First published November 2023 | Words and photos by Luke Digweed
Luke Digweed is a contributing writer for Vietnam Coracle. He has been living in Vietnam since 2011, mostly in Huế but also in Đà Nẵng & Sài Gòn. While living in Huế, he ran the Huế Grit Tour & co-organized events & small concerts between 2017-2020. His most recent ongoing project is Festivals of Vietnam which documents ceremonies, rituals & processions around the country….read more about Luke
The estuaries of the Mekong Delta are symbolic of the region’s identity, but opportunities for purposeful travel along them are rare for foreign visitors. However, Hàng Châu offers an express boat service from Châu Đốc, in Vietnam’s Mekong region, across the international border to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. The voyage provides a leisurely first-hand travel experience along the waterways of the Mekong and a comfortable, relatively stress-free way to cross the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. The journey is a good chance to make new acquaintances with fellow passengers, learn about the region from the boat’s staff, and sip a couple of cold beverages while passing the area’s quintessential agricultural scenes.
VIETNAM TO CAMBODIA BY BOAT
Along the Mekong River from Châu Đốc to Phnom Penh
This is a guide and description of taking the Hàng Châu express boat between Châu Đốc, in Vietnam, and Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, including all necessary information for travellers interested in undertaking the journey themselves, such as the boat schedule, ways to book tickets, and a route map:
Châu Đốc→Phnom Penh by Boat
About this Ferry:
The speedboat between Châu Đốc and Phnom Penh is operated by Hàng Châu, which is a shortened name of Ngân Hàng Châu Đốc (Châu Đốc Bank), who are the original investors and current owners of the speedboat. In operation since 2003, Hàng Châu boasts a fleet of 8 vessels, the largest having a capacity of 60 passengers. Most of the passengers are foreign tourists and the majority of seats are taken up by package tours.
The boat is certainly a novel way to travel between Vietnam and Cambodia. Compared to a bus, the boat is more comfortable, but it’s around 50% more expensive. However, relatively speaking, the boat is a more practical and smoother journey than the bus. A bus between the two countries only takes around 3 hours, compared to 6 hours on the boat. But, the land borders that the bus crosses are a lot more chaotic and unpredictable than the river borders that the boat crosses. We found our border crossing on the boat to be well-organised and very smooth: this is not the case with the land borders, in my experience. In addition, the departure and arrival times for the boat are far more reliable than the bus.
Times, Prices & Tickets:
The voyage takes around 5 hours and 30 minutes (including the border crossing). The ticket price for one adult is 850,000vnđ. The price is fixed and does not change on weekends or public holidays. The price includes drinking water onboard the boat and a small paper bag of snacks. The boat runs once a day in both directions: departing Châu Đốc in Vietnam at 7:30am and reaching Phnom Penh in Cambodia at 1.00pm, then departing Phnom Penh for the return voyage at 1.30pm. Two stops are made on the journey for border and visa purposes: one for exit and the other for entry.
Hàng Châu’s large fleet means that when demand for seats is high, they can use another boat to accommodate the extra number of passengers. Booking in advance is highly advisable, but generally doesn’t need to be done more than a day or two before departure.
Tickets can be booked through the boat company’s website: www.hangchautourist.vn. Alternatively, you can email the company: email@example.com, or call them: (+84) 2963 562 771, or they are also available on WhatsApp: (+84) 903 956 694.
*Note: motorbikes are not allowed on the ferry.
|Châu Đốc (Vietnam)→Phnom Penh (Cambodia)
|Phnom Penh (Cambodia)→Châu Đốc (Vietnam)
Border Stops & Checks:
Because the boat crosses an international border, passengers must stop and disembark on both sides of the border for passport and visa checks. However, the border process is easy and quick because the boat staff collect all the necessary visa costs and paperwork from passengers at the beginning of the journey.
At the Vietnam border (map), boat staff submit your passports and documents to border security while passengers wait in a cafe with a balcony over the river. There are toilets, a drinks vendor and a snack shop. Prices for food and drink are slightly inflated, but not astronomical. There is also a money changer who will change Vietnamese đồng, Cambodian riel and US dollars, but the exchange rate is quite high.
The process at the Cambodia border (map) is equally smooth. The border control is situated in a garden where lots of tropical trees and plants grow. It makes for a nice stopping point, although it may not be ideal if it’s raining. There are public toilets at the border, but there isn’t anywhere to buy food or drink.
