After Vietnam, our next destination was Cambodia. We explored options to travel from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh, including bus, plane or Mekong river trips. I convinced Paul that seasoned travellers such as ourselves should choose the overland route. A 3 day trip with 2 nights in the Mekong Delta, finishing with a speedboat trip crossing the border into Cambodia. This meant we could get a Mekong Delta tour and our transfer to Phnom Penh all wrapped up in one experience. We chose this trip with Get Your Guide.
This turned out to be a really great choice. An exhausting, challenging trip with a lot packed in, but we saw things that we wouldn’t have managed to do if we’d tried to travel independently. All tours tend to have those side trips to various shops and factories where you get a short demonstration on how something is made and then a sales pitch or shopping time. If you ignore the shopping element the kids found these short ‘tutorials’ interesting. We particularly enjoyed coconut candy and rice noodle making.
Day 1 Ho Chi Minh to Can Tho
This day was packed with activities, we visited a small village where we tasted local fruits and listened to some folk music, then we got our first Sampan boat ride on one of the tributaries of the Mekong River, a smaller stream / river that flows into the river. With the traditional Vietnamese conical hats to wear this was lots of fun, and the subsequent photo of us all in the boat has been shown on news media and lonely planet websites! Here are some new photos we haven’t previously published!
Following the Sampan ride we stopped at a family business that made coconut candy.
Coconut milk is extracted from the fresh coconuts, then heated for at least 45 minutes to caramelise it. Other ingredients and flavourings are added before the caramel is poured into special boards for cooling, cutting and wrapping.
We boarded another, larger, boat on the main part of river to Tortoise island for lunch, passing fishing boats and nets along the busy river.
In the afternoon we stopped at Vinh Trang Pagoda to admire the mix of Asian and European architecture and gardens.
We finally arrived at Can Tho in time for dinner and an early night. Our accommodation was in twin rooms so we needed 2 rooms at each place and split up, boys and girls. The rooms were basic but fine for the very short time we were staying, we were up at 5am the next morning to see the floating market.
Day 2 Can Tho to Chau Doc
Cai Rang Floating Market, is one of the largest floating markets in the Mekong Delta. It is impressive but the floating markets are not as large as they used to be. You need to wake up early because all the action happens from dawn until mid morning. Arriving at the market, several kms up the river from Can Tho, you see a mass of boats, there are many larger boats with small boats buzzing about in between. Boats display their wares and advertise what they are selling by tying fruits to the end of a long pole in the air, so a boat selling pineapples will have a pineapple at the end of their pole. It’s quite fun to spot the variety and fruit and vegetables attached to the poles.
A popular tourist activity is to climb onto a larger boat to purchase a delicious fresh pineapple. The pineapple is peeled and cut in front of you and there are great photo opportunities standing high on the boat.
After the floating market, our boat took us to a small village to see rice noodles being made. L & S put their hand up anytime a volunteer was needed. We were proud of how they would give anything a try and not stand back like so many adults. Sometimes the person doing the demonstration would look quite disconcerted when S stepped up to try something dangerous or heavy, but she is strong and determined, there is no way she is going to watch her brother do something and not have a try herself. With a little help she managed everything on offer.
Rice Noodle Making
A thin paste of rice flour is prepared and spread onto a hot, flat, round surface, like cooking a large thin pancake or crepe.
Then a special tool is used to roll across the pancake, picking it up and rolling it out onto flat woven trays.
Hundreds of these flat pancakes are one racks drying in the sun.
The dry crisp pancakes are then fed one by one into a machine to be cut into noodles.
Back on the boat we headed to the next village where bike riding was an optional activity. After a couple of 5am starts and not the most comfortable beds, I think Paul liked the sound of relaxing in the orchard with a cold drink, but once L & S heard the words ‘bike ride’ there really wasn’t going to be any other option for us.
Unfortunately there weren’t bikes small enough for S, so she had to ride behind her Dad. The ride took us through the village past small homes and following the waterways. L was nowhere to be seen most of the time as he shot to the head of the group and raced one of the other young boys, he was thrilled to be on a bike again. Poor S had to use her sunhat to sit on to protect her bottom from the uncomfortable seat! But we all had a lot of fun and a unique view of the local villages.
The local people use bamboo ‘monkey’ bridges to cross the waterways and take short cuts. So we hopped off the bikes to have a go at climbing across the bridge.
Locals will carry their bikes across the bridge with them, but we weren’t agile enough for that! We cycled the long way around to cross a more normal bridge and cycle to a tiny temple in the middle of some fascinating trees. Looking at the picture you can see why soldiers chose this as a hiding place during the Vietnam War.
All of this would be enough for a full day out, but at this point it is only late morning. It was time to get back on the boat to Can Tho, then after lunch our group split into those heading back to Ho Chi Minh after a 2 day tour and those of us heading further to Cambodia the next day.
Our smaller group had one more stop on our way to Chau Doc, a forest park near the Cambodian border. We floated through the mangroves at dusk, bird watching. It was an incredibly peaceful experience.
Arriving at Chau Doc, a small town on the Vietnam Cambodia border, it had been a very long day and we were apprehensive about our 6 hour boat trip the next day.
I knew the boat left around 7.30am so we were prepared for another early start. Then our cheerful guide Yen announced that we would visit a local fish farm and Cham village before boarding the boat to Phnom Penh. Another 5 am start then!
Day 3 Chau Doc to Phnom Penh
The early start to be on the water at 6am visiting the local floating fish farm was worth losing a bit more sleep for. At this time you can get a true taste of local life in the cool morning air. Lots of children were out on fishing boats with their parents or sitting at the front of their houses watching the activity on the river. Although the smell of a fish farm at that time of the morning will test the strongest of stomachs.
Underneath these floating houses are huge bamboo tanks containing catfish that are fed through a trap door in the floor of the house. The feeding was good fun and the water was alive with fish.
These farms supply markets in America with fish, they have been severely impacted by the Trump administration imposing new tariffs on their fish in America. They are seeking new markets for their products in Australia. It was fascinating to be in a place that felt so remote and yet is still so connected to the world economically and impacted by American politics.
Our next stop was a traditional Cham village, with stilt houses. There were a lot of children begging and although it was interesting to see how they live next to the river, it felt strange and a bit intrusive to be walking through their village looking at their houses. Although we were encouraged to do so. This picture of the flood levels from each year shows how important their stilt houses are.
The speedboat to Phnom Penh was running late so we lingered here a bit longer until we got back on our small boat to meet the larger speedboat, where we climbed across in the middle of the river to board our transport to Cambodia. Crossing our fingers that all the luggage had made it on board.
With 2 immigration stops, one leaving Vietnam and then one a short distance later arriving in Cambodia, the trip to Phnom Penh took about 5 1/2 hours. We’ll write more about how to cross the border at Chau Doc and the speedboat experience in a later post. In short, it is a long trip and a bit boring after awhile, hot and a bit cramped, like being on a budget airline. The kids survived because they brought a charged tablet with loads of movies.
And that’s a wrap on 17 days in Vietnam. We missed lots of typical Vietnam highlights, choosing instead to focus on more time in the places we did visit. We’ll need another trip to explore the places we missed. I’m really pleased we chose the Mekong Delta trip, it was an experience completely different to anything else we did in 13 weeks in South East Asia and we have lots of wonderful pictures and memories to look back on. The map below shows our route on the Mekong Delta Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh trip. We booked with Get Your Guide and would recommend them.