Of the world’s many incredible journeys, sailing from Vietnam to Cambodia featured prominently on my list. And while floating up the Mekong River on a luxury ship might sound leisurely, there was still something truly adventurous about it.
Picture this: you’re aboard an exquisite colonial style wooden ship, sailing up one of the world’s longest rivers. While your final destination will be Cambodia, you know that if you keep following the river north, it’ll lead you all the way to China.
While you board in one of the most cosmopolitan and bustling cities in Asia, the landscape up river quickly changes. The skyscrapers of Ho Chi Minh City change into a countryside dotted by rice paddies, fish farms, and tropical fruit orchards.
Inbetween major ports, daily life comes alive in undeveloped and unexplored parts of the region that you wouldn’t have been able to access by land; remote, seemingly untouched villages, where locals may have never seen a foreign tourist, and rush to shake your hand.
There are many reasons to take a Mekong River Cruise, though today I want to dive into the specific highlights; individual experiences that are so full of magic, they become some of your most cherished moments.
The following highlights are specific to Worldwide River Cruises itineraries.
Highlights of My Mekong River Cruise with Worldwide River Cruises
#1 Seeing Mekong River Life Unfold
From fishing boats to floating markets, river life along the Mekong is vibrant, and has been for thousands of years. 17 million people live in Vietnam’s section of the delta alone, and there’s no other way to get a real glimpse of river life than by living on the river yourself.
As you sail outside the city, the countryside transforms into a never ending patchwork of rice fields and orchards irrigated by canals. Houses, markets and boats float along the rivers that break off from the Mekong like arteries, and river life unfolds before you.
We watched as fishermen cast nets out of small wooden boats, as buffalos wallowed in rice paddies, and as women in wide brimmed hats rowed slow sampan boats up-stream to the markets.
Mekong river life is a culture unto itself; a completely fascinating world.
#2 Visiting a Local School
Spending time in a local school in Koh Chen was easily the highlight of my Mekong River Cruise. Rithy, our Cambodian tour guide, sponsors the salary of one of the teachers each year, and the children happily welcomed us into their classrooms.
We played with them on the playground, they taught us local songs, and we chatted with older children who relished at the chance to practice their English.
Spending time with these children, who don’t often see foreign tourists, was such a heartwarming experience, and it was fantastic to see how small rural communities are really prioritizing education.
Education is poorly funded in Cambodia, and many Cambodians can’t read (the adult literacy rate is around 65%). Cambodia had a relatively good education system in the 1960’s, but this was wiped out when the Khmer Rouge came to power. After the Khmer Rouge years (1975 – 79), schools had to be built up from scratch.
Today, only about half of school age children attend school, and even then schools are so crowded that more than 80 kids are squeezed into a classroom the size of a living room.
This was quite confronting to see; we take education for granted in the Western World, but for these children, it’s life changing. It is not unusual for schools in Cambodia to have a morning shift for one set of students and an afternoon shift for another group.
Many schools in the cities receive international funding, but schools in rural villages are very, very poor. So it was fantastic to know that traveling with Worldwide River Cruises meant our money was going towards employing teachers in these often forgotten communities.
Photos of Our Day at School
#3 Taking Ox Carts through the Cambodian Countryside
Ever thought of taking an ox cart?!
The transportation in each port we pulled into was always 100% local. That meant taking tuk-tuks around the city in Phnom Penh, rowing small wooden sampans through the canals of My Tho, and in Kampong Tralach, it meant making our way to local temples in traditional ox carts!
This was possibly one of the most unique and memorable rides I’ve ever hailed!
#4 In Room Air-conditioning
If you’ve ever traveled through Vietnam and Cambodia, you’ll know that the humid tropical climate means you sweat through your clothes pretty quickly.
Like, you need three changes of clothes a day type of quickly.
So trust me – having an air-conditioned room to return to on a luxury ship was a definite highlight of the trip!
#5 Slipping into the Cu Chi Tunnels
Both Vietnam and Cambodia have a very war torn history, and one of the most significant sites of the Vietnamese / American War (Americans call it the Vietnam War, Vietnamese call it the American War) are the Cu Chi Tunnels.
