Timeless Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia & The Mekong 2019
(Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap)
13 days with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises Rating:
DAY 1: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Arrive at Tan Son Nhat International Airport. If your cruise/tour package includes a group arrival transfer or if you have purchased a private arrival transfer, you will be greeted by a Uniworld representative and transferred to your luxury hotel. You will be greeted with a private check-in, welcome drink and information packet at the hotel. An elegant flower arrangement and fruit platter await you in your room. Tonight, consider popping out to explore the lively Ben Thanh Night Market or one of the city’s quintessential evening cafés—either choice would mark a splendid start to your adventure.
DAY 2: Ho Chi Minh City
As Asia’s “comeback kid,” there’s something so invigorating about Ho Chi Minh City, a busting metropolis with a youthful and innovative energy—and no wonder, given that more than half the population is younger than 35. Embrace the dynamic spirit of the city formerly known as Saigon on today’s panoramic tour. History melds with the boisterous present in Vietnam’s largest city, where skyscrapers tower over ancient temples and motorbikes putter along picturesque alleys. It was founded in 1690; became the capital of French Cochinchina in the 1860s, when it was known as Saigon; and acquired its modern moniker in 1976, when it was named for Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
Dynamic Ho Chi Minh City
A landmark in Vietnamese history is the first destination on your panoramic city tour today, as you travel the city’s busy streets, passing elegant French Colonial buildings and bustling shopping centers. On April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through the gates of the building now called the Reunification Palace, symbolizing the downfall of the South Vietnamese government and the end of the Vietnam War. It’s a modern structure, commissioned in 1962 by the president of South Vietnam after his own air force tried to kill him by bombing the 19th-century French palace that had stood on the site. As you will see when you step inside, he intended to enjoy living here: It has a cinema and a nightclub—and, not too surprisingly, a spacious bomb shelter. A few blocks away, two monuments from the colonial days still stand: the lofty General Post Office, designed by Gustav Eiffel (of tower fame), and, across the street, twin-towered Notre Dame Cathedral, built entirely with materials shipped from France. Your motorcoach will carry you past other remnants of French colonial glory—the Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theater (also known as the Saigon Opera House, built in 1901 and modeled on Paris’s Petit Palais) and the City Hall (based on the Hôtel de Ville in Paris)—as well as the contemporary American consulate. But the day includes more than sightseeing: Visit a lacquer showroom to learn a bit about the history and cultural significance of a craft that has been practiced in Vietnam for at least 700 years before enjoying lunch on your own. Ho Chi Minh City is famous for the excellence of its food, which reflects, inevitably, a certain French influence combined with the unique flavors of the region. Tonight you’ll be treated to a special Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant, featuring an exquisitely presented traditional meal and complimentary wine—a delightful start for your exciting Southeast Asian adventure.
DAY 3: Ho Chi Minh City, Transfer to My Tho (Embark)
Ready for an adventure? Today’s featured excursion provides a fascinating glimpse of the Viet Cong’s vast network of incredibly narrow, booby-trapped tunnels dating from the Vietnam War. If you dare, you can even climb down inside for an up-close look.
Vestiges of war—Cú Chi Tunnels
Explore a fascinating aspect of Vietnam’s long struggle to free itself from Western control. Begun by the Viet Minh on the outskirts of Saigon in 1945, as shelter from French air raids, these tunnels were expanded in the 1960s by the Viet Cong, who extended them for many miles. A network of booby-trapped tunnels led to underground chambers where people lived—in considerable privation, generally—wounds were treated and children were taught. Only a small stretch of this network is open to the public, but if you’re venturesome, you may climb down into a tunnel for an up-close look (and we do mean close—don’t expect to stand upright). Following lunch, you’ll be taken to your ship—your elegant home for the next seven nights—and set sail on the beautiful Mekong. Onboard your ship this evening, savor a delicious Vietnamese-themed dinner.
