From Southern Vietnam there are two ways to get to Phnom Penh – the easy way and the scenic way. Gluttons for punishment or a sense of adventure, depending on how you see it, we decided to go the scenic way. Three days by boat through the Mekong Delta.
For me the Mekong is one of those mythical big rivers. Like the Nile or the Amazon, the Mekong is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia. Running from its head waters in Tibet 2,703 miles to the South China Sea, the Mekong Delta is the center of Southern Vietnam’s economy. From lively and extensive floating markets, to small villages and Buddhist temples hidden in caves, the area is rich in activity.
Our Mekong Delta tour was pretty much as expected, a tour that shuttled us through tons of places in very little time stopping at everyone’s souvenir shop along the way. Typical on these kinds of tours, we sampled tropical fruits while listening to traditional music (CD: $10), coconut candies (one package: $1), and a rice noodle factory (1 kilo of noodle: $2). And then there was the Burmese Python, which thankfully was free to touch. As you can tell by the pictures, I was slightly freaked out by the whole thing. Slightly is an understatement.
Although the area is undergoing dramatic economic development, most of the population still lives by the river’s waters. That’s the real draw to the area, and although we spent most of our time on uncomfortable wooden boats, it was interesting to see life along the river.
Besides being the local “highway”, the river also supports several floating markets, floating residences and a huge variety of floating businesses from fish farming to restaurants and even the border post. That’s right, Vietnamese Immigration is a floating building on the Mekong. We’ve crossed numerous border, a few have been over water, but I’m pretty sure this was our first floating border post. Thankfully the Cambodian officials chose to build their post on land and at least for a little while we were able to get off the boat.
In a van for the last 40km to Phnom Penh, our driver turned on his favorite music- 1998 pop music. Song after song from artists that should never be heard from again (Jamaraquai, Aqua…) we laughed in disbelief as song after song blared through the speakers. Finally we surrendered and by the time we arrived in Phnom Penh the entire van was singing along to such favorites as “Barbie Girl” and “Spice up your life.” Welcome to Cambodia.
If You Go: Two and three day tours are easy and affordable and easy to book in Ho Chi Minh City. You can get around the region independently but it is time consuming. Be prepared for an onslaught of souvenir shops. If you do cross the border into Cambodia, you will have no choice but to pay a $1 stamping fee(bribe)to the immigration officials. Visas for Cambodia can be arranged at the border,but if you do the tour in reverse,you’ll need your Vietnamese visa in advance.