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With its mystical temples, floating water villages and lush tropical landscape, the Lower Mekong River that flows through Vietnam and Cambodia is an ideal itinerary for those who've never been to Southeast Asia.
The Lower Mekong is easier to navigate than its northern counterpart, despite some seasonal issues with water levels. Although Vietnam and Cambodia still suffer great postwar impoverishment, especially in rural areas, a significant rise in tourism over the past 10 years has prompted more investments in infrastructure and business in the cities found on Upper Mekong itineraries.
Even with its advantages, the Lower Mekong River is not an itinerary that one can just book on a whim; it requires extensive planning and preparation, and this article offers everything you'll need to know.
Is it safe to visit? The answer is yes. Although it might not seem like the Vietnam War and genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime happened that long ago, the two countries have overcome their political unrest and continue to see growth in tourism, including the cruise sector.
War history is, inevitably, a focus of Lower Mekong River cruise tours. In fact, it's common to see American Vietnam War veterans sailing the itinerary for closure. Despite Vietnam's and Cambodia's grizzly pasts, and the poverty and suffering that continue today, locals are positive, perseverant and spiritual, and they welcome the chance to share their stories with visitors.
Unknown to most Westerners, the Red River (Song Hong in Vietnamese) is considered the historic and economic lifeblood of Northern Vietnam. Starting in Southwest China, the river and its tributaries flow past both tranquil rice paddies and pulsing urban areas, connecting the capital of Hanoi to iconic Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin.
And, for river cruisers who've already sailed the popular Mekong in Southern Vietnam and Cambodia, the Yangtze in China or the Irrawaddy in Myanmar (Burma), a journey along the Red River offers a unique insight into a still-rural but rapidly developing Southeast Asian country.
The river is so new to cruising that only one line is currently offering sailings. Pandaw, a river cruise line that specializes in Southeast Asia, was looking for an alternative to the increasingly crowded and competitive Mekong. So in 2015, it moved one of its shallow-draft vessels, the 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw, and launched what remains the only commercial cruise along the Red River. Though Pandaw's all-inclusive, 10-night trips are offered year-round, itineraries vary by season according to water levels, which fluctuate dramatically depending on rainfall.
Founded in 1984, the U.K.-based tour operator Riviera Travel has become the country's largest provider of European river cruises with a fleet of 12 modern vessels sailing on the Danube, Main, Moselle, Rhine, Rhone, Saone, Seine and Douro. It also charters ships on the Nile, Mekong, Ganges and Yangtze. Offering value-for-money itineraries, Riviera now sells its cruises in the U.S. and Australia.
Here are 10 reasons to love Riviera Travel for a river cruise -- and some that might mean it's not the company for you.