Cruising the Mekong on board CroisiEurope’s RV Indochine II
A languid river cruise along the Mekong on board CroisiEurope’s new RV Indochine II is awash with French colonial history, as Roderick Eime discovers.
The whole house smells nice, with the delicious smell of wet earth after a storm, enough to make you wild with delight. – Marguerite Duras, The Lover
The beautifully manicured garden, bursting with vivid blooms of orchids and frangipanis with their sweet intoxicating scents, creates the ideal scenario for L’Amant (The Lover), French author Marguerite Duras’ literary work of steamy seduction in colonial Vietnam.
Here at Sa Dec, we are visiting the 120-year-old former house of Huynh Thuy Le, the real-life man on whom Duras based her acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel. It’s a nostalgic glimpse of the fading colonial influence in what was once French Indochina.
Today, the French are back – not to reclaim their former territories, but to respectfully revisit the lands and waterways they once ruled for more than a 100 years until displaced in the political turbulence of the mid-20th century.
We’re sailing on board RV Indochine II, a new and luxurious riverboat of the prominent French river cruise line, CroisiEurope, which is subtly restoring a small measure of Gallic influence here on the Mekong.
Despite its many modern conveniences, the plush RV Indochine II is not totally out of place on these ancient waters, which stretch like a great life-giving artery from China, past Myanmar, and through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea.
From the comfort of the shaded rooftop sundeck, with its tempting plunge pool, we observe the lush, fertile lands bordering the river that have been the objective of warring dynasties for centuries. It’s only in recent decades that the entire region has enjoyed relative peace.
Our meals are taken on the lowest deck in a dining room with obvious French influence and flair. Crisp linen and polished cutlery await us for every sitting, where we dine on authentic rice, meat, fish and vegetable dishes with the trademark Asian flavours of lemongrass, coconut and curries. Breakfast and lunch are buffet, while dinner is à la carte.
Our cabins have an airy and spacious feel thanks to a small balcony and floor-to-ceiling windows. The decor is not ostentatious, but stylish and reflective of the colonial era with polished wood and tasteful artefacts.
Mother of Water
The search for the source of the Mekong – and the presumed ‘river road’ to the untold riches of China – obsessed the French colonial occupiers to the point of madness. The 4,350-kilometre Mekong (or ‘Mother of Water’) is the dominant river of Southeast Asia, running like a tendril along the spine of Indochina and into the South China Sea.
Our journey eastward begins at Chong Khneas, near Siem Reap, the gateway to the great temples of Angkor Wat, and continues across the immense lake of Tonle Sap towards Phnom Penh.
As difficult as it may seem, most first-time visitors will opt to see the harrowing ‘Killing Fields’ and S-21 prison museum. It is a bone-chilling experience, but those who go see it as a necessary education in the recent history of rapidly recovering Cambodia, known at the time as Kampuchea.
Our stop in Phnom Penh is overnight, so there’s time to experience this bustling city, now greatly transformed from the ghost town it was during the infamous Pol Pot era of the 1970s.
High-rise apartments and gleaming, Chinese-built towers now dominate the skyline, but pockets of history remain with the royal palace, warren-like market and civic buildings such as the old post office and heritage hotels.
Back on board Indochine II, we continue south and cross the Cambodia- Vietnam border, entering the Mekong Delta region at Chau Doc, a thriving market town with narrow alleyways lined with everything from meat and fish to T-shirts and plastic pots. It’s a diverse ethnic mix here too, with Chinese, Cham and Khmer communities all living side by side at the river’s edge.
At Cai Be, a traditional trading port, we cruise in our sampan among the many vendors bobbing up and down in the floating market. Fish, vegetables, rice and household items adorn the merchant boats, each advertising their trade with an item stuck to a pole and thrust in the air. Here, aided by excellent local guides, we discover the many traditional industries like rice papermaking, weaving and fish-farming that have been worked here for centuries.
Our final leg takes us into Saigon itself, a remarkable feat because most river vessels must stop at the port of My Tho and then transfer passengers by coach. Indochine II is specifically built to the largest dimensions allowable for this transit.
While the bustling industry of the Mekong is everywhere to see, lift the veil ever so slightly to reveal a romantic backstory that has intertwined the lives and stories of countless millions over the years.