Passage of time
Tracing an historic timeline through Cambodia and Vietnam onboard the luxurious Aqua Mekong.
From the 12th century temples of Angkor to the gleaming modern towers of Ho Chi Minh City, Aqua Mekong takes guests on a unique, luxury voyage, rich in discovery along one of the world’s great waterways.
3 November, 2023
A ratio of one staff member to each guest means that the level of service approaches telepathic
Equal parts cultural odyssey, gourmet adventure and luxurious escape, Aqua Mekong is one of those rare experiences that defies classification or comparison because there is simply nothing else quite like it.
A purpose-built luxury vessel that plies the waters between the vast Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia’s north and the mighty Mekong River to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam’s south (and back again), Aqua Mekong offers three, four or seven night itineraries that provide an extraordinary insight into the people, lifestyle and food along this impressive waterway, coupled with superb service and onboard facilities.
Guests can choose to immerse themselves in activities that showcase the surrounding locations each day, complete with expert guides who know chapter and verse about the area and its varied history, or they simply relax and enjoy the refined atmosphere and outstanding facilities onboard.
With just 20 ‘cabins’ the maximum capacity is 40 guests, and a ratio of one staff member to each guest means that the service approaches telepathic. Comfortable intimacy is the name of the game here, where nothing is ever too much trouble, and the mere mention of an interest in seeing or experiencing something results in it seamlessly materialising or being arranged.
Those 20 beautifully appointed cabins are spread over two decks (or floors), although luxury suites would be a more apt description. At 30 square metres they are as spacious as they are elegant, with beautiful timber work and flooring, thoughtfully combined with soft finishes in subtle hues to match the rest of the vessel. Ensuites are likewise large and well thought out, with the same attention to detail evident in the tile, timber and stone finishes.
Each of the suites enjoy floor-to-ceiling glass to make the most of the ever-changing landscape, while eight also feature balconies. Several of the suites are interconnecting for families or those simply wanting even more space, allowing for the kingsized room and a living room as well as two full bathrooms. Then there is a wellness spa, fitness centre, theatre room, games room, two sundecks and a swimming pool which offer opportunities for diversion and indulgence between excursions, dining or just to punctuate periods of deep relaxation as you watch the world go by.
In fact, aside from the fact that it quietly makes its way from place to place, Aqua Mekong is more like an exclusive, boutique hotel than a boat, where each morning you wake to a completely new outlook and promise of new adventures.
Aqua Mekong is more like an exclusive, boutique hotel than a boat, where each morning you wake to a completely new outlook
At just over 62 metres in length she is not the biggest river boat on the Mekong, but she has the reputation of the being the most luxurious
Exquisite menus designed by celebrated chef David Thomson, and executed by award-winning Chef Davet Kim (pictured), showcase ever-changing local delicacies to create another highlight. Served in the intimate dining room aft or occasionally on one of the outside decks, local flavours and ingredients are the star here, although as with all things on board, those with special dietary requirements of just a hankering for something specific need only ask.
Custom designed and built in Vietnam, Aqua Mekong started service in 2014. At just over 62 metres in length she is not the biggest river boat plying this famous waterway, but she has certainly earned the reputation of the being the best and most luxurious. She is one of five, small luxury vessels scattered around the globe that make up the Aqua Expeditions fleet. The brainchild of company founder and CEO Galli Zugaro, each of these elegant, bespoke vessels operates in its own part of the world, from the Amazon river to the Galapagos and the Indonesian archipelago, delivering their own bespoke itineraries designed around their specific locations.
Here on the waterways between the ancient Khmer capital in Cambodia’s north to Ho Chi Minh City in the Mekong Delta, guests are treated to a living timeline which traces the region’s history from the magnificent 12th century temples at Angkor, through floating villages to the gleaming modern city of Phnom Penh.
The seemingly endless Tonle Sap Lake of Northern Cambodia giving way to ever more populated villages and towns as you make your way towards Vietnam – or up from Ho Chi Minh City, depending on which direction you’ve chosen to travel.
Guests set out each day by tender – again, specially custom-built to provide access to smaller waterways and their hidden treasures, be that a completely floating village or access to a riverside township – where guests can choose to explore even further by kayak or on bikes depending on the topography.
