Mekong river cruises from Vietnam to Cambodia – or vice versa – give food loving travellers a taste of Indochina and the chance to experience the culinary cultures and cuisines of the two similar but very different neighbouring countries.
Few rivers hold more mystique than the Mekong River and there are few better ways to get a taste of the region and its cuisines and culinary cultures than on one of the many Mekong River cruises from Vietnam to Cambodia that ply the river and waterways between the countries.
The enigmatic Mekong River flows an epic distance of 4,909 km from the Tibetan plateau down through Cambodia and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta into the South China Sea. Few of us can travel its entirety, which is why one of the Mekong River cruises from Vietnam to Cambodia is such a good idea.
Most Mekong River cruises start in Saigon, officially called Ho Chi Minh City, and travel via Phnom Penh to Siem Reap through the lush Mekong Delta in Southern Vietnam and Cambodia’s colossal Tonle Sap or Great Lake, Southeast Asia’s largest lake – or the reverse route, depending on the time of year and water levels.
A journey along the Mekong River offers a fascinating insight into everyday life along this mighty water system – the lifeblood for many millions of people – from the balcony of your room, the breezy upper deck of your boat, and on absorbing shore excursions with local guides.
For food loving travellers, Mekong River cruises afford a taste of the cuisines and culinary culture en route. For the more culinary adventurous, there are plenty of opportunities to get out of your comfort zone.
For keen cooks, Mekong River cruises offer a chance to try your hand at making Southeast Asian food, from fresh spring rolls made from rice paper produced by local families, or the art of fruit carving, an essential element of royal Khmer cuisine from the palace kitchens in Phnom Penh.
Mekong River Cruises from Vietnam to Cambodia for a Taste of Indochina
Saigon, as Ho Chi Minh City is still called by locals, is paradise for street food fans and market lovers, and provides the perfect introduction to the food of the region, to Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine. Long before borders were marked and the nations of Vietnam and Cambodia even existed, Southern Vietnam was part of Cambodia’s ancient kingdom of Funan and later its better-known Khmer Empire, and much later – along with Laos – they formed French Indochina.
This explains why Southern Vietnamese cuisine is so similar to that of Southern Cambodia’s, and Phnom Penh and Saigon share so many specialties. Vietnam’s ubiquitous street food snack is banh mi, a pork and salad roll that is so delicious thanks to the French who introduced baguettes, pate and mayonnaise. In Cambodia, it’s called num pang and you’ll see it prepared and sold from mobile carts in both countries.
The first port of call for most Mekong River cruises is My Tho, where passengers get to venture into the Mekong Delta, a vast wetlands of lush rice paddies and market gardens, criss-crossed by canals, manmade and natural. The Vietnamese and Cambodians depend upon these waterways for their livelihood and the months of annual monsoonal rains that transform the plains into a shallow inland sea are welcomed by rice farmers and fishermen alike.
From the fertile Delta ports such as Sa Dec and Tan Chau, passengers on the Mekong River cruises from Vietnam to Cambodia get to explore the narrow canals, shaded by canopies of trees that provide relief from the sticky heat, by narrow wooden fishing boats. Locals use these to transport everything from sugar cane to fresh tropical fruit and vegetables between their plots of land and local markets and cottage industries.
Artisanal producer families craft everything from fish sauce and fermented rice noodles to coconut candy and dried fruit. Depending on the season, you should get to sample everything from the king and queen of fruit, durian and jackfruit, to rambutan, longan, mangosteen, sapodilla, and custard apple.
In Phnom Penh, a visit to one of the Cambodian capital’s many markets is a must for a glimpse of the abundance of fresh local produce upon which Cambodians depend. Trundle in a tuk tuk along Phnom Penh’s waterside promenade and you’ll spot roving vendors and mobile carts selling Cambodian street food specialties such as sweet corn on the cob, fluffy steamed pork buns, and sour unripe fruits sprinkled with salt and sugar and doused with chilli sauce.
Venture into the backstreets and market areas and you’ll see strings of deliciously fatty grilled sausages, smoky barbecued skewers of pork, beef and offal, and small clams marinated in chilli, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.
Upstream, Kampong Chhnang is the historic centre of Cambodia’s pottery and ceramics production and most Mekong River cruises stop here. The riverside town is home to ancient kilns where many families work, just as their ancestors have for centuries, to fire clay pots and braziers, still used in Cambodian kitchens to cook on with wood and charcoal.
‘Chhnang’ is ‘pot’ in the Khmer language. With a slightly different (and rather tricky) pronunciation of ‘chhnganhg’ it means ‘delicious’. A fun game I like to play with local cooks and street food vendors after a meal is to tell them how delicious it was. If I get a smile, I know I’ve said ‘pot’ and I’m in for a language lesson that will involve lots of laughter.
