Cruise from Cambodia to Vietnam

Our cruise through Cambodia and Vietnam begins with a bus trip. Being the dry season, the water level in Tonle Sap Lake and River is low. Although our ship, the Toum Tiou 2 is small, it cannot ford the junction between Tonle Sap Lake and the river.

Towards the end of the wet season, when the water level rises six metres, guests will have a short drive from their hotel in Siem Reap to the ship. Instead, we take the National Road 6 and drive south.

First we take a bus

Village life unfolds before my eyes. Families gather in the shaded open area beneath simple dwellings built on stilts. Umbrellas shelter roadside stalls offering refreshment, soft drink bottles filled with fuel and in one instance, a cow’s head resting on a round metal tray.

Village life in Cambodia
Through the window
Village life in Cambodia
Rural Cambodia

Small children, chickens and dogs play and scratch on the dusty shoulder of the busy road. A woman wearing a pale blue pyjama suite rides pillion. She holds a medical IV drip bag above her head.

Our driver weaves in and around slower traffic, blaring his horn in warning. Somehow it all works out. We stop at Kampong Kdei Bridge guarded by a nine-headed naga. When built in the 12th Century, the bridge was the longest corbel arch bridge in the world. The scent of incense fills the air.

A woman folds herself down to the ground before the naga to pray, waving incense around. Her son photographs her, after removing his shoes, kneels on them, bows down three times, gets up and before I know it, they have left.

Kampong Kdei Bridge
The Nine-Headed Naga
Village life in Cambodia
Cycling to School

Our journey continues. A pig wallows in charcoal grey mud, its flanks glistening in the sun. Our driver slows to allow four water buffalo to cross the road. A woman spreads grain out on blue plastic sheeting with a rake.

As the sun sets the scene changes. A woman waters her plants with a hose, a man swings on a hammock, reading to the child sitting beside him. Another sweeps their yard. Lights flicker on. Shirtless men chat in a group from the seats of their motorcycles. Work is done and people relax.

RV Toum Tiou ll

Dressed in crisp white uniforms, the smiling crew welcome us aboard Toum Tiou ll, a charming and comfortable vessel with 14 small well-appointed cabins.

On the sundeck, accessed by a spiral staircase, comfortable rattan-style chairs grouped around low glass-topped tables provide the perfect place for an evening cocktail. Guests stretch out on sunbeds, cooled by the gentle breeze as the ship wends its way through the murky river, rich with life-giving silt. 

Toum Tiou ll on a cruise from Cambodia to Vietnam with CF Mekong
Comfortable Sundeck
Toum Tiou ll on a cruise from Cambodia to Vietnam with CF Mekong
Returning home after an excursion

The dark wood finish adds character to ship. It’s easy to find a quiet corner to relax, read a book or just stare out at the passing scenery.

Delicious Food

The fresh, tasty food offerings highlight local cuisine. Mr Sinat, the chef, makes omelettes to complement hot and continental breakfast offerings.  Lunch includes delightful fresh local salads of finely julienned veggies and hot meals. Together with four course dinners, it’s hard to not overindulge. 

Delicious food on board Toum Tiou ll on a cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City with CF Mekong New Discovery Cruise
Omelette Anyone?

Smiling Staff

Nothing is too much trouble for the smiling staff, many of whom come from local villages. Our bartender, Phanit tells me that he hated English at school. He learnt English and hospitality at a project run by Christian volunteers from Singapore. If it weren’t for that, he’d “be doing farm work” today.  

Smiling Staff on a cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City with CF Mekong
Staff of Toum Tiou ll

Sitting in front of the captain, his wheelhouse window wide open, I watch concerned as we cruise towards small wooden fishing boats, their nets floating in an arc behind them. I fear that we’re going to damage their fishing nets.

Captain in the Wheelhouse

The captain blasts his horn. We power straight over the fishing lines. My anxiety is misplaced. The only damage done is by our wake. It tosses the long narrow fishing boats around, occasionally spilling into the boats as the fishermen struggle to maintain their balance.  

