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In our opinion, one of the best ways to explore Indochina is by boat – whether it’s a luxurious overnight cruise in the dramatic scenery of Halong Bay, or a traditional longtail boat along narrow waterways in the thick jungles of northern Laos.
In this blog post we’ve collected ten of Indochina’s best watery destinations and some of our favourite boating journeys, but this really is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to waterborne adventures in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
1) Halong Bay
The king of Asia’s waterscapes, the spectacular scenery of Halong Bay has inspired many a traveller to visit Vietnam. Encompassing an area of over 1,500 square kilometres (580 sq mi) in the Gulf of Tonkin, it is famed for its striking scenery of sheer-sided limestone islets (775 of them, to be precise) and is a hugely popular destination for cruising.
The boats on Halong Bay range from large to small and from basic to luxurious, but most are designed to resemble traditional Chinese junk boats complete with ornamental sails. Last year we wrote a definitive guide to choosing a Halong Bay cruise – so check it out to find the perfect option for you.
2) Speedboating to the Cu Chi Tunnels
For a rather more exhilarating ride, jump aboard a speedboat in hectic Ho Chi Minh and leave the city behind as you zip northward on the Saigon River. Watch high rises and industrial parks melt away to be replaced by riverside stilt houses and fields until you reach your destination: the Cu Chi Tunnels.
These tunnels form part of an immense network of underground passageways built by the Viet Cong during the American-Vietnamese War of the 1960s and 70s. Providing storage, shelter and countrywide supply routes, these narrow shafts played a huge part in the eventual defeat of American forces, and make a fascinating and atmospheric day trip out of Saigon.
3) Nam Ou River cruising in Northern Laos
For cruise number three, we leave Vietnam and travel to its lesser known but no less beautiful neighbour, Laos. Here, in the northern reaches of the country, the Nam Ou River carves a course through remote regions filled with lush jungle, mountain scenery and tiny villages home to a fantastic diversity of ethnic minorities.
Beginning in Luang Prabang, Laos’ beautiful World Heritage city, we recommend cruising north to stunning Nong Khiaw – taking in the spectacular scenery and stopping to visit the Pak Ou Caves along the way. These caves overlook the point where the Mekong and the Nam Ou River diverge, and are packed with hundreds of Buddha statues of varying sizes.
4) Basket boats in Hoi An
As we never tire of telling you, Hoi An is one of our tip-top favourite destinations in Vietnam. An important trading port for hundreds of years, Hoi An has been shaped by its proximity to the water. Here, the Thu Bon River fragments into many different distributaries, creating small river islands ripe for exploration.
Boat trips of all kinds are available here, from sunset dinner cruises to basic ferries, but one of the more unusual experiences is to try your hand at paddling a traditional Vietnamese basket boats. These hemispherical vessels were originally devised during the French colonial period so that fishermen could avoid a hefty boat tax, but they have proven so useful that they’ve stuck around ever since.
As well as trying your hand at navigating by basket (good luck getting it to do anything except spin round in circles!), we recommend catching a ferry to one of the local river islands to watch the boats being made from bamboo using techniques unchanged for generations.
5) Ninh Binh
With towering karst scenery rising vertiginously from a flat patchwork of fields, it’s not hard to see why Ninh Binh is often called “dry Halong Bay”. Despite the name, it’s not quite dry: fleets of small sampan boats float along the river that snakes through its valleys, carrying the visitors who flock here to admire the idyllic landscapes.
The countryside of Ninh Binh is also home to Vietnam’s biggest pagoda and the Trang An grottoes, so there is plenty to reward a longer stay in the area. All of these merits led to Ninh Binh (or, more specifically, the Trang An Landscape Complex) being inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site last year – the only place in Indochina to claim both natural and cultural World Heritage status.
6) Tonle Sap
Of course, one cannot discuss boating and water in Indochina without recourse to Cambodia’s magnificent Tonle Sap Lake, a vast body of water whose size varies massively depending on the time of year. At low water the lake occupies around 2,500 square kilometres (965 sq mi), while at high water it can submerge an area of up to 16,000 sq km (6,178 sq mi).
The Tonle Sap supports one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, and is home to an amazing floating world of stilt houses, longboats, and floating farms. We recommend heading out on the lake at dusk, on a sunset champagne cruise complete with canapés – or during the day to explore the regions amazing floating markets.
7) 4,000 Islands
Laos may not have a coastline, but that does not mean that it doesn’t have islands – a whole load of them, in fact. The 4,000 Islands (called Si Phan Don in the local language) are located in southern Laos, where the Mekong reaches its widest point – up to 14.5 km (9 mi) across. Here you’ll find many of the charms of Southeast Asia – including a beach-like atmosphere, Khmer ruins, awesome nature and colonial history – without the hordes of tourists that sometimes mar more famous spots.
We recommend spending a few nights at one of the riverside lodges scattered across the river’s many islands, enjoying the laid-back pace of life and perhaps heading out in a sampan to try to spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphin!
8) Kong Lor Cave
Our next boating experience is to be found deep in the jungles of central Laos, inside the immense network of caverns known as Kong Lor. Though less well-known than the Phong Nha Caves just across the border in Vietnam, the Kong Lor Caves are nonetheless spectacular – set in a landscape of limestone karsts, forests and rice paddies.
This unusual boat trip takes you 7.5 kilometres (4.66 mi) along the Hin Boun River, through one of the world’s longest navigable caves – with chambers up to 90 metres wide and 100 metres high.
9) Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta is where Asia’s mightiest river empties into the sea, fragmenting into a myriad small distributaries that snake through the large and fertile area known as “Vietnam’s rice bowl”. Here the locals live in stilt houses on the edge of the jungle and conduct business from boats at vast floating markets.
The Mekong Delta is easily accessible from Ho Chi Minh City on a converted rice barge or elegant colonial-style boat, and is a wonderful place to take an overnight cruise on the water. Options range from day trips and overnight journeys to longer adventures taking you as far afield as Siem Reap in Cambodia.
10) Night safari at Nam Nern
The final boat trip on our list is another unusual offering from the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area in northern Laos, where the Nam Nern ecolodge offers a fantastic, waterborne night safari through the surrounding jungle. Floating silently in a small sampan, you will look out for deer, civets, slow loris, porcupines, hogbadgers, wild dogs and more as your guide shines a spotlight into the undergrowth.
The Nam Nern night safari is not just a fascinating experience – it also raises funds to support the local community and to raise funds to protect the animals of the park, and was awarded the prestigious World Responsible Tourism Award for Best Responsible Wildlife Experience at London’s World Travel Mart in 2013.
InsideVietnam Tours can arrange any (or all) of the boating experiences listed here, and many more. Our website even has its own dedicated cruise section, so if you need any more inspiration – you know where to look!