Ahead of the luxury river-cruise Aqua Mekong's launch in September, Aqua Expeditions Founder and CEO Francesco Galli Zugaro, talks to us about his experience of building a cruise ship in an unfamiliar land and what's in store for those embarking on this incredible journey.
Following on from your Amazon river-cruise in Peru, why did you choose the Mekong as the next setting for Aqua Expeditions?
The River reminded me of the Peruvian Amazon river stretch, and I almost regard Angkor Watt as the Machu Picchu of Southeast Asia. The setting along the Mekong is very similar to the Amazon cruises, and both Angkor Watt and Saigon are perfect jumping off points for guests.
However, there are some differences, the crucial one being that Aqua Mekong will be a more of a cultural cruise than a wildlife cruise. Vietnam and Cambodia are both great destinations, allowing guests to be awed by the culture, history and natural wonders of Indochina.
What makes the Mekong such an alluring destination to experience?
As the longest river in Southeast Asia, and the twelfth longest on Earth, the Mekong stretches from the icy Tibetan Plateau to the southeast, meandering through Laos and Thailand to the equatorial flood plains of Cambodia and Vietnam, before finally flowing into the South China Sea.
It also forms the international border between Myanmar and Laos, as well as Laos and Thailand. Two thousand years of human history flow along the Mekong River. It's said that the rise and fall of the great Khmer civilization that built Angkor Wat was inextricably linked to the Mekong's shifting tides.
Today, around 60 million people live, work and play on the Mekong. The river is a hub for Vietnamese culture. From floating markets selling fish, coconut candy, tropical fruit and flowers to the bee farms that line the river, the Mekong throbs from before sunrise to after dark with activity.
What experience can guests expect?
A truly personalized, enriching and unique life-on-the-river experience, on board a five-star floating boutique hotel. Our itineraries have been customized to allow guests to get up close to life on the river and experience first-hand the colorful and varied cultures, religions and timeless traditions.
After the excursions each day, guests are able to return to an elegant river facing suite on the floating sanctuary, Aqua Mekong, and enjoy the comforts of the ship, like the plunge pool, indoor and outdoor bar, observation deck and gym, private screening room, games room, library, and last but not least, the spa.
What type of traveller does the cruise appeal to?
Our cruises appeal to travelers who are adventurous, but at the same time want to immerse themselves into the local culture without sacrificing creature comfort.
Tell us about the food onboard.
Executive Chef David Thompson will be taking care of the menu on board. David has just been named a top ranked chef in The World's 50 Best Restaurants awards.
On Aqua Mekong, David will expand his adventurous palate and incorporate influences from throughout Southeast Asia. We expect to see dishes combining the culinary traditions of Mekong River with the freshest ingredients like Khmer Kampot Pepper, Mekong River Prawns, and for our most intrepid guests, grilled Battambang Snake.
What's your personal experience of traveling along the Mekong?
My favourite moments have been experiencing the remote villages on the Tonle Sap. Being the first ship on the Mekong with our own private skiffs, guests can venture deeper into the tributaries of the river, away from the crowds and closer to life on the river.
The interaction with the locals, meeting the monks in the temples along the river, and learning about the history and culture help to enrich the whole unique experience. I always appreciate the contrast between the bustling life of the Vietnamese riverside and the relaxed rural environment in Cambodia.
What wildlife can people expect to see?
One of the excursions is a journey through the Tra Su Cajuput forest, where we go deep into the acacia flooded forest under dense tree canopy. The 845-hectare preserve has 70 bird species, including the rare painted stork and Oriental darter, as well as bats, snakes and endangered turtles. The flora here is equally abundant with many medicinal herbs of great value in traditional Vietnamese medicine.
On the Tonle Sap Lake, the 22,000-hectare Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve is one of the largest freshwater bodies in Asia and the last refuge in Southeast Asia for large waterbirds like the spot-billed pelicans, milky stork, black-headed ibis and the elusive masked finfoot.
How can guests experience local culture along the river?
On the on or off-shore excursions along this fascinating river, traveling deep into its remote tributaries, guests can venture into the flooded emerald forests, bamboo stilted villages and remote Buddhist monasteries, to learn about the history and ecosystem of this important Southeast Asian waterway.
What excursions will be on offer?
Sailing on one of the world's greatest rivers, guests will be offered unparalleled access to culture and nature, while also enjoying private moments away from the Mekong's bustling life.
Guests can visit the bustling floating market in Cai Be, admire the French colonial architecture in Sa Dec with a visit to the colonial house once occupied by French writer Marguerite Duras, see traditional craftspeople at work in the silversmith and bronze village in Koh Chen and witness the entire process of traditional silk weaving near Prek Bongkong.
Because of the exclusive nature of our shore excursions, guests can also enjoy private audiences with village monks at the Moat Kla's Buddhist temple and Long Son Tu Temple.
How is Aqua Expeditions eco-friendly and socially conscious?
Sustainable eco-tourism, as Aqua Expeditions pioneered on the Peruvian stretch of the Amazon, will play a critical role in preserving the rich but precarious cultural traditions and indigenous wildlife of the Mekong River.
Aqua Expeditions has successfully developed a number of responsible ecotourism practices. These include fuel Efficiency with minimal carbon dioxide emissions, plus minimal noise and vibration on board. All waste is treated and recycled.
Aqua Expeditions is already committed to identifying and helping to meet the needs of the people of Amazonia living in Peru's Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, and now with our Cambodian and Vietnamese neighbors along the Mekong River. This includes conservation and supporting education.
Aqua Expeditions is a proud member of Pack for a Purpose, a global initiative that allows travellers to make a lasting impact on the community at their travel destination.
What involvement have you had in the building of the ship?
As CEO and founder of Aqua Expeditions, I manage every aspect of the building, owning and operating of our vessels. I am fully involved in each stage of the process. This is because no one knows the product better than I do.
I currently divide my time between Singapore and the shipyard in Ho Chi Minh, where the build is nearing completion, ready for our first cruise departing on 30th September.
Have you faced any challenges in launching this river cruise?
There are many logistical aspects to consider when building a luxury vessel. It's very hard for one shipyard to be able to build everything to the high level that we strive for with all Aqua Expedition vessels. Therefore we require a mixed pool of specialists to come together at the shipyard.
We bring in hotel interior specialists, interior designers, and celebrity chefs to design the dining experience, among many other experts.
One of the challenges we have faced with the building of Aqua Mekong is the language and cultural barrier. There are many complexities that one needs to take into consideration when building in an unfamiliar and new country, but it is a challenge we relish and live for. It's that sense of the unforeseen that drives me.
Are there any plans for future Aqua Expeditions in other parts of the world?
I am always looking for new destinations where I can capture the imaginations of our well-travelled guests with the unique Aqua Expeditions experience.