Vietnam’s Mekong River Cruises – A Complete Guide 2019
A Mekong River cruise is a must-do when visiting Southern Vietnam. Located south of Ho Chi Minh City and extending out to the Gulf of Thailand, the Mekong Delta, with its lush, emerald fields of rice, swaying palm trees, and floating markets are what most people think of when they imagine the idyllic Vietnamese countryside.
Outside the big cities, life in Vietnam revolves around farming and agriculture. With thousands of kilometres of waterways crisscrossing the Mekong Delta, its fertile land is known as Vietnam’s “Rice Bowl” for its prolific rice production, as well as supplying fruit and flowers to Ho Chi Minh City and beyond.
Because there are so many rivers, canals, and waterways in the Mekong Delta, life centers around water. People live by the water, use it for travel and transport, as well as fishing, farming, and trading.
All this makes a Mekong River cruise an ideal way to see authentic countryside living up close. With hundreds of live-aboards and smaller boats plying the waters of the Mekong River, visitors are spoiled for choice when deciding on which cruise to take. For that perfect Mekong River cruise, here are some factors to consider:
The Mekong Delta starts about 1.5 to 2 hours south of the southern edge of Ho Chi Minh City, meaning that a day trip to the Mekong Delta is possible.
Even if you’re short on time, a cruise starting from Ho Chi Minh City or a day trip by road and cruise will allow you to visit one of the smaller floating markets, and perhaps a temple and a land-based market, all in one day.
Within two hours’ drive from Ho Chi Minh City, you can start your Mekong Delta exploration in the neighbouring towns of Ben Tre and My Tho, just across the Mekong River from each other.
Ben Tre is known as the Delta’s coconut capital and people come for its many coconut products (juice, candy, souvenirs carved out of coconut palms, etc.) while My Tho is famous for its delicious version of noodle soup.
There are also several small riverine islands to explore between Ben Tre and My Tho, some with eco-parks and historic temples and museums.
Drive another 30 minutes and you can visit the towns of Cai Be and Vinh Long. Quiet Cai Be is the site of a small floating market while larger Vinh Long is home to expansive fruit orchards where visitors can sample freshly picked tropical fruit.
The furthest destination for a one-day Mekong River cruise is Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta, about 170km southwest of Ho Chi Minh City.
There’s a melting pot of cultures here, as well as the Cai Rang Floating Market, the largest in the Delta, where dozens of boats laden with rice and produce, come together on the river.
There are several options for one-day Mekong Delta excursions originating from Ho Chi Minh City. If you’re looking for a bargain, Sinh Tourist operates two itineraries for between USD 10-15 per person, including lunch.
The low price is offset by large numbers, so expect to be in a large group in buses and boats for the entire trip hitting the most touristy of attractions. On the other end of the spectrum is Les Rives which operates speedboat cruises conveniently departing from Ho Chi Minh City.
A good balance in both pricing and itinerary is provided by Victoria Cruises which start in Cai Be (with optional shuttle to and from Ho Chi Minh City).
Join either a small group or book the trip on a private basis for a leisurely sampan cruise with shore excursions visiting a historic home showcasing Chinese, French, and Vietnamese architectural influences, several local workshops, and a gourmet lunch in a garden villa straight out of vintage Indochina.
If you’re already in Can Tho, Victoria Cruises also offers day trips to explore the surrounding Delta, including a breakfast cruise to the Cai Rang Floating Market, and gastronomic sunset cruises combining gourmet meals with sightseeing.
If you have an extra day or two to spare, an overnight Mekong River cruise is definitely the way to go. Not only will you not feel rushed between stops, but you can break up the travel time between the Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City, making for a more relaxing overall experience.
Overnight cruise itineraries typically allow additional time to explore rustic Vietnamese villages and markets as well as simply time to relax onboard, taking in the ever-changing scenery along the riverbanks.
The added time allows for stopping in at some of the lesser-visited towns where villagers are happier to see tourists and where curious local children are more open to interaction.
Depending on the boat, you may even stay overnight right on the river, allowing you to experience both sunset and sunrise over the Delta.
There are two options for overnight cruises. The first are multi-cabin wooden cruisers, more typical of a river cruise experience where you’re sharing the boat with other travelers. The 12-cabin Bassac Cruise and the 10-cabin Le Cochinchine Cruise both get good reviews.
For a more private experience, Victoria Cruises offers 1- and 2-night cruises aboard a private sampan, with an entire crew to take care of just you and your party. Most meals are served on board, open to the river breezes, and shore excursions go off-the-beaten-path, visiting historic homes, traditional cottage industries, and quaint towns.
A variety of final destinations (Can Tho, with direct flights to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur; Rach Gia, gateway to the paradise island of Phu Quoc; and Chau Doc, just minutes from the Cambodian border) allow guests to save precious travel time without having to re-route back to Ho Chi Minh City.
If you’d rather cruise-and-stay, Victoria Voyages offers private 3-6 night packages making use of day and overnight cruises as well as Indochine-inspired hotels and resorts for an in-depth journey into Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
Excursions are also unique, including a home-cooked meal in a hundred-year-old home, a breakfast cruise to the Cai Rang Floating Market, and cycling through the Delta with a visit to an ethnic Cham minority village.
Just a day or two is only enough to scratch the surface of the Mekong Delta, a rich tapestry of Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham, and Khmer cultures.
Off the main tourist trail, there are excellent destinations to explore, including floating fish farms where fish are raised in underwater pens right below the homes, historic wartime sites, and gorgeous nature preserves, like the submerged forest at Tra Su (near Chau Doc, Vietnam).
A longer Mekong River cruise will allow you to visit these places and more, with bonus time to relax on the ship (which tend to be nicer, with more amenities).
Longer Mekong River cruises usually depart from either Ho Chi Minh City (by shuttle to the ship moored elsewhere) or My Tho and follow the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, or on to Siem Reap, the gateway to famed Angkor Wat.
Cruises between Vietnam and Cambodia tend to last 5-8 nights. The benefit of longer cruises is being able to unpack just once, returning to the comfort of your cabin after shore excursions, enjoying restaurant-quality meals (larger ships equal larger kitchens able to stock more ingredients), and often luxe amenities and facilities on board, including a spa, swimming pool, and bar or lounge.
However, be prepared to pay higher prices for longer river cruises, as they’re considered an all-inclusive holiday providing not only transportation between destinations, but luxe accommodations, food, and excursions.
The 20-cabin Aqua Mekong often tops the Luxury River Cruises list, but in return, expect to pay around USD 1,000 per person per night.
A more wallet-friendly cruise option is the 4-star Victoria Mekong Cruise, sailing 3- and 4-night itineraries between Can Tho, Vietnam, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The brand-new, 35-cabin ship has all the amenities you’d expect from a luxury cruise, including spa, swimming pool, sun deck and rooftop deck (with mini-golf!), passenger elevator and even a movie room, but at a fraction of the price.
With a rich mix of cultures, cuisines, and landscapes, the Mekong Delta is a truly worthwhile destination, easily accessible from Ho Chi Minh City or Phnom Penh.
Whether on a day trip or an overnight or multi-day cruise, you’re sure to be rewarded by incredible photographs, genuine interactions with down-to-earth locals, and unforgettable experiences to last a lifetime.