For most Westerners, Vietnam and Cambodia are linked together, through geographic proximity and a shared history regarding the Vietnam War. Yet the two countries couldn't be more different culturally. Vietnam's culture draws heavily on Chinese history and tradition, while Cambodia's heritage pulls mostly from Thailand and India, something cruisers will note on a Mekong River cruise. The two have also moved along different paths since the Vietnam War as well, with Vietnam slowly progressing toward being a modern, capitalistic society, despite its one-party Communist government. Cambodia, on the other hand, suffered through the harsh Khmer Rouge regime and has been ruled by a dictator since the early 1980s.
For most Westerners a Mekong River cruise is a revelation. Ancient temples in these countries -- more than 200 in Siem Reap, Cambodia, alone -- sit juxtaposed against modern cities that thrum with vibrancy. The contrasts alone are worth the trip. You can see a woman in a traditional Vietnamese conical hat balancing bushels of fruit in baskets and an unending whirl of motorbikes zooming past a luxury hotel. The contrast between city and countryside sharpens when you cruise the river. Along the Mekong Delta, residents of floating villages plant rice and catch fish as generations have done before them, the rhythm of their days ruled by the flow of the Mekong.
A river cruise reveals the wonder of all of this. Several of the major river lines making the trip include Scenic, Uniworld, Viking River Cruises, APT, AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways and Vantage. Read on to see more of what a cruise along the Mekong River is like, based on our sailings with Scenic and Viking River.
Ho Chi Minh City
Mekong River cruises start either in My Tho, Vietnam or Kampong Cham, Cambodia, but you'll meet your fellow passengers and your guides in either Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (commonly still called Saigon) or Siem Reap, Cambodia. On many cruise sailings, only some of your fellow cruise passengers book just the one-week sailing (such was the case on our Scenic cruise), with most joining a land/cruise program that typically includes a few days in each bookend city.
Tip: If you're not going to book a land/cruise package, be sure to arrive a day or two early (or depart a day or two later), particularly if you want to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which might not be included in the cruise itinerary. Cruise-only trips often don't include any excursion time in Ho Chi Minh or Siem Reap.
Hanoi is quickly evolving into a sophisticated metropolis, yet the city manages to retain its ancient soul. Centuries-old pagodas, Confucian temples and incense-filled shrines remain, along with alleyways filled with tiny food stalls and family markets. We visited Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the Museum of Ethnology, the infamous Hanoi Hilton and the Temple of Literature (built in 1070 to honor Confucius). Our best introduction to the city, however, was simply meandering its chaotic streets and taking in its intoxicating buzz.
Highlight: The alleyways of the Old Quarter, many as old as the city itself, are lined with food stalls and thousands of shops, selling everything from herbal medicines to coffins.
The River of Nine Dragons, as it's known in Vietnam, is the lifeblood of the people who live and work there, fishing its waters and farming the rich delta rice fields. Villagers live a simple life, generations living in bamboo huts built on stilts to protect them from the annual monsoon rains that flood the delta from July through October. Wood-slatted beds are draped in netting to keep out mosquitoes. People eat what they can grow or catch, cooking over a wood fire.
Highlight: We rode a sampan (small wooden boat) through the sinuous canals of the Mekong Delta, passing floating fish farms and patchwork rice fields.
A Mekong River cruise gives visitors the opportunity to try a plethora of transport modes, both by water and on land. For instance, in Vietnam, other than in My Tho, where you embark or disembark the cruise, all landside visits are via sampans. These flat-bottomed boats originated in China and are a main mode of transport on the Mekong in Vietnam, especially for tourists. The boats are easy to get into and out of, though not wheelchair accessible. For most excursions, you'll use the sampans to move up or down the river, stopping at different attractions along the way.
Tip: Mind your head. Sampans are built with the smaller stature Vietnamese people in mind. We saw more than one tall Westerner smack his head both when getting onboard and when standing up from the seat.
Land excursions along the Mekong River give cruisers an up-close look at how people along the river live and work. In Vietnam, many have stuck with the traditional ways of life, including the floating market vegetable traders of Cai Be who live and work on basic wooden boats anchored just off shore (there are fewer floating market traders each year, with the Vietnamese government offering incentives to keep the tradition alive.) Others work in rice factories where they brew rice wine; pop, cook and pack popped rice candies; and cook up rice paper and rice taffy in the same manner in which their ancestors did a hundred years ago.
Tip: If you're heading to the rice factory as part of your excursion, anything that is offered to your group by the guide is safe to eat and drink -- even the notorious snake wine, which is rice wine in which several snakes have been boiled. (It's considered an aphrodisiac by the locals.)
