Aqua Expeditions opens up the traditions of the Mekong River.
It is still early morning, but the crowd in Cái Bè, Vietnam, already appears to be winding down for the day. Fishermen recline in their vessels, shading themselves from the climbing sun and swinging in makeshift hammocks. Women in bamboo hats helm boats filled with bananas, pineapples, dumplings, and coconuts while taking inventory of their earnings from the morning market. The floating village, tucked into the southern tip of the Mekong River, gently sways in a synchronized wave.
A vital lifeline running through the Asian continent, the Mekong River winds from the Tibetan Plateau in the north to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region in the south. The chocolate milk–colored waterway has served as a commercial and social thoroughfare for thousands of years, a fact reflected in remote villages where traditional red and blue boats bob next to floating gas stations and waterfront souvenir shops. More recently—as of late last year—a new and thoroughly modern vessel is adding to the mix on the river, promising to open up the marvels of the Mekong for luxury-minded travelers.
Launched in October, the 20-suite Aqua Mekong is the third riverboat from the Singapore-based Aqua Expeditions, whose other two vessels ply the Peruvian Amazon. A stark contrast to the barnacled boats with which it shares the river, Aqua Mekong is a sleek and stunning cruiser made of black steel and polished wood. Suites feature floor-to-ceiling windows and spacious slate bathrooms, while public areas include a sundeck, a plunge pool, a spa, a game room, and a screening room. In the restaurant, the Michelin-starred chef David Thompson—known for his Nahm restaurant in Bangkok—serves a rotation of regional cuisines, from flatbread and risotto to vegetable dumplings and spicy pho.
Aqua Mekong travels from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and back, with four- and seven-night itineraries priced from about $4,000 per person. Curated excursions along the way focus on destinations and experiences unique to this corner of Southeast Asia. “I wanted authenticity,” says Francesco Galli Zugaro, founder and CEO of Aqua Expeditions. “We visit places only visited by a select few. It is all about life on the water.”
Galli Zugaro explored the Mekong and its tributaries for several weeks during the 10 months that Aqua Mekong was under construction, selecting traditional Khmer villages, ancient Buddhist temples, and nature reserves for the cruises’ daily excursions by foot, bicycle, tuk-tuk, and skiff. While the custom-designed skiffs provide an opportunity to experience the river like a local—with trips to Cái Bè and several other villages along the route—the two-wheeled expeditions prove the most immersive.
In the remote Cambodian village of Preah Prosop, Aqua Mekong’s passengers pedal through neon stretches of grass dotted with hot-pink lotus blossoms to another marketplace, this one planted firmly on land. Piles of fish and bags of rice spill over next to stalls selling coconut milk, chilies, and lemon grass, while rom kbach music blares in the background. Past the village, the lightly paved road turns to dirt, leading to a jungle-shrouded Buddhist temple. Dancing apsaras, gilded lions, and protective garudas wedge into every cornice and cranny of its magnificent façade, behind which the mighty Mekong surges on.
Aqua Expeditions, 866.603.3687, aquaexpeditions.com