the shore for a visit to the intricately carved Prek Bongkong Pagoda, which features upturned naga wingtips and angels appearing to hold up the pitched Khmer roof. This area is known for a series of “silk islands” along the river. Visit one of these villages where the weavers allow us to wander among their looms, admiring their skills at this knotty art form. Witness the entire process here, learning how silk starts with the worms, see silk thread being looped and dyed, then admire and purchase, if you wish, the final shimmering Khmer silk accessories. Return to the Aqua Mekong, ready to continue to the Vinh Xuong –Kaam Samnor border and cross into Cambodia.
Tonle Sap River / Phnom Penh - CambodiaShifting gears from the sleepy countryside to this country’s political and economic capital, sail into Phnom Penh, where Art Deco buildings still stand in the shadows of ever-rising skyscrapers and vintage cyclos cruise alongside imported European sports cars. Buddhist temples, French colonial villas and the Royal Palace provide photogenic backdrop to international business and a new generation of boutique hotels, chic shopping and cosmopolitan nightlife. Board a motorized tuk-tuk and explore this historic city’s most important sites, including the 1866 Royal Palace, which is still home to the reigning monarch and its Silver Pagoda, the royal compound’s most famous attraction, so called because in 1962 then Prince Sihanouk ordered the floor inlaid with 5,329 genuine silver tiles.
Tonle Sap River / Koh Chen / Kampong Chnang
Embark by skiff to visit Koh Chen. The inhabitants of this riverside village are renowned throughout the region as silver and coppersmiths. They purchase the precious metals in Phnom Penh and return here to make ornamental items such as the cups, boxes and delicately engraved tropical fruits used in Buddhist ceremonies and marriage blessings. Each family member carries out an aspect of these ancient methods and the intricate, beautiful workmanship belies its humble origins. Purchase whatever catches your eye before you continue on to the pagoda. If the monks are in residence, experience an authentic Buddhist blessing ceremony.
Later in the day, continue exploring Khmer riverside life in the floating village of Kampong Chhnang. Archaeological findings link this now sleepy area as far back as the Dvaravati kingdom, dating to the 6th through 11th centuries when Kampong Chhnang was an important coastal stop on the trade route linking China and India. More recently, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen was born in this province. Colorful shrines with gilded Buddhas, villagers sporting conical hats more often associated with Vietnam, and simple houses on bamboo stilts are among today’s striking sights along the waterfront.
Kampong Chnang / Chnok Tru / Tonle Sap LakeContinue exploring remote communities around the Tonle Sap River, an ecological hot spot designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997. Travel by skiff to the village of Chnok Tru and 'slide' into an ice factory, the importance of which is obvious after a few days in Southeast Asia. As local factory workers explain how they make and use the ice for fish preservation, expert guides translate and get answers to your questions about this livelihood so different from ours. Also be on the lookout in this lake village for floating schools, riverside churches and pagoda, and even the karaoke bar and police station. Literally everything and everyone in Chnok Tru travels by small boat through the intricate network of canals crisscrossing this tiny town. Back on board the Aqua Mekong, cruise onward to the remote fishing village of Moat Kla. Climb back into the skiffs and head for the shore, where your expert guides act as translators, allowing you to pose questions to the people of Moat Kla about their lives.
Tonle Sap Lake / Siem Reap - Cambodia
The adventure is far from over as you head off by skiff after breakfast into Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve on Tonle Sap Lake, one of the largest freshwater bodies in Asia and the last refuge in Southeast Asia for large waterbirds like the spot-billed pelicans, milky stork, black-headed ibis and the elusive masked finfoot. Along the way, visit floating houses and fish farms, and learn about sustainable development initiatives like Saray, a cooperative of women who weave water hyacinth into 100% organic mats and home accessories for some of Southeast Asia's finest hotels. Visitors like us are invited to test our knotting skills, usually to the amusement of the resident experts.
Return to the Aqua Mekong to pack up and disembark for the road journey back to Siem Reap.