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The most fascinating river journey in South East Asia

By: Danielle Stewardson Posted: October-21-2011 in
Photo Credit - Tim Russell - click for more photos
Danielle Stewardson

The trip from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc (Vietnam) is one of the most fascinating and beautiful river journeys in South East Asia. The first time I traveled to Cambodia was by this route and arriving in Phnom Penh by boat at sunset, catching my first glimpse of this foreign city from the Mekong is a memory I will always treasure. In the distance I could see the rooftops of the Royal Palace sparking in the sunlight, the smoke rising up from the incense burning at Preah Ang Dong Ker, the vibrant Phnom Penh riverfront and I instantly fell in love.

Now that I live here permanently, I still try and make this journey at least once a year as it’s my favorite river cruise in Asia. There is something special about river travel, about journeying to another country by boat, crossing quaint overland river borders that definitely beat travelling by road or air. This trip is an experience most independent travelers will love, although it has changed considerably over the past few years.

The first time I ever travelled in the opposite direction, from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc, the border was just a shack on the river in a muddy field. On the Cambodian side the entire place was deserted and it took us a while to locate the immigration officials as they were all otherwise engaged - in a game of volleyball! Eventually we persuaded them to process our exit, with the help of a few dollars. The Vietnamese side of the border was even more of a shambles, again there was no one there and there wasn’t even a clear indication of where the border was! When we eventually found the Vietnamese officials they insisted that we scramble up a muddy bank – quite a challenge, trying not to lose our footing, whilst carrying all our luggage - and then they were adamant about x-raying every single bag and interrogating each of us as to why we wanted a visa. God help anyone who had a book on Vietnam, as this triggered a 5 minute interrogation while the officials attempted to figure out what the book was about without being able to read English!

Oh, how things have changed. Nowadays, you get off the boat (minus luggage), enter the brand new floating immigration office and sit in a comfortable air-conditioned lounge, sipping a beer whilst they process your visa - all done efficiently and in record time for Vietnam. With this new ease of access, some of the unpredictability of the journey is inevitably lost, but it’s still a fascinating adventure. I can’t pinpoint exactly why I like it so much, I think it has something to do with the late afternoon arrival into Chau Doc. As you approach, suddenly the whole world becomes ablaze with colour and there’s a tangible shift of gear, from the languid pace of the journey so far to a total immersion in this bustling, lively river full of floating vendors, diverse cargo and boats of all sizes. It’s a whole other world compared to sleepy Cambodia.

Arriving late afternoon and sailing through the floating villages at this time of day is very special and offers incredible photo opportunities. Children play and laugh as they enjoy their evening bath in the river. Buffaloes look content as they are washed of the dust of the day before bedtime. Smoke rises from houses as dinners are cooked for hungry mouths. It feels as though you’ve slipped into a parallel universe.

The journey ends in the heart of Chau Doc, in front of an intriguing giant Catfish statue – another photo opportunity, if just for the novelty value. After checking into a hotel, your best plan for the evening is to wander into town for a meal. The tiny square is buzzing with life, and with very few tourists around it still has that unique provincial town feeling. After dinner in a local restaurant, the main square is the perfect place to sip a beer on plastic stools made for tiny people, and watch the world go by. It won’t be long before a group of charming locals approaches, to try out their English and generally enquire why you are there. This interaction adds to the cultural experience and gives you a real sense of what it must be like to live in this area.

This area of Vietnam has so much to offer. It’s a melting pot of cultures and customs. After a good night’s sleep, you can take a tour of the local Cham (Muslim) village and floating fish farm/ houses which offer an insight into daily life in the Mekong. Later, I would recommend continuing to Can Tho for an early night - because in the early morning, at the crack of dawn, you will not want to miss the spectacle of one of the largest floating markets in the world. Prepare to be amazed. The sheer volume and pizzazz of this market, with hundreds of boats all size and shapes selling their wares, is stunning. After catching your breath, travel onwards towards Saigon. Stop at the bizarre Cao Dai temple, home to the weirdest religion on the planet, visit a stork sanctuary after a hair raising motorbike ride over tiny bridges and along country lanes, stop at the Bonsai garden or enjoy a cycle ride - there is just so much on offer in this region.

The Mekong Delta remains to this day my favorite area of Vietnam, partly because of its vibrant atmosphere but also because it still feels like an adventure, every time I go. I feel as though I have really stepped off the beaten track and experienced something real. Whether I’ve visited in style, staying in the best hotels, or in a more economical fashion, I have never been disappointed. I would strongly recommend that anyone living in Phnom Penh or Saigon should try to find the time to explore this special region. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, either.

About The author
Danielle Stewardson is the General Manager of Mango Cambodia Tours <>
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