AmaWaterways’ Mekong River cruises through Vietnam and Cambodia are filled with history, culture and immersive experiences

Today’s multigenerational families and leisure groups are traveling around the globe, seeking out enriching vacation options that enable them to learn about the world in a memorable way. An enchanting Mekong River cruise through Vietnam and Cambodia fits the bill perfectly. These voyages along Southeast Asia’s “Mother River” can be powerful transformational experiences, providing an incredible combination of learning, adventure, meaningful local connections and broader cultural perspectives.

Scenic views along the Mekong captivate cruise passengers.

First-time visitors to Southeast Asia seeking stress-free travel often gravitate towards Mekong River cruises, knowing they can see exotic lands in comfort while leaving the logistics to others. Such was the case on our AmaWaterways “Charms of the Mekong” cruise aboard the luxurious 124-passenger AmaDara. AmaWaterways, known for excellence in river cruising, is an ideal choice for groups seeking complete peace of mind when traveling to faraway lands. The line has won numerous travel industry honors, including multiple Cruise Critic and Travel Weekly Magellan awards. It was recently named Virtuoso’s Best River Cruise Line for the eighth consecutive year.

Locals fishing in the Mekong River

On an AmaWaterways Mekong River cruise, groups explore Vietnam and Cambodia while enjoying the amenities of a floating boutique luxury hotel where every detail is taken care of. Excursions and cultural immersion experiences along the Mekong waterway are led by exceptional guides who share their personal stories and expertly bring the destinations to life.

Cruise guests can learn about the entire silk weaving process at Cambodia’s “Silk Island.”

In addition, the cruise line offers superb pre- and post-cruise land extensions to complement its Mekong itineraries, allowing guests to explore Cambodia’s legendary Angkor sites and Vietnam’s Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. We took advantage of these experiences, combining our AmaWaterways Mekong cruise with the company’s land tours in Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Unforgettable Adventures Await

We started our journey in vibrant Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by many locals. From our home base at the well-appointed Sofitel Saigon Plaza, we ventured out with our AmaWaterways guides to some of the city’s most famous sites, including the former Presidential Palace, Notre-Dame Cathedral, lively Ben Thanh Market and the moving War Remnants Museum. Traversing crowded streets filled with a dizzying array of motorbikes can be quite an adventure in Ho Chi Minh City. Once our AmaWaterways guide taught us to cross the thoroughfares “like sticky rice,” transiting the busy roads became a breeze. We also visited the maze-like Cu Chi Tunnels outside the city and descended down into a narrow section that’s open for tourists – definitely not for the faint of heart.

Cambodia’s Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

The next day we boarded the AmaDara at My Tho, Vietnam and began our epic Mekong River voyage. The Mekong Delta route is filled with bustling cities, traditional rural villages, floating markets and centuries-old temples. From our stateroom’s twin balconies, we gazed spellbound at the ever-changing vistas of life along the river. We glided by vast rice paddies, villages built on stilts, oxen being washed in the river, colorful boats moving goods to markets and groups of fishermen in skiffs reeling in their nets. Vivid sunsets gave way to pastel sunrises, ushering in memorable days filled with off-the-beaten-path cultural immersion and new discoveries.

Built from rose-pink sandstone, Angkor’s stunning Banteay Srei features exquisite carvings.

AmaWaterways packs an extraordinary wealth of authentic experiences into its Mekong itinerary. We sailed up the river from My Tho to Kampong Cham, Cambodia on our seven-night voyage, stopping at fascinating small towns, tiny hamlets and thriving cities along the way. Some excursions focused on local trades, such as visiting candy and rice paper making workshops in Cai Be, Vietnam and silk-weaving and rattan mat workshops in Tan Chau, Vietnam. Our visit to Cambodia’s Koh Dach, known as “Silk Island,” provided us with an in-depth look at the traditional silk weaving process from start to finish. Here, we watched skilled silk artisans working on manual looms and had the opportunity to purchase their gorgeous hand-woven silk scarves.

