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Updated: 9th December 2020
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 pretty straightforward – 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 Cambodia’s highlights, you’ll be ready to continue your trip through Southeast 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, an excellent 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, which 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’ (as it’s named on Google Maps) in the city. 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, thus booking directly with the official companies usually means getting the best price. There is a variation between the operators in terms of the quality of the ships.
I used Blue Cruiser, but other companies offering the route with speed boats included Hang Chau Tourist and Mandarin Cruises. Post-COVID, some of these companies’ websites appear to have stopped working, so I’ve removed the links from this post. Just do an online search of those operators’ names to see which ones are back up and running, Prices have also increased slightly since my trip, and now seem to be between $35 – $55, depending on the company.
I’ve also been told by a reader recently that some boat agents insisted they buy the visa through them (more on the visa below) at an inflated price, which I certainly don’t believe is correct as the e-visa should be fine. So, if that happens, check they aren’t charging you more than they should be for this service.
The journey itself 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 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 the river varied between narrow and wide while 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 motion sickness worries for anyone with those concerns.
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 old Visa on Arrival (VOA) scheme for Vietnam – which I used the first time I flew into Ho Chi Minh City – is quite well known and involves an Approval Letter which can be exchanged for a visa at the main airports (this is now starting to be phased out). 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 a 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 checkpoint.
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 when I checked in 2019, 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 to Vietnam, be aware 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 to.
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 the tourist 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 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.