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Why Asia is best for river cruising

Author: Sarah Holt

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Thanks to a wave of new ship launches, Asia is being dubbed the ‘hot ticket’ for river cruising as 2023 approaches. Sarah Holt reports.

As should be expected from the earth’s largest continent, Asia is veined with rivers. Navigable waterways course through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, India and China and cruises in this region introduce passengers to some of the world’s most vital places.

This is a land of livewire cities, unplumbed jungles and countrysides covered in a confetti of temples and shrines.

Sadly, the Asian river cruise market was one of the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and cruise lines, on the whole, have been shy about resuming full operations in the region.

However, a wave of new and upcoming ship launches and new product offerings means that the wind is well and truly back in the market’s sails as we move towards the end of 2022 and into 2023.

“2022 has been the year of European travel as guests found their feet and eased back into international travel,” APT and Travelmarvel head of sales and business development Brad Bennetts, explains. “But the hot ticket for 2023 is Asia, with customers visibly setting their sights on longer haul destinations next year.”

James Talbot, sales and reservations manager at Pandaw, adds: “Demand for river cruising in Asia is strong. Both last-minute demand for late 2022, as well as advance bookings for 2023/24, are very good as guests look to find unique and memorable experiences post-pandemic that Asia can offer in abundance.”

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The big five

The Lower and Upper Mekong, Yangtze, Brahmaputra and Ganges are the five main rivers and river segments that Asian cruise itineraries tend to focus on.

The Irrawaddy and Chindwin used to feature in the line-up, too, but the unrest in Burma means that these sailings are on hold for the time being.

Itineraries on the Lower Mekong vary, but Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi – and vice versa – are common options.

Whichever itinerary passengers choose here, they won’t be on the ship the entire time. Land transportation, short flights and hotel stays are sprinkled into and around trips to ensure that cruise passengers get to make the most of the sights that surround the Mekong.

For example, due to the unpredictability of the water levels of Tonlé Sap Lake –
the area of the Mekong that leads up to Siem Reap – many itineraries include a coach transfer to Siem Reap from Kampong Chhnang.

Itineraries that feature time in Hanoi, meanwhile, will include a hotel stay in the city and a flight before or after a river cruise.

Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is the ideal introduction to Vietnam. Credit: Shutterstock

In August 2022, CroisiEurope became the first river cruise company to resume operations on the Lower Mekong and the line now has five small ships operating eight-night itineraries between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap.

The line’s UK sales director John Fair says: “Our Mekong cruises allow guests to experience the vibrancy, colours, sights and smells of two fascinating countries – Cambodia and Vietnam – as they visit the temples of Angkor, the floating villages on Tonlé Sap Lake and charming Phnom Penh, as well as cruising along the Cho Gao Canal.

A cruise on the Mekong is the perfect way to discover this region as guests can enjoy all the comfort of a river cruise ship with great food and service but they can also immerse themselves in the culturally rich excursions on offer.”

Cruises on the Upper Mekong are a different kettle of fish. Passengers usually stay on their ship the whole time as it bobs from Vientiane, the capital of Laos, to Chiang Saen, passing tribal villages, waterfall ribboned jungles, and sights like Luang Prabang – a UNESCO recognised city of temples, monasteries and a daily sunrise procession of monks who walk through the streets accepting alms.

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Dreamy karst landscapes come as standard on a cruise along China's Yangtze River. Credit: Shutterstock

On the Yangtze, short river cruises tend to be the filling in a bigger land tour sandwich. Tauck, for example, offers a three-night Yangtze river cruise as part of its 16-day China, the Yangtze and Hong Kong trip.

The cruise, on the Yangtze Explorer, sails from Chongqing to Yichang, passing through the Three Gorges, while the larger itinerary includes explorations of Beijing, Xi’an, Guilin, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Brahmaputra cruises, meanwhile, introduce passengers to the northeast corner of India. Popular itineraries run round-trip from Guwahati or from Guwahati to Jorhat. Or there are longer cruises that combine time on the Brahmaputra with time on the Ganges.