Some river cruise lines strive to gives its cruisers a touch of luxury even when they're off the ship. For instance, in between sampan stops in Vietnamese towns, a Scenic crew member offers cold towels and ice cold water to help keep passengers cool and hydrated. (Both are important in an area of the world where temperatures are regularly above 90 degrees Fahrenheit/32 degrees Celsius.) Your guide also always has hand sanitizer, which he'll offer you on a regular basis. It's a touch of class that keeps the comfort level high even in high temperatures and when surrounded by a standard of living most Westerners aren't used to.
Tip: Always stick to bottled water in Vietnam and Cambodia, and keep your hands sanitized and clean as often as possible. Traveler's tummy is a real threat on this itinerary and you'll want to be as vigilant as possible.
Favorite excursions for most cruisers are those that take them into small Vietnamese and Cambodian villages where you can actually see how people live; in many cases you can even see directly into their homes as doors (especially in rural Vietnam) are not needed. Kids are ever present and in Vietnam will wave shyly and say hello. In Cambodian villages, kids are bolder and will try to sell you jewelry and knickknacks. They've even got a script: What's your name? How long are you in Cambodia for? How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Tip: Watch out for motorbikes. Mopeds are the number one mode of transport in Vietnam and motorcyclists have the right of way. Stay on the side of the roads and look very carefully before crossing a street. They don't even stop for tourists, so you always want to keep an eye and ear out for them when you're out and about in any Vietnamese city or village.
Xe Lois in Tan Chau
Another mode of transport cruisers might get to try out are the xe loi pedicabs that are only found in a small area of the Mekong Delta, including Tan Chau and Chau Doc. Dating back to about 1885, the xe loi was once the most common way for locals to get around, but the easy access to and affordability of motorbikes has made the xe loi an outdated mode of transport and they're mostly used by tourists nowadays. Locals seem to like to watch the tourists zipping by in them and you'll get a lot of waves from street side vendors, and even a kid or two asking for a high-five.
Tip: There's no getting around it, the taller you are the more uncomfortable the xe loi is going to be. Try to stretch your legs as far out in front of you as they'll go. Then just hang on for the ride.
On Scenic sailings, on the night you depart Vietnam (or arrive, depending on your itinerary), you'll be treated to a performance of several lion dances (also known as unicorn dances, specifically in Vietnam) by local Vietnamese kids. They are part of a nonprofit that Scenic has partnered with to help keep local culture and traditions alive. The kids are exuberant and love showing off their moves, including some funky Gangnam-style moves at the end of the show. It's a great end (or beginning) to the time cruisers will spend on the Mekong in Vietnam.
Tip: Get up and dance when the kids ask. It gives them a thrill and even the crew get into the fun.
A third form of transport you'll get to try out are the tuk-tuks that are everywhere in Cambodia's bigger cities, like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Cambodian tuk-tuks comprise a motorcycle ridden by a driver, which pulls a two-wheel trailer in which the riders sit. For Scenic passengers, their experience involves taking the tuk-tuks in Phnom Penh to go from the pier to the Hotel Le Royal, more commonly referred to as Raffles, for high tea. The five-star hotel is famous for having hosted Jackie Kennedy and as part of the Scenic excursion, cruisers receive a Femme Fatale, a cocktail created and named in her honor.
Tip: Keep your belongings close to you when riding in a tuk-tuk, as they are open and a tourist's bag can be tempting. Scenic says none of its passengers have ever had a bag snatched but other tourists have reported problems.
The Killing Fields
One of the most compelling -- and disturbing -- experiences a cruiser to Cambodia can have is a visit to the Killing Fields, a collective term for several sites spread over the country where more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Scenic cruisers will visit the Killing Fields in the town of Choeung Ek, where a memorial stupa (a Buddhist shrine) has been erected; inside are the skulls of thousands of Cambodians. Also at the site are mass graves and pits, glass boxes filled with clothing and bones that have been discovered, and the Killing Tree, where Khmer Rouge soldiers killed babies by smashing them against the tree.
Tip: Prepare yourself; a visit to the Killing Fields is a very emotionally raw experience. If you feel you might have trouble processing it, you might want to consider skipping a visit to the Killing Fields altogether.
In striking contrast to the Killing Fields are the opulent grounds of the Royal Palace, where Cambodia's king lives when in the country. The complex of buildings has been inhabited since the 1860s by the royal family (except during the reign of the Khmer Rouge). A highlight is the Silver Pagoda, so called because of the 5,000 or so silver tiles which line the floor; also inside is a golden Buddha encrusted with more than 9,000 diamonds. Another highlight is the Throne Hall, which is today used for religious and royal ceremonies; visitors can peek inside but may not go in.
