It’s been a lengthy, sweaty 36 hours since I took a breath of fresh air and yet despite my exhausted state, I already know that the river cruise on the Mekong ahead of me will have been entirely worth the airport gymnastics.
This is the start of a dream voyage that will take me from the timeless Cambodian countryside to the bustling mayhem that is Phnom Penh following the bends of the legendary Mekong River, peeking at floating villages and Buddhist monasteries along the way and into the Vietnamese delta further south.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would leave Indochina under the complete and utter spell of its inhabitants, deeply moved by the unconditional generosity and innate kindness of those I would be lucky enough to cross paths with — and the realization that the primary force of attraction, here, is not something that tourists will find in glossy brochures.
My summary of a transformative 7-day river cruise on the Mekong, from Cambodia to Vietnam.
Highlights of a 7-Day River Cruise on the Mekong
Tonle Sap River
I can barely hear the sound of the motor as we ride soundlessly along the Tonle Sap, a seasonally inundated freshwater lake and a tributary of the Mekong better known for having a unique flow reversal caused by both the annual fluctuation of the Mekong’s water volume and the Asian Monsoon regime. The narrow waterway is the ideal place to observe how locals live and truly grasp the reality of Cambodia.
The curiously flat landscapes are dotted with stilt houses that are not only used as protection during monsoon and as an improvised cowshed, but also to, symbolically, get closer to the gods. Water buffalo and skinny Brahman cows thrive in the luxuriant vegetation only ever disturbed by the toddlers and teenagers impatiently waiting for the boat to navigate past their house while shouting “Hello! Hello! Hello!” at the top of their lungs — possibly the only English words they’ll ever know — and vigorously waving their hands at us. Contrary to kids being forced to harass tourists by their parents at the temples, these children are simply, genuinely happy to have people over, however brief the visit.
The brevity of the stop in Angkorban, a small commune nestled deep in the Battambang Province, far from the madding crowds and the urban cacophony, was perhaps one of the most poignant ones in this whole voyage. This is where I visit the local primary and secondary school and meet with irresistible children eager to meet newcomers despite the incalculable cultural gap that separates us.
From the smile of the fishmonger to the little girls who brought me freshly picked coral-hued flowers, the irony is not lost on me that it’s often those who have nothing to give who will surprise you the most.
Cambodia is a complex, rapidly growing place with vast and obvious inequalities that can majoritively be linked to the sanguinary genocide – call a spade a spade – led by Pol Pot against its own people in 1975; but on the other hand, Cambodians are some of the kindest, most amicable I’ve met despite their profound wounds. They’ve turned out to be one of the strongest archetypes of resilience and unconditional compassion I’ve come across to this day.
And these are the memories I want to cherish; improbable encounters and the discovery of not just the temples and the heritage but most of all, the people of Cambodia.
The honking tuk-tuks and the reddish-ochre Mekong river banks leave little doubt as to where the boat is docked. Once dubbed “the pearl of Asia”, Phnom Penh is a definitive assault on the senses after the quietude of the countryside but its Royal Palace, its National Museum, its diverse markets and its expanding café-terrace culture make it an interesting destination, along with its an amalgam of mismatched buildings with a certain je-ne-sais-quoi dating back to the French colonial era.
And while leisurely afternoons spent haggling at any of the dozen markets or sipping coffee while people watching, it would be downright unthinkable to travel to the Cambodian capital and overlook its tragic, not-that-long-ago history. Visiting the tragically yet aptly named Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng genocide museum is not for the faint of heart but are essential nonetheless; the horrendous acts performed within these walls are simply indescribable and I can barely bring myself to step into the succession of rooms filled with photographs of victims taken before their untimely demise. Not one person exits the gates without a dull look, troubled by the inherent horror of the museum and the sombre realisation that four decades later we are not any safer from such heinous acts.
In memory of the victims, in hope for a brighter future, and for the sake of tolerance, one simply cannot go to Phnom Penh and not acknowledge the genocide performed by the Khmer Rouge regime.
Comprising a few hundred houses built atop bamboo trees and artisanal fish farms, this village is painted in almost every shade of blue to honour Norodom Sihamoni, the King of Cambodia. This is also where visitors will find a lively yet rather primitive fish market, which, despite its irrefutably fetid smell, is still well worth a look in order to fully understand how people live in the Tonle Sap area.