During the late 1940’s, this network of hidden tunnels was built during the war against the French. It was extended by tens of thousands of miles to evade American troops in the 1960’s, and became an infamous underground labyrinth.
During the American War, thousands of Vietnamese Communist rebels lived in these tunnels, though they also served as ‘a complicated structure consisting of numerous trenches, bunkers, booby traps, bomb shelters, and an amazing air ventilation system’.
This extensive network underneath the Cu Chi district was the main reason US troops couldn’t take the region. Life underground included schools, hospitals, theatres, kitchens, while there was a full blown war raging above.
Located 60 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, today these tunnels have been preserved in a war memorial park, and you can crawl into some of the safer ones – though this is not an activity for the claustrophobic!
This is unlike any war memorial or museum you’ve ever been to – crouching down on your hands and knees and you crawl through pitch black tunnels they legitimately used during the war is incredibly sobering.
I’m amazed I fit actually!
The United States won almost all of its battles against the Viet Cong, but the communists still won the war. Many people believe this was largely due to the Cu Chi Tunnels.
#6 Learning to Cross the Road in HCMC … Without Getting Killed!
It’s said that Ho Chi Minh City has a population of 10 million + people, but 11 million bikes! And I certainly believe it!
Most Mekong River cruises begin (or end) in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), though before we started sailing, I was grateful that our itinerary included two days exploring Saigon.
But of the many sights throughout the city, the traffic was perhaps the most fascinating. Bikes whizz past you at a rate of knots, packed to a density of about 8 bikes to every 3 lanes! To the Westerner it’s a chaotic, frenzied scene, where the main road rule is ‘just don’t hit anybody’.
And don’t be surprised if you see 4, or even 5 people packed onto the back of a 2 seater motorcycle; their helmets casually swung over the handle bars at the front of the bike.
Learning to cross the road as we took a walking tour of Ho Chi Minh City was an adventure in and of itself. The trick? Walk confidently. If bikes coming towards you can see you have a defined and projected path of movement, they’ll buzz around you.
You could probably even stand in the middle of the road, as long as you’re still, and not get hit. But hesitate and it’s all over! The minute you act unpredictably and you’ll be hit.
I never knew that crossing the road could be so exhilarating!
#7 Taking Small Row Boats Through Local Canals
One of the highlights of our Mekong itinerary was transferring into local boats for a tour of My Tho. Because for those itching to immerse themselves in river life, much of it actually happens along the maze of smaller rivers and canals.
Think of the Mekong River as your highway; this is your main road from which secondary (watery) roads break off, leading to further adventure. So we were thrilled at the opportunity to dig deeper into Mekong culture.
Comprised of four islands, Thoi Son is the largest one – also known as Unicorn Island. We separated into sampans (small flat bottomed boats with a capacity of four people), and rowed the boats alongside the arroyos (shallow streams).
Along the labyrinth that makes up the network of small canals, pretty country villages appear and we would see local craftsmen at work.
Watching the scenery of the Mekong River go by from your cruise is incredible in itself, but being on the water in row boats, taking in the tropical canals at eye level, actually making eye contact with locals rowing the other way; this was something else.
#8 Visiting Sa Dec Market
I’ve visited a million tourist markets in my lifetime, but it’s only ever the truly local experiences that stick out in my memory. And visiting Sa Dec market was truly local!
Sa Dec is an authentic Vietnamese market; locals come to pick up their groceries, and this turned out to be a great opportunity to see how they shop and earn a living.
There’s a huge selection of fruit and veg, as well as fresh fish, eels, snails, chicken, ducks, and dry spices. It’s a colorful, vibrant, and energetic place, though can be quite confronting: expect a lot of squawking and quacking as animals get plucked and sliced in front of you.
When you’re visiting a place like Sa Dec, that’s 100% local, you feel more like an intrepid traveler than a tourist. This market really gave the vibe of authentic discovery.
#9 Visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Listing the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum as a highlight of a trip would be like listing Auschwitz concentration camp as a highlight of your time in Poland. It’s not exactly a happy place, but it by the same token, it definitely leaves an impact.
I don’t believe in brushing over the most horrifying parts of human history; as confronting as war and genocide might be, they happened. And if we give into the temptation to forget, we doom ourselves to repeat the same atrocious history.
