There is no doubt I’m far from home – in sultry Cambodia, a deeply Buddhist land of time-honored tradition and ancient superstition.
I’m on a 15-day river cruisetour: a perfect way to delve deep into a culture because a river is often a country’s lifeblood, such as Southeast Asia’s Mekong, along which more than 60 million people depend on the river for food, water and transportation. (Mekong means “Mother River.”)
Our trip begins in Hanoi, Vietnam where we explore the capital city, much changed since the Vietnam War (though dark memories come alive during a tour of the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where U.S. soldiers were held and tortured).
Opening to the West in 1994, Vietnam has vaulted onto the world stage as one of Southeast Asia’s “Little Tiger” economies.
The cacophonous Old Quarter reveals the juxtaposition between old and new: a glass storefront reveals chic minimalist furniture; women burdened by shoulder yokes carry vegetables to market.
We fly the next day to Angkor, Cambodia, ancient capital of the great Khmer Empire, which ruled much of Southeast Asia for six centuries, until the 1400s.
A glorious archaeological feat remains: some 70 stone temples, tombs and intricately carved ruins amid dense, green forests and rice paddies.
Angkor leaves travelers swooning – from the vast Angkor Wat complex, which we enter on the backs of elephants to the gigantic smiling faces of the Bayon temple to magical Ta Prohm, where mammoth tree roots seem to strangle sacred ruins.
After three days exploring Angkor, we arrive at the river city of Kampong Cham to board the three-deck, 30-cabin, teak River Saigon, our home for seven days.
Each day features forays ashore, where we walk on dirt roads in villages, past stilt houses surrounded by mango trees and chickens pecking in the dust, through markets where women sell everything from eggs and cabbage to passion fruit and pigs’ heads – all laid out before them on blankets or wooden tables.
Between ship activities and shore visits, we enjoy passing views of river life and regional natural beauty.
We visit a local school and during one trip ashore, I spend time at a makeshift café where a family visits with me. None speak English, but between pen and paper we share names and ages, and using the iPhone, I teach curious children to use the camera and make a connection – and a memory I treasure.
Crossing into Vietnam, the waterway crowds with rice barges, sampans (fishing canoes) and colorful floating markets. These are ancient souks of the Mekong, where yams, coconuts and other produce dangle from the sampans’ upright staffs, advertising wares to passing buyers, who paddle out on skiffs.
Stilt homes line the banks, where families bathe, wash dishes and swim.
After a night in Ho Chi Minh City, we drive to Cu Chi – and explore the immense network of tunnels the Viet Cong used as a base of operations during the war.
We meet a former Viet Cong soldier, now in his 60s, who lived and fought in the tunnels and an American doctor who was stationed nearby during the war – says: “I’d like to shake his hand.”
The two ex-soldiers grasp hands, and embrace. The moment is like the river: quiet, moving, unforgettable.
For an expanded story about Mekong river cruises, visit AAA.com/Go.
As the 15-day cruisetour unfolds, I’ll encounter experiences both dazzling in their grandeur and unforgettable for their intimacy: from gazing at the massive, centuries-old stone faces in the temples of Angkor to enjoying a spontaneous welcome into a villager’s home – perched high on stilts for the rainy season.