Tip: Visitors to the Royal Palace may not wear a hat inside the grounds, so bring an umbrella or parasol to cover protect your head against the sun. Alternatively, a Cambodian krama scarf draped over the head is acceptable, as well.
In Chong Koh, Cambodia, villagers greet the ship with armloads of silk and cotton scarves -- some woven there -- to sell to tourists. The traditional scarf known as a krama is wildly versatile: residents wear it to protect their heads from the sun, as a baby sling, rolled into a nest-like cap (for carrying things on the head), as a skirt and even wrapped and tied around a man's legs so it functions as a pair of breeches.
Highlight: Aboard your ship, don't miss the folkloric dances performed by Cambodian children -- definitely a lively event.
Unlike in Vietnam where the ship doesn't pull up to shore, in Cambodia river ships do "dock," if you can call pulling up to the shore and tying off on a tree docking. There is no official landing at any of the stops except Phnom Penh. Instead, crew members routinely carve stairs or paths out of the steep dirt banks, some of which can be challenging for people with walking difficulties (not to mention slippery if there's been a heavy rain). In Kampong Cham, which is the site of embarkation or debarkation depending on the itinerary, cruisers will have to tote their carry-on luggage with them over a dusty (or muddy) dirt hillside path.
Tip: While many cruisers enjoy wearing flip-flops in the Cambodian heat, they are not great for these handmade stairs. Consider wearing sturdier shoes or take care when going up or down the hills.
Considered the crown jewel of Khmer (ancient Cambodia) architecture, the 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of more than 200 temples in the fast-growing city of Siem Reap, this sandstone marvel was built over the course of 37 years by 300,000 workers and slaves. It was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu but has come to represent Cambodia's cultural identity. (The temple is even depicted on the country's currency.)
Highlight: During dinner at the Sofitel Royal Angkor on a Viking Mekong cruise, we were treated to a traditional Apsara dance show. Adorned in gold headdresses and sequined tunics and skirts, the dancers represent Apsaras, supernatural beings comparable to angels.
Ox Cart Rides
Yet another type of transport cruisers will have the opportunity to experience is an ox cart ride. Oxen have been an important part of Cambodian life for hundreds, if not thousands of years, used for farming and as means of getting from place to place. Few locals use oxen anymore as a means of getting around, but in an attempt to retain a piece of their cultural heritage, local Cambodians have taken to offering rides and even tours to tourists in traditional ox carts. The experience lasts about 20 minutes, taking cruisers from the ship to the highway where buses await.
Tips: In most of the small Cambodian towns, you'll be mobbed by young kids trying to sell trinkets, lotus flowers and even handmade drawings (think the kind of drawing a parent puts on their refrigerator). Cruise lines ask that people do not make any purchases as this reinforces the message that the kids can make more money selling to tourists than by going to school and getting an education.
"It's a cuisine born out of starvation," our Viking guide said as we toured the market in Siem Reap. "Cambodians eat what they can catch or grow." We saw an astonishing array of food, foreign to our Western eyes: snake hearts pulsating in wine, internal organs, embryonic eggs. We tasted crickets, herb-stuffed frog, green mango dusted with tamarind and wooden skewers of barbecue fish and sausages prepared over makeshift wood-fire grills. The crowded, chaotic street markets can spin you into sensory overload, but they're the heart of commerce and social life.
Highlight: The chefs onboard prepared a traditional Cambodian dinner, with fried bugs, snake meat and snails.
Buddhist Monk Blessing
A unique experience offered on most Mekong River cruise is a Buddhist blessing at a lovely pagoda in Oudong, which served as the Cambodian capital from the early 1600s to 1865. As part of the blessing, cruisers enter the pagoda and sit cross-legged or kneel in front of two monks, heads bowed and hands clasped in front of them while the monks chant a traditional blessing. When the chant is complete, the monks scatter lotus petals and jasmine buds over everyone. Afterward, cruisers can pose for photos with the monks. The visit also includes a walk through the temple grounds where, in addition to the 100 or so monks, some 400 Buddhist nuns live.
Tip: There are a few rules about how you are supposed to sit during the blessing, including not pointing your feet at the monks. If you think you might have difficulty sitting cross-legged or kneeling, sit farther back so no one can see.
The film "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" stars Angelina Jolie -- and Ta Prohm. Dating from 1186, this religious site is a magnificent ruin: giant banyan trees sprout from temple buildings that once housed a monastery and Buddhist university. A tangle of roots winds, snake-like, through passageways. The jungle there has become part of the architecture.
Highlight: Outside the temples and religious sites, commerce flourishes. It can be daunting to walk through the gauntlet of salespeople, but most will be dissuaded with a smile and a shake of the head. Ready to buy? Keep handfuls of small U.S. currency handy, and feel free to bargain.