Sunset on the Mekong River

Fed by snowmelt from the Himalayas of Tibet, the Mekong flows 2,700 miles to the sea in South Vietnam, a distance comparable to that between Los Angeles and New York City. The Vietnamese call it Song Cuu Long, the Nine Dragons River, for the nine branches of the Mekong Delta where land and water intertwine to make perfect conditions for growing rice.

Although it flows through six countries and feeds scores of people along the way, the Mekong is one of Asia's least-developed rivers. Thanks to the lack of industry along its banks, the Mekong teems with life -- in fact, its biodiversity is second to that of the Amazon, and includes 20,000 species of plants, 430 of mammals, 1,200 of birds, 800 of reptiles and 850 of fish. And counting ... scientists recently discovered an additional 145 species in and around the Mekong's waters. The wildlife you're most likely to encounter will be monkeys, scampering macaques that dangle from ancient temples (and parked vans.)

Unlike Rhine River or Danube River cruises that sail past European capitals, this route through Vietnam and Cambodia is a bit more challenging on several levels. The contrasts are great: here, a stunning Buddhist temple, there, landmine victims begging for handouts. Tours will take you to the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" POW camp and a genocide museum, invoking memories of wars and killing fields, misery and horror. But "the past is history," as local people will tell you. Temples are being refurbished, businesses are being launched, and everywhere you'll see smiles brightening the faces of people who are making the most of what they have.

You'll visit bustling cities like Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, teeming with businesses and motorbikes, as well as rural river towns such as Tan Chau, where residents weave floor mats from sedge as they have for ages. Beyond the poverty you'll witness, scenes of incredible beauty will delight the eye, from dazzling religious sites like the richly-detailed Angkor Wat and sunset-pink Banteay Srei to timeless glimpses of everyday life along the Mekong River. Unexpectedly uplifting, a trip on the Mekong offers a sense of the resilience of people who are remaking their lives, rebuilding cities destroyed by acts of war, and extending a warm welcome to visitors.

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View of the Mekong River in China Yunnan province

Best Time for Mekong River Cruises

Although Mekong River itineraries are offered for most of the year, the optimum time to go is during the winter, from November through February; it's cooler then (although still plenty hot) and the rainy season, which runs from July through October, has passed. But even during the rainy season, rains -- while dramatic -- typically last only 30 minutes or so.

Note that the cruise portion along the Mekong River and Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia can be affected by seasonal water levels, so itinerary details are subject to change. The river reaches its highest level in September. Weird fact: The Tonle Sap River, which links the lake to the Mekong River, reverses its flow during periods of flooding. The surge of river water increases the lake's size six-fold, and transforms it into one of the world's most productive fisheries.

Mekong River Cruise Lines

The major river cruise lines offer a series of Mekong trips in Vietnam and Cambodia. These include AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Pandaw, Aqua Expeditions, Uniworld, Viking Cruises, CroisiEurope and Vantage Deluxe World Travel.

Beautiful view on limestone rocks of Ha Long Bay

Mekong River Cruise Itineraries

Most Mekong river cruises come as part of long (two weeks or more) land tours, including several nights in hotels as well as overnights aboard ship, so consider the total package when choosing your cruise. (If you want the cruise-only portion, look for a seven-night trip like the one offered by Avalon Waterways). The majority of Mekong River cruise tours start and end in Vietnam, beginning in Hanoi and ending in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) or vice versa. They include a flight to Siem Reap and a sail on the Mekong, with ports in Cambodia and Vietnam.

By and large, the itineraries are quite similar, including the cities mentioned above and Phnom Penh, plus the important temples; sites like Hanoi's Museum of Ethnology and the Killing Fields; and major markets and rural villages along the Mekong. They may vary slightly when it comes to other stops; for example, Viking River Cruises includes a visit to a local orphanage in Kampong Cham that is supported by the company, while AmaWaterways adds a stop at the English-language school in Ta Toum that they sponsor. All lines offer a chance to shop for local handicrafts (look for weaving, silver and lacquer pieces), but the exact locale of the shopping may differ.

If it is important to you to see Ha Long Bay (the surreal seascape of limestone pillars located in the Gulf of Tonkin), note that some lines, like AmaWaterways, include the bay in their basic itineraries, cruising aboard a traditional junk. Other lines offer Ha Long Bay as an extension to their cruise, at added cost. Bangkok is another typical extension. For most travelers, it takes several hours by air to get to Southeast Asia, so it makes sense to stay as long as you can and see as much as you can, budget and time permitting.

