I had never taken a river cruise, and, to be fair, this was my first trip to both Vietnam and Cambodia, though I was fairly certain that a river cruise was the best way to see each country.
I may not have visited much of Asia, but I had a feeling in my gut that traveling independently by land would mean missing out on half the adventure.
One of the world’s longest rivers, covering 4,000 km from its source high on the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong River is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia. It flows from China to Vietnam through six countries (China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), and is key to the survival of some 300 million people.
From fishing boats to floating markets, river life along the Mekong is vibrant, and has been for thousands of years. And it captures a diversity that you wouldn’t experience by land; a juxtaposition of ancient temples with modern palaces, of imperial cities with traditional villages.
I didn’t want an incomplete picture from my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I wanted to see the major tourist sites, sure, but I also wanted to see daily life come alive in undeveloped and unexplored parts of the region.
I wanted to immerse myself in new languages and lifestyles, to shake hands with locals who had never seen a foreign tourist, and really witness local life as we drifted along the Mekong Delta to Cambodia.
Reasons to Take a Mekong River Cruise With Worldwide River Cruises
#1 The Itinerary
The itinerary is what really drew me to booking a cruise with Worldwide River Cruises. With a range of Mekong River itineraries from 9 – 18 days, you can essentially choose your own adventure, and choose to explore further than the Mekong.
Most Mekong River cruises begin (or end) in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and this is the northernmost part of Vietnam that river cruises usually visit. But, if you look at a map of Vietnam, HCMC is at the very bottom of the snaking S shaped country.
Vietnam is a stunningly beautiful country, and while the Mekong itself is an immense highlight, stopping your journey there wouldn’t be doing it justice. But to start your journey in Hanoi, cruise through otherworldly limestone islands in Ha Long Bay, take in the ancient town of Hoi An, and then do the Mekong?
Worldwide River Cruises covered everything.
Their Mekong itineraries have a fantastic balance of global cities like Saigon and Phnom Penh, and traditional villages the internet had evidently never heard of. But despite not having much knowledge of places like Tan Chau, Koh Chen, or Kampong Tralach, these ended up being more of a highlight than the ‘Insta-worthy’ palaces in Phnom Penh.
What we got at these stops wasn’t a brochure, or a gift shop, or an audio guide; it was genuine interactions with local communities who live along the Mekong. Which made for incredible, incredible memories.
#2 Authentic Local Experiences
I remember driving towards a pottery village on day 8; the ship had docked next to a mud path that ran up the bank of the Mekong, and we were taking an excursion out to a village called Kampong Chnang.
I remember jumping into the locally driven mini bus, and as we were driving, looking out at the dirt roads, thinking ‘holy *&$*, this is really local’.
Because there’s a difference these days between tour companies who stage local experiences, and tour companies who offer access to real communities. Worldwide River Cruises provided the latter.
When we visited pottery villages, where they would make everything from ancient techniques, wholly by hand, we weren’t visiting a factory that had been set up just for tourists, they were inviting us underneath their stilt homes, and letting us watch them go about their day.
And when we bought fabric from locals who weave the cotton in their home, we knew that we were buying it directly from the hands that had made it. This was so much more than a transaction; you could see them beaming with pride that you admired their craft.
The excursions they planned for us weren’t some touristy gimmick, where people dressed in traditional clothes charge you for selfies, and hawkers stalk you in the streets until they harass you into buying something. The villages they took us to were far removed from development, from modern life, and from tourism.
This was the real thing.
Snapshots of Our Local Experiences
#3 Supporting Local Communities
It almost brought me to tears, watching the huge amount of work that goes into creating a pot by hand, to learn that the woman in front of me makes 40 c for 20 of them.
That price is far removed from the cost they actually sell for in the glitzy shop fronts of the cities. But it’s always been the way of world economies that rural artisans get largely cut out of the profits.
To actually support villagers who live in poverty with the feeble $20 I had sitting in my pocket was something that made this cruise incredibly special. Because tourism shouldn’t just be a about what you’re getting out of the experience.
Tourism should benefit both the traveler, and the local community. And I’ve started only traveling with companies who live and breathe this mantra; who practice responsible tourism in a way that contributes to sustainable community development.
I had seen Kampong Tralanc on the itineraries of other cruise companies; taking ox carts out to local temples, which in itself was quite unique. But Worldwide River Cruises went beyond this.