Scenes as we cruise from Cambodia to Vietnam

From my seat on the sundeck, my eyes flit from fishing boats to the shore and back again.  A small island of bright green weed floats slowly past. The water ripples behind a passing boat with a dirty calico canvas shelter arched over the centre. White gulls glide by, their shadows reflected on the water.

Cambodian Fishermen
Setting fishing lines
Cambodian fishermen
Hauling in nets

Four men haul in a red fishing net. A ferry sets off for the far shore, filled with workers astride their motorbikes. Sheltering under a large green umbrella in his narrow wooden boat, a man looks up as we approach. He stands up, balances as he folds the umbrella and walks to the stern to stabilise his boat rocking in our wake.  

It feels like I’m watching a movie of life. Young children wave from the shore, excitedly jumping up and down when we return the favour.

Barges on the Mekong Delta
More industry in Vietnam
Vessels on the Mekong Delta
Eyes to guide the way

Early on the morning that we cross into Vietnam, I wake to bells ringing up and down the riverbank. Village pagodas are wakening. The shining dark floorboards creak as I step onto the sundeck. In the silence I hear trickling water as we glide onwards. A sharp bird call pierces the peaceful silence.

Barges on the Mekong Delta
Heavily laden barge
Barges as seen in Vietnam on a cruise along the Mekong Delta
Beware the wash!

Now that we’re in Vietnam, the activity on the river changes. There are fewer small fishing boats. Long heavy barges, low in the water plough their way north. Eyes painted on the bow, guide and protect the boat its crew.

Excursions on our Cruise

RV Toum Tiou ll provides the perfect springboard for discovering life along the river. I cycle through villages and paddy fields, travel on an ox cart and am blessed by a Buddhist monk. In a local centre where they make popped rice, I unsuccessfully attempt to make rice paper. The edges cling together rendering it useless.

Excursions on a river cruise from Cambodia to Vietnam
Toum Tiou ll from the shore

On Unicorn Island in My Tho, an elderly woman stirs a large pot of what look like strips of white calamari. She’s crystalising coconut before tossing it in sugar. I discover gac fruit and eat pineapple with chili salt to counteract the acidity.  

Gac Fruit

I do things that push my limits. Like eat a tarantula, and then because it was apparently stale, eat another to get the ‘real’ experience. In My Tho, a man drapes a 10kg diamond back python around my neck. The heavy body, about 10cm in diameter, pulsates in my hand as it digests the live quail it ate for breakfast. The poor thing is returned to a small metal cage. I probably shouldn’t have exploited it in that way.

Making Clay Pots

Sitting in the shaded area under a house built on stilts, I watch as Sophat creates a clay pot using a technique passed down through generations. She runs in circles around a lump of clay on a cylindrical stand, shaping it with a wooden paddle. In no time at all she presents us with a perfectly round pot.

Handmade terracotta pots in Cambodia
Sophat
Harvesting palm syrup in Cambodia
Mr Ry

Harvesting Palm Syrup

Sophat’s neighbour is Mr Ry. At 72 years old, he still climbs palm trees to harvest sweet palm juice. With bamboo containers hanging from a makeshift belt around his waist, and wearing rubber thongs on his feet, he nimbly steps onto a bamboo ladder, soon disappearing into the large green palm fronds 30m above my head.

When he was 18, Mr Ry escaped the Khmer Rouge by climbing trees at night. He shares a little of his experience under the Khmer Rouge. “I’d need all day to tell you my story,” he tells me through our guide. “We were nine siblings. Four were killed by cutting their throat with a knife,” he adds.

The horrific years may have ended, but people still hurt.  

An Ox Cart and a Temple

“They’re pretty rickety, there’s no suspension on those,” quips a friend. I’m sitting on a rice sack on a wooden cart being pulled by an ox. The cart bumps along to the tune of wheels grinding over gravel roads and the gentle tinkling of cow bells. Our destination is the Wat Kampong Tralach Leu Pagoda.

Ox Cart excursion in a Cambodian Village
My Ox Cart Driver

The monk, resplendent in his orange robes ties a red thread around my left wrist. He chants as he gives me a blessing, sprinkling my wrist with water. As instructed, I’ll wear the thread until it falls off. So far it doesn’t show any sign of fraying.