Visiting Kampong Chhnang was yet another validation of my belief that had I visited the Cambodian countryside 100 years ago, it would’ve looked exactly the same.
Wat Preah Angkoak
The beauty of sailing an intimate ship on this river cruise on the Mekong is that we are at liberty to moor at the smallest, least touristy of landmarks. Located just a few hours ride from Angkorban, this striking gold temple was a real treat to visit after the crowds of Phnom Penh and worse still, Siem Reap. Here, monkeys and monks mingle peacefully and I find myself in awe of the colourful frescoes inside the pagoda, enthralled by the numerous scenes and also, quietly, ashamed at my lack of knowledge of Buddhist heritage.
With its Muslim community and its mosque, Chau Doc is a rather unusual place; in fact, it benefits from a surprising cultural diversity for a village this size. I leave the antique wooden barge and hop on a rickety bamboo bridge that will lead me across a canal carpeted by lush floating plants and finally emerge next to stilt houses. Perched high on the banks of River Bassac, they allow me to cheekily observe how locals live by peeking inside their rudimentary dwellings.
I head towards the high street at a leisurely pace where I stumble upon a minuscule and fragrant – to put it lightly – street market. At this point, a PSA is necessary: were there anything vaguely resembling a public health code in Vietnam, it clearly is not heavily enforced. Fish worryingly wait for their inevitable faith wriggle in a makeshift basin (in Vietnam, fish is only decapitated at the request of the client in order to demonstrate freshness) while raw meat is stored in a wicker basket on the back of a motorcycle fully exposed to the blaring sun. Lorries and buses zoom past just a few metres from the scene and yet, this is just how markets are done in Vietnam, with no one to give it any second thought.
For lack of sustainment – I do not think neither my stomach nor my immune system would be keen to forgive an affront of the sort – I leave the market with what I think is a rather good series of images, surprised at and thankful for the spontaneity and friendliness with which Vietnamese people greet photographers.
This only-keeps-getting-better river cruise on the Mekong also took our group to Sa Dec. With a population nearing 150,000 inhabitants, this place has the allure and the atmosphere I expected from busy South-East Asia – in fact, it once was the informal capital of the Mekong Delta in the 19th century.
European tourists beeline for the sino-French house portrayed in The Lover novel and film by Marguerite Duras, which is an autofiction based on her early life in Indochina. It’s actually a delightful urban pagoda dating back to 1895 and this is where the protagonist Huynh Thuy Le lived.
Those unfamiliar with the author discovered the immense public market, which unfolds over several blocks; meat, flowers, fruits, vegetables, fish, rice… the stalls pile up and yet none of them is vacant. Here, I feel as though I’m truly at the centre of the activity and this vigour makes me twice as excited for our final stop, the Vietnamese capital.
Ho Chi Minh City
Formerly known as Saigon, the capital takes me by absolute surprise despite the abundant advice I received before I got here. I thought I was mentally prepared for the nonsensical pandemonium. How naïve of me! In Ho Chi Minh City, crossing the street is nothing short of bravery:
In the absence of traffic lights, eight million scooters continuously dash towards their destination without a care in the world for helpless pedestrians. The only possible way to reach the adjacent sidewalk is to spot a gap – however small – in traffic, step onto the street confidently and hope for the best.
At this point, I’m not sure whether I’m sweating because it’s 40 degrees outside or because I’m genuinely frightened for my life, but the rush of adrenaline throws me into an uncontrollable laughter once I do make it to the other side all limbs visibly unscathed… until I have to do it all again 100 metres further.
Experiencing Saigon is also done by visiting its historic attractions spanning French colonisation to the American war, from alleys where time seems to have stood still to incensed-out temples, and from the strikingly European Notre-Dame cathedral to the discordant Palace of Reunification, and, of course, the Cu Chi tunnels.
There are more than enough things to do in Ho Chi Minh to keep me busy for a few days – in fact, I would require a full week simply to taste the gastronomic offering. Pho! Grilled meat! Noodles! Spring rolls! Alas, I only have 48 hours to make the most of the capital and I choose to top it off with rooftop sunset drinks at the posh Rex Hotel.
The audacity and the complex history of Vietnam make it a country heavy with contrasts that I feel must be visited on several occasions in order to fully comprehend its identity. I’ve only scratched the surface but I choose to see it as an excuse to return rather than an all-too-short trip.