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On my recent Mekong River cruise in which I visited Vietnam and Cambodia, I sailed with Avalon Waterways. Based on the research I did of other companies sailing the Mekong on riverboat cruises, the itineraries are somewhat similar (either sailing southbound beginning in Siem Reap, Cambodia and terminating in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam or sailing northbound along the Mekong and doing the reverse). So I thought I would do a general run-down on what a Mekong River cruise is really like, including visiting Siem Reap, home to the world-famous temple Angkor Wat, a reason many people, myself included, take a Mekong River cruise. This is a “land based” portion of the cruise; I found there is very little information on it on the Internet from passengers.
I sailed the northbound route so I’m going to list the itinerary stops in the order which I did them sailing with Avalon Waterways. On other riverboat cruises the itinerary may be slightly different (perhaps stopping at a different village etc). The dominant theme is seeing local artisans at work and supporting their efforts by visiting. For reference, once on the boat and sailing, it made a total of four stops in Vietnam and five stops in Cambodia along the Mekong (not counting Saigon and Siem Reap which were both land-based portions of the trip).
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Saigon is a MASSIVE city so I don’t know if I would call it the best and most culturally rich introduction to the country, especially if you’re staying in District 1 which has a very Western feeling. However, the former capital of the long defunct nation of South Vietnam is still very much a fascinating visit when you consider the incredible events of modern history that took place there just half a century ago during the Vietnam War era (or as the Vietnamese refer to it, “The American War”). For history lovers, it’s a dream spot to visit and for anyone who loves a bountiful array of food and dining options (Saigon’s metro population is over 13 million), the choices are endless. And if you’re hoping to catch glimpses of French colonial architecture, there are still many buildings you can admire (although not as much as in a place like Hanoi). Most river cruises will also include a half day excursion to the Củ Chi Tunnels, an elaborate underground network made up of 250 km (155 mi.) of tunnels and chambers in the town of Cu Chi. They were originally built during the French occupation in the 1940s but then greatly expanded and enhanced during the war years of the 1960s in the fight against the American soldiers. Due to crazy Saigon traffic, it will be about a 100 minute drive each way.
Fun fact-Although Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City following the end of the Vietnam War and the reunification of North and South Vietnam, to the Vietnamese people, it’s still just “Saigon” or Sài Gòn in Vietnamese. My local guide said that Saigon refers to the actual city while Ho Chi Minh City refers to the entire metropolitan area, the 19 urban districts and five rural districts it comprises.
Vinh Long was the first stop we made and also my first experience traveling in a sampan, a relatively flat-bottomed Chinese and Malay wooden boat. All of the stops we made in Vietnam involved boarding a sampan from the river cruise ship, and then traveling to shore since the docks are small and very rustic (to put it mildly). Here in Vinh Long we visited a local workshop where we saw how rice paper, rice wine, and traditional candies were made. This was one of my favorite stops of the Mekong River cruise because it was fascinating to see the entire process of homemade articles from beginning to end, especially since there was no modern machinery involved and everything was literally done by hand.
Cu Lao Gieng
Cu Lao Gieng is a tiny island on the Mekong River and home to one of Vietnam’s oldest Catholic churches (Catholicism was brought to Vietnam from the French colonial settlers). The visit started with seeing a sampan workshop (where the sampan boats are made) and then on to a workshop where the ladies made the iconic conical hats or “non la” as they’re known in Vietnamese. It was fascinating to see them being crafted from their inception of just palm leaves and bamboo.
Compared to the many villages and small towns we visited, Châu Đốc with a population of almost 200,000, felt like a mini Saigon and I personally didn’t care for it. Especially since we visited on a Saturday when the city is teeming with Vietnamese from outer areas coming to pray at the famous Buddhist temples there. It was also ghastly hot (large city, lots of concrete, not much sun or shade). The wet market was also a bit too much and also too graphic (wear close toe shoes, I can’t stress this enough). I much preferred the cruising we did on the backwaters of the Mekong to get to Châu Đốc.
Long Khanh A
In Long Khanh A we visited the home of a former North Vietnamese medic who following the war became the local pharmacist for his village. It was neat to see the inside of a local home, one that was not at all Westernized. We also saw a cotton-weaving demonstration here which is a well-preserved artisan’s tradition in Vietnam.