Wat Kampong Tralach Leu Pagoda
Cambodian Monk

When the monk’s wife died, he joined the monastery to become a monk. He had temporarily joined a monastery as a child to get an education.

Several young novices crowd curiously around us. They too are here to attend school, although one tells us that he has a calling to become a monk.

Young boys whose parents can't afford to send them to school often live in monasteries to get an education
Young Novice
Novices in Cambodian Monastery
One wishes to become a monk

Bike Riding Through the Paddy Fields

Feeling a little anxious as I haven’t been on a bicycle for years, I join a bike ride through rice fields. I start off shakily, but soon am peddling along dykes surrounded by brilliant green rice shoots. Occasionally a local, on a grumbling motorbike passes me. One pulls a trailer load of wood. Another drags a 20m thick black rubber pipe behind him.

Rice growing in Cambodia
Paddy Fields
Fishing village in Cambodia
Releasing fish from the nets

A group of motorbikes are parked in the shade of a tree. Men gather around a small fire, cooking fish freshly caught from a nearby fish trap.

On our way back to Toum Tiou ll, we pass through a Muslim village where men and women busily remove the little silver fish they have caught in their nets.

What was the best thing about the cruise?

I find it difficult to choose one thing about the cruise that I liked best. It was all fabulous, but if I must nominate one thing, I’d say that exploring the local markets has a slight edge.

Oudong Market

We are the only westerners checking out the produce at Oudong market. As I snack on a sweet thin grissini-type stick, I discover flat rice, palm cakes, whole frogs filled with pork, red ants in banana leaf and snake-head fish. A pleasant rush of sweetness pops into my mouth, when I bite down on sweet and sour honeycomb.  

Oudong local market
Stuffed Frogs
Oudong Local Market
Making Sweet ‘Grissini’

Sa Dec Market

Stalls spill onto the road in Sa Dec Market. There’s a sense of urgency as motorbikes hoot and weave in both directions between pedestrians and vendors. A fellow passenger exclaims “I’ve seen a lot of Asia but I’m still seeing things I haven’t seen before!”

Leeks ready to marinate for Lunar New Year Sa Dec Market
Small Leeks
Sa Dec Market
Live fish

Vinh, our Vietnamese guide points to rows of plastic bags filled with what he tells us is a “sweet soup,” adding “My parents buy this. I buy bubble tea.” To save on straws, people bite off the bottom corner and suck on the bag.   

Discovering a local market on a cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City with CF Mekong New Discovery Cruise
Frogs
Discovering a local market on a cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City with CF Mekong New Discovery Cruise
Banana Flowers

The leeks are small and abundant. Lunar New Year is fast approaching, and people eat marinated leeks “to cut the fat eaten in New Year,” says Vinh.  

Cholon Market in Saigon

“This is insane” says one in our group as we walk outside Cholon Market. “Bedlam” says another while a third describes the experience as “wonderful.” It’s certainly hectic with heavily laden motorbikes threading their way between pedestrians, vendors loading and unloading goods and us westerners trying our best to stay out of the way.  

Cholon Market in Saigon
Frenetic Activity
Cholon Market in Saigon
Packed to the rafters

You can buy anything in this mostly wholesale market. Inside, people walk fast, weaving in and out between the brightly coloured goods which spill into narrow passages between stalls. Want a teapot or a sieve? Plastic wrap or toilet paper? A toothbrush or a bag of elastic bands? Lunch or dried fish? You can get it all here.

Phnom Penh’s Central Market

The distinct smell of raw meat greets me as I enter the wet area of Phnom Penh’s Central Market. I hurry through to the more appealing brightly coloured and sweet-smelling fruit stalls. There, I find trays of bright orange “carrot” jackfruit, rose apples and a basket of hairy rambutan. There’s scaly snake fruit and carefully packaged durian that the vendor has no interest in selling to me.

Phnom Penh’s Central Market.
Snake Fruit
Phnom Penh’s Central Market.
Rose Apples

Eating Durian

I ate durian for the first time in Cabramatta, Sydney. Served as an ice cream, it had a delicious tropical flavour, no bad smell and a slight guava texture. Fast forward to Vietnam and the Tra Su Forest, where I notice a vendor selling durian ice cream. Served in a cone, the bright-yellow ball of ice smells slightly off. But as a fellow traveller says, he’s “smelt worse cheese.” The flavour isn’t unpleasant, but not as delicious as what I tasted in Cabramatta.

