First River Cruise: Mekong Riches

Our first river cruise — on AmaWaterways’ luxurious new AmaDara — is history. So it’s the first chance for us to compare it to what we’ve always known: ocean cruises.

This is not an all-inclusive comparison, as our “inaugural” was in a remote, somewhat virgin part of the river cruise world, Cambodia and Vietnam. There’s only a handful of AmaDarapassenger ships cruising the Mekong River. In Europe, the river cruise mecca, you might see that many in half an hour.

Given that caveat, here are some observations for anybody thinking about cruising the Mekong…

* It’s the best way to see this part of the world if you’ve never been there, and we hadn’t. Faced with such a different culture, customs in a Communist country and languages unlike anything resembling English, it’s comforting to retreat to the comfort of the AmaDara until you get your feet wet.

* Choose the time of year carefully. Right now is still monsoon season, which can mean heavy rainfall for at least part of every day. High season starts in November, for six months.

* Seeing the Mekong Delta is an eye-opener as to how dependent both countries are on the river. It is a working river in every sense of the word, the lifeblood for millions of people.

• There are fewer selections of shore excursions — usually no more than a choice of two — and in this area rarely do you walk off the ship and into an excursion. Bus and boat rides can take minutes to an hour or more to reach the destination on land, just like they do from ocean ships.

• The guides are wonderful and the shore excursions interesting, to say the least. Because river cruising is more expensive, shore excursions are usually included and onMekongthis cruise delivered a wide-ranging sample of the people, the lives they live and the obstacles they’ve overcome.

* A river ship like this is both comforting and confining. Everything is close and, with fixed meals and one main restaurant and maximum 124 passengers, a family feeling develops. Anonymity, for those who like it, is out of the question.

* Service is better than on the ocean ships. For example, the cruise director knew everybody by name — EVERYBODY — by the second day and he was always there to respond to the smallest of queries.

* Food reflects the local cuisines (pho soup in the morning), but there’s always comfort food on the menu for the less adventuresome. In that sense, it’s like ocean ships but the food quality is kicked up a notch or three.

* While you can’t walk anywhere, you have to be able to walk. There’s no elevator on the ship, no wheelchair accessibility to the ship and while shore excursions aren’t demanding, they almost all require lengthy walks in humid conditions.

* Getting on and off the ship is so much simpler. You pick up your boarding pass and return it when you get back.

* While it’s sold as a cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the rides at both ends can be lengthy…and we really did have to wait for a chicken to cross the road.

* On river ships the rooms are bigger, more comfortable and close to everything — obviously.

* The landscape is so different, a refreshing change from watching the waves go by, and there are photo ops left and right, every day, all day.

As a first river cruise, “Riches of the Mekong” is going to be a tough act for us to follow.

In the news…

• Fur Carnival ships sailing to Bermuda from April through November next year
• Today first chance for booking immersive cruises on Crystal Esprit from 2016 to 2018

Today at portsandbows.com: Regent Seven Seas’ sweet suites


Holland America Nieuw Amsterdam
7 nights
October 19, 2015
Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Alicante, Motril, Gibraltar, Cartagena, Rome
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $85
www.hollandamerica.com

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