We went further into the village to visit a local public school, where the children happily welcomed us into their classroom. And when we were leaving, our guide Rithy handed one of the teachers an envelope. He sponsors the yearly salary of one teacher from his own pay, so that local children have access to education.
On the night we docked in Phnom Penh, children from a local orphanage came on board to perform classical Khmer dance and music; Worldwide River Cruises makes financial contributions to the orphanage from their profits.
Shots from Our Time in Local Communities
#4 The Scenery
The scenery is a fabulous reason to take a Mekong River Cruise. Covering some 15,000 square miles, the Mekong River has a rich agricultural history, and as you drift, the skyscrapers of HCMC change into a countryside dotted by rice paddies, fish farms, and tropical fruit orchards.
You float past multicultural communities, past mountain-top temples, Islamic mosques, and Catholic cathedrals. After-all, this is one of the most ethnically diverse world regions, home to over 300 million people, and over 100 different ethnicities.
The river might be notorious for it’s muddy brown color, but the scenery above the water is a lush tropical rainforest with a dizzying variety of greens.
Houses, markets and boats float along the rivers and canals that break off from the Mekong like arteries, and you have the chance to watch as river life unfolds; fishermen casting nets out of small wooden boats, buffalos wallowing in rice paddies, and slow sampan boats floating up-stream.
Mekong river life is a culture unto itself; a completely different world. And while we had a fairly active itinerary, this was well balanced, with enough time for relaxing as we sailed, and taking in the extraordinary scenery.
Snapshots of Mekong River Life
#5 The Staff
The staff can either make or break a trip, and like-wise, the people a company employs says a lot about their values. Needless to say, the staff on the RV Lan Diep during our Mekong River Cruise were exceptional, and really made the trip more memorable.
From Captain Duc, who probably had a lapse of judgement in being friendly enough to let me take the wheel (that’s right, I steered the ship! … let’s be honest, it was for a whole 2 minutes, but I’m still counting it!), to our tour leader Martin, to the chefs, the wait staff, and the housekeepers, everyone on the staff was incredible.
As passengers, we only ever saw smiling faces, and were always referred to by name. This left me in awe, as even by day 9 I was still calling other passengers ‘hey friend‘ because I couldn’t remember their name!
Whenever we re-boarded the ship after an excursion, the staff were there waiting with cold towels, refreshing drinks, and smiles that said they were genuinely happy to see us again. They were all local, of course, though their English for the most part was impeccable.
When the barman found me struggling to get onto Facebook (let’s be honest, I knew that visiting undeveloped regions meant to not expect high speed WiFi), he offered to hotspot his personal phone for me.
They went above and beyond in everything they did to make sure that we received excellent service.
#6 Local Tour Guides
Our tour guides for daily excursions were locals with extensive knowledge of their country. Visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh is one thing, but it was next level to hear from our guide Rithy about his personal experiences having lived through the period of the Khmer Rouge.
And because they were local, their passion when speaking about their country really shone through, and we learned about the history and culture of the region not just from museum info boards, but from personal experiences, and personal stories.
Just like the ship staff, the tour guides that Worldwide River Cruises employed were the friendliest, warmest, most knowledgeable guides, with impeccable English.
They would make side trips that weren’t part of the daily itinerary if we needed cash out from a bank, or an escort through side streets to buy a local SIM card (I was getting my high speed WiFi!). And they would take the rain-jackets off their own back in the middle of an afternoon downpour when a passenger (me) had left theirs behind.
As an Australian, it’s not part of my culture to generously tip people, but our tour guides were tipped generously. And they deserved every bit of it.
#7 The Excursions
A cruise of the Mekong River is all about the daily excursions; visiting cities and towns that have sprung up along the banks, and as mentioned, a big reason to book with Worldwide River Cruises is their skill at crafting an itinerary.
Excursions were well balanced in their diversity; we didn’t get temple fatigue, or feel as though we had visited too many museums; one day we would be in a bustling city, and take in palaces, street food, and museums, and the next we would visit a rural village.
There was a great balance of war history (a day trip out from Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels was a highlight), of city life, of countryside, and rural poverty. And even transport was far from monotonous; we got to various sites by mini bus, tuk-tuk, motorcycle, sampas (local wooden row boats), and by ox cart!
On days in port there were two excursions planned per day; we would head out for the first in the morning after breakfast, and return to the ship for lunch. After lunch we would take an afternoon excursion, and return for personal time before dinner.