DAY 4: Cai Be, Vinh Long
Get set for an authentic slice of daily life along the Mekong with visits to two quintessentially Vietnamese locales, Vinh Long and Cai Be, which you’ll see by sampan. Meet village elders, experience the lively floating market and visit workshops creating products made from rice. Today’s itinerary features two towns that have been shaped by the Mekong in this agrarian but densely populated region, Vinh Long and Cai Be.
Village life on the Mekong
Chinese herbal-medicine shops, French Colonial houses and Buddhist temples mingle with modern offices on the streets of Vinh Long, the capital of Vinh Long province. The range of buildings hints at the changes that the region has seen. Vinh Long is a gateway to some of the region’s most colorful destinations: Step aboard a sampan—the style of this vessel is traditional, but the one you’ll board is much more luxurious than those generally used on these waters—and join the locals thronging the harbor of Cai Be. At the floating market here, merchants advertise their wares by attaching a sample—such as a watermelon, a coconut or a bunch of bananas—to a tall bamboo pole so their potential customers can easily see what they’re selling. It’s a colorful and lively scene, typical of Mekong Delta towns, though few similar villages feature a handsome French Gothic–style cathedral as a background. You’ll sail into the town and land near the An Kiet House, built early in the 19th century for a member of the royal family. Its ornately carved antique screens and furnishings give you an idea of how wealthy Southern Vietnamese families lived. While you’re on solid ground, take a look at another aspect of life of the delta: Vietnam is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of rice, and the Mekong Delta is known as the country’s “rice bowl.” You’ll learn all about this staple food and its importance to the region as you visit a local establishment where workers make everything from rice paper and rice wine to traditional rice candy.
DAY 5: Sa Dec, Gieng Island, Cruising the Mekong River
Dip into Vietnam’s colorful and culturally eclectic past in Sac Dec—the former haunt of author Marguerite Duras—and the island of Gieng, which boasts a rather unexpected array of Catholic churches and monasteries. Two very different destinations await you today: busy Sa Dec and peaceful Gieng Island. Both reflect Vietnam’s multicultural history.
Sampans and colonial romance
Take to Sa Dec’s narrow canals just as the locals do. Children frolic in the water, fishermen ply their trade, and women care for their families. From here, you’ll head into town, where you will walk through a crowded and colorful local market—stands sell everything from snake blood, fresh fish, clothing and flowers to mangosteens— on your way to the romantic, lacelike Huynh Thuy Le House, a late-19th-century home made famous by best-selling French novelist Marguerite Duras. Duras spent her teen years in Sa Dec, and her prize-winning novel, The Lover, is said to be based on her doomed love affair with Huynh Thuy Le, the son of a wealthy Chinese landowner. Sail from bustling Sa Dec to serene Gieng Island to dip into another aspect of Vietnam’s past: The triangle-shaped island is home to a surprising array of 19th-century Catholic churches and monasteries that date to an era when it was the largest Catholic parish in Vietnam. Though the Franciscan monastery and the Providence nunnery have been largely abandoned, stately Gieng Island Church is still in daily use. Some records indicate that the graceful French baroque-style church predates the famous basilica in Ho Chi Minh City, but it’s more likely that it was built in the 1870s. Regardless of origin or the ups and downs the Catholic community has experienced over the years, the church remains a beautiful tribute to the faith of its founders.
DAY 6: Tan Chau, Evergreen Island, Cruising the Mekong River
More authentic encounters await you today, starting with a sampan ride through the floating villages lining the banks of the great river. Stop at a temple devoted to Vietnam’s homegrown religion, then hop aboard a rickshaw for a ride to a factory that makes handwoven reed baskets. Later, cruise through the canals to Evergreen Island, where village houses are built on stilts. Thousands of boats ply the waters of the Mekong—wooden cargo boats, water taxis, dredges, fishing craft. Traditional and modern elements mingle in this region, but the river rules everything.
