Mekong River cruises offer a passing panorama of temples, rural villages, big cities, rice fields, and floating markets in two countries, Vietnam and Cambodia. Some itineraries also include land forays into Laos and Thailand as well.
A Mekong voyage typically starts in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, and stops at the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh before ending in Siem Reap, Cambodia, gateway to Angkor Wat, the 12th-century complex of stone structures that’s the world’s largest religious monument. You'll also have opportunities to view river dolphins, wats, monasteries and pagodas.
Mekong River cruises vary quite a bit in scope and length. Unless you’re taking an extended trip via Thailand or Laos, a Mekong voyage typically starts in either Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) or Hanoi, Vietnam, and stops at the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh before ending in Siem Reap, Cambodia, or returning to their embarkation point in Vietnam.
Some cruises reverse the order and start and end in Siem Reap, Cambodia, best known as the gateway to Angkor Wat, the vast 12th-century religious complex of stone structures that’s the most indispensable stop on a Mekong River itinerary.
Cruises generally allow ample port time to explore Hanoi, Saigon, and Phnom Penh, where many of the sights – typically seen via shore excursion – center around the wars and killing fields that ravaged Vietnam and Cambodia a half century ago. With most of the countries’ populations born well after the wars, however, you’re likely to encounter little anti-American feeling. On the contrary, people are generally very friendly and eager to strike up conversations.
Beyond the cities and world-class icons, though, you’ll also find long, peaceful stretches of river that reveal the everyday life of Southeast Asia. Buddhist temples and monasteries, saffron-clad monks, children splashing in the river, small boats with entire families hawking fish and trinkets, houses built on stilts…the sights are riveting. Lush vegetation lines the river in many areas, and you may spot river dolphins, monkeys, and other wildlife.
English-speaking cruise lines that ply the Mekong include Viking, Pandaw, Uniworld, Avalon, AMAWaterways, CroisiEurope, and Vantage Deluxe World Travel.
Classic Mekong River Cruise Routes
Mekong River tours have three usual routes: Ho Chi Minh City - Siem Reap, Siem Reap - Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi - Siem Reap. Most of the tours will be between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap. But there are tours that include stops in Hanoi and Bangkok as pre or post cruise stops. Those cruises will include some flying time between the cities.
For voyages that are between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, stops along the river include Tan Chau, Phnom Penh, Toul Sleng, and Cai Be. These cruises last at least 13 days and include multiple chances to get off and explore the countryside and explore rice paddy fields, pagodas, temples, and markets.
To experience more of Vietnam, cruises that begin in Hanoi include multiple cultural destinations down the Vietnamese coast. Some stops include the modern capital city of Hanoi, the French inspired shopping city of Hoi An, and the breathtaking water of Ha Long Bay. These tend to be closer to 20 days in length to accommodate the additional stops in northern Vietnam. But the trips still include the main highlights on the Mekong River.
What to Pack for a Mekong River Cruise
Mekong River tours are much more casual than river cruises in Europe. Since you will be in more remote locations in warm weather, lightweight clothes that dry quickly will be best. With the warm weather and religious sites, shorts, pants, and dresses will all be needed.
If you’re traveling during the wet season, don’t forget a rain jacket or umbrella to keep back those downpours. Umbrellas may be provided by the tour companies, but it’s best to pack one as well. Many of the excursions include uneven walking so packing good walking shoes will be a essential to keeping you comfortable.
Southeast Asia is known for its high amount of mosquitos, especially during the summer, so bring plenty of bug spray (and reapply). The sun is extremely hot on the Mekong River and most of the day trips will have you outside enjoying the villages. Packing sunscreen is a must at all times of the year.
Many of the side trips include visits to temples or pagodas. Include clothes that will cover your shoulders and knees and aren’t see-through to wear to the religious sites, including Angkor Wat.
The Mekong River has some of the most beautiful river landscapes in the world. Photographers will go crazy over the stunning river views and vibrant colors of the villages so don’t forget your camera and extra storage so you don’t miss anything!
Top Cultural Attractions Along the Mekong
With the Mekong River being the largest river in Southeast Asia, there are plenty of cultural stops and experiences along the way. Dotted along the Mekong River are sprawling metropolitan cities, such as Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, and the cultural stops of Angkor Wat and Toul Sleng. The best Mekong River cruise will include a combination of large cities, small villages, and cultural hotspots.
1. Angkor Wat - It is a world of spiritual towers, domes, and hallways. Angkor Wat is a sprawling 12-century religious complex that was the center of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia. Get ready to enter a spiritual oasis as the temple complex sits in the middle of the jungle surrounded by a 3 mile moat and is a city in and of itself.
2. Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) - Where East meets West. Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) is a blend of the modern, technological world and the traditions of the past. With over 8 million people, Ho Chi Minh City is a perfect stepping off point for any Mekong River cruise. The city is an introduction to the Vietnamese culture and traditions. But watch out for those scooters, they tend to offroad and drive on the sidewalks.