For Cambodians, there are few things more delicious than their beloved ‘baby duck eggs’, which you can sample if you dare in Kampong Chhnang. These fertilised duck eggs are sometimes boiled in coconut juice and kaffir lime leaves for an hour, then eaten with a salt, pepper and lime juice dip. They really are scrummy and taste like a cross between duck and egg.
In Kampong Chhnang, the locals also love their soups, made with bamboo shoots, luffa gourd, cat fish, and snails, and frogs, which are typically stir-fried or stuffed with a mince of frog and pork, combined with kroeung, a herb and spice paste of fresh turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime, shallots, and garlic, and then barbecued.
It’s often assumed that snails and frogs legs are another culinary remnant from the French colonial era, however, Cambodians have been consuming fare from the rice fields for as long as they can remember. And not only frogs, snails and small fish, often caught by children while the older family members plant rice, but also rice paddy rats and crickets, the latter trapped overnight in illuminated nets or, in more recent times, plastic bags.
Barbecued rice paddy rats, along with fried tarantulas, scorpions, and the array of fried insects, that Cambodians love to eat – crickets, grasshoppers, water beetles, and cockroaches – are snacks that, bewilderingly to most visitors, have a special place in the heart and stomachs of older Cambodians.
These were survival foods stolen from the rice fields in the dead of night during Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge era from 1975-79 when Cambodians were forced to work in the paddies and many millions died of exhaustion, malnutrition, malaria, or by execution.
In the floating villages that dot the shores and tributaries of the Tonle Sap, you’ll get to see fish from the lake laid out to dry on wire racks outside the stilted timber homes, and being smoked over coconut wood. Snakehead and catfish are popular, along with the tiny fish called ‘riel’ after the local currency.
Riel are salted to make prahok, a fermented fish paste that is the main source of seasoning, and despite its ancient beginnings, became another beloved survival food for Cambodians. In times of drought and difficulty, locals will fondly recall that it was prahok and rice, along with foraged leaves, stalks and flowers, that was their only nourishment.
Once you arrive in Siem Reap, make sure you dine at one of the city’s best Cambodian restaurants, from restaurants serving traditional Cambodian food, such as Sugar Palm, Malis and Chanrey Tree, to the more innovative restaurants which are part of a New Cambodian Cuisine movement, such as Mie Café, Embassy, Mahob Khmer, and Pou, where you’ll see young Cambodian chefs using the much-loved local ingredients you saw en route on your journey.
These creative young chefs are deconstructing and reconstructing traditional specialties in contemporary styles, and sprinkling plates with edible flowers and fragrant herbs as their ancestors have long done. It’s a deliciously satisfying way to punctuate a food-focused journey, no matter which of the Mekong River cruises from Vietnam to Cambodia that you do.
Best Mekong River Cruises from Vietnam to Cambodia
Numerous companies offer Mekong River cruises from Vietnam to Cambodia and this year, just as we did with Halong Bay, we’ll be adding reviews of different Mekong River cruise boats.
In the meantime, Luxury Escapes has a great deal right now (it ends in 4 days!) for one of the most luxurious of Mekong River cruises from Vietnam to Cambodia, aboard the Aqua Mekong, and a small-group tour, totalling 11 days and 10 nights. The luxury all-inclusive trip is US$7,499 per person twin share (valued up to $10,150), including 6 nights at Park Hyatt Hotels in Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, all-inclusive cruising, expert guided sightseeing, private transport, insider experiences, and most meals and drinks, including Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine by consulting chef David Thompson. Departures in 2019 and 2020 are in May, June and July, monsoon period and a gorgeous time to visit when everything is lush and green. You’ll explore Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and spectacular Angkor Wat and other archaeological sites.
Itinerary highlights include Mekong Delta excursions to Binh Thanh mat weaving village and Sa Dec for the vibrant market and charming house of Marguerite Duras’ lover, My An Hung village to stroll verdant plantations and visit a local home to taste exotic tropical fruit. You’ll travel along Bassac Canal to Chau Doc floating market and have the option of a bike ride on Long Khanh Island or rickshaw tour to Tan Chau Market with the chef. On Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, you’ll visit traditional villages such as Preah Prosop set amidst tamarind trees and do cooking classes on board the boat and in a Siem Reap village, where you’ll visit a local family to learn about cooking in a traditional household and food customs. Click through to Luxury Escapes for the full itinerary and departure dates.
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Image courtesy of Luxury Escapes.
If you’ve experienced one of the Mekong River cruises from Vietnam to Cambodia we’d love to get your insights in the comments below.