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Tips for cruising the Mekong River

The mighty Mekong River meanders over 4,000km through six countries, starting in China and ending in Vietnam.

It is the lifeblood of millions of families who make their living on it and beside it, watering the farms and fields of MyanmarThailandLaosCambodia and Vietnam on its way to the South China Sea.

Sights on the Mekong River

Cruising the mighty Mekong River is one of the best ways to spend a vacation, especially if you’re not a fan of big cities and loads of people but want to see how life truly is in Vietnam.

If you plan to do a mix of both, a lovely one-night cruise I did from Hanoi was this Ha Long Bay cruise.

But if you have more time, or want to see life at a slower pace, you’ll love a Vietnam river cruise.

You’ll see how the locals live in their houses on stilts hanging over the water, fishermen throwing nets from their boats, vendors plying their wares from their boats selling cooked food and produce.

You’ll see jungle and waterways and so much history it’ll blow your mind. It’s a totally different atmosphere than when you’re exploring Venice while cruising the Grand Canal.

Fisherman throwing out their nets

However, going on a Mekong river cruise is different to an ocean cruise, which is why it takes a bit of preparation.

You need to know what you should definitely bring along, what you should leave at home, and a few things that you absolutely must not miss. Let’s not waste any more time and dive into the details!

What you definitely should take on a Mekong cruise

While this does somewhat depend on whether or not you’re visiting during the rainy season, there are some things that you should absolutely bring on your Mekong River cruise.

First, and probably the most important, is a lightweight jacket that is waterproof and has a hood. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that water resistant is enough, because if you get caught out in the rain, you’ll regret it. Bring a jacket that’s breathable because it’s a rainforest, and it does get warm sometimes. Or, you could get a rain poncho, that works as well.

In terms of the rest of your clothing, try to keep that lightweight as well.

Breathable materials work best for your pants, for example, and if you can, by all means get a pair that is water repellent as well.

Footwear should be as lightweight as you can, and make sure it’s comfortable. Something like hiking shoes or boots works well but they can be hot.

I recently tried the new Tropicfeel shoes which are made from recycled plastic and are breathable as well as able to get wet as they are also quick dry.

Bring a few pairs of moisture-wicking socks, as well as a pair of walking shoes that you’d wear around town.

Bring plenty of shirts, both short and long sleeved, so you have enough to change during the trip.

And last but not least, get yourself a set of dressy clothes. Yes, the dress code tends to be rather casual onboard, but you could use one set of nicer clothes to wear on the final dinner, or at organized events.

Do I need to bring cash?

Aside from clothing, you should have some spending cash on you, but don’t take too much.

You’ll want a little cash to buy from busy markets like this one, the Nga Nam floating market.

Also, get yourself a small flashlight for hiking, as well as a water bottle, and a sun hat with a brim. While we’re at it, you should not only come with a large suitcase (or backpack), but also get a smaller bag that you can use for daily excursions.

Things to Leave at Home

Just like you have plenty of things to bring, there are a couple of things that you should also leave at home.

The first one is your computer, because let’s face it, you’re on vacation, right? Personally I always take my laptop to blog, but the reality is I don’t blog when I’m travelling, I just upload pics to my socials.

Also internet speeds won’t be great on the river so a smartphone should be more than enough for a Facebook update once in a while, or posting a couple of pictures on Instagram.

And while the temptation to have a separate outfit for each day of your trip might be nice, try and recycle your outfits, especially if the cruise is longer than a week.

You really don’t need to bring all those clothes, and you can always hand-wash them in your room, or pay for the on-board laundry service. There are options, so pack light.

You might like to use my free printable packing list >

Last but not least, don’t bring a hairdryer! For starters you’re risking blowing a fuse, which isn’t a good thing when you’re on the water, and you can always ask to borrow one from the staff.

What kind of cuisine should you expect?

With most cruise providers, the food that’s on the ship will be tailor made for the trip you’re on. So, if you’re on a Mekong river cruise, you’ll get to experience the region’s cuisine, and enjoy some authentic meals, oftentimes prepared with freshly-caught fish from the river itself.

Now, of course, this does depend on the cruise provider itself. But with these kinds of cruises, you can expect to be well fed, and if you’re versatile in terms of the food you consume, you’ll get plenty of things to try.

Expect lots of spring rolls filled with local ingredients. You might even get to make them yourself on board!

Things you absolutely mustn’t miss

If you’re thinking about exploring the Mekong, there are a couple of things that you absolutely must visit.

The Tonle Sap Lake

The first one is Tonle Sap Lake, known as Cambodia’s beating heart, and is Southeast Asia’s largest lake. The Tonle Sap Lake is a natural phenomenon, a spectacle of nature. Most of the year, the Mekong river flows southwards, towards the South China Sea. This causes the Tonle Sap’s water to empty into the Mekong, and is when the lake’s water levels are at their lowest. 

However, between May and October, the monsoon winds from the southwest cause a higher rainfall to Southeast Asia. In this period, the Mekong river begins to swell. And around June, the water levels are so high that the Tonle Sap river starts flowing backwards, into the lake itself. This is the only river in the world that reverses its direction twice a year.

A house floating on Tonle Sap lake

When is the best time to see it?

The lake is best accessible during the high-water season, where you can visit by a cruise ship, and is when you’ll get to experience Cambodian culture being brought to life.

90% of the people who live on and around the lake depend on the fishing or agriculture that’s enabled by the lake. You can find villagers in their sampans out during the day, with their bamboo fish traps trying to find lunch for their family. 

Of course, this is just a small part of what you can see. If you are on a cruise ship that has launch boats, you can enjoy excursions to some of these less discovered communities, which are typically further away from the touristy areas. 

Angkor Wat Temple  

The lake is also home to the Angkor Wat temple complex, which is another must not miss!

It’s more than a temple. It is a whole complex and it spreads across 162.6 hectares, making it the largest religious monument in the world.

Angkor Wat reflected in the river

Angkor Wat was initially constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, but towards the end of the 12th century, it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple. 

The temple combines two of the Khmer Empire’s signature temple architectures; the temple-mountain, and the galleried temple that came later on.

The design was meant to represent Mount Meru, and you’ll find three rectangular galleries, each raised higher up than the next. Unlike most Angorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented towards the west. This is a temple many people love for the harmony of the architecture, which brings the two styles together. 

Angkor Wat – Ta Prohm temple, Cambodia

The Khmer Empire

Then there’s the distinctive culture that you’ll see while cruising around the mighty river – you will experience a variety of artforms and things that you just don’t see elsewhere.

Many of those things you’ll also get to experience on the on-shore excursions that most river cruise operators offer, but overall, it’s truly a sight you must not miss. 

The Khmer Empire lasted from the 9th to the 15th century, and you can still witness things like the Khmer Apsara dance performance, artisans who produce stunning Khmer silverware, and even a ride in a traditional ox-cart! 

For everything you need to know about cruising, I’ve put my best material into this one easy peasy link!

Excursions on the Mekong River

There is no shortage of excursions on a Mekong river cruise.

You can choose between more active outings, like kayaking and paddling, or more relaxed options such as cycling excursions that take things slow.

At the end of the day, if you’re considering a river cruise, the Mekong river should definitely be on your shortlist. 

A little waterway through the Mekong Delta jungle

If you visit Ho Chi Minh (still called Saigon by many) a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels are a fascinating eye-opener!

Read more of my Vietnam posts here >

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!