The Mekong River is one of Asia's most prolific waterways, extending from the Yunnan province of China, through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and emptying into the South China Sea. Parts of the river have an infamous past as a major thoroughfare during World War II and more notoriously, the Vietnam War, but today the Mekong makes for more leisurely pursuits as visitors choose to cruise through some of the most colorful cities and traditional floating villages in this picturesque region of South East Asia. En-route, travelers visit historic sites and magnificent temples and experience the intersection of traditional and modern life on the water.
Most multi-day cruises depart from Vietnam and make their way to Cambodia over the period of a week or so, depending on the cruise company and number of stops. You will find that many itineraries are similar (the names Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City are used interchangeably, as are Siem Reap and Angkor Wat) and there are really only a handful of shipping companies that cover the Mekong route, including Pandaw, Bassac, Le Cochinchine, and Toum Tiou. There are also a few smaller boat operators whose trips are wholly within Laos and shorter Cambodian and Vietnam adventures. Cruises depart throughout the year but routes can vary because of seasonal fluctuations in water levels and access. Wet season may mean rain, but it also means access to more remote fishing villages and canals. Most trips will include interaction with local communities through visits to schools, businesses and sometimes to private homes.
Pandaw Cruises (tel. 800/798-4223; www.pandaw.com) is one of the main operators of replica steamer boat trips from Ho Chi Minh City to Angkor. These smaller scale ships allow for greater access to narrow waterways and fishing villages. Their eight-day Mekong River Exploration trip is priced from $2,287 per person based on a twin share basis staying on the main deck, or $2,580 on an upper deck during the high season (October 1 to May 31). Travel during low season, which also corresponds to the rainy season, and the price is reduced by 25%Â (a range of $1,035 to $1,623). This price includes hotel-to-ship transfers at the start and end of voyage, seven nights' accommodations in luxury, air-conditioned en-suite cabins with twin or double beds, English-speaking guides, all meals, non-alcoholic beverages, and admission fees to all sightseeing locations. Highlights of the trip include a traditional junk boat to explore evergreen islands and the former Imperial residence, An Kiet House; The National Museum with its display of Khmer crafts; and the 8th century Chenla Empire Wat Hanchey; the 12th century Angkorian temple of Wat Nokor; the twin holy mountains of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei; and Tonle Sap with its prolific bird life and floating fishing villages. Please note that prices indicated on the Pandaw website are generally per cabin (except for single cabins), not per person. You can also purchase this cruiser through a number of Vietnam-based tour operators and on-sellers, but the direct prices appear to be the cheapest.
Local travel company Vietnam Paradise Travel (tel. +84/4-3945-4769; www.vietnamtravelmall.com) offers a shorter three-day trip including a two-day Bassac Cruise from Ho Chi Minh CityÂ that travels along the Mekong but only within Vietnam is priced from $345 per person based on double occupancy. The price includes an English speaking guide, land transfers by A.C vehicle with driver, one night's accommodation at the French colonial Victoria Hotel on the banks of the Mekong River on single or double share basis with breakfast, one night staying aboard in a main deck cabin aboard the Bassac cruise ship, three meals whilst on the ship and admission fees. The tours starts with a driver pick up service from Ho Chi Minh followed by a four-hour tour through the Mekong Delta region to Can Tho. Visit a local basket-weaving village and a stork sanctuary before boarding the cruise taking you downstream of the Hau River. Experience a floating market near Tra On; travel down the Mang Thit river towards Co Chien River, and enjoy the floating markets and handicraft stalls at Cai Be before being driven back to Ho Chi Minh City.
The smaller scale Toum Tiou is a Cambodian operation that runs cruises between Vietnam and Cambodia on a charming traditional wood-paneled boat with a steel hull. The boat is named after the Khmer legend of star-crossed lovers (a Cambodian version of Romeo and Juliet). It has only ten cozy double cabins with private showers, a large lounge area, a panoramic viewing space, a half-covered bar-restaurant, a small library, and a roof patio. The Toum Tiou operates two regular rotations from Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) to Phnom Penh and from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City. Enjoy cruising the Mekong starting from the mythical city of Angkor Wat and traveling towards the Mekong Delta in Vietnam or vice versa. The ten-day Saigon to Siem Reap trip is priced at $1,735 per person based on double occupancy (or $1,670 per person if booking two cabins) with a $1,080 single supplement. Infants and toddlers under four years may sleep in their parent's cabin at no extra charge but parents have to provide their own baby food. Children aged four to 12 years pay 30% ($521 each). The prices include accommodation for nine-nights in small but comfortable traditional cabins, meals, non-alcoholic beverages, an English-speaking guide, sightseeing, entrance fees, and transportation from departure port to arrival port. You can purchase this cruise through Tuan Linh Travel (tel. +84/4-3917-8992; www.tuanlinhtravel.com), one of Vietnam's well-established travel companies.