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Living the high life on the Mekong
I AM on a tender, skimming the Mekong River dotted with water hyacinths bobbing like ice cubes on the milk tea-coloured waters, an imagery by which I am fixated no thanks to the sultry breeze that offers little respite to the sweltering heat. Rounding a bend, I am relieved to spot the 62-metre-long riverboat that I call home - for these four days, at least. Back on board, an army of hosts and hostesses, whose number equals that of the passengers - 40 - proffers refreshing citrus mocktails and ice-cold face towels, as they take my shoes away to clean off the dust accumulated during the day's land activities.
I am on a three-night cruise on the Aqua Mekong, which takes me from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to My Tho, Vietnam, a port just 90 minutes from the buzzing metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. The intimate, ultra-luxurious vessel is best described as a floating boutique hotel, boasting just 20 staterooms with California king-sized beds, spread over two decks. All are exactly the same 30 square metres in size, but configured in two ways: with a balcony like mine, or in its stead, an expanded bedroom with floor to ceiling windows presenting eye-level, panoramic views of the river and its banks. Some rooms can even be combined, with one side converted into a living room to create one-bedroom suites with his and hers bathrooms.
Outside of my private quarters, I could find all the premium trappings befitting of the ship's lofty billing: a gym and an outdoor plunge pool with cabanas on the observation deck; a screening room furnished with sumptuous Eames lounge chairs stocked with a curated collection of classic films on this exotic region such as The Scent of Green Papaya, The Quiet American and Good Morning, Vietnam; a further outdoor cinema; and a library and games room replete with novels and a foosball table to while away the languid afternoons. In the evenings, I would find myself heading to the elegant teak floor lobby lounge to grab a drink. They come with beguiling names such as Kampong Old Fashioned and Night Market Sangria.
If the stylish bar looks familiar, that is because it is conceptualised by Proof & Company, the owners of speakeasy-style 28 Hongkong Street and the consultants for the posh Manhattan bar at the Regent Singapore.
There is even a spa on the first deck with two treatment rooms staffed by professional therapists, one of whom was hand-picked by the cruise company's CEO after a particularly good massage he had on land.
But the focal point of the Aqua Mekong has to be the dining room, a communal area travellers return to to partake in nourishments after each shore excursion. The menu is the brainchild of legendary chef David Thompson, whose establishments in London and Bangkok have earned a Michelin star and a spot in the World's 50 Best Restaurants list respectively. In the ship's kitchen, cooks serve up chef Thompson's inspired Indochinese cuisine incorporating fresh produce that are often bought only in the morning from the myriad floating markets the ship passes by.
During the journey, I was treated to a delectable smorgasbord worthy of the best eateries on terra firma: grilled prawns on lemongrass skewers, local baby clams with coriander, chillies and garlic, and braised river fish with ginger, celery and pickled plums.
The land activities contrast sharply with the abundant luxury on board. Around 60 million people live on or near the 4,350 km-long Mekong River, relying on this resource for water, farming, fishing, transport or commerce.
It is a rural way of living, something that we witness when we visit the Vietnamese village of Binh Thanh on one of the delta's plethora of riverine islands. Here, men slumber in hammocks during the day, ahead of a gruelling night's work, while women squat in front of wooden looms on the terracotta-tiled verandas to weave baskets and mats out of grass for sale.
Once the first gift of notebooks and coloured pencils has been doled out, flocks of bright-eyed schoolchildren appear out of nowhere, smartly dressed in their white shirts and navy pants. Giggling and uttering the only English word they know - "hello" - they hold out their hands in the hope of further largesse from this strange group of people of paler skin colour.
Our guide Yee explains that the villagers have yet to be exposed to tourism; the Aqua Mekong is the first riverboat small enough to reach some of the narrower and shallower tributaries, from which its four tenders make actual landing. Unlike the river cruises of, say, the Amazon, where wildlife watching is the main attraction, the draw of the Aqua Mekong is the opportunity it brings to passengers for cultural exchange.
On further excursions I visit a monastery on top of Mount Sam to receive blessings from the monk, near the border where it is said that a military outpost guarding against Khmer Rouge rebels still stands.
But the highlight has to be the impromptu detour. As the sunlight fades after an afternoon tour of Cai Be's floating wholesale market, fish sauce factory and coconut candy workshop, and while half the group has ridden off to explore the area on bicycles, Mr Yee decided to whisk the remaining bunch away to a secret destination.
The tender pulls up to a rickety jetty, and we make our way down an overgrown path past barking dogs and motorcycles piled three-deep with riders, to a 19th-century Rococo-style villa replete with faded frescos of the rural Vietnamese landscape. As it turns out, we are visiting Mr Yee's uncle.
Despite the property having seen better days - he explains that his relatives made the painful decision to damage the building so as to discourage the communists from seizing it - you could see the glint in Mr Yee's eyes as he proudly invites us to have a coffee and a chat in the dusty sitting room or to roam the bucolic orchards at the back.
And for a moment there, despite the luxury that awaits me later tonight, I too yearned for a life lived simpler.
- The Aqua Mekong offers three, four and seven-day itineraries with embarkations at Siem Reap, Phnom Penh or My Tho (near Ho Chi Minh City). www.aquaexpeditions.com