What could be better than floating on the Mekong River from Saigon to Phnom Penh? When we were looking into transportation between these two cities, a boat trip certainly sounded better than a flight. Was it? Read on.
We booked our trip with Mekong Eyes. Several tour options are available with this company from one night to four nights. The three-day trip struck our fancy because it would give us a more scenic way of getting from point A (Saigon) to point B (Phnom Penh). Our first issue was that the boat trip was not run during the Tet holidays, so we had to add on 4 days of extra time in Hanoi and Saigon (HCMC) beforehand. If you read no further, let me suggest to you that you do not book a tour anywhere near Tet; more on that later.
We were picked up at our hotel in Saigon on the first day. Our driver did not talk to us at all (probably did not speak English) for what turned out to be a 4-hour drive to where the boat ride would start. He had one other passenger to pick up and got lost trying to find her hotel. We drove around and around before locating it. We were curious how many others would be on the boat with us. There are 14 cabins but there was no way of knowing how many were filled. Our fellow passenger was a young woman (not sure what country she came from) that promptly laid down and fell asleep for the remainder of the driver. We were hoping that it would not just be the three of us on the boat.
The drive was not pleasant. The roads in Vietnam are not very smooth and the driver seemed to want to pass everyone on the road. At one point, we were airborne after crossing over a bridge. He seemed to think that was hilarious. I was happy I had taken meclizine! I was wondering if our fellow passenger was laying down because she was carsick; it was a distinct possibility. At some point in the van’s existence, it probably had shocks but by now, they were long gone. We felt every bump. We made one toilet stop about 1.5 hours into the drive. Since the driver couldn’t communicate, we were in the dark as to when we might arrive. Eventually, we made it to Can Tho which turned out to be a huge city; one of the largest in the Mekong Delta. We were dropped off by the pier. Our fellow passenger quickly ran over to the river to get sick, poor thing.
The gangplank for the boat was really narrow and bouncy. Do not take this trip if you have any balance issues (you won’t be able to get on the boat) or any mobility issues (you must be able to climb up and down stairs in order to get to meals). There were people on the boat that worked for the company, but they all ignored u so we turned back around with our luggage to wait on shore.
Eventually, a man came out to tell us we could board. Two men held up a piece of pvc pipe that turned out to be the handrail for the gangway. We were directed to the lounge area where we were joined by a family of 5 from Seattle (our hometown!). We were given instructions, the first of which was to take off our shoes and leave them off while onboard. Flip flops were provided for those that did not feel comfortable going barefooted. We were given a rough outline of the next day’s activities and then shown to our cabins. The cabin was tiny, but since we were only going to be on this particular boat overnight, manageable. There was an envelope in our room with a detailed itinerary for our journey. We were surprised to learn that we would be driven from Cai Be (the endpoint of the first boat trip) to Chau Doc, where we would spend the second night. To be more specific, we were surprised to find out that the drive would take 6 hours! This being a surprise was entirely my fault; I found this information buried deep within an email from the company. If I had read more carefully, we would’ve been better prepared. Oh, well!
While we unpacked, more guests arrived. At 1 pm, we were directed downstairs to have lunch. We were seated by a young couple from Sweden who was great fun, and by our carsick woman and a man from Germany who was very, very quiet. The carsick woman did not make it through lunch; she was apparently still queasy and went to her cabin. The lunch was excellent; all of the meals served onboard were.
The remainder of the day was spent floating down the mighty Mekong. It was a picture perfect, sunny day. There was no breeze; the river was as smooth as glass. I took many photos of life along the river.
At 4 pm, we docked and debarked for a walk around a small village. Our tour guide pointed out different types of fruits and explained their uses. He also talked some about the culture of the area. We were in South Vietnam, and there are some differences from North Vietnam. In the south, ancestor worship is still followed by virtually all (just like in the north) but other than that Buddhism is the primary religion, it is Catholicism. The dogs on top of entry posts are to ward off evil spirits. I guess that they are the ultimate guard dogs!
We had noticed graves in the middle of rice fields. He explained that people bury their dead on their farms to help enrich the soil. Funerals here can last from 1 to 10 days; a fortune teller determines what day to bury the dead. If you are killed in an accident, you are buried that very day. People’s spirits are thought to hang around for a while after death because they are unaware that they have died. Roosters are brought in to let the dead know that they are no longer alive. In north Vietnam, people are reburied after 3 years, but not in the south.
He also shared that his grandfather had been Viet Cong and that his bones needed to be reunited with his grandmother’s bones. There are people that will come to open up graves and wash the bones before sending them off to their next destination. The grave is left open for 24 hours and the work is done at night because it is cooler and slightly less stinky. Ancestors are worshipped in this country and so I guess it is important to have one’s bones in the right spot. And, people’s birthdays are not celebrated here; their death day is.
Our guide reinforced what we were told on another tour – education is not free here in Vietnam. Primary and secondary school is relatively inexpensive, but university costs $1000 per year. The typical family income is only $2000 per year, so the government will loan up to $4000 at a low-interest rate to help people afford college.