These ‘soft adventures’ are, like all aspects of the Aqua Mekong experience, very much at the discretion of the guests. There is no pressure to cycle or paddle, just as there is no compulsion to go ashore at all unless the mood takes you, but the chance to experience floating villages complete with floating temples and markets, or to ride through small hamlets and see things off the well-trodden tourist paths is too good an opportunity to miss.
Indeed on these daily activities (usually one each morning and one each afternoon) rarely is another tourist ever spotted, except in the larger towns and cities and even then from a considerable distance.
On these daily activities rarely is another tourist ever spotted, except in the larger towns and cities – and even then from a distance
A walk through the Sa Dec food markets with Chef Davet provides another inside into life in this part of the world
Locations to visit are carefully chosen by Aqua Mekong not only to give the guests the best possible view of local life and customs, but also to help preserve said local life and customs through that very patronage.
From traditionally produced pottery in Kampong Chhnang, to silversmiths in Koh Chen or exquisite hand-weaved silk in the ‘islands’ approaching Phnom Penh, Aqua Mekong guests are afforded a very intimate look at life, accompanied by the expert guides from the boat who know the region and its history intimately.
A walk through the Sa Dec food markets with Chef Davet on hand to explain exotic fruits and produce provides another inside into life in this part of the world and the perfect prelude to one of his cooking demonstrations later back on Aqua Mekong. While a ride in a rickshaw in Tan Chau is enough to make you feel more than slightly guilty for having partaken of Chef Davet’s cooking so wholeheartedly.
Nor is there any attempt to present a ‘warm and fuzzy’ once over of the region, with stops at the deeply moving Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh one option during the day spent in the city – a sad reminder of Cambodia’s turbulent history and the horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge in the not so distant past.
Of course a quick trip to the sprawling Russian Markets after lunch at the luxurious Rosewood Hotel in the heart of Phnom Penh is perhaps more in keeping with most people’s idea of a cruise along the Mekong, but again it is done with Aqua Mekong’s seamless efficiency and so seems perfectly in keeping with the rest of the itinerary.
Back on board, as always, guests are greeted with a warm welcome and a cool drink as shoes are whisked away to be cleaned for you while you prepare for the next adventure or activity.
With Aqua Mekong, ‘quiet luxury’ is the name of the game. Everything is beautifully executed but never overdone or forced. There is a genuine warmth from everyone on board from the moment you arrive and there quickly develops a wonderful familiarity. Under the watchful eye of Cruise Director, Vuthy Nou, a quietly-spoken native Cambodian who exudes calm, every facet of the trip is seamless.
Indeed seamless is a word that perfectly describes every aspect of the Aqua Mekong experience. Everything seems to dovetail perfectly, with the next mode of transportation always waiting right on cue – be it a Tuk Tuk or a traditional long boat. The tenders always waiting to whisk guests back to Aqua Mekong, or the bikes and kayaks ready and waiting for those wanting to pedal or paddle further into the countryside.
With Aqua Mekong, ‘quiet luxury’ is the name of the game – everything is beautifully executed but never overdone or forced
Aqua Mekong offers so much more than just the most luxurious experience on the Mekong, delivering a cultural and lifestyle insight into a fascinating region
Even a threatening rainstorm that disrupts the scheduled sundowner drinks on a remote island shore is taken in stride by the crew members. Lashing two tenders together, the sundowners go ahead as planned but mid-river, as the tenders proceed at a pace to keep just ahead of the approaching rain but still afford a striking view of distant lightening with the city lights of of Phnom Penh as a backdrop. Then, as the rain inevitably hits, wet-weather ponchos are magically produced and the tenders race for the ship, the onboard crew waiting with smiles, more cool drinks and warm towels. A potential disruption has been turned into yet another highlight that will long be remembered by all those present. Absolutely seamless.
On a purely sensory level, Aqua Mekong ticks all of the boxes and then some. It is absolutely luxurious in every respect, with next-level service and food that is nothing short of superb. Days spent just taking in the ever-changing scenery from any number of on-board vantage points, drink in hand, would be days well spent.
But Aqua Mekong offers so much more than just the most luxurious experience on the Mekong, delivering a cultural and lifestyle insight into a fascinating region for those wanting to do more than just relax.
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