As an American who grew up watching the Vietnam War on the news each night, to find myself cruising down the Mekong River, drink in hand, on my own private balcony, was a bit of a surreal experience. I spent two weeks exploring Southeast Asia and seven days of it were on a wonderful luxury river cruise down the Mekong River aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaLotus. Called Vietnam, Cambodia & The Riches of the Mekong, the cruise was an all-inclusive, small group experience and I loved every minute of it.

Amalotus Amawaterways river cruise ship
The Amalotus anchored in the Mekong
Monks in Vietnam
Local residents feed the monks each day, as seen during one of our shore excursions in Vietnam

I’ve really fallen in love with all kinds of cruising, as it’s like checking into a fine hotel, that moves around to different exotic locations. This luxury river cruise provided that experience, having only to unpack once, having a group of staff who grew to know my every need, having wonderful scheduled meals available only steps from my cabin and finding myself with a different amazing location to visit each day.

FIsherman on the mekong
A typical scene from the cabin balcony while cruising in Vietnam

The cruise
We all met in Siem Reap, the Cambodian city best known as the home of the incredible Angkor Wat ruins. Some of the other cruisers had spent two days in Hanoi and three days in Siem Reap as part of AmaWaterway’s optional land portion. The first day was filled with information and getting acquainted to the ship and our fellow cruisers. We then proceeded down the river, stopping in several fascinating Cambodian villages, followed by two days in Phnom Penh. We continued down the river crossing the border into Vietnam and again exploring more cities and villages along the way. Two more nights were spent in Vietnam, exploring as we went, until arriving in our final destination, Ho Chi Minh City, locally still known as Saigon. Some cruisers continued onto an optional land extension in Saigon.

Cathedral Mekong Cai Be
The cathedral along the Mekong in Cai Be, Vietnam

Life onboard the AmaLotus
As someone who has taken my share of cruises on large cruise lines like Royal Caribbean and Carnival, the first thing I noticed immediately upon boarding was the quality of the ship’s construction. Unlike the mysterious man-made materials that make up the average cruise ship, the AmaLotus was beautifully finished with rich, exotic woods, and solid brass accents. The cabins and the cabinetry and moldings were all beautifully crafted in real wood. The ship, built in 2011, has 62 staterooms for 124 passengers, our cruise had only 40 passengers, divided into two groups of twenty for tours.

Shipboard briefing on AmaWaterways
Each day, we had a briefing or lecture in the lounge about the next day’s activities and itinerary
Amawaterways river cruise shore excursion
Shore excursions were sometimes done in small launches, that took us from the ship to the shore
Cambodian dancers on Amawaterways
Shipboard entertainment varied each night, this was a group of local students performing traditional Cambodian dance

Our cabin (226 square feet) was spacious, for a cruise ship, with a very large bathroom. There was a balcony, with two chairs and a table, which soon became a great place to watch the world go by. There was a 42″ flat screen TV with a DVD player (the front desk had a large catalog of DVDs). Yes, we did watch Apocalypse Now (and the making of documentary) as we floated down the Mekong River in Vietnam. The cabin had a desk and chair next to a large window, which was next to the sliding doors leading to the balcony. There was a dresser for clothes storage and a large closet, along with an individually controlled air conditioner. The room had a small refrigerator and fresh bottled water was provided daily and automatically replenished during the day.

Enjoying a river cruise
Relaxing on the ship and watching the world float by

Elsewhere on-board there was a small gym, with dramatic floor to ceiling windows allowing me to jog on the treadmill as the jungles of Southeast Asia flowed by. There was a large dining room on one deck, with several small shops and massage rooms. Above that, there was a large lounge, with a bar at one end and a dance floor and stage area. There were comfortable chairs and tables and this was also the WiFi area of the ship. Next to the lounge was a small library with six computer workstations and a nice little library of books, including some great travel and history books on Vietnam and Cambodia. In the center of the ship was the front desk. Outside, there was a swimming pool, which was a lot of fun to use as we cruised down the river. There was another bar and sundeck outside as well. The whole ship had the feel, quality and service of a luxury boutique hotel.

Angkor Wat
The cruise started in Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat

AmaLotus cruise ship pool
The AmaLotus had a large swimming pool on the top deck

One of the big surprises on the cruise was the quality of the food. Not just certain meals or dishes, everything was excellent. There was a wide range of both Western and local specialties always available. Breakfast and lunch were served buffet style, with dinner served more formally. The service and atmosphere was upscale, but not stuffy. With only 40 other guests, it was never crowded, nor slow. Beer and wine, all you can drink, was included with lunch and dinner and they had a good selection. Wines changed each day with the meal choices. House brand spirits and soft drinks were also included (all day). Dining was open seating in the spacious dining room, with the small group there was always a place to sit.

Excursions were usually offered in the morning and afternoon. We would take a smaller launch boat to the shore and then either walk around, or in some cases use a more exotic form of transit. In one Cambodian village we rode in oxcarts and several cities in Vietnam we rode around in bicycle rickshaws.

Amawaterways shore excursion
During one shore excursion, we visited a small candy factory in Cambodia

Everything was well organized and wonderfully planned to really allow us to experience the local countryside. The ability to visit small towns and villages along the river, remote places not usually visited by tourists, made it a very special experience. As it was a small group of only twenty, we really were able to get off the beaten track and explore. Some of my favorite memories of the trip are walking down the small paths or driving down little streets and meeting and interacting with local people. Tours and the whole cruise were led by one guide / tour manager in Cambodia and another guide when we were in Vietnam, each local experts.

Oudong Cambodia Buddhist
An early shore excursion was to the Budhist monastery in Oudong, Cambodia
Street vendor seen during Amawaterways shore excursion
I found the people in Cambodia and Vietnam welcoming and friendly
Vietnam musicians
Musicians along the Mekong in Sa Dec, Vietnam

I was on the AmaWaterways Vietnam, Cambodia & The Riches of the Mekong cruise aboard the AmaLotus, from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Saigon, Vietnam. For 2016 sailings, the cruise-only portion for the seven-night trip starts at $2,299 per person, double occupancy. This is for a mid-summer sailing when the weather is quite hot. December departure prices start at $2,999 per person, based on double occupancy.

(This is a an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Yahoo! Travel in 2012)

Follow luxury travel writer Freddy Sherman on Twitter – @luxuryfred