On the Mekong, Sailing in Style

Suite Bathroom on Aqua Mekong has dual sinks, a large walk in shower with rainforest showerhead and bench, and natural bath amenities.
Suite Bathroom on Aqua Mekong has dual sinks, a large walk in shower with rainforest
showerhead and bench, and natural bath amenities.

Over evening drinks on the Aqua Mekong, our group of fellow cruisers agreed that the sailing had climbed into one of the top travel experiences we’ve ever had. On board, you feel like you’ve joined a welcoming yet exclusive club. With just 20 suites and a maximum of 40 guests, the small group quickly turned into a circle of new friends connected by daily adventures and memories. The Aqua brand is a reflection of one family’s lifestyle — owners Francesco and Birgit Galli Zugaro have infiltrated their design aesthetic and sincerity into every aspect on board, just as they did with two previous ships on the Amazon River.

We sailed on the Explorer four-night upriver itinerary from Saigon, Vietnam, to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It felt like we had been given the key to an exotic land that would be impossible for us to access on our own in the in-depth Aqua way. Guided with exceptional service, we were able to be completely immersed in this part of the world. Most of the staff is from the region and every person, from the phenomenal guides to the charming bartenders, exuded warmth and hospitality.

Life Onboard: The ship’s design is appropriately understated in its Southeast Asian setting, yet has all the accoutrements of stylish modern living. Birgit Galli Zugaro wanted the design to reflect her own home in Singapore. To this end, the fabrics and materials are of the highest quality, but selected for comfort most of all.

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The heart of the ship was the chic lounge and bar, where daily briefings and lectures on history and culture were held. After drinks and dinner, guests gathered in the game room for foosball competitions on an Italian-made glass table. The game room also serves as a library, with shelves of books and current magazines.

The sultry heat and humidity of Southeast Asia is so much a part of the experience, heightening all five senses. But after daily excursions, there was no better feeling than a return to cold towels, and sweet Vietnamese iced coffee.

Each night, movies like “Good Morning, Vietnam,” played in the beautiful private screening room. The cool air in the room is a welcome escape from the heat of the day and you can snuggle up with blankets on the leather seats. Tip: The staff is happy to prepare movie snacks for you, like bowls of hot, buttery popcorn and chamomile tea.

Design Suite’s floor-to-ceiling windows allow guests to gaze upon the Mekong from the king size bed.
Design Suite’s floor-to-ceiling windows allow guests to gaze upon the Mekong
from the king size bed.

Unique Areas of the Ship: The ship’s infinity-edge plunge pool is a design highlight, a way to watch the river go by while floating in the comfort of cool water. There are cabanas outfitted with beds and plenty of sun loungers, and we loved ordering sunset cocktails at the outdoor bar.

Birgit Galli Zugaro curates the ship’s small shop, filled with treasures from Southeast Asian artisans, like clothing and jewelry. You can also purchase Aqua Mekong swag like hats and t-shirts.

We loved the small shipboard spa with two treatment rooms — among the offerings are traditional Southeast Asian massages and nail services at great prices.

Daily Adventures: The four skiffs, or 10-seater launch boats, aboard the Aqua Mekong, are one of the distinct advantages of the ship, allowing us to reach small villages and unspoiled corners with guides. Each day averaged two or three options. One day, we disembarked from the skiffs into bright red chili fields and snacked on local fruits with local villagers. On another day, we glided past tilapia fish farms to land at a small village on the Island of Peace. If there are no “attractions” like museums, the danger can be that people become the attraction. But here, the interactions are pure — the villages are mostly untouched by tourism, with the exception of Aqua’s small groups.

The highlight for many of us on board was the biking excursions. Aside from a chance to get some great exercise, the rides (which ranged from short jaunts to 16-kilometer routes) allowed us to feel especially close to the landscapes and people. We’d bike past colorful temples, swerve to avoid chickens crossing the dirt roads, and even stumbled upon two local weddings.

Dining: All meals are served in the dining room, starting with a breakfast buffet each morning. Executive Chef David Thompson, well known in Southeast Asia, lends a high level of culinary prestige to the ship.

Lunch and dinner are served family-style and there is an appreciated balance of authentic Khmer and Vietnamese dishes with western dishes like grilled pizza and barbecue. You can choose to visit a local market with the chef, where he selected ingredients to use in our meals. We admit that we often skipped the local desserts for an addicting chocolate ice cream that was off the menu — ask to try it!

Technology: There is free shipboard wireless, with varying levels of connectivity. Don’t plan on using it for Skype or video downloads, but it usually worked well enough to check e-mail.

Outdoor Cinema screens movies for guests under the stars.
 
Outdoor Cinema screens movies for guests under the stars.

Accommodations: All 20 Design Suites are spacious, at 320 square feet, and have floor-to-ceiling windows facing the Mekong River. We had a suite with a balcony, but would choose one without next time, as we loved the extra space and day bed. The powerful and therapeutic rain shower was a high point, especially since we showered two to three times a day after excursions.

Before and After Your Cruise: In Saigon, we’d suggest booking transfers and excursions with Trails of Indochina. With their assistance, securing a required Visa at the airport was simple. They can arrange tours to the War Remnants Museum and other highlights. We stayed at the brand-new Reverie Saigon, designed by four of Italy’s top furniture designers in a very decadent, over-the-top creative fashion (think colored marble and blue velvet headboards). Tip: Book an early morning sidecar tour of Saigon through the hotel, our favorite way to see the city — it’s a glorious assault on the senses.

In Phnom Penh, we stayed one night at Raffles Hotel Le Royal before our return flight home. It is a place that oozes French Colonial glamour.

Sailing: The Aqua Mekong launched in October 2014 and has three-, four- and seven-night itineraries in Vietnam and Cambodia, 48 weeks out of the year.

ADVISOR INSIGHT

Jay Johnson of Coastline Travel Advisors recently enjoyed some of his new favorite luxury accommodations on Aqua Expedition’s Aqua Mekong which cruised from Vietnam to Cambodia: “Not only was the ship and food amazing, but best of all, the Aqua Mekong has its own skiffs that allowed us to disembark in some very remote areas of the Mekong. Bike riding through some of the little towns in the Mekong Delta was something I’ll never forget. It was a true adventure.”

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