The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, and they ruled the country from between 1975 and 1979. Theirs was a brutal and ruthless regime from which the country is still recovering.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum chronicles the Cambodian genocide in the building that was used as Security Prison 21 (S21) by the Khmer Rouge. It is estimated that 20,000 people were imprisoned here, who were tortured and executed by the Khmer Rouge.
Life in the prison was savage, and walking around the museum today you can enter the old cells, still with shackles and chains strapped to the beds, see photographs of prisoners, view torture instruments, and listen to stories from survivors.
Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge leaders were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism, and often prisoners would be photographed before and after their torture.
Walking through the prison, which before that time was used as a school, is morbid, depressing, and highly confronting. It demonstrates the darkest side of the human spirit and it’s is not for the squeamish.
But I’m thankful that this was included on our cruise. Because you don’t truly appreciate the gravity and scale of history like this without being able to put images to the stories, and faces to the crimes.
“It’s not until you see it for yourself that you really think about what happened here and what it meant.”
Tuol Sleng is a powerful visit that allows you to understand Cambodia on a much deeper level. Especially in appreciating how far they’ve come as a country since.
#10 Floating Through a Floating Village
Located some 90 km from Phnom Penh, the town of Kampong Chhnang is one of the largest fishing ports on the Tonle Sap (the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia).
And one of the most memorable experiences here is taking local boats out to explore the region’s floating village; a place where different ethnic groups live happily side by side, and a true peek at a lifestyle very different from our own.
Taking small wooden boats through the channels between houses is somewhat of a voyeuristic experience. Houses sit on stilts, rising from the water, and looking in you see locals washing their hair, cleaning their dishes, or spearing fish for the market from their porch.
Locals slowly pass by, waving at you on their way to the floating grocery store, shouting hello, and you’ll see women casting nets out onto the lake, children even driving the boats.
As per Mekong Delta villages, many families here raise fish under their houses, and people in this region are so friendly that they may even welcome you to stop in and look around their home.
This is such a fascinating region, completely different to anything I had ever seen before; a whole community living above watery streets, where everything floats, from the petrol stations, to the churches, and even the schools.
Photos of Kampong Chhnang Floating Village
#11 Exploring the Ancient Temples of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is the main reason people visit Siem Reap; an Archaeological Park, spread over 400sq. kilometers and with more than 45 ancient Khmer temples that date back to the 9th century.
And even though this is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country, wandering through the ancient ruins of the Khmer Empire feels incredibly authentic and immersive.
It’s not cheesy, there are no tourist ropes to stop you from touching; it’s almost like you’ve discovered an ancient world, being reclaimed by nature because it’s been hidden for long. You feel as though at any minute you’ll bump into Indiana Jones or Lara Croft.
My advice? Don’t leave Siem Reap without visiting Angkor Wat. Wandering through ancient ruins, touching the rubble, and staring up at intricately carved deities; the experience is otherworldly.
A number of people on our cruise had booked through different travel agents, who didn’t tell them about the range of itineraries Worldwide River Cruises offer. Many were booked onto the option that finished in Siem Reap and didn’t include Angkor Wat, so they ended up missing it.
To include Angkor Wat in your itinerary, you’ll need to book onto the 15 day cruise that also includes Hanoi and Ha Long Bay at the beginning. Otherwise, if you’re happy leaving the cruise in Siem Reap and organizing Angkor yourself, there’s a 9 day cruise that starts in Ho Chi Minh City, and drops you off in Siem Reap.
Photos from Angkor Wat
How to Book a Cruise
If you’re drawn to Vietnam and Cambodia, I highly recommend taking a Mekong River Cruise with Worldwide River Cruises. Their website has a huge range of different trip options, and you can browse all available itineraries from 9 – 18 days.
Their Mekong itineraries have a fantastic balance of global cities like Saigon and Phnom Penh, and traditional villages you’ve probably never heard of. And this is a great way to truly immerse yourself in life throughout the region.
There’s no better way to explore undeveloped parts of each country, while still taking in bustling, frenzied cities with their palaces, nightlife, and museums, than by sailing the Mekong River.
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