Cao Dai Temple in Sa Dec

Various forms of transportation played a role in our adventures as well. We navigated along Southeast Asia’s streets in trishaws and tuk-tuks, sailed through bustling waterways and tiny canals in wooden sampans, and even rode in two-person oxcarts driven by local farmers in Cambodia’s Kampong Tralach. AmaWaterways excels at providing so many opportunities for personal interactions, and we were thrilled when friendly locals occasionally invited us into their homes to learn more about their lives. We enjoyed spontaneous conversations with residents as we strolled through towns and tiny villages, including swapping stories with friendly women selling produce in Sa Dec’s busy market and chatting with locals in rural Angkor Ban.

Angkor’s mystical Ta Prohm Temple

History, sometimes beautiful and at other times tragic, is an important part of this Mekong River voyage. We marveled at the gilded treasures at Cambodia’s Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and enjoyed walking through the nearby National Museum, with its outstanding Khmer art collection. Yet we also visited one of Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the same city, where we learned about the millions of Cambodians who suffered and perished in the brutal horrors of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.

Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world

Powerful travel experiences like these provide alternative perspectives and a broader understanding of different cultures. These transformative journeys forge deep connections and shape the way we look at the world. Memories from our Mekong River journey are indelibly etched in my mind, particularly our traditional Buddhist blessing ceremony at one of Cambodia’s largest monasteries in Oudong, quiet moments in Sa Dec’s colorful Cao Dai Temple  and my moving conversations with two of the seven S-21 prison survivors during our visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The incredible personal interactions we had throughout the voyage taught me so much about the strength of the human spirit, generosity and  power of forgiveness.

Angkor Thom’s Bayon Temple is famous for its massive smiling faces.

We capped off our trip in Cambodia with a bucket list three-day visit to Angkor’s magnificent temples. AmaWaterways’ outstanding post-cruise extension housed at the posh Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort in Siem Reap made our stay seamless and memorable. Accompanied by exceptional guides, we spent hours exploring the hauntingly beautiful Ta Prohm temple in Angkor where Angelina Jolie filmed scenes for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Rising early the next morning, we trekked through the dark to watch a magical sunrise at iconic Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Angkor Archaeological Park is a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site containing a wealth of ancient Khmer temples. AmaWaterways selects a number of these treasures for its multi-day circuit, including Banteay Srei, the stunning “Citadel of Women” adorned with intricate carvings, and monumental walled city of Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer empire. AmaWaterways guides carefully orchestrate the visits so guests have personalized experiences, arriving at popular “must-see” sites at the optimal times to minimize the crowds.

Traveling Like Family

While the destination is certainly the star of the show on Mekong River cruises, the shipboard experience is a prized part the trip – exceeding expectations from start to finish. Launched in 2015, the AmaDara is a French Colonial-style treasure filled with burnished wood hallways, a pool and lounge area with a full bar on the Sun Deck, multiple spa treatment rooms, a fitness room, and spacious, elegantly-appointed suites and staterooms with twin balconies and gleaming hardwood floors.

Pastel sunrise on the Mekong River

The ship’s Saigon Lounge serves as a meeting point for daily excursions as well as cocktails, briefings and enriching entertainment. The AmaDara’s Mekong Restaurant serves three mouthwatering meals daily, deftly blending Western and authentic Asian cuisines. Our multi-course dinner at The Chef’s Table, the complimentary specialty restaurant, was a true culinary extravaganza featuring fine wines and locally-inspired cuisine.

AmaWaterways, a family-owned and -operated company, considers guests to be part of its extended family. In fact, “AmaWaterways family” is one of the phrases heard most often on the ship. Many travelers on our Mekong cruise had sailed with the line before, and mealtime discussions often included conversations about previous sailings in Europe. Like proud family members, guests raved about their voyages and upcoming itineraries. Family-friendly AmaWaterways is seeing more multigenerational groups on its Mekong itineraries, welcoming those with children ages four and older.

The AmaDara’s sophisticated Saigon Lounge

The AmaDara’s crown jewel is its exceptional staff and crew, who work closely together to create a relaxing environment onboard. Under the direction of the superb hotel manager, the ship quickly transforms into a place where everybody knows your name and vacation preferences. Guests bond quickly with AmaWaterways’ knowledgeable guides, who candidly shared their personal stories and cultural perspectives. Service comes from the heart on the AmaDara, making the experience unique and memorable. When you’re traveling like family with AmaWaterways, coming back onboard each day truly feels like coming home.

For more information on AmaWaterways river cruises, visit https://www.amawaterways.com.

Story and Photos by Nancy Schretter