For example, when Pandaw resumes its Brahmaputra sailings in November 2023, it will offer a 14-night Ganges and Brahmaputra itinerary that sails round-trip from Kolkata on the Ganges before flying passengers to Guwahati for a round-trip cruise on the Brahmaputra. Cruises on the Ganges alone, meanwhile, usually sail round-trip from Kolkata.

However, some cruise lines offer trips that include land tours before and/or after the cruise.

Mumbai is full of wonder. Credit: Shutterstock

Avalon Waterways has a varied selection of these tour/cruise combos. The company’s Colorful India & the Ganges River with Southern India, Varanasi & Kathmandu is the stuff of bucket lists.

Guests begin their trip in Cochin in southern India before flying to Mumbai, Varanasi and Delhi, visiting Agra and Jaipur, then flying to Kolkata for the cruise on the Ganges Voyager. The experience ends with a flight to Kathmandu in Nepal.

Beyond the big five, some cruise lines offer cruises along the Red and Black rivers in northern Vietnam. These trips usually begin or end with time sailing around the UNESCO-listed Halong Bay, where thousands of jungle-matted limestone rocks spear out of the water like tropical icebergs.

Cruising the river affords plenty of splendid views of the countryside. Credit: Shutterstock

Boosting capacity

A parade of new ships has already started to make its way onto the waterways of Asia. September saw the launch of the 80-passenger Viking Saigon on the Mekong. Featuring a combination of French balcony and veranda staterooms and suites, the ship is also home to a sky bar, a lounge bar with floor-to-ceiling windows, a spa, a library and a panoramic restaurant.

The ship will sail the 14-night Magnificent Mekong itinerary between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that features stops in spots like Siem Reap, Kampong Cham and Phnom Penh.

In January 2023, APT’s new Mekong Serenity will make its Mekong debut. The 88-passenger ship has been custom built for APT, and it features a sleek-looking sun deck with a swimming pool, a spa and wellness centre, and two restaurants, including an Indochine eatery where guests can indulge in five-course Vietnamese meals.

The vessel will sail two itineraries between January and March and July and December, including the 14-night Vietnam and Cambodia Highlights sailing.

Vietnam has captivating landscapes. Credit: Shutterstock

APT’s sister brand Travelmarvel will also welcome a new vessel to its fleet in 2023. Formerly sailing for APT, the RV Apsara is an all-balcony all-suite ship with room for 108 passengers. Facilities on board include a spa, the Mekong restaurant and the Saigon Lounge & Bar.

The ship will sail four itineraries including the 14-night Essential Vietnam and Cambodia, which sails from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap.

In mid-2023, Pandaw’s new ship RV Song Hong will join its sister ship the RV Angkor Pandaw on Vietnam’s Red and Black River network. The vessel will feature just 10 staterooms, which Pandaw says will be bigger than their standard-sized rooms.

Wendy Wu’s Victoria Mekong is also relatively new to the Mekong. Said to be one of the greenest ships on the river, it’s equipped with solar panels and a freshwater generator that processes river water into drinkable water. The ship will sail four-night upstream itineraries and three-night downstream cruises from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh and vice versa.

Most travellers come to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, the crowning glory of the Khmer Empire. Credit: Shutterstock

New experiences

As part of its commitment to giving back to local communities, Scenic has developed a range of new excursions for passengers.

These include a Scenic Freechoice Excursion – which is included in the price of a cruise – called Cows for Cambodia.

Available in Siem Reap, this excursion introduces passengers to the work of Cows for Cambodia – a charitable organisation and self-proclaimed ‘cow bank’ that loans local families pregnant cows to look after and gifts them the calf when it’s born.

“The guests who enjoy a Mekong river cruise the most are those who get involved with all of the activities, including trying different forms of transport, food and interactive activities with the locals,” explains Scenic journey designer Adam Burke.

“They may sometimes feel a little out of their comfort zone, particularly around the traffic, but if they have a try, taste and attempt everything offered, they will surprise themselves.”

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