Looking for a culture hit but don’t want to travel as far as Europe? A river cruise on Southeast Asia’s mighty Mekong is a wonderful introduction to the history, cuisines and daily life of Vietnam and Cambodia.
Cruises between Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City and Cambodia’s Siem Reap are operated by international lines Avalon, APT, Scenic and Uniworld as well as smaller companies such as Aqua Expeditions and Pandaw. They usually run over eight days (as part of longer land-cruise packages) and visit the following places.
This busy town is best-known for its floating fruit and vegetable market – vendors advertise their goods by dangling a sample on a bamboo pole. Tours of a riverside village built on stilts include visiting workshops where you can see rice paper being made and weavers busy at their looms. Taste traditional snake wine and coconut sweets made on the spot.
A couple of hours’ cruise from Cai Be, Sa Dec was the setting for Marguerite Duras’ novel The Lover; you can wander around the French-colonial home of Duras’ lover, Huynh Le Old House. The market is full of exotic seafood, frogs, eels and snails and the local Fuijian Chinese temple is another attraction.
Attractions include tours to Evergreen Island, Chau Doc market, Tra Su Bird Sanctuary, a family-operated floating fish farm and Cham Village, a small Muslim community. Take a pedicab ride around the town of Chau Doc and drop into the Victoria Chau Doc hotel for a cap phe da (Vietnamese iced coffee).
Cambodia’s capital has a long and complex history. Visits to the Killing Fields and ornate Royal Palace make a startling study of contrasts; the former site marks the massacre of two million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, while the palace complex comprises the Khmarin Palace, Silver Pagoda and the National Museum.
Take an ox cart ride through a local village and fields to Wat Kampong Tralach, where you can take a coach to the ancient capital of Oudong. The impressive pagoda and monastery complex is home to Buddhist nuns and monks; being blessed by a monk is a memorable experience.