Discovering Mekong majesty onboard the Avalon Saigon

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The Panorama Lounge onboard the Avalon Saigon, which sails the Mekong on 13-day itineraries.
The Panorama Lounge onboard the Avalon Saigon, which sails the Mekong on 13-day itineraries.

It was 4:40 a.m., and I was sitting in the Panorama Lounge of the newly minted Avalon Saigon, wide awake. I'd have loved to chalk it up to a combination of jet lag and adrenaline, but really, I was restless. It would be another hour before the sun began to peek over the rust-colored Mekong River, and I couldn't wait another minute.

I bided my time, taking full advantage of the strong WiFi connection while my fellow shipmates were in what I assumed was a blissful state of slumber. Email sent at 4:41 a.m.

An hour later, the mist enshrouding the banks along the river started to lift, and glints of orange, pink and purple began their morning dance off the bow. Nearby, a pair of fishermen cast a wide net, tangles of emerald-green jungle and sweeping vistas giving way to soaring mountains in the distance.

This is life along the Mekong, a river abounding in so much history and natural beauty that one could spend a lifetime here and not be able to fully capture its majesty.

Stretching some 2,700 miles and shaping the borders of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, the Mekong is not only the largest river in Southeast Asia, it is the lifeblood for some 70 million Vietnamese and Cambodians who call it home. For the next 12 days, from the comforts of Avalon Waterways' newest all-suite ship, I, too, would be calling this home.

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh has been home to Cambodian royalty since the 1860s.
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh has been home to Cambodian royalty since the 1860s.

Local families, local flavors

As we began our journey northbound, leaving Saigon in our wake, our first stop found us not far upstream in Vinh Long, where we met a multigenerational family that infuses whole snakes in rice wine to create a purportedly curative drink. 

After taking a quick sip and living to tell the tale, we toured the property, where a delightful coconut-based candy and a variety of rice snacks are also produced, before heading back for lunch on the boat. Later, on another afternoon excursion a bit farther upstream in Cu Lao Gieng, we were invited to meet a builder of sampans, small boats that are native to the region.

Our journey continued much like this over the next 12 days, stopping in villages in Vietnam and Cambodia, meeting with a Viet Cong veteran and his family one afternoon and visiting local textile makers and monks the next. After each morning and afternoon excursion, we'd come back home to a cool drink, cold compress and the familiar faces and greetings of an exceptionally accommodating crew.

Onboard, the Avalon Saigon is designed to resemble a five-star, boutique hotel with 18 spacious rooms accommodating up to 36 passengers. Every room is equipped with floor-to-ceiling, panoramic sliding doors, a signature of the Avalon's new design aesthetic, as is the generously sized marble bathroom with rainfall shower. 

The elegantly carved teak and hardwood floors throughout the ship were a nice bonus, as it was a sheer pleasure walking barefoot through its halls.

A suite onboard the ship with floor-to-ceiling, sliding glass doors.
A suite onboard the ship with floor-to-ceiling, sliding glass doors.

Cocktails and karaoke

At night, the whole group would convene in the lounge for happy hour cocktails until we'd hear the sound of the gong calling us for an always delicious multicourse dinner of Vietnamese-Khmer fare, after which we'd retire to our rooms for a nightly movie ranging from the French drama "Indochine" to the comedy "Good Morning, Vietnam."

There was a raucous karaoke night and sing-along sessions to "This Land Is Your Land" and "Que Sera, Sera." 

Every morning at 6:30, tai chi would kick the day off before our adventures began. Eventually, I settled into life onboard and a regular sleep cycle. After all, who needs WiFi when you have a beautiful world passing by?

Along with its sister ship the Avalon Siem Reap, the Avalon Saigon cruises from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on a 13-day itinerary starting at $2,869.

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