Belinda Henley discovers the beauty of a delta sunset on a fascinating voyage along one of the world's great rivers.

I'd read about the spectacular sunsets over the Mekong River, but nothing could have prepared me for the fiery red, pink and burnt-orange beauty I was lucky enough to witness setting over this famous waterway.

It was our final night on board the magnificent Aqua Mekong, and as a farewell the crew had organised cocktails and a selection of "local" snacks — deep-fried tarantula and grasshopper — on the ship's observation deck.

With a selection of Kiwi music playing — yes, they tailor the music playlists to their guests — we watched the sun go down and reflected on three extraordinary days travelling on Southeast Asia's longest river.

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From our first glimpse of the ship docked in Phnom Penh, we knew we were in for a special adventure. The Aqua Mekong looks nothing like a conventional cruise ship. Designed by Saigon-based architects, the 62.4m ship has a matte-black hull and has been built entirely from local sustainable materials and natural fibres.

With a distinct Indochine aesthetic, the boat is a nod to the many cultures and ancient traditions found along this river.

The Aqua Mekong has been operating between Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia for four years, offering three, four- or seven-night itineraries. It has a capacity for up to 40 guests in 20 cabins on two levels. It also claims to be the only 5-star hotel on the Mekong.

We are met dockside by our host for the next three days, cruise director Nakey, and ushered on board where we are greeted by the entire crew of 31. Our first real look at the boat and its stunning interior is from the top-floor lounge. This spacious room has floor-to-ceiling windows, a well-stocked bar, local artwork and plenty of comfy couches. It's every bit as appealing and luxurious as a 5-star hotel on land.

Nakey serves us ice-cold watermelon juice and snacks prepared by the chef. We chat like old friends; he has been on the boat since it first launched four years ago. It's clear the wonderful team will be a big part of our experience. Nakey also introduces Hoeum, our Cambodian guide; we will meet our Vietnamese guide Sonny once we cross the border into Vietnam.

Next, we have a tour of the ship — from the cinema to the plunge pool on the back deck and the observation deck, home to meditation at sunrise and cocktails and sundown.

There is also a gym, spa and library. Our room is on the lower deck, with the river so close you feel you could reach out and touch it.

All the cabins are 30sq m, with floor to ceiling windows to make the most of the constantly changing view. There are a 10 interconnecting suites, perfect for families and with their own private balcony. None of the cabins have keys (although you can request one) Nakey says "there is no need and we want everyone on board to feel like family".

Former All Black Craig Innes eating a spider on a river cruise along the Mekong. Photo / Belinda Henley
Former All Black Craig Innes eating a spider on a river cruise along the Mekong. Photo / Belinda Henley

Nakey has told us there are only six guests on this three-night cruise, which means there is a generous ratio of five staff to each guest. The others are a trio from Mexico City (including a former Mexican ambassador) and an Australian tour operator. We are, apparently, the first Kiwis they have had on the boat.

We are asked to be back in the lounge by 5pm for our briefing. There is a run through on how the next three days will unfold and a performance from a local Cambodian dance group. With our colourful entertainers safely back on shore, the boat heads off and we head to our first meal in the dining room. With candles lit, white table cloths and the finest glassware and crockery, we could be eating in a top restaurant anywhere in the world.

Life on the busy Mekong Delta drifts past as we enjoy the fresh and delicious food, full of the local flavours of lemongrass, ginger, chilli and basil. The menu is overseen by one of Southeast Asia's top chefs, David Thompson. Three meals a day are served with local craft beer (Angkor was our favourite) or a good selection of wines. Though most of the meals we eat are Vietnamese or Asian in origin, there is a Western menu for those with less-adventurous tastes.

One of the culinary highlights is a lunchtime offering of soups from different regions, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. The Vietnamese pho and Thai laksa — they are made right in front of us and both are superb.

Pulling the curtains on our first morning to reveal an uninterrupted view of the Mekong is very special.

More than 17 million people live on and around the delta and there is a constant, changing landscape to take in.

Don't be put off by the murky nature of the river. Like the Amazon, the colour is due to the sediment in the bottom of the river. It is in fact quite clean, and locals still bathe and do their washing in it.

Each day two excursions are offered, heading away from the Aqua Mekong on one of the four "skiffs", that allow passengers to access more remote stretches of water and villages.

Our first is to the village of Chau Doc and the nearby Sam Mountain, home to a stunning Buddhist temple. We explore the temple and learn about the Vietnamese interpretation of Buddhism. Sonny says he's not a "real" Buddhist but he believes in the Buddhist philosophy, a sentiment which is repeated throughout our travels.

We head back down into the village to explore the local markets — a good tip from our guide — go in the morning before the smell of fresh fish and meat becomes overpowering. A rickshaw takes us back to the skiff and the boat.

Our afternoon excursion is a 17km bike ride through small villages where tourists seem to be a novelty. A chorus of "hellos" from eager children greets us as they run out to the road to watch our passing convoy. We cycle down winding roads and paths, over bridges and across rice paddy fields, with the heady scent of frangipani and mango trees. We end up at the home of a family where we indulge in local delicacies including dried fish, rice wine and tropical fruit including the incredibly stinky durian. "It smells like hell but tastes like heaven," Sonny promises. I'm not convinced.

None of our encounters with the families living in these tiny riverside villages feel forced or staged for tourists; instead we get a genuine expression of their culture, one they are keen to share with these sweaty, red-faced, bike helmet-wearing foreigners.

One afternoon we opt to sit out the excursion to make the most of all that is on offer on board. Nakey takes us on a tour below deck to see where the crew sleep, eat and relax as well as the engine room and the bridge.

He says looking after their loyal crew is vital. Many have been there since the boat launched and they pride themselves on treating their staff well.

"We know that if we are going to offer our guests a great experience, having a happy crew is very important."

The rest of the afternoon is spent lying on the top deck on the loungers, watching the busy world float by and exchanging travel stories with our new friends. Before dinner we are treated to an aromatherapy massage in the spa where I fall deeply asleep.

The on-board spa has a range of Western and more traditional treatments including a "Khmer" massage.

The aroma of the essential oils they use drifts through the entire boat.

Our final night is spent sunset watching, eating and drinking and attempting to take part in a traditional Cambodian dance.

The following day we are farewelled by the entire crew. We have become a tight little unit over three days and none of us want to leave. A trip aboard the Aqua Mekong is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but one I hope dearly to repeat.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

For information on cruising aboard the Aqua Mekong, go to bonvoyage.co.nz.

ONLINE
aquaexpeditions.com