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Life along the Mekong

The towns and villages on the Mekong River are hubs of craftsmanship. Brian Johnston explores how locals keep their traditions alive.


Cruising the Mekong is a joy of ever-changing scenes. Phnom Penh’s rising towers of glass contrast with towering stands of bamboo. Temples pop with golden roofs, and floating markets are a colourful spectacle of spiky rambutans and green mangoes. Best of all are the passing small towns and villages, where you get a lovely insight into life on the river and encounter the locals who bring colour to Vietnam and Cambodia.

vietnam mekong river rural landscape

Cambodia’s Silk Island

From the vantage point of a cabin balcony, you can wave at kids hallooing from bridges, and watch passing flotillas of boats as the river slips between low-lying islands, emerald green with rice paddies. One of these islands, Koh Oknha Tey, is nicknamed Silk Island because of its long tradition of silk weaving. Nearly every village family seems to own a loom, set up in the shade beneath their stilt houses.

Traditional Khmer Textiles

A visit here gives you an insight into how silkworms grow and how their silk is extracted, made into threads and prepared on the loom, which might hold nearly 60 bobbins at any one time. Novice weavers start by making mosquito nets and simple sarongs, but experts coax beautiful Khmer fabrics from their looms, rippling with rich colours like peacock feathers. These might be destined for high-end boutiques and lavish weddings, a curious thought considering cows wander past, and village kids are at dust-covered play under the mango trees nearby.

vietnam silk souvenir market
Many of the looms produce quality sampot, the stiff traditional sarong that Cambodians wear on celebratory occasions or to indicate their social standing. Some are four metres long and heavy with embellishments and metal thread. A top weaver may make just three or four in a year and only sell them in the dry season, when many weddings are held. The government has helped design new village projects that have allowed the weavers to diversify into less expensive – but equally beautiful – items, such as scarves and tablemats. Step ashore for a visit on day two of Travelmarvel's 8 Day Majestic Mekong Cruising.

Vietnam’s Prized Tan Chau Silk

When you float across the border into Vietnam and into the river-port town of Tan Chau, you’ll discover that silk weaving is alive here too – and on a larger scale. This is one of Vietnam’s biggest silk-weaving centres and is especially known for its soft, quality fabric.

vietnam silk factory cocoons threads
You’ll learn more on a visit to an artisan workshop. Here, many looms are mechanised. Weavers (and you’d have to suspect, the odd mechanic) dart about twisting knobs and manipulating levers. From all that rattling and mesmerising movement of the shuttles – directed by punch cards that produce the patterns – emerge fabulous rivers of coloured fabric. Ironically, the most coveted silk hereabouts is jet black, dyed with the juice of a local berry. It’s making a comeback these days as buyers return to natural, traditionally made materials. As you travel through Tan Chau, you might see silk threads hung out to dry after dyeing, as if houses have gone into mourning. The drying process takes 40 days and is a delicate art, because any rain – or even cloudy days – affects the quality of the silk.

Mekong Rice Secrets

Further down the Mekong is Cai Be, for centuries an important river-trading town. On land, you’ll pass local businesses producing goods such as mahogany furniture or – as your nose will certainly inform you – Vietnamese fish sauce.

cai be rice paper coconut candy lady in kitchen

A shore excursion allows you a stickybeak at two other entrancing backyard manufacturers. See how the Vietnamese make the super-thin edible rice paper that’s used to wrap fresh spring rolls. Rice is ground and mixed with water, and the paste poured onto a hot skillet atop a charcoal brazier. With great dexterity, locals flick the still-wet discs off the skillet and hang them on a bamboo lattice to dry out – and all without stretching or tearing a hole in the rice paper. Racks of drying rice paper, waving like bunting in the breeze, are a common sight in any Vietnamese village.

The Land of Coconut Candy

Save the best for last, though – at least the best for your nose and tastebuds. Coconut sweets (called keo dua) are a major product of this Mekong Delta region, and one of Vietnam’s best-loved indulgences.

vietnam mekong floating market pho soup

In family factories, young women sit over vast woks of bubbling toffee made from grated coconut, sugar and rice malt syrup. The mixture is separated into small, chewable pieces and, once cooled, deftly wrapped in twists of paper or plastic. Do as the locals do and buy a bagful of keo dua. The sweet, rich flavour of coconut will remind you of the Mekong, and your many encounters with locals, as you journey onwards. 

There are many ways to experience Vietnam and Cambodia's river traditions but none more effortless than a cruise. Why not join us and explore the Mekong aboard Travelmarvel's RV Apsara river ship? A safe, indulgent way to get to the heart of the Mekong Delta region and experience local life first hand, and right from your own cabin balcony.