If you’ve never traveled in the developing world before, Phnom Penh will be an extreme slap to the face with the chaotic mess of its streets- the crazy traffic, the lack of traffic patterns and rules, the lack of sidewalks, and the rickshaws and motorbikes that can wipe you out in a second. It is home to the incredible Royal Palace which is truly a photographer’s delight, especially the famed Silver Pagoda.
The Cambodian capital is also home on a heartbreaking level to two places infamously and horrifically forever associated with the country’s darkest years during the terror reign of the Khmer Rouge- Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.
I had always thought the word “angkor” was unique to just Angkor Wat, the famous ancient temple in Siem Reap. But then I saw on the itinerary we’d be stopping at a place called Angkor Ban which based on the description of the visit, had zero ancient temples. So then I googled it and learned that angkor simply means “city” in the Khmer language which makes so much sense since upon looking at a map of Cambodia, I saw there are countless locales with angkor in the name. Angkor Ban was abandoned during the years of the Khmer Rouge (forced abandonment I should say) as it became a headquarters/training ground of the Khmer Rouge. Here we had a visit to a local school specifically where the children practiced their English. It was a highlight for me and reminded me very much of my time in Cuernavaca, Mexico at the orphanage where I worked.
Buddhism is integral to the Cambodian culture and its people (it’s existed in the country since the 5th century) and so all Mekong River cruises will include some sort of traditional water blessing that’s given by local monks.
Here included a visit to a local silversmith workshop that uses centuries-old techniques to turn pure silver into works of art. Just as with the visit to Vinh Long in Vietnam where I saw food items being laboriously created from scratch, this was the same kind of feeling witnessing the silver being crafted.
Riding in an oxcart was definitely my least favorite form of “local public transportation” I tried during the cruise (I did everything from rickshaws to cyclos to motorbikes) and I don’t know how the prairie settlers did it. But it sure added up to a neat photo, no? And our stream of Westerners riding in oxcarts provided much amusement to the local villagers of Kampong Tralach watching us on display. We also stopped at the home of a local family and learned about their life and how it has changed for them in more recent years.
Although the Tonlé Sap River does flow north to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh, the water is too low for a river cruise ship to sail it, so all Mekong River cruises will either end or begin in Phnom Penh and involve flying to Siem Reap (it’s less than a 45 minute flight between the two cities). Siem Reap is a bucket list destination for many people as it’s home to the world famous ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. But it’s not the only incredible temple there. There’s also Bayon, home to the smiling Buddhas, my personal favorite; Ta Prohm, where massive overgrown tree roots cover the ancient temple walls; and Banteay Srei which has the unique feature of being built from red sandstone which can be carved like wood.
Siem Reap is a fraction the size of the capital (140,000 people compared to over 1 million) and I found Siem Reap to be much more agreeable- more orderly, little trash strewn everywhere, just a more tranquil place.
Before the cruise began I spent eight days on the Asian continent. I flew into Singapore (coming from the United States) and spent a few days there before flying north to Hanoi, Vietnam and spending four days there. I also included an overnight to Halong Bay since I was too close not to (and minus my biking accident, it did live up to the hype, I feel). My only regret is that I didn’t make it to Hội An, a city on the central coast known for its well-preserved ancient town. If I ever return to Vietnam I’d head straight there as there are so many things to do in Hội An.
If you’re doing the northbound route as I did, it’s incredibly easy to fly into Saigon’s airport (known officially as Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport) from most major Asian destinations that have direct flights from the United States or Europe (Taipei, Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul etc). If you’re doing the southbound route and beginning your trip in Siem Reap, you’ll still find it’s a decent size airport with direct flights to Hanoi, Saigon, Singapore (as I did when the cruise was over), Bangkok, Seoul.
My Mekong River cruise went from the end of February into early March. Although I knew it would be hot thanks to adding on the weather of the cities I’d be visiting through the weather app on my phone, still nothing can really prepare you for the heat (except any movie having to do with the Vietnam War, then you’ll get that “inside” joke from in-country experience).