It’s a packed itinerary, but at the same time, managed to provide time for relaxation and personal reflection. And every excursion offered a fascinating insight into either culture, history, or local river life.
Snapshots From Our Excursions
#8 The Ship
While the Mekong region might be rugged and off the beaten path, the RV Lan Diep was anything but. A 4 star ship that just oozes old world luxury, the exquisite wood ship mastered the balance of providing a luxury experience that felt true to the ancient tradition of riverboat building.
With 22 cabins, the RV Lan Diep is spacious, and as your floating home, you have a lux cabin that sleeps two, with private bathroom and air conditioning (an important luxury considering the tropical climate).
There are 10 cabins on the upper deck, and 12 on the lower deck, exquisitely fitted-out with Cambodian tropical hardwoods and palm wood for a decorative finish and an authentic feel. The cabins are approx 16 square meters, each with large panoramic windows that look directly out onto the river.
There are make-up mirrors in the cabin and bathroom (though being so humid, makeup just melts off, so I personally wouldn’t bother!), multi configuration plugs, as well as closet space and under-bed storage.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all included, and the dining room has a luxury colonial charm. Beyond this there is also a common area on the top of the ship with loungers and tropical plants for relaxing, a bar with snacks and cocktails, and WiFi that works in the main area up top.
Being that you’re on a moving ship, I never expected the WiFi to be fabulous, but surprisingly it works OK … when there are very few people on it. I stayed up on my first night in Ho Chi Minh City to work, and while it struggled with 40 people trying to use it, as soon as everyone had gone to bed the speed was lightning fast (I opted for local SIM cards to maintain a connection in more rural areas).
This access to comfort and pampering (it was $20 for a 45 minute massage in-room), while exploring both major cities and remote, seemingly untouched villages, was an incredible way of traveling.
Photos of the RV Lan Diep
#9 The Planning
The tell of a good tour company is in the attention to detail. It’s in pre-empting everything you could possibly need, and in how they react to situations that were otherwise unforseen.
I give Worldwide River Cruises huge props for their planning, as everything about the cruise was handled smoothly. From the food preparation, to the excursions, to the staff they hired; to make something seem effortless actually requires highly organized planning.
Even though they already focus on small group tours, our cruise of 40 was split into two groups for our daily excursions. Being able to travel in such small numbers made it feel a lot more immersive, and for that I’m incredibly appreciative.
I was especially impressed with the audio guides handed out for every excursion. We could hear our guides speaking even if we had hung back from the group and wandered off on our own, which I did quite a lot to take photos.
Each evening before dinner our group of 40 would gather in the lounge for a briefing of the next day, so that we would all know exactly what was happening, timings, and where we were going. There was a great flow of communication.
Gluten free, and food allergies were well catered to, you could run a tab throughout the cruise and pay for everything extra (like happy hour cocktails) all at once, at the end. They obviously had the organization and planning part of it down to a science.
Practicalities (Safety, When to Cruise & Packing)
Both Vietnam and Cambodia are very safe to visit, and the Mekong region presented absolutely no safety concerns while cruising. Each country may have a war torn history, though both have overcome these periods of political unrest, and are now very peaceful countries.
There are two seasons in the Mekong Delta; wet season runs from May through October, and dry season runs from November through April. Temperatures during the dry season are lower and less humid, but it’s not a hugely noticeable difference.
As such, the Mekong River is suitable for cruising all year round, though cruising during the wet season means higher water levels on the Mekong and Tonle Sap Lake (you have to cross this lake to get to Siem Reap). If the lake is too low for ships to pass you’ll have to travel by land the last leg of the way.
The wet season does see more rain, though showers typically only last for 30 minutes in the afternoons, and Worldwide River Cruises provided us with plastic ponchos for keeping dry when we traveled in June.
Being a tropical, humid region, make sure you pack light, loose-fitting clothes, as well as a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and mosquito repellent (mosquitoes can be ruthless along the Mekong). Aim for clothes that covers your knees and shoulders so you can enter religious sites.
Comfortable walking shoes that you’re happy to get dirty are a must. The daily excursions will see you do a lot of walking, and often through farmland, on unpaved roads, and up and down river banks.
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. But I would recommend booking it through them directly.
A number of passengers on our cruise had booked through different travel agents, who didn’t tell them about the range of itineraries. 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.
Either way, their website has all of the available options, and you can browse all available itineraries from 9 – 18 days. I recommend Worldwide River Cruises highly.
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