Rice is grown all along the Mekong. Unlike many places, rice can be planted 3 times per year here. When the rice turns yellow, it is ready to harvest. Large rice fields are shared by many families so people must cooperate and get along with their neighbors, or may find that their water supply has been cut off. Sons inherit the family rice paddy upon their marriage. In the north, the eldest son is responsible for taking care of elderly parents, but in the south, it is the youngest son. No sons? No one to care for you in your old age and the government does not help, either.
Every home has a flag; you are fined if you do not. You are also fined if you have more than 2 children.
We passed by a home that had a small enclosure above the pond. Turns out that this is their privy. They put them over the water so that the “droppings” become fish food. Of course, the son of the family from Seattle had to try it out…and no, I did not take a picture of that!
We were provided with some fruit by one of the local families and then boarded the boat. The staff brought us some tasty snacks to munch on while we watched the sun set. Dinner was not until 7 pm which is much later than we usually eat, so the snacks were much appreciated. By the time we ate, the sun had set and so it was dark. The boat was docked overnight.
We were up bright and early to watch the sunrise and have breakfast on the top deck. We had to have our suitcases ready to go by 8 am. At that time, we were transferred to a sampan for our morning’s activities. We would be reunited with our luggage later. Some people were staying on the boat one more night; some were heading back to Saigon by car; we were the only ones heading to Phnom Penh. Our German friend was heading to some other place and so had separate transportation arranged for him.
The sampan took us just a short distance down the river where we were met by women that would row us around some narrow canals for about 20 minutes. It was suggested that we tip them 20,000 Dong (a little less than $1).
We climbed back onto the Sampan briefly before being dropped off on a small island. There, we could either go for a 20-minute bike ride or take a walk. We opted for the walk; most went for the bike ride. We noticed some caged roosters. Apparently, cockfighting is a big thing during Tet. The roosters were fighting roosters and had to be kept separated.
We met up at a honey farm where we were given samples of tea with honey and shown all of the amazing things that their products could do for us. We managed to avoid purchasing any, though if these products did everything they claimed, we would live forever! Coincidentally, we ran into a couple there we had met in Hue on another tour. Funny how that works! Later on, we figured out that we had met one of our fellow passengers whilst in Hanoi. And, we have run into a pair of men from the Netherlands several times over the course of our trip. Right now, we are in Phnom Penh and have run into them twice (so far)!
We were given a brief tour of the honey farm which was basically a bunch of flowers being grown. There was also a small building with mushrooms. The bags under them contain coconut husks which is used as fertilizer (nothing in Vietnam goes to waste). We also watched a couple of women weaving dried water hyacinths into purses, sandals, and other goods. I did buy a small hand purse from them. I think it’s cool what they do with these water weeds.
The last part of our trip was to a floating market. This was nothing like the image that I had in my mind. The guide said that it was a slow time because of Tet. But, this was also a wholesale market rather than the touristy markets that exist. The boats advertise what they are selling by hoisting up a sample on a pole. People come by and buy large quantities that are then taken to markets to be sold.
We stopped at one final place – a coconut candy factory. In addition to the candy, they had snake wine (I passed on tasting it since it looked really nasty). They showed us how the candy was made and packaged. Of course, we were given the opportunity to buy some. We did buy a package, and it came in handy later in the day. We were also shown how rice paper was made. The large circles are trimmed to commercial size and the extra is used to wrap the coconut candy. Nothing goes to waste, right? And, last but not least, we saw rice being popped (think rice cakes).
Outside, Clayton noticed something floating in the water. Not much of a way to celebrate the year of the pig for this poor guy!
It was time to say goodbye to friends we had made. About half of the group was taken back to the boat; the rest of us were taken across the river to find our luggage. This is when things started to go south. Because this was the last day of the weekend following Tet, most of Vietnam was on the roads heading back home after the holiday. We were supposed to be picked up by our driver to be taken to Chau Doc at 11 am, but he was not there. We were told that due to traffic, he would be late. So, in the 90+ degree heat, we sat in kindergarten-sized plastic chairs to wait. The family from Seattle was also waiting for their driver, as was the German guy. Eventually, the family’s driver showed up and they left. Our guide told us that our driver was still stuck in traffic and was 18 km out. That didn’t sound too bad, but an hour later, he still wasn’t there. And, the guide had to go meet with his next group so couldn’t stay with us any longer. He offered to get us some bread and fruit while we waited. We were still under the impression that the driver could show up at any time so we passed.
