An Expedition into the Unknown – the Courageous Exploreres

One of the most daring explorers you have probably never heard of are both, Captain Ernest Doudard de Lagrée and his companion Louis Marie Joseph Delaporte, who were the first European to fully traverse the mighty Mekong River up through the six countries it flows through (China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam).

France first gained its foothold on what would later become known as “French Indochina” in the 1860s. Cochinchina (Southern Vietnam) ceded three of its provinces to the French, while Cambodia also agreed to become a protectorate of the French Empire to defend against neighboring Siam.

At the same time, British-controlled Shanghai had become a booming economic trading port due to its location at the mouth of the Yangtze River. Seeking to emulate Shanghai’s financial success, a group of French colonial officers voted to launch a small expedition “into the unknown lands north of the Mekong Delta”, with aims to make Saigon a major port for trading along a large inland waterway.

In addition to assessing the navigability of the river and creating a commercial route linking Saigon to both the Siam empire (modern day Thailand) and southern China, other objectives of the French Mekong Expedition were to document the river’s inland residents as well as mapping the waterway and its natural resources.

When Doudard de Lagrée and his small expedition departed Saigon in June of 1866, Southeast Asia’s largest river was still largely unexplored; its peoples and its source still a mystery to Europeans. The first month of sailing went quite smoothly, and upon reaching Phnom Penh the expedition even decided to take a detour up the Tonle River to visit the ancient Angkor Wat ruins discovered just a few years earlier. Shortly after leaving Phnom Penh a second time, however, the crew discovered why there were never any southbound vessels coming from Laos on the Mekong River.

At the border of Cambodia and Laos lies Khone Falls, where “Four Thousand Islands” split the Mekong into countless smaller channels, all with rapids and waterfalls untraversable by trading vessels. Undeterred, de Lagrée was forced to abandon their large steamboat at the rapids and board smaller vessels upstream. Although the expedition now realized their primary goal of establishing a trading network along the river was unfeasible, they still endured with intentions of documenting remote settlements and mapping the undiscovered.

After this point, de Lagrée’s team progressed upriver at a sluggish pace, resting or exploring connecting waterways and regions around towns which dot the upper Mekong’s riverbanks, including a six-month stopover in Luang Prabang. The expedition would continue its journey all the way to the origin of the majestic Mekong River in China’s Yunnan province before taking an overland route to Shanghai.

Although the voyage revealed that Saigon was not a viable river port, the First French Mekong Expedition redeemed itself on an accidental discovery while heading eastward and descending upon a deep river valley. They deduced that this powerful river was most likely the Red River, which flows downstream through Hanoi and into the Gulf of Tonkin. Unlike the Mekong, the Red River was open to trading vessels — this was the inland river trading route between Vietnam and China they had been seeking all along.

Unfortunately, in March 1868, twenty-one months after embarking from Saigon, Captain Ernest Doudard de Lagrée succumbed to dysentery and infected wounds during the final trek to Shanghai. His body was buried in Dongchuan, China, but only after the doctor removed his heart to be sent back to France. The remainder of Doudard de Lagrée’s expedition team would reach Shanghai and sail back to Saigon a few months after his death in June, 1868.

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Heritage Line honors this courageous expedition and men with their exploratory contributions to Southeast Asia on our latest ship, Heritage Line Anouvong. The luxurious ‘Delaporte Dining Lounge’ conjures the beauty of the temples of Luang Prabang accentuated with intricate golf-leaf Laotian patterns. Featuring the finest local Southeast Asian flavors, unmatched personal hospitality, and magnificent river views through floor-to-ceiling windows, each and every dining experience in this elegant venue is sure to be memorable.