By: David Ellis
BRICK kilns don’t usually feature high on the list of things to do on a luxury river cruise.
But on one such 8-day journey along the mighty Mekong between Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City and Cambodia’s Siem Reap, a village kiln has proven a fascinating diversion amid daily shore excursions that extend from the ubiquitous local markets, to a leisurely farmland ox-cart ride – and the chilling reality of Pol Pot’s notorious Killing Fields.
And for good measure a touch of romance too, with a visit to the once-home of a young Chinese man whose love affair with a French teenager became the basis of an award-winning 1980s novel, and an equally successful 1990s movie…
This captivating cruise is aboard the stylish 62-stateroom AmaLotus that’s owned by Australia’s APT Touring, and which began her Mekong career only in September this year.
It’s just outside the industrial and trading port of Sa Dec in southern Vietnam that guests on AmaLotus are taken ashore by the ship’s tour guides and shown the workings of the beehive-shaped kilns, which to many Australians seem somehow reminiscent of the natural orange and black, and almost-similarly shaped formations, found in our Kimberley region.
And the kilns of Sa Dec operate as they have for centuries, being fired by discarded rice husks from local farms to bake bricks and tiles from other farmlands’ clay – and with nothing wasted, the husks being retrieved as ash to be ploughed back into the farm soil as fertilizer.
From these kilns AmaLotus’s guests are taken by small boat into Sa Dec itself for a visit to the one-time home of a wealthy and influential Chinese family, whose son began an affair in 1928 with teenager Marguerite Duras, who had been born to French parents living near Saigon in 1914.
When the affair ended in 1931, Marguerite left to study mathematics in France, joined the French Resistance during World War II, and along the way began a prolific career as a writer of plays, film scripts, essays, short fiction and novels. She also directed numerous films and died in 1996 aged 82.
But it was an ‘autobiographical novel’ called “The Lover” that Duras wrote in 1984 that won her the most praise and recognition: said to be the story of her teenage romance all those years before, it won the 1984 Prix Goncourt for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year.”
The Sa Dec home of her once-lover is now a museum, and aboard a sister vessel to AmaLotus on the Mekong, and named by APT La Marguerite after the author, the floor tiles are actually replicas of those in the famous old house…
The Vietnam and Cambodian guides aboard AmaLotus ensure guests see and enjoy as much of their river experience as possible, leading 2- to 3-hour shore excursions daily, with guests provided with headphones to hear the commentary that also includes insights into guides’ family lives and some of their more-chilling wartime experiences.
This is particularly so during a Phnom Penh tour that includes the Royal Palace, National Museum, city markets and the infamous S21 Detention Centre – and Pol Pot’s horrific Killing Fields.
Both horrifying and chillingly fascinating, it was at the latter that Khmer Rouge soldiers killed an estimated 1.7-million Cambodians, or 21 per cent of the population. One football-oval-sized area alone contains the bodies of an estimated 20,000 victims: because bullets were too costly, most were beaten to death with axes, knives, and bamboo sticks.
There is also the notorious TuoiSieng Museum of Genocide on the site of the one-time torture camp, prison and execution centre.
More-pleasantly focused daily excursions include to picturesque floating communities, city and village produce markets, rice-paper making factories, a rice-whiskey distillery, demonstrations of silk weaving, a fish farm, a hill-top Buddhist Monastery, and an ox-cart farmland ride – and of course there’s plenty of time for bargain shopping or picture-taking.