River Cruising Along the Mekong in Vietnam & Cambodia
A few years ago, we went on land/river cruise trip through Vietnam and Cambodia. We had an amazing time seeing these two countries. There is so much history and culture. Some of the history is hard to take in, especially visiting sites like The Killing Fields and the “Hotel Hanoi” where American POW’s were held during the Vietnam War. Seeing these places in person though is an eye-opening experience. It was sad because so much of the Cambodian history is unknown to many people. But meeting the amazing, resilient people who can always find a reason to smile was so amazing. We also enjoyed seeing the hustle and bustle in Hanoi and Phnom Penh.
This was our first time ever in Asia, and we definitely cannot wait to go back! Our trip was with Viking River Cruises and we had the best guides ever who made the trip even more enjoyable. Here is everything we did and saw during our two weeks in Vietnam & Cambodia. Enjoy!
Off We Go…
First we did a lot of flying. A lot. Sarasota to Chicago. Chicago O’Hare to Seoul, South Korea. Seoul to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh (HCM) City, Vietnam. It was about 20 hours of flying. Luckily Korean Air is spectacular and it reminded us again of how terrible it is to fly domestic! We just love the feeling of getting on a plane and then being halfway around the world. Anyone who has traveled internationally understands that amazing feeling.
The heat smacks you in the face when you first leave the airport in HCM City. We were there in early March, so it was getting close to their rainy season. No issues with luggage (whew!) and we were off to the hotel. We arrived at the Sofitel Saigon Plaza and promptly passed out from exhaustion.
Our first full day in HCM City consisted of touring. We got to see the Reunification Palace, Post Office (way cooler than it sounds!), Notre Dame Cathedral, a lacquer factory, and Chinatown. The Reunification Palace is an interesting place to visit. We got to see the war room in the basement of the building and hear a little bit about the Vietnam War. When we stopped at Notre Dame Cathedral, there were many couples outside taking wedding pictures. On a Monday. We asked our guides why so many people were getting married on this random Monday. They explained that couples take their wedding pictures before the big day and these couples will be getting married in about a month.
Anyone who has been to Vietnam has noted the crazy motorbike traffic. On our first day in HCM City, our guides said that to cross the street you just start walking at a steady pace and the motorbikes will go around you. What?! (By the end of the trip, everyone in our group was casually crossing the street like it was no big deal). It was also enjoyable to see the French influence on the architecture while driving around. Unfortunately we did not get to spend too much time in HCM City, but it sure is an interesting place to visit. This is in south Vietnam, which is much different than north Vietnam.
After a nice breakfast at our hotel, we boarded a bus for an hour and a half drive to My Tho. This is where we boarded our river cruise ship, the RV Indochina. We had a local guide with us on the bus ride who pointed out may interesting things along the way. While we were leaving the city, you definitely noticed more poverty and the streets were dirtier. When you get on the freeway, there are no motorbikes allowed so there was no traffic which was great. We saw a lot of rice paddies on our drive. Our local guide, Giang, pointed out the elaborate graves of the relatives who have passed away on the different farms. It was an interesting sight to see people living in tin houses with these beautiful graves next to them. It shows how much they respect the dead.
Our home for the next 7 days, the RV Indochina Pandaw, is a beautiful wooden ship that was reminiscent of the glamorous age of travel. For anyone that has been on a cruise before, this was the easiest boarding process ever. We just walked onto the ship. Now begins our journey down the Mekong River.
Cruising along the Mekong River
The first place we stopped was Cai Be where we got to see the floating markets. We also saw locals making pop rice, coconut candy, and other goodies. It was so hot out. Luckily our tours were short. We had a tour in the morning, then break for lunch, and sometimes another short tour in the afternoon.
The next day we visited two more spots. Sa Dec is a poor area. It was a bit depressing walking through here. The market we saw was pretty wild though. Seeing all the different foods was fascinating. After Sa Dec we went to the island Cu Lao Gien. The people here were friendly and welcoming. Sometimes it is weird intruding on these people’s lives, but they seemed to enjoy showing us where they lived. The kids followed us around, but did not beg for money which was refreshing. We also visited a Catholic Church on the island and met one of the priests.
We spent the next day visiting a Cham Village, Chau Doc, and crossing the border into Cambodia. The Cham Village is actually a Muslim tribal village. It was another poor area with lots of kids begging for money. It was pretty interesting to see the village. The next stop was Chau Doc where we got to take a rickshaw ride. This was a lot of fun and gave a great overview of the city. I wish we would have had more time to explore after the ride! After Chau Doc we spend the rest of the day cruising until we got to the Cambodian border. It was quite fascinating crossing the border. You could immediately notice the change in landscape. Cambodia is much more lush and exotic.