3. Phnom Penh - With a combination of French and Asian influence, Phnom Penh is a unique cultural experience and the heart of Cambodia. Wide boulevards are dotted with French colonial buildings, Khmer-style temples, and modern skyscrapers. It assaults all of your senses at the same time, especially taste. Phnom Penh is full of traditional and new dishes to satisfy even the pickiest of eaters.
4. Cai Be - Get ready for an experience like no other. The floating markets of Cai Be are one of the highlights of any Mekong River tour. Local sellers and wholesalers sell their clothing, fresh produce, and crafts to locals and tourists alike off their large barges. Don’t forget to take your camera for pictures or money for a fresh mango.
5. Toul Sleng - Toul Sleng is a frequent stop on the Mekong River and houses the important Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. The museum is a former prison that was used during the Khmer Rouge regime. You can visit the historical museum to learn about the atrocities and daily life of prisoners of the Khmer Rouge as much of the museum is the same as when it was a prison.
6. Siem Reap - The gateway to Angkor Wat. Siem Reap is the beginning or end to most Mekong River trips. Take a day to explore the historical Old Town, cultural village, shops, or rice paddies that surround the city. It is a growing city with its central location and being the starting point for trips into the Angkor region.
Top Activities on a Mekong River Cruise
A Mekong River tour is chock full of day trips and activities along the way. There is no shortage of physical activities, relaxation, or shopping that can’t be done while on your trip.
1. City Sightseeing - With metropolitan cities as Hanoi, Siem Reap, and Ho Chi Minh City included in the tours, it provides ample opportunity to experience the modern world in Southeast Asia. Each of these cities have modern city centers, historical museums, old towns, and architectural neighborhoods just waiting to be discovered.
2. Biking and Cooking Classes - Down the Mekong River there will be plenty of occasions to get out and stretch the legs on stops. Some trips include bikes available to scoot around the village and discover the local way of life. Other day trips include cooking classes to try your hand at making traditional Vietnamese or Cambodian cuisine.
3. Shopping Along the Mekong River - Southeast Asia is a well-known hotspot for shopping. Hours can be lost exploring the massive Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City, the floating markets in Cai Be, or the countless souvenir shops in Siem Reap. For tours that include Hoi An, make sure to spend plenty of time in the custom-made clothing shops that make up the French quarter of the city.
4. Religious Temples - For those interested in religious temples and shrines, both the major cities and small villages along the Mekong River will not disappoint. Multi-colored pagodas and temples spring up along the landscape of the river or are nestled amongst the skyscrapers of the larger cities. Wear clothes that cover your shoulders and legs for the temples and pagodas.
Mekong River Regions
The Mekong River flows through six countries in Asia: China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia. However, most Mekong River cruises will primarily be in southern Vietnam and Cambodia where the Mekong River delta is located. Longer tours include stops in Laos or Thailand before or after the cruise.
1. Cambodia Region - The Cambodia region of the Mekong River is mostly flat and covered with rice paddies and green jungle. In northern Cambodia, waterfalls dot the river and make for more difficult travel. Small fishing villages sit near the riverside and local fishermen frequent the river. Unique to Cambodia, the flow of the river changes between the high and low season due to water levels.
2. Vietnam Region - The main delta of the Mekong River sits just west of Ho Chi Minh City creating a web of little rivers and islands. The delta region is quite brown due to over-logging, but heading up the Mekong River from the delta, the land is full of lush greenery and overhanging branches.
Food Along the Mekong River
Food along the Mekong River tells the story of the lifestyle and history of the region. While much of the cuisine in this region is based off of broth, there is much more to be discovered.
One of the main sources of food in the region is the Mekong River. Fish is the primary protein in Cambodian cuisine and most of the fish eaten are freshwater fish. Famous Cambodian dishes, amok and prahok, are based off of fish from the river.
Broth-based meals, such as pho and kuy teav, are extremely popular in this region. These soups usually include rice noodles, a protein, spices, and some vegetable garnishes. Variations of these broth bowls can be found up and down the river and the warm soup even provides a nice facial.
A local food technique that has spread across the world is fermentation. Fermented spices and vegetables are a base for Southeastern cuisine and can be found in both Vietnamese and Cambodian food frequently.
Before you leave Vietnam, make sure to try one its most famous dishes, the banh mi. Banh mi is a French-inspired baguette sandwich that is traditionally filled with pate, cilantro, pickled carrots, green onions, and spreads. It’s the perfect quick lunch or pick me up.
Along the river make sure to partake in something quintessential Southeast Asian, street food. You’ll be able to find street food markets in both the major cities and small villages selling banh mi, grilled insects, broth bowls, sweet cakes, and anything you could want on a stick. Just make sure it has been cooked and hasn’t been sitting out too long in the hot sun.