The Mekong River is the life-blood for all who rely on her, whether it be a farmer, river trader or transporter. A Mekong River cruise provides you with a wonderful insight into how this mighty river runs, from sleepy villages to thriving farming sectors and as a national super highway transporting goods and materials along its length. It is a great experience and it’s a lazy way to travel the Mekong.
When we board Heritage Lines river boat the Jahan for our Mekong adventure, we are warmly welcomed by the crew, who are genuinely delighted to see you. We are embraced by their hospitality, ensuring that our experience in Vietnam and Cambodia will be long remembered.
Our river cruise starts at My Tho in the Mekong Delta, which could be described as a swamp, a riverside paradise or a busy river port. In reality, it is all three. It is in this delta that you will discover floating markets and villages surrounded by rice paddies. It is an agricultural region that is the food bowl of Vietnam. The lifestyle is simple in this region.
Most nights, after cruising the river, we drop anchor ‘mid-stream’, usually close to the river bank away from other river traffic. Our first night was at Cai Be, an industrialised area founded by Chinese refugees in the late 1600s fleeing Taiwan during China’s dynastic wars.
Our day in Cai Be started by taking in the early morning serenity. Cai Be is well known for its colourful floating markets and our visit included with a tour to the market by local sampan. On-board sampans, we witnessed locals trading fruit and vegetables, grown from across the Mekong Delta. Further on, at Phu An, we are offered a wonderful insight into the production of coconut candy, pop rice and rice paper. This provides us with a great introduction to how locals live and trade.
On Binh Thanh Island in Sa Dec the following day, we again are transported using the familiar sampans. Sa Dec is a river port as well as an agricultural and industrial trading centre. It was, at one stage, the largest river port along the Mekong. Here, on the island, we visit an unspoiled local community where rattan mats are produced. We are also afforded an ‘audience’ with a village elder, using our guide as the interpreter. We are able to better appreciate the life of a Vietnamese villager and their subsistence lifestyle. It is humbling to learn of their happiness in life, with just the necessities and good health.
We sail into Tan Chau, Vietnam’s fish zone. It is a remote town and cultural melting pot. This town near the Cambodian border has sizeable Chinese, Cham and Khmer communities, providing a cultural diversity evident by the mosques, temples and churches co-existing side by side. This town is well known for its floating fish farms and a bustling market. We are taken by trishaw to the central market, which is typical of markets in regional areas. These are simple shelters, opened sides with distinct sections for home-wares, produce, flowers and the obligatory Asian wet market where fresh meat and fish are available.
Once we finish exploring the markets, we travel to a typical floating fish farm and learn the essence of fish farming on the Mekong. A family’s sole existence here is to raise fish. Lots and lots of fish. Fish farmers install netting under houseboats and a neighbouring work boat, which creates significant space to raise over 100,000 fish. The farmer lifts up a plank from the floor, and tosses in a handful of food pellets, putting the fish into a frenzy. They farm several types of fish in each enclosure, each surviving at different depths. Fish are bought as fingerlings and after eight to ten months, are sold on. On the work boat, the family makes food for the fish made up of sea fish, rice and potatoes. It’s gruelling work and has a smell that only a fish could love. The floating fish farms are mainly private houses so we are appreciative of a tour into a farm.
Leaving Tan Chau, sailing leisurely towards Phnom Penh, we have time to witness Mekong River life and enjoy the scenery.
Phnom Penh has been referred to as the Paris of the East. Despite its development, the city has retained some of its colonial charm and character as cyclos weave through traffic. We visit the royal palace and silver pagoda, killing field museum and toul sleng S21 prison
It is the visit to the ‘killing fields’ that has the most telling impact on us personally. This is a poignant reminder to the mass murders under the Khmer Rouge, a genocide which wiped out nearly half of Cambodia’s population. It is a place that is a stark scene as shocking as it is moving.
Leaving Phnom Penh, we arrive at Koh Oakhnatey silk island and learn how silk is made. We explore the island by taking a tuk-tuk to the silk weaving village. Witnessing the creation of beautiful high class fabric from simple techniques is amazing.
Then on to Angkor Ban and walking tour through the village provides us with a glimpse of this beautiful and unspoiled (apart from the tourists!) community and its traditional houses.
A short cruise upstream is Wat Hanchey, a beautifully situated hilltop pagoda that overlooks the Mekong. The brick structures of the Wat date back to the 8th century. It was an important religious centre during the pre-Angkor period. We climb the many many steps to Wat Hanchey, a temple compound outside Kampong Cham. This is an ornate pagoda painted the color of summer sunshine. Incense swirls in a warm breeze that whistles through the open doors and saffron-robed monks wander the grounds. From its vantage point, we experience a panoramic view of the Mekong. We see the greatness of the river that has been our ‘highway’ for the past week.
Kampong Chhang is the penultimate stop where we are shown the art of Khmer pottery and explore local floating villages and wetlands by boat. I sense that there’s not a lot to do in Kampong Chhang, but it’s fantastic to get a feel for how most of Cambodia lives.
Finally, our cruise approaches the narrow Chnok Tru Channel into Tonle Sap Lake. This is the great lake of Cambodia and we marvel at the lake’s vastness as we sail towards Phnom Krom. It is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. We are told that it is actually shallow, with a maximum depth of only 10 metres. From the dry season to the rainy season, its water level continuously changes depending on the levels of rainfall. The characteristic stilted houses are designed to withstand enormous fluctuations in the size and depth of the lake.
A Mekong cruise is simple and peaceful. You will easily fall in love with the relaxed nature of this cruise and of course, with the people you meet and the mesmerising river life. You enjoy real experiences. The friendliness of the people is a speciality of the Mekong. You explore places that are not accessible by other means, unless you are an intrepid land traveller.