River Saigon interiorUniworld River Cruises is the latest river cruise operator to get on the Mekong bandwagon, with a new charter partnership to start sailing in Southeast Asia next year.

Uniworld is partnering with Pandaw River Cruises to charter the 60-passenger River Saigon. (The ship was originally going to be named the Saigon Pandaw, but very soon after construction plans were put in place, it was decided that Uniworld would charter the ship and it would be renamed to better fit the Uniworld fleet.) Uniworld's three-year charter agreement starts with an inaugural sailing the first week of January.

"Upon Uniworld's commitment to the vessel on a charter basis during our peak months, they have been very involved in the overall design and onboard services that will be offered and have not overlooked a single detail in this process," Tom Markwell, vice president of sales and marketing of Pandaw, explained in an email.

Guy Young, president of Uniworld, said that the company had been looking to expand its destination portfolio and wanted to offer a smaller ship option on the Mekong.

The River Saigon will feature 30 river-view staterooms at 160 square feet each, featuring hotel-style beds. All staterooms will have an outside sitting area. The ship will also have a sun deck with lounge chairs and a full-service bar. There will be a separate lounge for meetings or relaxing and a restaurant with windows that look out onto the Mekong.

Shore excursions will be conducted in small groups of no more than 20 passengers to lessen the impact on small villages, markets and temples along the route, according to Uniworld.

Starting in 2012, Uniworld will offer a 14-night cruise-tour package between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, which will include a seven-night cruise between Kampong Cham in Cambodia and My Tho in Vietnam. Optional pre- or postcruise extensions, including Halong Bay, will also be offered. There will be 21 departures in 2012 and 31 in 2013.

Uniworld is finalizing its pricing for the Mekong program.

The allure of the Mekong

Rudi Schreiner, president of Ama Waterways, is bullish about the Mekong's potential, having stated that the combination of major destinations such as Angkor Wat and Siem Reap in Cambodia, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, as well as charming villages and scenery makes for a perfect river cruise experience.

Orient PandawAma Waterways began offering Mekong sailings in September 2009, when the 92-passenger La Marguerite was launched. Last year, Ama announced plans to introduce a second 124-passenger ship, the Amalotus, on the Mekong that will launch later this summer. Ama will have partial ownership of both ships.

"Recent growth on the Mekong has been far higher than anticipated, with greater numbers of Americans and Australians traveling to Southeast Asia," Yim Choong Hing, CEO of Pandaw, recently said in a statement.

The River Saigon will be Pandaw's fourth Mekong river ship, joining the Mekong Pandaw, Tonle Pandaw and Indochina Pandaw. All four ships offer cruises through Vietnam and Cambodia.

Since 1995, Pandaw has been operating on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers in Burma, on the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam and on the Rajang River in Borneo.

In the last year and a half, Pandaw River Cruises, a Singapore-based river cruise line with headquarters in Scotland, opened a U.S. reservations and sales office in Breckenridge, Colo., to enhance sales stateside.

And last year, Viking River Cruises began offering 15-day itineraries on the Mekong, having also partnered with Pandaw, and is currently chartering the 66-passenger Tonle. The Tonle was built in 2002 with 28 deluxe and 10 single, outside-facing staterooms. The cabins all have air conditioning, private bathrooms, safes and hair dryers.

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