Because the itineraries are quite similar among the cruise lines, the best strategy is to take a look at how much you want to spend and what you'd like to have included in the cruise fare. Uniworld, for instance, provides unlimited wine, beer and spirits throughout the day, while the other lines offer free wine and beer at dinner (and possibly lunch as well).

Angkor Wat Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Mekong River Cruise Port Highlights

Hanoi: Among the things you probably don't know about Hanoi: It is home to the world's longest mosaic (according to Guinness), which is 2.5 miles long, runs through the city, and was created by artists to celebrate Hanoi's 1,000th birthday in 2010. Hanoi also has a bridge built by the Eiffel Company, builders of the famous tower. You'll drive past both of these as you tour the city; it's better to focus on the landmarks than on the crazy traffic, where motorbikes outnumber cars in this city of 7 million, and being a pedestrian is a death-defying experience.

Most people visit the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," where American POWs were held during the Vietnam War (called the American War here, of course); it's edged with barbed wire and embedded shards of glass. Oddly enough, there's also an actual Hilton hotel in Hanoi. The Museum of Ethnology highlights the astonishing ethnic diversity of Vietnam, with art and artifacts from the 54 ethnic groups that inhabit the country. Another must-see is the Ho Chi Minh Memorial Complex, which includes the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, encompassed in a park-like setting. A spin through the Old Quarter reveals a bazillion vendors selling everything imaginable, and you'll see women in conical hats balancing baskets on their shoulders, seemingly oblivious to the chaotic commercial scene (and whizzing motor bikes) that surrounds them.

Siem Reap: Cambodia's fastest-growing city, with its modern streets and luxury hotels, Siem Reap is the gateway to the crown jewel of Khmer architecture, the 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat. Built for King Suryavarman II over the course of 37 years by 300,000 workers and slaves, Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu; now, its five towers have come to represent Cambodia's cultural identity. The temple is surrounded by a massive moat, and a wall with bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu epics. Nearby, the fortified city of Angkor Thom is astonishingly beautiful and detailed, and graced with more than 200 smiling Buddha heads. The temple of Ta Prohm is magnificent in a unique, wild way: The jungle has claimed much of this circa-1186 structure and massive trees are now part of the architecture.

Kampong Cham: You may be boarding your ship in this riverside city, where the main attraction is the twin holy mountains, Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei. The Buddhist temple and gardens here are still used during traditional Khmer festivals, and the reclining Buddha and surrounding statuary are worth a look, even if most are replicas of the originals.

Phnom Penh: Phnom Penh was the capital of Cambodia in 1432, and then again in 1865, when the French first colonized the country and, under the French protectorate, King Norodom I reclaimed it as the capital. He constructed the magnificent Royal Palace that still stands today, a complex that includes the Silver Pagoda, Khemarin Palace and the National Museum of Cambodia. Today, bustling markets and retail businesses fill the French Colonial-style storefronts downtown. In stark contrast to the beauty and grandeur of the Royal Palace is a site that recalls Cambodia's darkest hours: the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, marking the genocide of two million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime. Mass graves and a memorial tower filled with the skulls of the victims ensure that the two million Cambodians who lost their lives will never be forgotten. Black-and-white photos of citizens -- including young children -- who were captured by the Khmer Rouge line the walls of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a high school turned detention center that was used as a torture chamber by the murderous regime.

Tan Chau: A traditional rickshaw ride is an excellent way to explore this South Vietnam river town, located near the border of Cambodia. In small factories, workers dye and weave reeds to create floor mats and produce sandals made from uzu. Tan Chau is also famous for its silk, particularly a very fine, deep black silk dyed with the berries from the Diospyros mollis (ebony tree). Visit a floating fish farm, where you might see 140,000 or so red tilapia raised in frames by a family who lives on the premises.

Vinh Hoa: Also known as Evergreen Island, Vinh Hoa is a floating village in the Mekong Delta, located on the upper section of the river and reachable via ferry or sampan. Residents here live the same simple life that their ancestors did, with a few modern concessions (you might see a satellite dish atop one of the stilt houses). The families who live along the delta fish and raise vegetables, and nearly 70 percent of residents are farmers, working their fields by hand and wearing traditional conical hats made of palm leaves. The Khmer Rouge burned these villages during their reign, but it took local people just six months to rebuild.

