For those of us of baby boomer age, the Mekong River brings back old images of Vietnam from the war that dominated the news during our teenage years. Today the Mekong River continues to be a lifeline for many of those living in Southeast Asia, and several cruise lines now offer Mekong river cruises in Cambodia and Vietnam.
The number of river cruise lines operating along the Mekong has increased significantly, which should result in more choices and lower prices for cruise travelers. The increase in Mekong River cruises is understandable. For all of us who live in the West, traveling in Southeast Asia is enticing, but can be complicated to do independently. This part of the world is exotic and fascinating, and I can't think of a better way to explore life along the Mekong River and parts of Southeast Asia than on a river cruise. Most companies run their Mekong River cruises year-round.
Mekong River Cruises - Background and Geography
The Mekong River has its source in the mountains of Tibet, and crosses China before snaking its way through five other countries in Southeast Asia. The river is about 2700 miles long, making it the 10th longest river in the world (or the 12th, depending on how the rivers are measured). Leaving China, the Mekong River briefly flows through Myanmar (Burma) before forming part of the border between Laos and Thailand. It then dissects Cambodia and enters the South China Sea near Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.
Mekong River cruises are in Cambodia and Vietnam. Much of the Mekong's route in these two countries passes through lush rural landscapes, small villages, and cities and towns whose names are probably unfamiliar to westerners. However, the river does go through Pnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and passes near Siem Reap, the gateway to the ruins at Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer.
Most Mekong River Cruises are really cruise tours since they include embarkation/debarkation and hotel stays in cities such as Hanoi, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), and Bangkok. The river cruises run between Saigon and Siem Reap, so except for Saigon, guests have to take short flights from these cities to where they board their river ship. The cruises focus on the history and culture of the region, and all include time near Siam Reap at the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Mekong River can be low during the January/February to May/June dry season, so those traveling during those months will be using a coach to see some of the sights, depending on the size and draft of the ship. The Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia, which ships must navigate to reach Siem Reap, is often not navigable from November to August due to extremely low water.
Most of the river cruises either embark or disembark in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which is one of the most fascinating cities I've ever visited. Seeing the thousands of motor scooters in the streets and exploring the Cu Chi Tunnels once inhabited by the Viet Cong are two memories I'll have forever. I was in Saigon on an ocean cruise, but know that a river cruise would provide a more in-depth look at this country with so many ties to the United States.
Let's take a look at some of the Mekong River Cruise companies.
AmaWaterways currently has one ship, the 124-guest AmaDara, sailing the Mekong River on a 16-day itinerary.
- "Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong" - 16 day cruise tour
Spend 2 nights in Hanoi in hotel, overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay, then travel to Siem Reap for 3 nights before embarking on 7-night Mekong River cruise, ending the journey with a 2-night stay in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Avalon Waterways launched its first ship on the Mekong River in September 2012. The Siem Reap is the smallest river ship on the Mekong. It has only 36 guests, but its small size allows the ship to cruise all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap (or vice versa), eliminating the seven-hours of coach time needed by larger river ships, according to the cruise line.
Avalon Waterways features a 14-day "Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong River" cruise tour that goes between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap. Seven nights are spent on the Avalon Angkor river ship. Travelers spend three nights in Ho Chi Minh city, three nights in Seam Reap, and one night in Phnom Penh. Avalon cruisers also have the option of extending the Southeast Asia experience by adding Luang Prabang or Hanoi and Ha Long Bay to their itinerary.
Unlike the other river cruise companies in this list, Pandaw does not operate in Europe, Egypt, or China. It only has cruises in Asia, specifically along the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam, and cruise tours in Myanmar (Burma) and Borneo. Pandaw has been sailing the Mekong River since 2002.
Pandaw's 7-night "Mekong Exploration" river cruises are between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap on the 48-guest R/V Mekong Pandaw.
Uniworld entered the Mekong River cruise market in January 2012, with a 15-day "Timeless Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia, & the Mekong" river cruise tour. Guests spend two nights in a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, a seven night cruise on the 68-guest Mekong Navigator, three nights in Seam Reap at a hotel, and two nights in a Hanoi hotel.
For those looking for more time in Asia, Uniworld has a 24-day "Grand Asia & the Mekong" River Cruise and Tour from Beijing to Hanoi.
Guests can extend their stay in Southeast Asia with two pre- or post-cruise tour optional packages--a 3-day stay at Ha Long Bay, Vietnam or a 4-day stay in Bangkok.
Viking River Cruises offers 15-day "Magnificent Mekong" river cruise tours between Hanoi and Ho Chi Mink City on the 56-guest Viking Mekong.
The Viking cruise tour includes two nights in a Hanoi hotel, a flight to Siem Reap with three nights in a hotel there, followed by the 8-day cruise and ending with two nights in Ho Chi Minh City. Like all the other Mekong River cruise tours, this one can also be done in reverse (from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi). Guests can extend their cruise tour with stays in with Ha Long Bay or Bangkok.