Four Days On The Mekong River

Here’s one that definitely belongs on your “bucket list” – things to do before you croak: A four-day, five-night float on the Mekong River from its Vietnam mouth at My Tho to its northward bend toward Tibet at Phnom Penh, Cambodia, about 280 miles.

I’ve just done it with a small Hawaii group, heavily seeded with Punahou alumni (see photo), and everyone agreed this rated up there with seeing Venice, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and bungee jumping off Kawarau Bridge at Queenstown, New Zealand.


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Le Cochinchine’s painted eyes scare away river monsters

You’ll swoon at the sights, eat exceptionally well, and meet boat people, village people, children, Cao Dai monks, Hoa Hao practitioners and pythons galore.

You’ll motor-sail, walk, bike, motorbike and travel by sampan to floating markets.

But this is important: Do not do it on one of those massive and excessive “cruises” offered by international firms, complete with room boys, toqued chefs and dancing girls.

Go by a four-, seven- or 10-cabin Vietnamese “junk” with those large eyes painted on the prow to scare away mythical river monsters. The cabin spaces are small, and you shower standing in the bathroom, but the experience will stay with you a lifetime. Yes, there’s cold beer, good wine and hard liquor.

I picked the Cochinchine out of My Tho. The port is a two-hour bus ride south of Saigon through rice country. The junk has a main cabin deck, upper cabin deck that includes the open-air dining deck, and an uncovered sun deck. A crew of seven attends to you without getting into that mode of over-attention on the 50-passenger luxury boats charging up to $10,000. My people paid $800 each. Three meals and all excursions.

You begin with a run to Phoenix Island to meet villagers, ride pony wagons and learn how to handle snakes. That’s day one!

Then to Ngu Hiep Island, where the Cochinchine unloads its carry-aboard bikes for a village ride competing with cars and motorcycles on a 12-foot-wide dirt road. My gang had a three-bike pileup. Puchi Romig got a severe leg gash. I bloodied my leg just getting on my bike, and a villager stanched the flow with cigarette tobacco. Bandages are not supplied, so bring your own.

The boat route went through Cai Be, Vinh Long, Sa Dec, Long Xuyen, Cho Moi and Chau Doc – one-time Viet Cong strongholds but now thriving riverfront towns in which locals hardly give a glance at a foreigner from the West.

At Chau Doc we transferred to a speedboat for the three-hour run into Phnom Penh. I think we were ripped off by Cambodian border police, who demanded $50 extra from six of us for “insufficient pages” in their passports. I suspect that money went into police pockets.

If I’ve piqued your interest, look up Le Cochinchine on the Web.