Nina Karnikowski discovers how a boutique river cruise is the best way to explore Vietnam likes the locals do.
The scent of lemongrass, the warm breeze, the swishing of banana palms, the mighty Mekong’s waters slipping through your fingers. These are the evocative details that seep back into your mind months after you’ve returned home from Vietnam.
Since three-quarters of the country’s cargo is transported by water and 95 percent of food comes from the Mekong region, an unforgettable way to experience the country is by boutique cruise ship. As you slide along the waters – past fishing trawlers and boats hauling mounds of rice and sand, locals crouching in concentration beneath their coolie hats along the riverbanks, and stilted houses surrounded by lush palms – you’ll be offered a rare insight into the everyday life of the Vietnamese. Stepping off will give you a chance to explore vibrant villages, to soak up the local culture, and to devour what is almost inarguably the best food in southeast Asia. And all the while you’ll realise that Vietnam, this place of tranquility and innocent charm, still feels like a secret.
MARKETS AND MANSIONS
To really get a feel for Vietnam’s agricultural root sand the thrumming pace of life along the Mekong, hop onto a local wooden sampan boat and head to Sa Dec. Small sampan supermarkets gather around the shores of this village, stocking up on produce to hawk along the river. Once you’ve manoeuvered your way past them and onto dry land, you can explore the produce market lining the main street, where you’ll find everything from vibrantly coloured tropical fruit and vegetables, seafood and live frogs, to pigs’ legs, live ducks and chickens.
Where the market peters out you’ll find the magnificent 1895 colonial villa of Mr Huyn Thuy Le, the 27-year-old son of a rich Chinese family, with whom the famous writer Marguerite Duras had an affair with in 1929 when she was only 15. The Sino-French designed house is famous in Sa Dec, since it’s where steamy scenes from the film version of Duras’ celebrated novel The Lover, based on her affair with Le, were shot. Even if you haven’t seen the film, the original hand-painted French tiles, mother-of-pearl inlaid doors and intricate interior woodwork make this mansion worth a visit.
As tempting as it is to simply laze on the wooden deck of your cruise ship as you slip along the waterways, more sampan excursions await.
Glide over to Chau Doc, where you’ll meet the people of the mostly Muslim Cham ethnic minority, of which there are estimated to be 160,000 living in Vietnam. The Cham are renowned for their handwoven textiles, and here you can not only witness their traditional weaving practices, but also wander through the local village and visit the beautiful green and white local mosque.
Cai Be is where you’ll find vast farmlands heaving with tropical fruits including coconuts, durian, jackfruit, rambutan, pomelo and more. Make sure you visit the local floating market, and the stunning riverside Catholic cathedral that flanks it.
Step off your sampan at Cuu Long Village to visit small family sweet-making workshops, where you can watch peanut, black sesame and coconut candies (a local speciality) being made by hand. If you have a belly of steel, you can also try their snake wine and whiskey, which the Vietnamese believe is a potent medicine.
HO CHI MINH CITY
No visit to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon, with its mind-bogglingly chaotic muddle of cars, bicycles and motorbikes. Start your wanderings through “the Pearl of the Orient” at Ben Thanh Market, where you can flex your haggling skills on vendors selling everything from cotton pyjamas and fans, to fake Adidas tracksuits and cheap watches. Around the corner you’ll find what might be the city’s most fragrant pho noodle soup at Pho 2000, after which you’ll be ready to head over the road to the Saigon Fine Arts Museum. Ho Chi Minh City is known for its elegant French colonial landmarks and this building, along with the General Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral, is one of the city’s most impressive.
Next you might consider having a cheap massage from one of the dozens of parlours around town. Maybe you’ll visit the War Remnants Museum for a sobering reminder of the brutal effects of the Vietnam War. Or, you may finally decide to give into the constant enquiries of the cyclo drivers and ride over to the chic boutiques of Mac Thi Buoi Street.
Whatever you choose, the perfect end to your Saigon day can be found at rooftop restaurant Secret Garden. Surrounded by string lights and potted plants, you’ll feast on spring rolls, garlic spinach, spicy tofu and Vietnamese 333 beer. Then all that’ll be left to do is head to The Rex hotel’s alfresco rooftop bar, an infamous ’70s gathering place for war correspondents, for a cheeky night cap as the city lights twinkle like stars below.