Daily life on the great delta
In the Mekong Delta, hardworking residents live and labor on the water, harvesting what the delta gives them and turning it into products they can sell to earn a living or food they can eat, wasting nothing. Today you’ll get a taste of this way of life during a sampan tour that carries you through the floating villages that line the banks of the great river to the town of Tan Chau. Stop at a temple devoted to Vietnam’s homegrown religion Cao Dai (a faith that incorporates most major world religions, including Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, as well as a pantheon of saints that range from Joan of Arc to Thomas Jefferson and Victor Hugo); an image of the Divine Eye appears in every temple, and each color that decorates the temple has a specific meaning. After visiting the temple, hop aboard a rickshaw for a ride to a factory where you can watch baskets and mats being handwoven from reeds grown on the delta, and check out a floating fish farm. The raising and harvesting of seafood is one of Vietnam’s fastest-growing industries, and you’ll be amazed by the efficiency and ingenuity on display. You may even get a chance to feed the fish. Then return to your sampan to cruise through the canals to Evergreen Island, where a rickshaw ride through the village reveals traditional houses built on stilts, an essential precaution during the rainy season, when the Mekong rises and spills into all of the towns that line the river. This afternoon, you’ll cross the Vietnamese border, and tomorrow you’ll awake in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, for the next leg of your exciting journey.
DAY 7: Phnom Penh
Once considered the loveliest of Indochina’s French-built cities, Phnom Penh has somehow retained much of its charm despite all the political and cultural turmoil of the 20th century. See how this fascinating city is rediscovering itself with an insightful panoramic tour and time to explore on your own. Founded in the 15th century, Phnom Penh is the thriving capital of the kingdom of Cambodia. It stands at the juncture of three rivers and is divided into three distinct districts: the French colonial area, a handsome residential district and a rapidly changing Old Town.
Cambodia’s capital—Phnom Penh
A tuk tuk will whisk you down wide boulevards laid out by French colonial administrators in the 1860s, when Cambodia was part of French Indochina, past old French-influenced buildings, beautiful pagodas and (with a bit of luck) saffron-robed monks, on your way to the Royal Palace. Spacious grounds—you might notice a resemblance to formal French parterres—are home to a group of structures featuring classic Khmer architecture. Each one has a specific function: The Throne Hall, with its spires and flying celestials, hosts royal coronations, while the Moonlight Pavilion was intended as a venue for dance performances (but is now used for receptions). The famed Temple of the Emerald Buddha, commonly known as the Silver Pagoda, boasts a floor-covering of 5,329 silver tiles. In the center of the pagoda are both an emerald and a gold Buddha statue (the latter of which is studded with nearly 10,000 diamonds). You’ll also tour the National Museum, which features an incomparable collection of the nation’s archaeological and artistic treasures. Following lunch onboard, enjoy the afternoon and evening at leisure, taking in the shopping and lively entertainment venues of Phnom Penh.
DAY 8: Phnom Penh, Cruising the Mekong River
Today’s featured excursion may be the most profound and memorable experience of your entire journey. You’ll learn about the infamous Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge and visit a former school-turned-prison that is now a genocide museum.
The Killing Fields—tragedy and reconciliation in Cambodia
It’s hard to reconcile the pastoral serenity of the orchards and rice fields surrounding Choeung Ek with the horrific mass executions that took place here during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, yet the memorial stupa filled with the skulls of Pol Pot’s victims tells the tale. These were the Killing Fields, where more than 17,000 men, women and children were slaughtered and buried in mass graves. First, however, they were tortured in Security Prison 21 (also known as S-21), a former high school on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which you will also visit today. The guards and staff of the prison were mostly adolescent males—aged 15 to 19—among whom was a young photographer whose job was to document the prisoners. Though many of his photos were destroyed, 6,000 of them remain, displayed on the walls here; as you look at these portraits, you’ll see grief, fear and defiance—and you’ll be heartbroken to learn that out of the thousands held here, only seven survived. Those who were killed at Choeung Ek were just a small fraction of the almost two million Cambodians who died in a three-year period between 1975 and the beginning of 1979.
