On the transfer over from the airport to our hotel in Saigon the immediate impression is that this is a world away from the images of the Mekong that we’d seen before flying out to Vietnam & Cambodia.
That’s because it is!
Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh as it’s sometimes known) is a bustling, vibrant city with what feels like thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of scooters speeding past you. It has a very different feel to a western city; not dirty exactly but very lived in.
Almost all the stores open onto and spill out onto the street with street vendors cramming themselves in between each shop as well, making negotiating along the streets an effort in places.
It’s not till you get to the Mekong itself that the pace changes and you find the Mekong you’ve seen in all the brochures.
Don’t get us wrong, the Mekong is still a busy river! It’s just everything feels a lot calmer and relaxed as you’re drifting down it (helped no doubt by the luxurious river cruise ship you’re on!).
There are many, many ways to see Vietnam and Cambodia but perhaps the most natural, especially with the Mekong traveling right down the middle of both countries, is to see them on a river cruise.
Once you’ve settled on that option there are numerous ways to customise your trip to suit your own requirements (and purse!).
For the full experience perhaps the best option is to go for a long twenty two day option, flying first into Hanoi to explore Northern Vietnam for a few days before flying down to Saigon for a day or two and then picking up the cruise.
If that option feels a little long (or too pricey) you can try the fifteen day option and fly straight to Saigon and then board your cruise ship.
Either way you then get to spend seven glorious days drifting down the Mekong, exploring along the way before arriving in Siam Reap and flying home after one, two, three or as many nights as you feel you need to recover from your cruise (it’s a hard life after all).
Assuming you’ve skipped Hanoi (as we did) your holiday will start with exploring Saigon.
Must do’s –
- The Indoor Market (don’t be afraid to haggle) – (a lot!) If you’re worried you can read our guide to haggling in the Far East here
- A roof top bar – The view of Saigon by night, cocktail in hand can’t be described. It’s something you just have to try for yourself. Our recommendation for the best prices and views would be the Sheraton Saigon (and yes – it was hard work researching that for you!).
- A local restaurant. We don’t mean a nice restaurant that serves local cuisine to tourists – We mean a REAL local restaurant. Our recommendation would be Thirty One; trust us – it’s worth it! – You can take a more detailed look at some of the local ‘delicacies’ here
- And finally the Cu Chi tunnels
Any tour organiser worth their salt will have the Cu Chi tunnels included free as part of your trip (make sure you check before you book) as their iconic part of any Vietnam trip.
We’d read a lot about the Vietnam war before flying out and expected the Cu Chi tunnels to feel quite emotive.
They didn’t though – (that came later with Cambodia’s killing fields).
The guides were incredibly informative and interesting, a wealth of knowledge in fact with some of them having lived through the war but the whole experience felt very touristy – go here, look at that, take a photo standing here. Worth doing but perhaps not more than once. You can take a more detailed look at the Cu Chi tunnels in our photo album here
Leaving Saigon behind you begin your river cruise and get to experience what life’s like on the Mekong.
The first thing that strikes you is how busy the river is……….
You’ll hardly see any commercial vessels though. Aside from the odd cruise ship, perhaps heading in the other direction, the majority of traffic will be family owned vessels like the example pictured above.
The bigger the boat the more ‘status’ you’re family will have on the river.
Perhaps two of the most interesting stops, in terms of comparison, were Tan Chau and Koh Okhna Tay Island. They’re both villages with silk weaving factories but whilst the first is in Vietnam, the second is in Cambodia.
Visiting the two really highlights the difference in these two countries.
Vietnam has now fully recovered from the Vietnam War and is a prosperous country, certainly in the cities and this wealth is now spreading out to the countryside. This means the factory in Tan Chau is automated whilst the silk weaving in Okhna Tay Island is still all done by hand, as it is in most of Cambodia still.
Cambodia is still struggling from the Khmer Rough and the genocide that occurred there, something you learn a lot about when you visit the Killing Fields.
This was probably the most emotive part of the trip for everyone on-board. The Fields themselves and the skull memorial were bad enough but the museum afterwards with the lists of names and photos of the victims was truly haunting. Be warned, a Mekong river cruise is fascinating and will let you fully immerse yourself in a completely different culture but it’s not a Mediterranean beach holiday.
You don’t have to but there’s more photo’s of Cambodia’s killing fields here. Be warned, some of the images are graphic.
The two main final parts of the cruise are Phnom Penh, capital city of Cambodia and Siam Reap, Cambodia’s biggest, if not only ‘touristy resort city’.
The main ‘must do’s’ for Phnom Penh are the afore mentioned Killing Fields, the Golden Palace and in case the locals didn’t fleece you enough in Saigon the Indoor Market (but you’ll have had more practise by now so you should get much better deals!).
Siam Reap will be an eye opener if you’ve never visited an underdeveloped country before. At a glance it’s obviously much poorer than Saigon, with a lot more beggars in effect.
However it also feels a much friendlier city with all the locals smiling and happy to stop and help a lost tourist (not that we got lost at all!)
Must Do’s in Siam Reap –
- Pub Street – A small district of the city with a lot of lively bars and restaurants. Perfect for relaxing after a long jaunt down the Mekong!
- The Angkor Watt complex
No trip to Cambodia would be complete without a trip to Angkor Watt, the biggest religious monument in the world!
Built in the 12th Century and then abandoned in the 16th before being rediscovered and reclaimed from the jungle in the 19th the locals are unashamedly proud of Angkor Watt, in fact the whole country is, so much so in fact that it’s the only monument on the planet to feature on a countries national flag!
It’s certainly iconic but if it’s great pictures you’re looking for make sure you schedule a visit to Ta Prohm.
Still part of the Angkor Watt temple complex, this is a small area the Cambodian government haven’t cleared the jungle from. If the pictures seem familiar you may be recognising them from the Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie that was filmed here.
What could be better than exploring a ruined temple in the middle of a jungle? It’s every little boys dream come true – Just make sure you bring a camera!
Interested in a Mekong cruise?
Of course you are.
How could you not be after reading this…..?
APT are a great company to do the Mekong with as they offer both a four star product (The La Marguerite) and a five star product (The Ama Lotus).
Both ships are all inclusive and both holidays will come with free shore excursions included but you’ll find the Ama Lotus slightly, (slightly), more luxurious and with a wider range of tours.
You can also extend your stay in Siam Reap, Saigon and add on the optional Hanoi extension with them (or you can even do the entire trip in reverse if you wanted! You can find more info about APT here.
While we were there, we tried out the local cuisine, some of it was surprisingly nice.. Some of it we would definitely avoid next time!