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Meandering along the Mekong: Phnom Penh to Chau Doc by boat

Updated: 9th December 2020

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Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is a far cry from the busy modern cities which are often the arrival point into the country. A fertile land of greenery and waterways, its nickname, the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam, is no surprise. Crossing national borders by land, sea or river is always something exciting, and this one is fairly straight forward – you’ll just need to have a little bit of organisation to book the boat and arrange a visa.

Once you’ve explored the temples of Angkor Wat and experienced some of the best things to do in Cambodia, you’ll be ready to continue your trip through South East Asia. Neighbouring Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are all common destinations to combine with Cambodia, with short-haul flights connecting some of these destinations. But, if you are heading to Vietnam, a nice way to enter the country is by boat, along the Mekong / Bassac / Tiền River, the northern branch of the famed Mekong Delta.

While there are the obvious environmental benefits of not flying, it’s also a much more tranquil way to travel and means you can explore the beautiful greens and river villages of Southern Vietnam, that you might end up skipping if you were to fly straight into slightly further north Ho Chi Minh City.

A touristic day-trip from Ho Chi Minh to the Mekong Delta is a popular option, but I’m so glad that I experienced other parts of the Mekong, such as Chau Doc, as it allowed me to enjoy the slower-paced and slightly more authentic side of the region.

The boat ride from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc

There are a couple of different boat operators serving this route, which takes around five hours. Our boat left just after lunch, with the departure being from the main ‘Passenger and Tourist Terminal’ in the city, as it’s named on Google Maps. Tickets can be purchased at the terminal, or from basically any tourist agent in the city.

Booking in advance is highly advisable, and while the prices are fixed, you’ll still find they vary from place to place and the official companies direct usually have the best price. There is a variation between the operators in terms of quality of the ships, and even then the Blue Cruiser company has a couple of different size boats. Prices have increased slightly since my trip and looking online now they seem to be between $25 – $50 depending on which service.

The journey is more along the Bassac River, though all waters seem to lead to the Mekong around here, and while it was very relaxing and peaceful, it wasn’t quite the hive of life along the river I expected.

There would be occasional villages with kids playing by and waving us by, at other points water-buffalo would lazily hoist themselves out of the water into the mid-afternoon sun. For some stretches, there wasn’t much to see at all, and river varied between narrow and wide and our group snacked, played cards and took in the sun. Overall, it was a nice experience for the journey time and was fairly flat so no sickness.

Getting a visa for the Phnom Penh to Chau Doc boat crossing

To enter Vietnam from Cambodia on the Phnom Penh to Chau Doc route you’ll need to ensure you have your Vietnam visa before departure.

The Visa on Arrival scheme for Vietnam, which I used the first time I flew into Ho Chi Minh City is quite well known – involving an Approval Letter which can be exchanged for the visa at the main airports. Unfortunately, this system only works for those international air arrivals with the offices to convert it into a visa, so when arriving at other borders, such as the river border here, you’ll need to get the visa a different way.

This can be achieved at an Embassy, which is time-consuming if you aren’t nearby one or don’t want to spend the couple of days lead time getting the visa from the Embassy in Cambodia. Now it seems that an actual issued e-visa – not to be confused with Visa On Arrival (VOA) – is an option as the arrival point is listed as approved on the website.

The border point on the river is called Vinh Xuong and also Song Tien Landport which seems a bit confusing, as it’s a river, but the boats actually rest up at a pier and you walk on land to the check-point to be stamped in – it’s Song Tien that is stamped into my passport. There is a small coffee shop here, with a money exchange (don’t expect the best rate). The process was fairly quick, and we as a group all went off at once to do this following the stamping out of Cambodia at their Khoorm Som Nor check-point.

If you are looking for information travelling the other way, from Chau Doc (Vietnam) to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) I don’t have first-hand experience of this, but I read that e-visas for Cambodia can’t be used at this checkpoint – but a visa can be arranged with the boat companies for arrival or maybe even on arrival at the crossing itself. Also, if you plan to do this route as a day trip, or return rather than a linear journey continuing on to Vietnam, be aware of if your visa allows single or multiple entries.

Lastly, don’t make the mistake my friend made (a dual-national) of getting her Cambodia stamps on one passport, and her Vietnam e-visa on another passport – you’ll end up stuck at this checkpoint for a while!

Welcome to Chau Doc

The sun began setting shortly before the journey came to an end, and we disembarked in the dark, briefly stopping at the Victoria Chau Doc Hotel for a drink, and it seemed many people that took boats were booking in here.

Our group instead took a short ride to our hotel, another in the Victoria group, – and when the sun came up the next day the views were an incredible surprise. Victoria Núi Sam Lodge is a beautiful hotel, with a tiered room system which means the views aren’t obstructed. Surrounded by rice fields, the views are sublime, especially from the pool area which was the perfect thing to wake up too.

Raised up on a hill, it’s a truly spectacular setting, and well worth that tiny extra journey out of town. The restaurant was fantastic, as was the breakfast, all accompanied by amazing views – it’s also a very reasonably priced hotel. A short journey up from the hotel was a lovely Buddhist temple, where we went to meditate both mornings – such a serene setting.

There is an abundance of beautiful viewpoints and temples here, so hiring a scooter and just exploring for a few days is a great idea.

The town itself was busy with flower markets, street-stalls and fantastic noodle restaurants. From here, we took local boats to visit some of the floating villages. These certainly aren’t set up for tourists in the way that other parts of the Mekong are.

Our group was actually delivering water filtration units to some of these communities as part of a project. Thus, my trip was likely much different to what yours will be as a typical tourist, however, there are tourist offerings of river tours to other areas of the villages, such as the floating fish farms and some market and cafe spaces. Boats with colourful-fruits, flowers and fresh-fish dart towards towns and settlements, and it very much felt the least changed by tourism place I visited in the country.

Continuing on the Mekong Delta

As I mentioned above, the natural route from Chau Doc is to continue onwards towards Ho Chi Minh city. As I was on a guided tour, this was all taken care of for me, but getting buses to the mega-city is easy enough as an independent traveller with the journey taking about 6-7 hours.

We broke up our trip by heading to the more touristed part of the Mekong. Nearby to the city of My Tho, there are plenty of different options to take boat tours, in the traditional boats, to the likes of Turtle Island and traditional market places – sampling local drinks, food, and the coconut candies. It’s all quite colourful and pleasant enough, but it has a much less authentic feeling to Chau Doc and is obviously more geared for tourists. The brownish river waters canopied by overhanging greenery by Cồn Phụng is the postcard typical image of the Mekong Delta, so be sure to have your camera at the ready.

From there, prepare for the peaceful river vibes to leave you as you enter the busy roads and world of Ho Chi Minh City. Enjoy your trip to Chau Doc, and don’t forget to get your visa in advance if travelling from Cambodia to Vietnam, you don’t want to get caught up in a costly and timely situation before reaching the beauty of Chau Doc!

*As always, all information is correct at the time of writing, but double-check before travelling regarding entry points and visas.

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