I think I’ve found an answer to one of the most common travel conundrums. Returning to somewhere you’ve been (and loved) before over trying a new destination is a travel quandary experienced by many.
But, as I’m sitting up on deck of a river boat cruising down the Mekong, I realise that using a new mode of transport allows me to have my cake and eat it too. I’m returning to a place I’ve travelled in before, but am seeing it in an all new way (albeit with the same trusty tinnie of Angkor beer in hand).
Same Country, New Destination
Starting in Ho Chi Minh City and finishing up in Siem Reap, the 8-day G Adventures Mekong River Experience stops at the big cities like Phnom Penh but the main focus is on the smaller ports and villages where the pace of life is slower, the alley cats sleepier and life seemingly simpler.
Previous trips to Vietnam and Cambodia may have been filled with time spent lining up at scene-stealing monuments, but this is time around, it’s all about the unexpected delights that come from visiting the out-of-the-way places.
Leaving steamy Ho Chi Minh City, the small boat becomes my trusty home base for the next eight days. With staff taking care of my transport and food, I’m free to hang with other guests that span a huge range of generations – from Millennial to Gen X, Boomer and whatever generation a sprightly 87-year-old belongs to.
Outside the full-on traffic, noise and energy of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is a whole new country when experienced on a slow-paced cruise. In the port of My Tho, pagodas and temples are blissfully free of crowds and, in the riverside town of Sa Dec, the walls of timeworn colonial buildings whisper of romance.
The temptation to rush or pack too many things in your day just isn’t possible – the itinerary is predetermined and set to relax mode 24/7. After exploring a town or port, eating a meal at an unassuming family-run eatery, there’s nothing to do but get back on board and float on to the next place.
On a river cruise, a large chunk of your time is spent on the water but, instead of being cloistered away in an air-conditioned vessel with a cocktail in hand, there’s also plenty of time spent ashore and most of the memorable moments come care of the people encountered along the way.
I meet silversmiths hammering away in their workshops and watch potters effortlessly shaping perfect vessels in a backyard populated by chickens. I wave to farmers in their fields and see fishermen hauling in their catch. I ride in the back of a buffalo cart to a monastery, where a monk ties a red piece of string around my wrist.
As a working river used for trade, transport and leisure, noise and movement are a natural part of a Mekong journey. Ramshackle barges carrying gravel shuffle by, long wooden fishing vessels glide past slowly and speedboats carrying families to nearby villages roar by in a whirlwind of chatter.
Our boat chugs under huge bridges, past rice paddies used to feed the world and by power lines criss-crossing the river’s edge. If you want a sanitised trip, this isn’t it. Along the banks of the river, there is grit and dirt, mud, dust and sweat. The full spectrum of humanity is drawn here – from elderly women with toothy grins and ridiculously cute babies.
The Big Easy
The fringe benefits of cruising are many, but one of the niftiest has to be experiencing a new destination every day without having to pack and unpack your gear. Our boat moves from city to countryside and city again, but not once do I have to pack and unpack or work out indecipherable bus timetables.
I don’t have to seek out new villages, cities and countries because they come to me. Sometimes they even sneak up in the night and reveal themselves in the morning.
And while you’ll get pretty much everything you need on board, there’s also plenty of opportunity to head ashore to sip a killer Vietnamese iced coffee, down a tasty banh mi or partake in a cheeky gin at Phnom Penh’s Foreign Correspondents Club.
When travelling between ports, the rooftop deck is a popular spot to read a paperback, play cards with friends or just watch the Mekong Delta, which is as mesmerising as a crackling fire.
If immersing in a place and watching the world go by is your thing, make a Mekong river cruise your thing.
Jo Stewart was a guest of G Adventures.
(All images courtesy of G Adventures)[qantas_widget code=SGN]Check out Qantas flights to Ho Chi Minh City.[/qantas_widget]
Jo is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist who knows that the best stories are yielded from time spent on the road, not behind a desk. She writes about travel, pop culture, sustainability, nature and indigenous issues for a bunch of Australian newspapers, magazines, journals and websites. Her work reporting on scientific expeditions means she has lived and worked in some of the harshest environments on the planet including Antarctica, the Simpson Desert and the means streets of Sydney.