Compared to Hanoi, I thought Saigon was a fireball of heat. But the more the cruise progressed, the hotter it became, culminating in the hottest and most humid day on earth, when we arrived in Siem Reap and visited Angkor Wat and Bayon temples. Even our local Cambodian guide Virak said it was quite humid for March. If you do a Mekong River cruise, just know that anytime of the year, it’s going to be hot, probably hotter than you’ve ever been in your life, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The two greatest threats-bugs and sun
I applied bug spray diligently just about every time we left the ship save for when the cruise director said applying any wouldn’t be necessary, although I still wore my mosquito repellent bracelets since that didn’t involve any fuss. I never got any bug bites on the cruise. In fact the ones I did get in Asia I believe came from my Halong Bay cruise. I wasn’t expecting that since I was much further north and the temperatures were much cooler than the ones in the south. I did encounter a few mosquitoes in my stateroom which was annoying since I never opened my deck doors but during the day in the hallways, the doors to the outside were all open so in a way it was to be expected.
As I mentioned above, the sun will be intense and you’ll often be in areas in which there is no shade whatsoever. Bring a good sun hat and apply copious amounts of sunblock; you’ll need it. On the Avalon cruise, large sun umbrellas were available for you to use at some of the ports. I never partook since between my water bottle, purse, and camera I was already trying to juggle too many articles.
There are things you can forget to take, but not bug spray and sunblock. You will need both the entire cruise.
I was one of the few people on my cruise who had not been on a river cruise before and they all remarked that the scenery on a European river cruise is a treat within itself but on the Mekong well, there’s truly not much to look at…ever. You’ll be sailing in extremely rural areas for most of the time and what you will end up seeing will generally be locals going about their daily lives, not castles and monasteries dating from the 16th century.
Being the good traveler that I am and not wanting to ever be stricken with some horrific disease, I went to a local travel medicine clinic prior to my trip. In terms of specialty shots I ended up getting one for typhoid (I had originally done the oral tablet version of the vaccine since the immunization lasted two additional years but had severe abdominal pain after taking the first dose and didn’t want to endure that again) and for Japanese encephalitis, which is a virus spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes. Although cases are extremely rare, it can cause brain damage. While the idea of that is frightening within itself and since it’s more common in rural and agricultural areas, I got it even though it was SO expensive. The only silver lining is that the immunization provides lifetime immunity. I also got malaria pills to take once I was in-country.
The thing about immunizations is that everyone’s experience will be different. My prescription for the anti-malaria drugs involved taking them once I left Saigon (i.e. entered rural Vietnam), while a Canadian couple were told to begin theirs a few days prior to arriving in Siem Reap (where malaria is most prevalent), and a fellow American was prescribed to not start taking hers until she was IN Siem Reap. And then another Canadian couple were told by their doctor they didn’t need any vaccines, so who knows.
I would recommend that when traveling to such an exotic part of the world, visit a travel medicine clinic and speak with professionals in which their specialty and professional expertise is tied to diseases and illnesses not found in one’s own (non-exotic) backyard.
Matters of money
I can’t speak for the other river cruise lines but on the Avalon, the US dollar was the currency of choice (i.e. what drink and laundry prices were listed in). In Vietnam, at local workshops we visited where you could purchase the locally made goods, the đồng, Vietnam’s currency, was of course accepted, but prices were actually listed in US dollars and seemed to be the tender preferred. In Cambodia, the local currency is the riel but as there’s a 90 percent level of dollarization in the country, the US dollar is the much preferred currency. Just remember though, if something is listed as being x dollars and change, businesses won’t accept US coins, which was majorly annoying. At the Siem Reap airport I was buying a bottle of water that cost $1.10- yet I couldn’t give the worker a US dime . But then you’ll get Cambodian coins back in change. Yeah, doesn’t make sense, am I right?
With the exception of the major cities and the silversmith workshop visited in Cambodia (since a lot of the wares were on the pricier side), you won’t ever need your credit card. Just have cash with you and remember, in that part of the world $100 goes a long way.
Having only ever sailed on large cruise ships and sometimes in rocky waters, sailing on a river, in a boat a fraction the size of a cruise liner, the waters were nothing but calm and smooth the entire voyage. The only “disturbance” was the couple of times when the boat’s anchor was cast (which I heard quite loudly since my room was right next to it). Unless you’re someone prone to even a mild case of car sickness during a 20 minute ride, you won’t need any sort of Dramamine style pills to take or anti-motion sickness accessory to wear.
My favorite thing
Getting to so many remote but unique places effortlessly. Meeting local Vietnamese and Cambodian people in a more intimate and special way, something I could have never done had I just been traveling on my own. A Mekong River cruise made things like this possible.