First stop in Cambodia is Phnom Penh. Our tour was via tuk-tuk which was a fun way to explore the city. We saw the Royal Palace which was magnificent. The Silver Pagoda is a famous spot to visit here. The architecture is quite stunning. We also saw the Cambodian National Museum where there were artifacts and pictures. Our local guide, Buntha (who is one of the most amazing people I have ever met), shared his incredible story with us. He was kidnapped as a child by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime and lost every one of his family members except one cousin. He did not know his name or birthday until years later when he ran into his cousin who told him. It is amazing to hear how people can go through such horrible things and still be thankful.
This is the day we also went to see The Killing Fields which is right outside of Phnom Penh in Choeng Ek. This is one of the locations prisoners were taken to be executed. Buntha gave this tour also, but said it is sometimes difficult to walk through here and it gives him nightmares. Next we went to Tuol Sleng which was a high school turned into a prison during the Khmer Rouge. There were only 7 survivors of Tuol Sleng. Two of them are still alive and go to the prison to share their story with tourists. This day was sobering and educational afternoon. It is distressing to think that so many people are unaware of what took place in Cambodia. Especially because this event only occurred about forty years ago. So many of the people who survived it are still alive. That night after dinner we got to see a traditional dance performed by some Cambodia children. Learning about the Cambodians pride in their culture was a nice way to end the day.
Next we sailed to a small village called Kampong Trolach. We took a 15 minute ox cart ride which was definitely a unique experience! The most adorable little girls followed us and sang songs. We got to see some beautiful landscapes along the ride, however the village was poor. After the ox cart ride we boarded a bus and took a ride to the Udon Monastery. Tis monastery was beyond gorgeous. It is on a hill and everything is so ornate. In the blessing hall, three Buddhist monks chanted and threw flowers at us for good prosperity. We could take pictures with the monks, but women are not allowed to touch them. We really enjoyed walking around the monastery and seeing the monks, priests, and nuns.
After this we sailed back to Phnom Penh and had the rest of the day to ourselves. We walked to the central market to look around. We were a little surprised by how may tourists were in Phnom Penh. Maybe because this is still not a popular spot for Americans to go, but there were a lot of European and Australian travelers. The city is very happening and we really enjoyed walking around. That night we went to the Night Market, which was definitely a highlight of the trip. The Night Market is huge with a giant stage that had live performances and music. It was so fun walking around and people watching.
We spent the next day sailing to Kampong Cham. Sitting on the top deck of the river cruise ship and watching everything go by was awesome. When we arrived in Kampong Cham, we toured the Twin Holy Mountains: Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei. Sadly this was our last stop on the Mekong River. We disembarked the RV Indochina to head to Siem Reap.
If you are interested in reading about Siem Reap and Angkor Wat in more detail, please check out our post: The Temples of Angkor.
Last leg of the trip
After seeing Angkor Wat and the rest of the amazing temples in Siem Reap, we took a flight back to Vietnam. Our last leg of the journey took us to Hanoi in northern Vietnam. For us, Hanoi was much more modern than any other city we visited. Again, we did not have much time to explore here, but we enjoyed what we did get to see. This is also where we got to tour the “Hanoi Hilton” which had artifacts and propaganda. Some of the people in our tour group were upset with some of the things the Vietnam government claimed in videos shown throughout. It is still worth visiting to see where the American POW’s were held.
We spent our last day in Vietnam going to Ha Long Bay. We got to take a junk ship tour around the bay. You may have read other blog posts about travelers being disappointed with Ha Long Bay. If you get the opportunity to go, it is a really neat place to sail around. We also had a delicious meal. It certainly was not the most beautiful place we went to, but it was a great end to a fantastic trip. The people we met were so friendly and welcoming. We never felt uncomfortable walking around in either country. This trip was also educational because sadly we do not hear much about this part of the world.
If you do go to Vietnam or Cambodia, go during the winter months as it was uncomfortably hot in the spring and only gets worse in the summer. Bring comfortable shoes and flowy clothes. Thank you for reading this post, we know it was a bit lengthy![Check out more pictures from our trip: Vietnam and Cambodia]
Have you traveled to either Vietnam or Cambodia? What did you like or dislike about it? Let us know in the comments!
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