Treasures of the Mekong – river cruise and city stays with Scenic

Date published: 25 Apr 19

104 people found this feature helpful

Emerging from sleep to see daylight peeping round the window blinds, I couldn’t at first identify the noise. Certainly not the usual Saturday morning birdsong we enjoy at home. No, this was definitely strange music punctuated with chat, but through a loudspeaker. So what the …? 

Scenic SpiritCruise the Mekong and you never know quite what you will encounter next. I had expected the floating markets, the houses on stilts, and early morning fishermen, but a Buddhist wedding celebration at 7am? Through the picture windows of our cabin on board Scenic Spirit, we could see lines of chairs beneath an awning, each one dressed in coloured silk – all part of a traditional marriage party that continues two days and a night.

John and I were Asia virgins when we booked our Significant Birthday Holiday to Vietnam and Cambodia with Silver Travel Advisor partner Scenic, choosing their Treasures of the Mekong itinerary for its attractive sandwich of relaxed river cruising between two city stays. It also offered the chance to see two contrasting destinations linked by one river. Bustling Vietnam is the world’s 13th most populous country, whilst rural Cambodia comes in way down at 68th with 50% of the population under 22. 

Buddhist blessing in Kampong Tralach PagodaBetween Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia, we would experience life in the mighty Mekong Delta, visit the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, and, leaving the river, explore the UNESCO-listed temples of ancient Angkor, once capital of the powerful Khmer Empire. The brochure and website offered a tantalising glimpse of what was to come, but just a few days into the two-week trip, reality was already far exceeding expectations.

This is a trip for the curious Silver Traveller, the person who wants a holiday that combines education, experience and entertainment. And to do it in style. Our tour began with two nights at the sumptuous Park Hyatt in HCMC, formerly Saigon, before we headed west by road to join the luxurious Scenic Spirit at the heart of the Mekong Delta for a week on the river. At the end of the cruise, three nights at the Park Hyatt in Siem Reap are the base for discovering the ruined temples of Angkor.   

Royal Palace in Phnom PenWe travelled in March when daytime temperatures were in the low- to mid-30s, dipping into the 20s at night. Expect high levels of humidity, but hotels, restaurants and, of course, Scenic Spirit are efficiently air-conditioned, and excursions are well- timed and sensibly paced. Expect early starts – 8 to 8.30 – with lunch in the cool and then a second mid-afternoon excursion. 

Some excursions involve the whole group – 68 guests on Scenic Spirit – and cover must-do experiences like the Liberation Palace in Ho Chi Minh City and the Royal Palace in Phnom Pen, but most days there were two or three Free Choice options too ranging from war history sites to a forest bird sanctuary, cooking classes to community projects.  

Our ever-smiling Cambodian tour manager Mao was supported by excellent local guides, all of whom added an extra dimension to our trip with insights into the lives of their own families. The horrors of the Vietnam War (American War to the Vietnamese) and the Pol Pot regime in 1970s Cambodia still resonate today and don’t make easy listening, but whether you choose or not to visit the notorious Killing Fields or Cu Chi guerrilla tunnels, you’ll still come away with a much deeper understanding of both countries.

High Tea at Raffles in Phnom PenhOn a lighter note, we loved the excursions classified Scenic Enrich. These special experiences included High Tea at Raffles in Phnom Penh and a city lights tour by tuk-tuk; a blessing by a Buddhist monk; and a fabulous pop-up dinner and show at an Angkor temple, all just for Scenic guests.  

Back on board Scenic Spirit, we luxuriated in one of the largest cabins on the Mekong, with our own charming butler who left different gifts on our bed each evening – traditional Cambodian Krama scarves, scented balm, good luck bracelets, and sweet tasting bars of puffed rice. So much more useful than towel animals! We also enjoyed outstanding Asian food at every meal – including optional crispy insects at the Street Food buffet lunch - though Western choices are always available. And on most evenings, we were moored mid-stream, making for blissfully quiet nights in gloriously comfortable beds. I can also recommend the treatments in the Scenic Sen Spa, exceptionally good value by Western standards at around 30 US Dollars for an hour’s aromatherapy massage, particularly welcome after an atmospheric but bumpy ride in a traditional ox cart!

Ox cart ride to Wat TralachTreasures of the Mekong is not a budget holiday and definitely ranks in the Special Occasion bracket for most of us, but there are no hidden costs and few extras. All excursions are included along with full board and free drinks on Silver Spirit, and lunch or dinner during city stays.

So what would I change about the trip? Reluctant though I am to rank anything perfect, this actually delivered even more magic than we’d hoped for. The whole Scenic itinerary was impeccably conceived and run, and we couldn’t fault the staff, the food, or the comfort. But what made it extra special for us was the fact that the trip was as much about people as places.