DAY 9: Angkor Ban, Wat Hanchey
If yesterday was an exploration of Cambodia’s dark past, today is a celebration of the country’s bright future. You’ll meet young children at a local school and friendly villagers in their homes, and have a rare opportunity to receive a special water blessing from Buddhist monks. The mighty river carries you into the Cambodian countryside today, giving you an opportunity to meet and chat with locals.
Cambodia’s vibrant cultural life
Be ready to answer questions when you visit a local school—because the children love to practice their English—and deepen your understanding of Cambodia when you meet villagers in their homes. You may encounter more children when you stop at a beautifully situated temple complex on a hilltop. Wat Hanchey has incredible views of the Mekong River—you get a real sense of just how huge the river is as you see it stretch into the distance, looking more like a great lake than a river. The complex itself is a remarkable mixture of the ancient and the new: An eighth-century Angkor temple and a modern Buddhist temple share the area—along with playful gibbons and enormous, colorfully painted concrete statues. Before your departure you’ll receive a traditional water blessing from the local monks—one of the most personal and touching moments you’ll experience on this journey. To mark the end of this special day, and to commemorate your last evening onboard the ship, you’ll be treated to a decadent Cambodian-themed dinner. Take your place in the dining room and enjoy delectable dishes prepared in the style of those once served to Cambodian royalty.
DAY 10: Kampong Cham (Disembark), Transfer to Siem Reap
Siem Reap is your base for exploring Angkor Wat, the heart of the ancient Khmer empire. The city has an allure all its own, with sprawling markets, a lively dining scene and enticing street food. You’ll disembark in the morning and transfer via executive motorcoach to Siem Reap, a place name that means, literally, “Defeat of Siam”—which tells you something of its history. It is the gateway to Angkor, the legendary archaeological site.
DAY 11: Siem Reap
Today is a Bucket List Moment kind of day, as you unleash your inner Indiana Jones and explore the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, a gigantic religious complex that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Regarded as the pinnacle of the dazzling, inventive culture that flourished in medieval Cambodia, it is one of the most spectacular monuments you will ever lay eyes on. The next two days are devoted to the astonishing Angkor Wat complex.
Amazing Angkor Wat
Every aspect of Angkor Wat had religious meaning to its builders 900 years ago: the great rectangular moat, the main gate facing the west, the towers topped with stone lotuses, the huge smiling stone heads, the layout of the lanes and buildings. The largest religious monument in the world, magnificent Angkor Wat is the single most recognizable landmark in Cambodia. It is simply breathtaking in both size and scope and boasts the longest continuous bas-relief in the world. Although Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its importance is so immeasurable, several other conservation organizations have been enlisted to help ensure its protection. And yet, Angkor Wat is just one piece of this enormous complex at the heart of the ancient Khmer Empire (which ruled this region between the ninth and 12th centuries). It was part of a roughly 250-square-mile (64,749-hectare) city that has largely disappeared into the jungle, though excavation efforts are ongoing (recent laser imaging has revealed another, even larger nearby city under the jungle floor that was linked to the temple city).
Today’s lunch will be on your own.
NOTE: Order of sightseeing may change on Days 11 and 12. Temple visits are subject to change due to factors beyond our control.
DAY 12: Siem Reap
Today you will enter the spectacular remnants of Angkor Thom, the royal city. Prepare to be amazed! Built during the heyday of the Khmer dynasty in the 12th century, this extraordinary complex of Hindu and Buddhist monuments was once lost to the world for many years, hidden under dense jungle vines.
