Discover Angkor and Saigon
The two highlight bookends of any great Cambodia cruise are actually not on the Mekong River itself, which is of course the great waterway that flows through Cambodia and out through the Mekong River delta in modern-day Vietnam. Most people who book passage on a riverboat for a Cambodia cruise through the mudflats, rice paddies, stilted houses and floating villages of the Mekong, include as their endpoints the highlight archaeological complex of the vast and mysterious Angkor temples, and the crazy cosmopolitan bustle of Vietnam’s commercial window to the world at Saigon, today’s Ho Chi Minh City. Ironically neither of these great necessities on any Cambodia cruise is part of the Mekong River but any who travel through Southeast Asia must tour Angkor during their travels.
The great Khmer civilization that dominated Southeast Asia from the 8th to 14th centuries and built the mesmerizing temples of Angkor, was founded and fed by rice cultivation and productive fisheries that are nourished by the annual rise and fall of the great Mekong River discharge. During the rainy season, the massive volumes of water that flood down from as far as the Himalayan mountains suddenly reach the shallow delta, where the water cannot escape fast enough and begins to back up like a bathtub with a plugged drain. Cambodia’s famous Tonle Sap Lake, the largest in Southeast Asia, swells to eight times its dry-season coverage, slowly flooding the flat lowlands and mudflats until it reaches its peak in October and then begins to recede again.
While this annual fluctuation is paramount to food productivity, the ancient Khmer builders of the great Angkor civilization had to be sure to build their temples and cities above the highest flooding of the wettest years. All of the great temples of the Temple Complex at Angkor are approximately 150 miles from the Mekong River! During the wet season the Tonle Sap Lake floods to within ten miles of Angkor, and shallow-draft boats can approach to within twelve miles of Angkor through the 100-mile long Tonle Sap Lake. But the Angkorian civilizations were not seafaring traders; they were an agricultural empire with no great international ports, securely set far inland and miles from the mighty Mekong River.
When the French arrived in Southeast Asia to provide military assistance to Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty in the middle of the 19th century, they quickly realized the potential of Southeast Asia for themselves. They made their first inroads into southern Vietnam in 1858 by taking over a small fishing and trading port that they pronounced Saigon, and by 1887 they had taken over and established the federation of French Indochina. French Indochina included three regions of today’s Vietnam: the north (Tonkin), central (Annam) and south (Cochinchina), as well as Cambodia and Laos.
Saigon is not on the Mekong River or delta, but on the much shorter Saigon River. And, it has deep water access, which the shallow Mekong delta does not. Saigon became the French capital of the southern Cochinchina, and quickly grew into their most important trading port. Canals were built to connect it to the Mekong Delta, and to this day the sprawling port city that has been renamed Ho Chi Minh City controls the economic export of the productive Mekong River. It is this relationship to the export of the Mekong River that makes Saigon an essential visit on any Cambodia cruise, even though it is in Vietnam and not even on the Mekong River.
Saigon is a crazy experience. It is a city of 10 million people sprawling across a muddy delta that is entwined with serpentine river bends. Most striking are the 3.5 million motorbikes that swarm the streets 24 hours a day like a buzzing bee’s nest. In fact, these motorbikes represent the drive, ambition, creativity and industriousness of the Vietnamese people, who are always active and occupied with something. Saigon is the city of Vietnam’s future. The best orientation of the city is to go to the viewing platform on the downtown Bitexco Financial Tower, to understand the cities relationship to the surrounding river tributaries and delta outlets, and to see that Saigon is in fact, not on the Mekong River.
But like the great Angkorian cities of the past in Cambodia, no Cambodia cruise or Mekong Delta experience would be complete without understanding the influence and relation of the commercial capital of Vietnam at Saigon.
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