Scenic support a number of responsible tourism initiatives that bring much needed income into these re-emerging countries, Cambodia in particular. The incredible Phare circus performance where young performers from a charitable arts school weave extraordinary acrobatics around a human story in Phnom Penh. Bayon Temple, Angkor ThomThe eco-village of Cheung Kok near Kampong Chan were children ran out to hold our hands and adults showed us their homes. And the talented youngsters who came on board to entertain us with traditional Vietnamese dance and music.

The cities were exciting; the temples overwhelming; and the river intriguing. But the people were something else. It was a real privilege to be part of their world, if only for two short weeks.


Silver Travel Advisor recommends Scenic.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 8 Comment(s)

  • Johnny99
    8 months ago
    I have heard many good reviews of this cruise
  • Gillian-Thornton
    over 1 year ago
    Sadly for you, Yorkshire Cat, at a little boutique near me which has now closed down. They have a lovely deep waistband that just sits in comfortable folds and I love them to bits but don't get much chance to wear them. But whilst I was out there, I bought a couple of pairs of 'elephant pants' at the night market in Siem Reap in lovely printed fabrics with - you guessed it - elephants on them! Just 4 US Dollars each!

    And to Lottie, we were told by all our guides not to buy things off children or give them money because otherwise they bunk off school. We supported them instead by buying the beautiful hand made silk scarves and other handicrafts made by villagers with help from NGOs and charities.
  • yorkshirecat
    over 1 year ago
    I love your harem pants Gillian. Where did you get them? A fellow passenger on a Nile cruise a few years ago had a splendidly billowing pair that seemed ideal for the heat when we viisted the Valley of the Kings. I've looked out for a similar pair ever since but no joy.
  • Lottie
    over 1 year ago
    Hi Gillian, thanks for that update. Yes, Cambodia is a very poor country and I've read somewhere previously about taking pencils and such like for the children along the village schools rather than give money. My friends were more concerned about Dengue fever not Malaria and yes you were right to to use the 50% Deet repellant, which is recommended. Mosquitos can indeed bite through tight clothing so covering up with loose harem pants is a good idea.
  • Gillian-Thornton
    over 1 year ago
    Hi Lottie. It was an absolutely fabulous trip. Your friends maybe travelled from north to south Vietnam - we were only in the south. Yes, it was hot, and humid, but we only had blue skies and strong direct sun on maybe four of the 12 days. Mosquitos really weren't an issue. We took repellent with 50% Deet from Boots and used it regularly. The Scenic Tour Manager also carried it with him and they reminded us to use it all the time. But I got only one bite and was hardly aware of it, and at no point were we aware of any around us, even on the deck in the evening. This is not a malarial zone and the Government health advice is simply to use Deet. I wore thin harem pants a lot, as you can see in the ox cart photo, as added protection from sun and insects, but most women wore crop trousers and many of the men wore shorts. Cambodia is a very poor country but it's 'clean dirt' - no smells or filth in the riverside villages. They have no electricity and no fridges, so buy food fresh twice daily from the market and don't keep any, or waste any. The big rubbish issue is plastic. We saw a lot of bottles, packaging etc on the river banks - there is no efficient refuse collection and most people aren't educated enough to know about the environmental damage. But somehow the people are always clean and presentable. Hope that answers your questions.
  • Lottie
    over 1 year ago
    Very interesting article Gillian. It does sound like a luxurious trip you have had. A couple of friends have just spent 6 weeks touring Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand with a couple of other stops en route. They went in March expecting the temperatures to be more accommodating but found it was still incredibly hot. They saw a lot of what you saw and probably much more as they went on trains and other means of transport. Shockingly one found a mouse up her leg on the day train to Danang.

    What was the situation with mosquitos on the Mekong? They stayed clear of the Mekong for that reason.
  • Gillian-Thornton
    over 1 year ago
    Thank you so much, Yorkshire Cat. Whoever you are! Yes, we thought towel animals were very yesterday when we saw the nightly presents. We are wearing the scarves, using the balm, and burning the candles now we are back at home and you can't do that with a towel! Seriously though, it was a life-enhancing trip and I don't often say that. It also prompted me to write another unexpected 'thought piece' about savouring our travel experiences, which is now on the home page of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Here's a quick link to the article and some more atmospheric photos ... https://bgtw.org/standing-staring/
  • yorkshirecat
    over 1 year ago
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this with my morning cuppa, Gillian, thank you! I love the twist on towel art! Scarves, bracelets and scented balm sound like a real treat. I thoroughly recommend readers visiting Gillian's Instagram page where her stunning photo collection includes some amazing images from this trip, including tree roots growing around the temple walls in Cambodia. https://www.instagram.com/travelwithgt/