South gate of Angkor Thom Bayon and Ta Prohm
Apsara show and dinner
Today you will enter the spectacular remnants of Angkor Thom, the royal city. Once a huge, square city, Angkor Thom was founded in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII after his people’s previous capital had been overrun by the Chams. You can still see the defensive measures that surrounded the city—in fact, you’ll enter through one, crossing over the moat and passing between the stone figures lining the lane leading to the intricately decorated south gate in the great wall around Angkor Thom. The king’s palace, made of wood, has long since vanished, but the ruins that remain are astonishing, including the pyramidal temple of Bayon, with the enormous carved heads that have become an iconic symbol of the Angkor archaeological area. You’ll also visit the temples of Bantey Srei and Bantey Samre. You’ll have some time for lunch on your own before heading to the amazing “jungle temple” of Ta Prohm. Unlike the other Angkor temples, which have been painstakingly excavated and restored, Ta Prohm has been left almost as it was found. Massive trees grow like magic out of stone walls and roofs, their tentacle-like roots pouring over doorways and stretching across courtyards. This manmade wonder has been reclaimed by the jungle over the course of many centuries, and exploring it is sure to bring out the adventurer in you. From Ta Prohm, you’ll move on to the unfinished temple of Ta Keo. Legend has it that construction on Ta Keo was suspended when the temple was struck by lightning—an event that was considered a bad omen.
After an exciting day of sightseeing, you’ll indulge in a lavish dinner with an Apsara dance show. Apsara is the traditional Khmer dance form that tells stories and conveys messages using ornate costumes, graceful movements, codified facial expressions, and distinctive hand and foot positions. The many Apsara figures that adorn Angkor and pre-Angkor temples you’ve just visited testify to the dance form’s long and esteemed history.
NOTE: Order of sightseeing may change on Days 11 and 12. Temple visits are subject to change due to factors beyond our control.
DAY 13: Siem Reap (Disembark)
Check out of your luxury hotel and head to Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport for your flight home.
Khmer Noodle House at Preak Dak Village
Khmer legend holds that China got the recipe for noodles from a Cambodian exile. Modern-day foodies know that if Cambodia has a national dish, it’s num banh chok, the traditional rice noodles that are most often combined with fish sauce and fresh vegetables—and the num banh chok made in Preah Dak is famous throughout the country. This village, near the Angkor Wat temple complex, abounds in noodle stalls, but the highlight for visitors may be the chance to see the traditional process by which these noodles are made. Watch as the rice flour and water are hand-kneaded to form a dough, which is then laboriously pressed through a heavy mill to create the noodles. Preah Dak itself is as almost as traditional as the noodle-making process, as you’ll see as you stroll among the stilt houses: water buffalo graze nearby, water is drawn from wells, and meals are cooked over open fires.
All This Included
A fascinating, rewarding and multilayered adventure.
Two of the most beautiful, historic and friendly places in all of Asia, dynamic Vietnam and pastoral Cambodia are intriguing studies in contrast. Each possesses its own unique charm and social traditions, its own tragic history and complex past. In many ways, a visit here is less about the sights you see than it is about the people you meet and the experiences you have along the way.
Ho Chi Minh City offers a heady mixture of old and new while Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, surprises visitors with its charm. As the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, the Mekong teems with colorful floating villages and mementos of its French Colonial past. Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s thriving capital, is fast-forwarding to the future yet retains a provincial intimacy. And colorful Siem Reap provides the gateway to the vast UNESCO-designated jungle temple complex of Angkor Wat.
Ho Chi Minh City: Park Hyatt Saigon or similar
Cruising: Cabin onboard Mekong Navigator
Siem Reap: Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort or similar
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* The prices shown are U.S. dollars per person, based on double occupancy, and subject to availability. Prices quoted for land/cruise arrangements are subject to increase without notice. Once we have received your deposit, land/cruise prices are guaranteed. Air prices quoted via phone or email are subject to increase and are guaranteed only from the time that full payment is received. Also, air prices or air promotions mentioned on this site or on the phone do not include baggage fees imposed by airlines.