The company owns two other boats that are much smaller (only two cabins); we were directed to wait on one of the boats. There was a couple being served lunch as we walked past them. It was a little awkward. We were assuming that they were just starting their boat trip and couldn’t leave because we were now onboard. I am also curious why we were not taken onboard this boat from the start instead of having to sit out in heat for an hour. The mysteries of life…
We were offered white bread and jam and a couple of slices of pineapple. We took it because it was now 1 pm and we were hungry. When the driver eventually did show up, we wouldn’t be getting to the place where we were supposed to have lunch for 2.5 hours, so it seemed prudent to eat. I asked the guy from the company when our ride might show up. He said he did not know. We were getting a bit frustrated by now because it was hot, and we were hungry and tired. And, we still had 6 hours in a car ahead of us. If the traffic was as bad as they were claiming, it could be even longer.
We understand that traffic happens, but this particular traffic wasn’t a random event. Tet happens every year, and every year there is a huge traffic jam on this particular day. Couldn’t the company have anticipated it? And, more to the point, why on earth did they send a driver from Saigon instead of hiring a car locally? That would have circumvented the problem entirely. We were not happy campers, nor was the German guy.
It turns out that our boat mates were also waiting for their driver. We were asked if we minded riding along with them and then meeting up with our driver somewhere down the road. We were told that their driver would get there before ours, so it would save time. To me, this did not make any sense – when and how would our driver magically appear? How would he get there? But, if it would get us on the road sooner, we were game.
At 2:15, the driver showed up. No; both of the drivers showed up. Together. As if by magic. I have had a couple of days to reflect on this, and I still don’t understand it. About an hour into the drive, they asked us if we minded riding together for most of the ride. We would eventually split up. This was patently untrue because we were dropped off at the exact same hotel. By the way, dinner was at 5 pm. Good thing we had those coconut candies to munch on. No idea how long the German guy had to wait before he was picked up.
The hotel we were dropped off at was quite nice. We were given a river front room on the top floor, but instructed to keep the doors closed because of the mosquitoes. If we had arrived when we were supposed to, we could have spent some time exploring the town, but instead, we sent right to bed – the boat ride in the morning was supposed to start at 6:45 am. After we went to bed, we received a phone call from the “boat guy” (that is what he called himself) to let us know to be ready at 7:15 rather than 6:45.
We were ready by 7 and went to the lobby to wait. The boat guy got there early too. It turns out he would not be piloting the boat; he was just there to take us to the boat. He was a very personable guy that had a good command of English so we enjoyed chatting with him while we waited. We weren’t exactly sure what type of boat we would be on. The fast boat from Thailand to Laos is open and requires the use of helmets; we really hoped our fast boat was not like that one. We were relieved to find that the boat was covered and had relatively comfortable seats since it was a 5-hour trip.
The boat was run by Hangchau Tourist and runs roundtrip daily between Chau Doc and Phnom Penh. Our hotel was the last stop so we didn’t have too much choice of seats. If you take this trip, sit on the left; the sun beats down on the right side of the boat in the morning, so you will be more comfortable. We were given a small bag of snacks and a bottle of water to tide us over until we reached town. We were surprised to find our buddies, John and Eric from the Netherlands on the boat. We had first met them on the van ride from Hue to Da Nang and had also flown with them from Da Nang to Saigon. Anyhow, most people on the boat were planning on doing a visa on arrival for Cambodia. We already had our visas so only needed to complete and arrival/departure card. A company representative handed out forms and collected money ($35 US) and a passport photo from everyone needing a visa. He also collected everyone’s passport.
We stopped at Vietnam immigration first. We all climbed off the boat onto the dock and then went up the stairs to the immigration building. There were tables and chairs there; there were some Vietnamese guys in uniform playing cards. The man with the bag full of passports disappeared for perhaps 15-20 minutes and then came back out and told us to get back the boat.
Our next stop was Cambodian immigration – a much prettier building. Again, we disembarked and went up the ramp to wait. Here is where having our visas paid off (sort of); we got to go through immigration first. In the end, it really didn’t matter much because the boat couldn’t leave until everyone had gone through. There was a Malaysian couple that had some type of issue, so we were held up there for quite a while.
The buildings by the side of the river were much prettier in Cambodia; there didn’t seem to be as much garbage along the shores either. By noon, it didn’t matter which side of the boat you were on; the sun was directly overhead and it was hot. The boat had no air conditioning, but we had the windows open. There wasn’t any breeze so it didn’t help much. We arrived after 1:30, so had spent over 6 hours on the boat. We were happy to disembark!
We had a driver waiting to take us to the hotel. Mekong Eyes had arranged this, and it was much appreciated. The ramp from the boat to the street was really long and really steep; it was really hot as well (95° and humid). I was happy to have someone carry our suitcases. He dropped us off at our hotel, and our Mekong Eyes experience was officially over.
Would I recommend Mekong Eyes? Yes and no. I would definitely recommend it for a one-way from Can Tho to Cai Be (or vice-versa) or for a round trip, but I would not recommend it to get from Saigon to Phnom Penh. The day we spent on Mekong Eyes was heavenly. However, the ride from Cai Be to Chau Doc was really long (even without the long delay) and the speed boat ride to Phnom Penh was also too long. If we were to do it again, we would definitely fly.