The first time we went to Vietnam and Cambodia, we were on a trip to see ancient capitals of Southeast Asia. Now we wanted to see the big cities.
We found a tour that included a week-long cruise on a small riverboat along the Mekong River to experience life along the river.
Ho Chi Minh City
Temples, markets and ancient monuments
Sounded like the perfect mix of happy chaotic streets and peaceful water…
...And ending up in Angkor Wat. A great trip for history, real life, and relaxation.
Ah, yes... Sunrise over our shoulder at Angkor Wat. But I get ahead of myself!
Most of our journey was on the mighty Mekong River which disgorges through a vast delta into the South China Sea south of Ho Chi Minh City.
The Mekong snakes its way south from China… it forms borders as it passes by Myanmar, Laos and Thailand before it traverses Cambodia into Vietnam. But we also wanted to see the capital of Vietnam, so we started there…
Hanoi is the current capital of Vietnam… and it has been the capital off and on for centuries. And it has much to explore, but…
may not seem fair, but I have to say it… The first impression we had of
Hanoi was traffic and chaos… scooter chaos.
Parked all over sidewalks and clogging the streets... and the market...
Yep. A "wet market"... that means they sell fresh produce and meat... but the way this one works is that the customers (mostly ladies) zoom through on their scooters to pick up dinner before zooming off to pick up the kids....
...and it is pedestrian beware!
Our guide would wait for a small break in traffic, then just start walking and say, “Keep walking slowly… don’t stop, just walk slowly…” and the scooters would somehow veer around you.
This seemed scary at first, but we soon got used to it, and everywhere we went in Vietnam and Cambodia we followed the same rule and soon it seemed normal.
There is Chinese influence in the architecture as well as traditional Vietnamese. There is history in the temples and the Old Market area….
And some buildings have French influence from the century that the French were there… some are copied from buildings in Paris.
And of course, there is Ho Chi Minh.
I think all tours take you to see his mausoleum, and the house where he lived adjacent to it.
There wasn’t a lot of emphasis on the Vietnam War… or the American War… depending on your perspective… but we did get in some history lessons.
After we visited the Mausoleum, we visited the One Pillar Pagoda nearby, and the Temple of Literature… both from the 11th century..
Our guide pointed out that The Temple of Literature was so important they even have it on currency.
That same afternoon we went to the Hanoi Hilton…
Officially the Hỏa Lò Prison... it is also known as the Maison Centrale, and it was a prison long before it became infamous in the U.S.
Hỏa Lò Prison was built by the French starting in 1886 to house political prisoners when Vietnam was part of French Indochina.
It has always been a horror…
...today it is a sobering museum.
I think it should be illegal to visit the north of Vietnam without seeing Halong Bay.
It was an interesting 3 1/2 hour drive from Hanoi. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a very large bay (actually 3 bays) in the Gulf of Tonkin.
We boarded a traditional wooden junk to spend two days and a night exploring.
There are thousands of evocatively shaped islets, large and small... the tallest is 900 feet high, the small ones are just little blips in the water. Fantastical outcrops, caves, and sandy coves come into view as you sail around...
It’s very easy to snap pictures around every bend... and very hard to get one to show how magical it all seems.
Local legend says that a giant dragon plunged into the Gulf of Tonkin... and created the islets and rock formations... can you kind of see the dragon's tail there?
I did say this was about Vietnam and Cambodia… and we’re getting there.
Centuries ago, Ho Chi Minh City was part of the kingdom of Cambodia. By the 18th century it was part of Vietnam and named Saigon. In the 19th century it was in the control of the French. In 1954 it was proclaimed the capital of South Vietnam.
After the Americans left in 1975, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Whatever you call it, it is the biggest city in Vietnam.
Chaos reigns in the streets here too, but a little less so that in Hanoi. It’s a city where the past, present, and future are all jumbled together… French colonial architecture, Chinese pagodas, and sleek skyscrapers.
The City Hall, which was built by the French, is still a city hall but now called the People’s Committee Building.
It still is a beautiful picture.
The former Presidential Palace is now a museum called the Reunification Palace or the Independence Palace, and reception rooms and living quarters are set up as museum exhibits.
We boarded the CF Mekong Toum Teav on the Saigon River...
...and for seven days we cruised up the Mekong River visiting towns along the way and observing life along the river in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Click on any picture for a large size and an explanation...
Both architecture and the amount of traffic on the river changed when we sailed across the border. (Stopping for customs formalities before proceeding.) Fishing practices seemed different too. It just all somewhat seemed more rural and sleepy.
We moored for a couple of days in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
It has a rich history but a troubled recent past.
The city is a jumble of temples and markets… crumbling buildings and skyscrapers.
Phnom Penh means “the hill of Penh”.
The legend is that an old lady… Madam Penh found Buddha statues in a hollow tree trunk washed up on the shore, and she set them up on a hill and built a temple.
Wat Phnom is there, right off the riverfront.
There is also the Royal Palace of the King in the middle of town. A large complex with a Throne Hall, a Silver Pagoda, and a Royal Residence among the many buildings.
There is a good National Museum nearby with many great Khmer statues and exhibits from prehistoric times to present day.
There are the killing fields from the time of the Khmer Rouge which are hard enough to think about in the abstract, but very sad to see when you are actually there standing on bones.
And if that’s not enough, you can also visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Hard to see, but should be remembered.
The Tonle Sap River flows into the Mekong at Phnom Penh. Up that river is the Tonle Sap Lake and the city of Siem Reap home to Angkor Wat. We sailed for another day and a half up river and across the lake.
There were more temples to visit… with interesting ways to get there. There were more little markets.
And most interesting… there were several floating villages where the fishermen and their families live their whole lives on the water.
Any visit to Vietnam and Cambodia… especially if it’s along the Mekong, needs to include Angkor Wat.
We had been years ago, and we couldn’t wait to get back. I think the Angkor temples are on everyone’s bucket list… and if they aren’t they should be.
The Angkor Archaeological Park is a vast area set aside containing the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century.
Angkor Wat is the best preserved temple on the site. It was built between 1080 and 1175 and was originally a Hindu Temple dedicated to Vishnu. Later it became Buddhist.
As amazing as it is to see this huge temple as you approach, the detail that you see close up is amazing… and you have to see it in person… pictures really don’t do any of it justice.
This complex was built between 1175-1240. It was the last temple to be built in the Angkor complex, and it is unique in that it is the only temple built to honor Mahayana Buddhism.
There were 54 towers, and each has four faces of a bodhisattva, or faces of the King Jayavarman VII on it, depending on which story you’re told. Either way, that’s 214 faces smiling down at you. (Since some towers have fallen, it is estimated that 200 faces are left.)
Also called the Jungle Temple... Many people say Ta Prohm is their favorite because it looks like what you think a jungle temple SHOULD look like….
Thick roots of strangler figs wrap what’s left of the temple and stones that have fallen from it. Since we were there the first time, they have built wooden walkways to make it safer.
This little temple was not a royal temple… it was built by one of the King's counselors. It was earlier than many of the others, built between 965 and 1080.
It is much smaller than the grand temples of Angkor, but the carvings are very detailed, and it it well worth visiting.
The first time we visited Vietnam and Cambodia years ago, we circled around visiting ancient capitals of Southeast Asia. This time it was only Vietnam and Cambodia. It just seemed right with the cruise on the Mekong tying them together.
A cruise like this, whether in a very small boat like ours, or one a little bigger makes it an easy trip… so why not consider a river cruise if you’re interested in seeing Vietnam and Cambodia.