Tra Su Forest
Durian Ice Cream

Walking down a street I see a single spiky durian, slightly smaller than an oval football, on a table laden with souvenirs. I splash out and pay $10 for the experience of tasting durian. The vendor cracks the hard shell open with a large knife. Resting on a bright white bed is the fruit, a large yellowish bean shaped pillow. This is what I have been waiting for.

I neither loved nor hated durian
Tasting Durian

While I don’t smell anything much, an unpleasant smell reaches a fellow traveller standing a few feet away. I bite into the soft almost water-balloon-like flesh. The texture is like a thick custard or blancmange. I must be one of the few people who neither love nor hate it.  

On the back of a Vespa

“She’s nervous,” says a fellow traveller pointing to me. “Give her your best driver,” he instructs as we gather round a group of brightly coloured Vespas. Before leaving Sydney, I made sure my insurance covered this optional Vespa tour in Ho Chi Minh City, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable getting onto the back of a motorbike and entering the crazy traffic that flows through Saigon.

Our bikes may break down

The guide explains that our Vespas are 50 years old and were used in the war. A mechanic will follow us on his bike in case one of ours breaks down. I listen carefully to the instructions on how to get on, off and most importantly how to hold on – there’s a little handlebar between me and my driver and one behind me.

A Vespa tour in Ho Chi Minh City with Urban Venture Tour
Seeing Saigon at Night on a Vespa Tour
A Vespa tour in Ho Chi Minh City with Urban Venture Tour
Did I really ride through this?

My driver carefully places a yellow helmet on my head and clicks the buckle closed. Then we’re off. I take a deep breath and hold on. After a cocktail at Bar Zion, I feel more relaxed and gingerly hold my phone up to take a video. 

We ride on busy main roads and weave through traffic in smaller laneways. My eyes smart from the pollution. I’m overwhelmed by the noise as bikes all around me hoot, vroom, whine, and roar. The heat from the exhausts of other bikes warms my lower legs.

We experience different aspects of Saigon’s nightlife, first by visiting a sky bar, and then at street level where most people party. There we sit on low metal chairs for a taste of local seafood.  

A Vespa tour in Ho Chi Minh City with Urban Venture Tour
Relaxed enough to take a photo
A Vespa tour in Ho Chi Minh City with Urban Venture Tour
It’s crazy out there

I’m buzzing when I step off my Vespa for the last time. The next day, when walking along a road heaving with motorbikes whizzing in and out and around each other, I can’t believe that I put myself in the middle of that throng.  

A Memorable Cruise through Cambodia and Vietnam

For me, travel is about making memories. This cruise through Cambodia and Vietnam created a treasure chest of memorable moments.

Note: I was a guest of CF Mekong on their New Discovery Tour from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City. All opinions are my own.

Comments

  1. Jo, your writing made me feel I was there with you. Congrats, for a great article.

  2. Very interesting. That bridge wasn’t the longest in the world when it was built. Whoever made that claim was confused. Rather it was the longest corbel arch bridge. A corbel is an unusual form of arch, which is less stable than a conventional arch like those used by the Romans. They built many longer bridges, such as that at Cordoba in Spain.
    Cheers
    Ric

  3. Hi Jo, Love your writing, it makes me relive my travels in Vietnam and Cambodia. You bring back the experiences the sights sounds and smells …. . I want to go again! Cheers Loretta

    1. Author

      Thanks, Loretta. Cambodia and Vietnam certainly are places to visit more than once.

  4. Such a fascinating and wonderful account of this journey. So vibrant and engaging – I loved reading this all. I’d go on the Vespa but not eat the frogs!

  5. Reading this evokes so many memories of Vietnam( I haven’t been to Cambodia). Makes me want to back as it’s been nearly 3 decades and a return visit very long overdue. Thanks for another great post!

    1. Author

      Thanks, Erica. I think you’ll find that so much has changed if you do return!

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