CRUISE REVIEW: The Mekong Jewel, Lotus Cruises

The Mekong Jewel set sail on its inaugural voyage on 7 January, from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh and is now – unquestionably – the most luxurious family-owned cruise ship on the Mekong.

The Mekong Jewel set sail on its inaugural voyage on 7 January, from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh and is now – unquestionably – the most luxurious family-owned cruise ship on the Mekong.

I state that with confidence because it’s the second boutique vessel built by Lotus Cruises, the only Mekong cruise line to be owned/operated by a local Mekong family.

Their parent company is the largest family-owned shipbuilding company in communist Vietnam, mainly building tugs and ocean supply vessels. But in 2014 they branched out to launch their first “boutique” cruise ship, the $US10 million Mekong Navigator, keen to show their local knowledge of a river they’ve loved since childhood.

 

The Mekong Jewel

Lotus Cruises

The Jewel is 10 metres longer than the Navigator, with a bigger draught (1.9m), and more crew (44 compared to 40), but an identical number of 34 cabins and the same maximum 68 passengers – giving it one of the best crew-passenger ratios on the Mekong.

The two ships are clearly sisters. Each deck is protected by the kind of metal filigree that once adorned upper-class French colonial homes in Indochina.

But the Mekong Jewel is more sparkly than the Navigator. (There are too many chandeliers and imperial French light fittings for my taste – but every female guest I consulted loved them.)

Regardless, there’s no disputing the Jewel suites are more spacious than its older sister’s (including ceiling height).

Lotus Cruises

The Jewel also boasts more facilities: a 10 metre long jet pool (the biggest on the Mekong); infrared sauna and steam room; lift (the first on the Mekong); hair salon and nail bar; extended sun deck; and a second alfresco dining area, Jade Spirit, for those wishing a change from the main Pearl dining hall.

Obviously, our mainly European media group could not cruise on the still-to-be-launched Jewel, let alone the Muse.

However, we did experience the Lotus Cruises concept on the Navigator for a four-day voyage up the Mekong from My Tho in Vietnam to Phnom Penh. Most fellow passengers were travel agents or operators – including Australian travel agents who were on board because they can now book clients on Lotus Cruises directly.

Australians have made up 10-15 percent of the Mekong Navigator’s annual clientele – but probably don’t recognise the name Lotus Cruises because they booked a chartered cruise marketed via Uniworld or Scenic.

 

So what can Australian travel agents expect from a Lotus Cruises’ voyage?

Lotus Cruises

What makes it different from other Mekong cruises, of every standard, appealing to every market?

Firstly, it’s run, owned and operated by locals. Its ships are small, elite and quintessentially Indochine.

Secondly, the cuisine is exemplary. Here are the chef’s recommendations from the a la carte menu on a typical night. Vegetable tempura, followed by Tom Khaa Gai (traditional Thai chicken coconut soup); Mekong Island Curry (vegetables simmered in a yellow curry) and crispy Spring rolls filled with apple strudel for dessert. Of course, there’s a full vegetarian chef’s choice alternative.

The service is superb (passengers soon get to know most members of staff by name).

But you may well also meet Chi Vu, Lotus’s managing director.

She’ll be checking everything onboard reaches the family’s five-star expectations. Or meeting Mekong villagers to discover new onshore excursions for next year.

 

The Mekong Muse

Lotus Cruises

Last November the family announced a third vessel, Mekong Muse, a 14-cabin mini ship specifically designed for the narrower lengths of the upper Mekong in Laos – the first five-star ship on this beautiful stretch of one of the world’s most culturally important rivers.

Chi Vu, Lotus’s managing director and daughter of the company’s founder, described the Mekong Muse as “a game-changer” for Laos tourism since no existing vessel offers the same level of luxury.

Like its sister ships, Chi Vu explains, the Mekong Muse is designed to echo the elegance and grandeur of the colonial Indochine era, when Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were ruled from Paris.

Its interiors – designed by My-Huynh, wife of Chi’s older brother An Vu, who now runs the family shipbuilding business – combine a subtle mix of French and local decor inspired by the rich cultural heritage of Laos.

Ports of call will include the elegant modern capital of Vientiane; Wat Chanthaboury known for its enormous seated Buddha; the UNESCO heritage-listed ancient capital of Laos Luang Prabang – plus more everyday adventures such as riverside markets, waterfalls, gardens and sites known for abundant Mekong wildlife.

 

The Cabins & Facilities

Lotus Cruises

The Mekong Muse, Chi Vu continues, will offer three suite types. Two Grand suites, at 30 sq metres, will be the largest on the upper Mekong river with separate seating areas, marble bathrooms, private terraces with spa baths – plus butler service.

Six Signature and six Vista suites each have French balconies and marble bathrooms.

For those who prefer watching the river views from air-conditioned comfort, the Mekong Muse features a floor-to-ceiling glass observation deck with a bar in addition to the sun deck with shady canopies, sunbeds, herb garden and jogging track.

Other facilities include an upmarket spa, library and Lotus’s restaurant serving Indochinese food with a French twist.

KarryOn was invited on the first media group to tour the almost-finished Mekong Jewel (the library had no books and the gym equipment still needed to be installed when we inspected it last week at the company’s shipbuilding base in Saigon).

 

The Future

Lotus Cruises

Beginning in October 2021, the Mekong Muse will offer 10-night itineraries, both upstream and downstream, between Vientiane and Chiang Saen – as well as five-night options (between Vientiane and Luang Prabang or Chiang Saen and Luang Prabang) on certain dates.

 

The Essentials

Lotus Cruises

Included: All meals, guided excursions, wifi, onboard cultural activities, and most alcoholic drinks.

Mekong Muse prices from US$3880 for the 10-night itinerary and US$2520 for 5-nights.

Mekong Navigator prices from US$777 for the 4-nights, and US$1619 for 7-nights between My Tho (transfer from Ho Chi Minh City) and Kampong Ban (transfer to Siem Reap).

Mekong Jewel prices from US$2231 for 7 nights Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap (see above).

Specials: Selected cruises offer no single supplement or second suite free for families with children aged 5-15.

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