Mekong River

The Mekong flows 2,700 miles to the sea in South Vietnam, a distance comparable to that between Los Angeles and New York City. The Vietnamese call it Song Cuu Long, the Nine Dragons River, for the nine branches of the Mekong Delta where land and water intertwine to make perfect conditions for growing rice.

Although it flows through six countries and feeds scores of people along the way, the Mekong is one of Asia's least-developed rivers. Thanks to the lack of industry along its banks, the Mekong teems with life and includes 20,000 species of plants, 430 of mammals, 1,200 of birds, 800 of reptiles and 850 of fish. The wildlife you're most likely to encounter will be monkeys, scampering macaques that dangle from ancient temples.

This route through Vietnam and Cambodia is a bit more challenging on several levels. The contrasts are great: here, a stunning Buddhist temple, there, land mine victims begging for handouts. Tours will take you to the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" POW camp and a genocide museum, invoking memories of wars and killing fields, misery and horror. Temples are being refurbished, businesses are being launched, and everywhere you'll see smiles brightening the faces of people who are making the most of what they have.

You'll visit bustling cities such as Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, teeming with businesses and motorbikes, as well as rural river towns such as Tan Chau, where residents weave floor mats from sedge as they have for ages. Beyond witnessing the poverty, scenes of incredible beauty will delight the eye, from dazzling religious sites such as the richly-detailed Angkor Wat and sunset-pink Banteay Srei to timeless glimpses of everyday life along the Mekong River. Unexpectedly uplifting, a trip on the Mekong offers a sense of the resilience of people who are remaking their lives, rebuilding cities destroyed by acts of war and extending a warm welcome to visitors.

Mekong river sceneSelling vegetables on the Mekong river