Why the best way to absorb the culture of Vietnam and Cambodia is cruising this river
Vietnam and Cambodia offer a colourful culture, poignant history and verdant landscapes. These countries are ideally suited to travelling by water as many of the most rewarding experiences are tucked away in the countryside through which the Mekong River passes.
With most leading cruise operators, all excursions are included in the price of your trip. Not only do these include visiting popular sights such as the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat and the Cu Chi network of wartime tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) but you’ll also have the chance to visit homes, schools, markets, monasteries and tiny villages.
This immersive approach enables you to see how ordinary people go about their daily lives, eat the food they do and experience less-seen landmarks and rituals. It adds a compelling dimension to your holiday without the hassle of having to make any complicated plans yourself.
Mix with the locals
You’ll get a glimpse of everyday life on the riverbank from the deck of your modern ship as you drift serenely along the Mekong. Rickety wooden houses on stilts lean haphazardly against each other. Children wave excitedly and shout “hello”; their fathers are fishing and tinkering with boat engines and their mothers sell rice, fruit and flowers in the floating markets.
Ashore, you’ll be taken off the beaten track to visit villages, where smiling people offer a warm welcome. You can find out how craftspeople work with silk, copper and silver, and learn how to make rice paper. You’ll get a taste of rural Mekong life on a rickshaw ride through village streets and on a cart pulled by an ox through paddy fields. There’s also the chance to be showered by lotus petals in a blessing by Buddhist monks at their monastery in Oudong, the former royal capital of Cambodia.
Sample regional food
Immersing your senses in the aromas and flavours of a region plays an important role in really getting to know a country. This is especially true in Vietnam and Cambodia, where the aromatic cuisine is a treat for the nose and taste buds.
As well as sampling regional dishes aboard your river vessel, docking overnight in Ho Chi Minh and Phnom Penh gives you the chance to dine ashore and mix with the locals. The cities are places of manic energy and riotous traffic, and crossing the road is almost impossible. The easiest option is to ask a local to see you across, preferably a Buddhist monk. His orange robe is hi-vis and no one would dare to knock down a holy man.
In restaurants, people tend to eat “family style”, sharing dishes. A typical Vietnamese meal will include rice, a meat or seafood dish, a vegetable dish, soup and fish sauce for dipping. The national dish is pho – a broth in which noodles, vegetables, and chicken, beef, pork or shrimp are added. Cambodia’s national dish is amok – a delicious fish curry steamed in banana leaves – and samlor macho trey (sweet and sour fish soup) and char kroeung sach ko (stir-fried lemongrass beef) are among other favourites.
The chef on board your river cruise ship may also take you to a market in Saigon to watch street food being prepared and to buy ingredients for an authentic Vietnamese cookery class back on board.
Leaving the big city, your guide may lead you to a riverside market in, say, the delta town of Sa Dec, where you can shop for everything from lotus stalks and rose apples to delicacies such fillets of skinned rats and deep-fried tarantulas (happily, neither are included for your cookery lesson).
Delve into history
Itineraries offered by leading river cruise operators include a hotel stay in Siem Reap with a pilgrimage to nearby Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s extraordinary 12th-century temple complex dedicated to the god Vishnu. Your guide will take you to witness sunrise or sunset over its ornate spires and regale you with colourful stories. Your visit may include a tour of the Bayon, the Khmer temple built for the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, and the atmospheric vine-smothered Ta Prohm, the so-called “Tomb Raider Temple”, constructed for his mother.
Reaching Phnom Penh, you will have the option of visiting the Killing Fields memorial of Choeung Ek and the S-21 Genocide Museum. Each tells the story, movingly and horrifyingly, of the terrible Khmer Rouge years. In the late Seventies an estimated third of Cambodia’s population was killed – chiefly educated Cambodians who were seen as a threat to Pol Pot’s regime. Teachers, doctors, artists, lawyers, diplomats – even those who could speak French or who wore glasses – were eliminated.
Not everyone may want to join this harrowing excursion but it is important to learn about and acknowledge what happened here only a few decades ago. Thankfully, Cambodia has come a long way since the dark days of the Khmer Rouge and the country has made a remarkable recovery. You’ll meet families, heads bowed, who come to pay their respects to those who suffered.
In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) you can delve into an underground world of guerrilla warfare in the 125-mile maze of Cu Chi tunnels dug by the Communist Viet Cong. The site contains trapdoors, living areas, kitchens, storage facilities, armoury, hospitals, command centres. In some areas there were even large theatres and music halls to provide diversion for the troops.
The tunnels played a large part of military campaigns during the Vietnam War and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tet Offensive in 1968, a series of surprise attacks on scores of cities, towns, and hamlets throughout South Vietnam. This played an important role in weakening US public support for the war and a slow, painful American withdrawal from the region.
River cruise operators in Vietnam and Cambodia include…
APT (0800 012 6683; aptouring.co.uk)
Avalon Waterways (0330 0588243; avaloncruises.co.uk)
Jahan (+84012217448; jahancruises.com)
Jayavarman (+84012217448; jahancruises.com)
Uniworld (0808 302 6270; uniworld.com)
Viking River Cruises (0800 319 6660; vikingrivercruises.co.uk)