The Viking River Magnificent Mekong
We love Viking’s European offerings and last year pushed the definition of Europe to include a river cruise in Russia. But deciding to go to Southeast Asia somehow felt like a whole different kind of decision – it’s a lot farther away and more foreign in its culture than Europe. But we’d heard great things from other Viking travelers we’d met so we decided to go for it.
Quite unfortunately, the day before we were scheduled to depart on the trip Brunette had the misfortune/nerve to get sick and wasn’t able to go, so Blonde went solo.
Although the experiences in Vietnam and Cambodia were unlike anything in Europe, the Viking characteristics of exploring culture and history in the company of exemplary staff were consistent.
Well that’s great but would you enjoy going on the Magnificent Mekong itinerary? You would if you enjoy these things:
Learning about different cultures
We had several occasions to visit rural homes in Vietnam and Cambodia and talk to the families. Yes, these families have been selected by Viking so they’re probably better off than their neighbors. But their willingness to show us around and answer nosy questions seemed to be genuine.
Admittedly, the poverty can be hard to take. Even Blonde had a twinge of discomfort about using a $900 phone to photograph someone’s home with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing or electricity.
But, without romanticizing the poverty, it’s impressive to see how the people live with so little. They use all of everything – literally. Even if you think it must be over after they’ve used the wood from a tree for cooking it isn’t – they collect the ash to use in their fields.
The importance, and rigidity, of roles in families can be hard for Westerners to comprehend. Typically several generations live in the same dwelling and it’s basically not up for discussion what each person in each generation is expected to do.
Hearing about the lives of the various guides and their families absolutely fascinated Blonde.
Both Vietnam and Cambodia are Buddhist countries. Buddhism is technically not a religion but a belief system (so you don’t have to go church on Sunday). Buddhism has many aspects and teachings that our guides explained to us (more than once because we kept needing to be reminded). A basic tenet is that suffering is universal and the result of attachment.
Time and again – when talking about the genocide in Cambodia – people made it clear that the past is the past and they don’t think about it. (Where’s a good old Irish grudge when you need one? Not here.)
They are not attached to the past in ways that can be hard to fathom. People are literally friends with others who may have killed family members in past conflicts. It seems to hard to argue that their lack of attachment must reduce their suffering.
On a more shallow note Buddhism makes for lots of pretty temples, statues, and stupas which house the remains of the deceased.
OK, that picture was for shock value. The crickets and tiny frogs were good but skip the tarantulas. And no, they aren’t a meal that anyone is expected to eat although many people do eat them (in real life, not so much on the ship).
At each meal there were options to try the regional cuisine. After a few meals in the beginning of ordering things like a BLT Blonde finally decided to get with the program. It turned out that choosing the regional selection was always a good idea. There were excellent soups, noodle dishes, spring rolls, fish and salads. The cuisine was a very pleasant surprise.
Exploring history from different times and perspectives
In Vietnam we saw places that were interesting and very sobering. We went to places where history was made – the “Hanoi Hilton”, the Chu Chi tunnels, the avenue in Saigon where North Vietnamese tanks invaded and the site where the last Americans were air-lifted out of Saigon in the days before it fell. Our guides, as well as speakers and films Viking presented, gave us balanced perspectives on the war and made many of us realize how little we knew about it.
Blonde came home just as the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War began to be shown on PBS. It is an excellent series in it own right but seeing it after also visiting the country made it even more interesting.
In Cambodia we went to one of the Killing Fields and the infamous detention center, S-21 which is now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Again, our guides, especially the local ones whose families had been personally affected by the genocide, gave it a face and a sense of the horror in everyday life that you can’t get from books or films. We even met one of the survivors of S-21 – a place where 14,000 people were taken and only 7 survived.
Angkor is a UNESCO designated temple complex in Cambodia and one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. The Hindu temple, Angkor Wat, is the largest religious monument in the world and was built in the 12th century. It was a bucket list destination for Blonde even though it was so hot she thought she could have filled the bucket with her sweat!
Seeing the smaller, less well-known temples in the area was actually more enjoyable as the crowds were smaller and there was some shade. If it hadn’t been for the heat it would have been nice to spend even more time exploring some of the many sites.
Like a variety of settings
The Viking River Magnificent Mekong is a river cruise that is only about half on the river; the rest is on land. The hotels we stayed in were all very luxurious and we spent 3 nights in each. They were in major cities and had excellent spas (a girl has to do her research) and breakfast buffets.
The ship is not owned by Viking and does not have the balconies, interior passageways or feel of the ships that they own. It does have everything you need – comfortable beds, air conditioning, a good-sized bathroom and wi-fi (most of the time). The restaurant was excellent, as always.
On every Viking River cruise Blonde thinks this is the best staff ever and she felt this way on this cruise too. It’s a total mystery how they find and train the wonderful people who work for them. As clichéd as it may sound, having friendly caring people can make a stay “luxurious” in ways that even upgraded surroundings can not.
Blonde also liked the size of the Viking Mekong. It holds fewer than 60 guests so you really do end up feeling as if you know everyone at least a little (whether or not you want to).
This is a trip that is only suitable for people who can walk in challenging settings and in the heat and humidity. We never covered major distances and were always given plenty of time but someone who needs assistance just couldn’t do this trip. These aren’t countries or sites that accommodate disabilities – period. Blunt and unfortunate but true. Viking makes this clear in advance but it bears repeating.
If you go
- Do the Halong Bay extension (will write about it later)
- Allow enough time to get your visas and follow the instructions
- Bring a lot of tops – you can’t get away with wearing anything twice in the heat (they have a laundry on the ship)
- Bring tops that cover your shoulders and bottoms that cover your knees for when you visit temples. Ladies can’t get away with using scarves to cover their shoulders.
- Have comfortable shoes that can get wet and live to walk another day
- Read the tipping guidelines before you go – the guides and staff are so good you’ll want to do right by them.
- Read the cruise documents booklet before you go. Yes, the whole thing. This means you.
Disclosure: Blonde’s trip was paid for by Viking which is why she tried hard to watch her language and keep her political opinions to herself. Most of the time.