Sa Dec: From your ship, Sa Dec is reachable via a sampan cruise along the canals and backwaters of the Mekong Delta. The town is known for its lively market, where purveyors line the riverfront hawking everything imaginable, including local delicacies like rat (served fried), snakes, frogs, snails and duck embryos. Surrounded by all this bustle and pungent aroma is a beautiful bed-and-breakfast inn that was once the home of Mr. Huynh Thuy Le, the protagonist in Marguerite Duras's autobiographical novel (and the steamy film that followed), "L'Amant" ("The Lovers").

Cai Be: Of all of the towns in the southwest countryside of the Mekong Delta, Cai Be is probably the most dynamic. It's located on a tributary of the Mekong so you'll get there via sampan, cruising past what used to be an important floating market. Merchants advertise what they're offering via a sample that dangles from a bamboo pole. This market, dating back to the 17th century or so, is shrinking, as most people now have motorbikes and can drive to do their shopping. The main attraction is a factory of artisans, who demonstrate how to make coconut taffy (it comes in several flavors, including durian), popped rice (popped in a big black pot with sand on the bottom) and rice wine. There's lots of sampling, and you may have a chance to sample snake wine: rice wine with a real snake coiled up inside. (Go for it: The snake seems to be dead, and the wine isn't bad.) Outside, there's a pen with a live python, Monty, who is happy to curl up around tourists and pose for pictures.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon): Think of Ho Chi Minh City as Hanoi's funky younger sister. The former Saigon (although many people still call it that) is not located on the Mekong, but set along the Saigon River, and was designed by the French to be a mini-Paris. About 9 million people live here, perhaps 7 million in the city center, and neighborhoods are designed as numbered districts. Most visitors take in the Reunification Palace, which served as the presidential palace until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Note the windows of the palace; they are designed to look like bamboo. If you're thinking of having a dress or suit custom-made for you, one of the city's many tailor shops can handle the job. For souvenirs, navigate the crazy shopping scene that is Ben Thanh Market; just beware that some items are knockoffs that come from nearby China. To see how lacquer pieces are inlaid with mother-of-pearl and eggshell, visit a lacquer factory where they demonstrate the art; it's a labor-intensive, hand-done process that involves 17 layers of lacquer. The Vietnamese love coffee, and the go-to shop is Highlands Coffee. To eat, try Pho 2000, where President Clinton dined (and lots of photos prove it) in November of 2000.

Cambodian food

Mekong River Cruise Tips

Beware of intestinal upset. Dealing with stomach issues is an unfortunate fact of life for Westerners who visit this region. Even if you're careful to avoid street food and to brush your teeth with bottled water only, it can happen. Best to bring remedies such as loperamide (Imodium), so you can minimize discomfort and get on with your trip.

Don't forget insect repellent. Even during the day, tiny gnats and fire ants can be bothersome (especially around temples), so the person with the bug spray is popular indeed.

Don't pet the monkeys. Ditto the dogs. Cute as the animals can be, rabies is an issue -- and the dogs can bite.

Learn how to cross the street in Vietnam. In the major burgs like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, crossing the street isn't for sissies! Crosswalks (zebras, as they're called here) are meaningless. Your best bet is to wait it out until there are no cars or trucks coming, and then firmly and calmly step into the street and cross it, letting the motorbikes go around you. Let them zig and zag -- you keep walking! If you're still uneasy, wait until a local family crosses, and then merge into their group.

Plan for heat. Even in the "cool" season, the Mekong Delta has three temperatures: hot, hotter and hottest, they say. You don't really comprehend how hot 14 days of 90-plus degree days (with full-on humidity) can be until you've experienced them. Bring the wicking-est fibers you've got, and wear loose layers; skinny jeans and leggings won't cut it here. Plan to get sweaty no matter what, and pack extra tops or shirts since you won't get multiple wearings out of them.

Be an adventurous -- but smart -- eater. On several days of the tour, lunch is likely on your own, but it's easy to find a local pho (noodle soup) shop wherever you are. If you're not sure where to go, your program directors can offer suggestions. You'll also find interesting "fusion" cuisine, like Khmer-Pizza and Khmer-Mexican. Prices are very reasonable, even in big cities. However, use caution when purchasing food from street vendors. It's probably wise to stay away from dairy products, ice in drinks, salads and fruit. Rest assured that bottled water is used for cooking and food preparation aboard ship.