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Mekong Cruise Specialists
Food and Drink
Mekong River cruises offer excellent opportunities for sampling a variety of South East Asian cuisines, namely from Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai and Lao roots. Rice is a staple food for the cultures along the Mekong River since it’s grown in the region.
Vietnamese cuisine relies on a strong vegetarian tradition influenced by Buddhist values where food is prepared with little oil and main dishes are based on rice and soy sauce. In addition to vegetables, the Vietnamese diet also consists of fruits, seafood and tofu. Many flavor enhancers like serrano peppers, lime, nuoc mam (fish sauce), mint, basil and lemongrass are commonly used throughout dishes. The culinary traditions vary by each region; for instance, food is less spicy and light in flavor in Northern Vietnam while Central Vietnam’s abundance of spices lends to zesty creations. Southern Vietnam’s warm climate and fertile soil produce a variety of fruits, vegetables and livestock, and dishes of this region tend to utilize lots of fresh herbs, seafood and coconut milk.
Despite its unique flavor components, Vietnamese food has been influenced by several other countries. The Chinese introduced wontons (hoanh thanh), char sui (xa xiu), wheat noodles (mi), mooncakes, fried rice and chow mein (mi xao). The baguette, brought by the French, is the basis of the popular fast food banh mi or Vietnamese sandwich. Artichokes, asparagus, coffee, pate and cooking with wine were also derived from the French. From India came curries, Cambodia introduced mam bo hoc (prahok or fermented fish paste), Thailand brought mango sticky rice (xoi xoai) and stuffed cabbage soup stems from Eastern Europe. Notable Vietnamese dishes include pho (meat and noodle soup), bun rieu (noodle soup topped with crab and shrimp paste), banh cuon (rice flour rolls stuffed with pork, prawns, and mushroom), bun bo Hue (spicy noodle soup from the Central region), banh xeo (fried crepe-like pancake), and goi cuon (fresh spring rolls with vegetables, shrimp and pork). To wash it all down, choose from popular beverages like ca phe sua da (strong iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk), nuoc mia (sugar cane juice with ice) and bia hoi (specialty draft beer).
Khmer or Cambodian cuisine shares common characteristics of Thai, Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese fare, such as an assortment of curries, the art of stir frying and the use of fish sauce as a flavor component. Prahok (a type of fermented fish paste) is another widely used distinct flavor ingredient, as is kapi (a fermented shrimp paste), lemongrass, chili and kaffir lime leaves. Coconut milk is the main ingredient of many Khmer curries and desserts. Almost every meal is eaten with a bowl of rice; however, desserts are commonly made using the sticky rice variety. Popular Khmer dishes include amok trey (fish cooked in banana leaves with local spices and coconut milk), lok lak (consisting of fried beef served with fried eggs, salad and rice), kuy teav (pork broth-based rice noodle soup) and banh chao (Khmer version of the Vietnamese dish banh xeo or fried crepe-like pancake). Fresh seafood caught from the Mekong River, Bassac River and the vast Tonle Sap is heavily consumed by Cambodians. Sample the famous Kampot pepper crab dish cooked with crab from Kep and local pepper from Kampot. Noodles, locally-grown vegetables and an array of exotic fruit are all integrated in the Cambodian diet.
On Mekong River cruises, stops in Thailand prove a culinary treat for the taste senses with dishes that blend sour, sweet, salty and bitter components. Basic ingredients include shellfish, fresh fruits, vegetables, noodles, rice, coconut milk, curry paste, peanuts and spices like lemongrass, mint and chili. Among the popular dishes you'll find are tam yum (hot-and-sour soup with meat), satay (charcoal-broiled meat skewered on a bamboo stick and dipped in a peanut-coconut sauce), phat thai (rice noodles fried with meat, eggs, peanuts and fresh bean sprouts) and spicy thot man (fried fish cakes with a sweet honey sauce). Don’t be surprised to see fried crickets, grasshoppers, bamboo worms or red ant eggs being sold as treats in the markets.
If your Mekong River cruise visits Laos, take the opportunity to try the country’s distinct cuisine that also has ties to Thai and Cambodian food. Like other Asian cultures, rice is a staple food and typically sticky rice is consumed everywhere in Laos. Other common ingredients include lemon grass, coriander, basil, galangal and fish sauce (padaek). Fresh salads, fruits, native sausages, noodles, meats and freshwater fish are also typically eaten. Popular dishes in Laos include larb (a spicy meat salad), tam mak hoong (spicy green papaya salad), ping gai (grilled marinated chicken) and lard na (stir-fried noodles covered in gravy).
Music and Dance
Vietnamese music varies slightly in the three regions with classical music from the North being the oldest and most formal. Central classical music tends to have melancholic melodies influenced by the Champa culture, while Southern music exudes a lively laissez-faire attitude. Vietnam has roughly 50 national music instruments ranging from copper drums (trong dong) and gongs (cong chieng) to flutes, panpipes and string instruments like dan bau and dan day. Popular genres include imperial court music that features an extensive array of musicians and dancers dressed in extravagant costumes, and the ancient form of chamber music called ca tru, which also originated in the imperial court. Over 54 different ethnicities reside in Vietnam and each possesses their own traditional dance. Traditional dances, like the lion dance, are performed widely at festivals and other special occasions, while the imperial court introduced the fan dance, imperial lantern dance and platter dance.
Cambodian music features traditions that date back to the ancient Khmer Empire, such as art music where the sounds and dances depict stories and ancient myths. As for modern music, ramvong (slow dance music) and ramkbach (related to Thai folk music) are popular, as well as kantrum (fast-paced Thai folk music) that is typically heard in Siem Reap. Khmer classical dance, or robam preah reach trop, is a highly stylized dance form originating from the royal courts that incorporate elaborately costumed dancers and music played by a pinpeat ensemble. In contrast, Cambodian folk dances are usually more fast-paced than classical dances and emphasize the country’s various cultural traditions and ethnic groups.
In Thailand, musical sounds and instruments have roots from Persia (klong thap and khim), India (jakhe), China (klong jin) and Indonesia (klong kaek), however other forms of modern Asian, European and American music have become extremely influential. The most popular musical styles of Thailand are luk thung or Thai country music, and mor lam, folk music that has close ties to Lao music. In Laos, listen to lam (Lao folk music) or mor lam accompanied by the khene (bamboo mouth organ). Music varies across the country but well-known styles include lam saravane and the slow khaplam wai that’s heard most in the city of Luang Prabang. Classical and folk dances done in highly decorated costume are also part of Thai and Lao cultures.
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