Departure & Arrival Ports:
In Phnom Penh, the boat pier is right at the heart of the city, walking distance from many of the most famous sights; in Châu Đốc, the boat pier is not far from the town centre and the bustling central market. Both ferry ports are close to food and drink outlets with seating overlooking the river:
The Châu Đốc boat pier (map) is located on the premises of The Victoria Hotel. On arriving, walk through the hotel’s reception and take a left at the swimming pool; from here you will see a jetty out onto the river where several Hàng Châu boats are docked. The Victoria Hotel is very accommodating to passengers, serving them drinks and food. Outside the hotel, street vendors sell some great local breakfast dishes and Châu Đốc’s excellent market is just a little further along the riverbank. (Getting to Châu Đốc is easiest by bus (5 hours) which leave regularly from Ho Chi Minh City’s Miền Tây bus station: check times, prices and book tickets on Baolau.com)
The Phnom Penh boat pier (map) is in the northern part of Khan Doun Penh, the tourist district of the Cambodian capital. The terminal is part of a quirky, mid-range, riverside restaurant named and decorated after the Titanic. As soon as you leave the vicinity of the Titanic, you are greeted by a slew of popular tourist restaurants and bars. The French Colonial post office is a short walk north; just south along the river is the Night Market; west is the Central Market; and further south are the National Museum of Cambodia and the Royal Palace. All of these are walking distance from the boat pier.
The boats in Hàng Châu’s fleet are small fast ferries with four rows of coach-style seating on soft chairs. Each boat has a capacity of up to 60 people. The driver sits at the front of the main cabin and passenger seating runs down to the stern of the boat where there’s a flush toilet. There’s a covered deck near the rear with two cushioned benches facing inwards capable of seating 12 passengers, but if it rains, you’ll get wet.
Strangely, the boats do not have any electric fans or air-conditioning: ventilation comes from the air-flow through the windows and doors into the cabin. When it rains, or when there’s increased splash from the river, doors and windows shut and the cabin quickly becomes stuffy and a little uncomfortable.
I have wanted to take the boat from Châu Đốc to Phnom Penh for a long time. There are no railway lines between Vietnam and Cambodia, so the only other options for public transport are plane and bus. I think varying your modes of transport when travelling is essential to getting to know a country, and there aren’t many opportunities to take practical long-distance boat trips in Vietnam, especially on the Mekong River.
I often think about bodies of water as being the heart and soul of a location, especially in southwest Vietnam, where the World’s 12th longest river is fundamental to life in the region. The multiple waterways of the Mekong Delta sustain Vietnam’s most crop-yielding region, also creating mini-archipelagos of lush green islets. The river’s importance has been eulogised in the arts and its ecological vulnerability is increasingly the focus of discussion and debate, by both politicians and environmentalists.
Setting off from Châu Đốc in the morning, sleepy passengers stumble onto the boat. I feel like the most excited person onboard. It becomes clear that most passengers are part of package tours which have swept them from Hanoi to Saigon in a matter of days: for them, the boat trip is more of an obstacle to their next destination than an experience to enjoy. Despite catering mostly to tourists, the Hàng Châu service does little to introduce the cultural significance of the region to passengers – maybe this is something that it might consider offering in the future.
We head up the Hậu River then northeast along the Xáng Canal, passing through villages that sit either side of the waterway: the Muslim houses and mosques of Châu Phong and the Hòa Hảo communities of An Giang. The boat’s captain, Mohammad, is a Cham person from this area and has worked the boats since the business started. He’s happy to talk about life in the province and his own experiences of living on the Mekong River and how it’s changing.
Once we exit the Xáng Canal, we turn westward on the Mekong’s largest branch and head towards the Vietnam-Cambodia border. River traffic isn’t as heavy as I had expected. There are various river-going vessels plying the waterway, but improvements in road infrastructure and the construction of bridges mean that water transport is declining.
The Mekong is a resource for sand used in construction, but its mining has led to catastrophic levels of land erosion. Sand barges are a common sight on the river: as construction projects struggle to source raw materials for their completion, illegal mining of the Mekong has been a way for people to find sand. An anti-corruption bust in September 2023 put a temporary halt to all mining on the Vietnamese side of the river.
Eventually, we arrived at the Vietnam and Cambodia border posts. Having given our documents and payment to Mohammad before the voyage began, when we arrived at the border stops, we didn’t have to do anything but sit and wait for the administrative procedures to be completed.
Once we crossed into Cambodia, the boat’s Wi-Fi malfunctioned and passengers were left to find old-fashioned ways of keeping entertained without their phones or simply catch up on some sleep in the padded seats. A complimentary bag of fruit and snacks kept hunger at bay for the duration of the journey and cold drinks were also available to buy onboard, including a selection of Khmer and Vietnamese beers.
After a couple of hours on the boat, the Mekong isn’t so exciting. The river is very wide and while the passing traffic provides some distraction, there isn’t much to see on the banks. A few fishing villages and Theravada Buddhist pagodas populate the riverside, but some passengers may find the scenery quite monotonous. Bring a good book with you for the voyage.
As the trip reached its 5th hour, the novelty of boat travel was wearing thin and there was a subtle atmosphere of agitation onboard and a desire to reach Phnom Penh quickly. The pastoral greens of agricultural Cambodia transformed into urban landmarks as skyscrapers poked up from the horizon and the cityscape of Phnom Penh grew closer. The voyage came to an end as the boat pulled in and docked next to the Titanic restaurant on the quayside: we were ready to eat!
*Disclosure: Vietnam Coracle content is always free and independent. Luke has written this guide because he wants to: he likes this boat route and he wants readers to know about it. For more details, see the Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and my About Page