La Marguerite plies the waters of the Mekong. // © 2011 AMAWaterways
AmaWaterways’ program on the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam, launched in 2009, has proved so successful that the line is adding a new, larger ship in September.
The new 124-passenger AmaLotus will join the company’s La Marguerite in sailing seven-day cruises between Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The full 16-day Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong itinerary offers two nights in Hanoi, an overnight cruise onboard a traditional junk in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, three nights in Siem Reap and an overnight in historic Ho Chi Minh City all in addition to the river cruise. AmaLotus will be larger than La Marguerite (295 feet long, compared to 246 feet long) and will carry 124 passengers in 62 balcony cabins. Accommodations will include two suites and 10 junior suites.
President Rudi Schreiner said he was looking at the Mekong four years ago, mainly sailing on Pandaw Cruises, which relocated its ships from Myanmar. He had thought AmaWaterways might charter one of Pandaw’s vessels, but found that they were not comparable with AmaWaterways’ product.
“For one thing, instead of accessing the staterooms from a central hallway, you enter from outside, which eliminates the opportunity for balconies,” he said. “Our passengers expect the experience anywhere to be comparable to what we offer in Europe, so we started working with a Vietnamese partner. We first offered cruises on La Marguerite and, this year, we’re bringing in AmaLotus.”
Schreiner believes the Mekong presents a rare opportunity. He noted that there are very few navigable rivers in the world that provide interesting destinations for a seven-day cruise and have highly recognized cities to anchor them. The Mekong route has three such cities, each with high name recognition and very different character.
“The capital city, Phenom Penh, may be associated with the Vietnamese War, but it is a beautiful city, and Ho Chi Minh City is a fantastic place, similar to a big Western metropolis,” he added. “Hanoi has almost the same population, but it’s more like New Orleans, a more relaxed city. Siem Reap and the amazing temple complex of Angkor Wat are world famous, and there are beautiful villages along the Mekong on the way.”
There are limits to cruising on the Mekong, Schreiner said. In Phenom Penh, the Tonle River releases into the Tonle Lake, the center of Cambodia. When the rainy season comes in May and June, the Mekong rises and the lake fills. In September and October, the lake flows south, draining the area.
“By January or so, you cannot cruise into Tonle Lake,” he said. “At its highest, the Mekong is 25 feet deep. At its lowest, it’s less than two feet. So, we stop at the mouth and take people by motorcoach to Siem Reap, with three days to visit Angkor Wat. We also have overnights in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi at the Metropole Hotel — one of my favorites.”
Schreiner believes this region has a fantastic future.
“Look at the infrastructure on the Nile, 300 ships cruising the sites between Luxor and Aswan,” he added. “Vietnam and Cambodia is so culturally rich, it’s a tremendous experience. And all the main carriers offer airlift, either via Hong Kong or Korea. It’s not much different from Shanghai or Beijing.”
He describes the locals as extremely friendly.
“In the smaller villages on the delta, we are the attraction,” he said, “and the beautiful floating markets are a wonderful experience, too.”
AmaWaterways is working hard to implement the European system on the Mekong.
“The ships are beautiful, the food is good, and we offer dining from both cultures,” he noted. “At breakfast, for instance, there is a station for both eggs and pho — the very popular Vietnamese soup with rice noodles and, usually, chicken or beef — which is often eaten at breakfast.”
Other major river cruise lines have announced their own programs on the Mekong since AmaWaterways set up its program, but Schreiner sees more than sufficient demand for them all.
“As soon as we were out with our program, our competitors jumped on the bandwagon, but look at what is out there,” he said. “All three of the other lines are using Pandaw ships, which are quite small — the capacity totals 90 staterooms for Avalon, Uniworld and Viking combined. AmaLotus is just 62 cabins and La Marguerite has 48. So, I don’t think overcapacity is really an issue. I think we could use more space. With four of us marketing, it attracts a lot of attention.”