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History and Culture

Marvels along the Mekong

Take in the two fascinating countries of Vietnam and Cambodia on one action-packed trip along the Mekong.

 By Jeannine Williamson

Vietnam and Cambodia are connected by South East Asia’s longest river which flows through both countries and where hundreds of years of history and culture line its banks.

A journey through the cities and rural heartland of these contrasting nations provides a kaleidoscope of experiences starting with cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s former Saigon. A post office might seem an unusual place to visit, but this one was designed by Gustave Eiffel who built the namesake Parisian tower. The grand building is one of the top sights, even for locals, and you’ll see newlyweds in their bridal attire lining up to have their photos taken outside.

The Vietnamese are sweet-toothed and coconut bars are a popular treat. At Cai Be village you can watch them being made, along with rice popcorn and other confections, and then enjoy them with a cup of fragrant jasmine tea. If you can resist the temptation to eat them over the ensuing days they also make good souvenirs to bring home. Here, you’ll also see the spectacle of a floating market, where villagers sell fruit, vegetables and household goods from their boats as others paddle by to pick up their daily groceries.

Small boats will also take you into the Lower Mekong’s lush narrow backwaters and fishing villages where families live on the water. These are timeless scenes, and back on dry land you’ll also visit silk factories, filled with dazzling fabrics, and small rug weaving workshops where the hand-made products have been made in the same way for decades.

In addition to providing authentic experiences, these excursions provide valuable support for local communities. One day you will be trundling through villages in carts drawn by white oxen, the next heading out on motorised tuk-tuks, and another on bicycle trishaws powered by wiry men. Everywhere you go children will wave as you pass by.

An atmospheric tour takes in Vipassana Dhura, the largest Buddhist monastery in Cambodia where the scent of jasmine flowers fills the air. Visitors are invited to take part in a traditional blessing ceremony where chanting monks scatter petals over the congregation. It’s a very special moment.

In Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, you’ll see entire families riding on one motorbike as you head to the sights. There’s the glittering Royal Palace with its spectacular silver pagoda and the sobering Genocide Museum that is an enduring legacy of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Alternatively, shop for inexpensive keepsakes at the colorful Central Market.

Itineraries include the option to add on a land-based stay in Siem Reap, which is highly recommended. From here you will visit the 12th century temples of Angkor, the world’s largest religious complex. The scale of the temples is awe-inspiring and they include the distinctive beehive-shaped towers of Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, entwined with massive tree roots. The latter was featured in the Lara Croft film Tomb Raider and adds another element of adventure to a magical trip along the Mekong.

Published 03.22.23