Disembarking from the motor coach that has delivered us from Vietnam’s capital Hanoi to the cusp of Halong Bay on the northeast coast, we get our first delighted look at the RV Angkor Pandaw, a classic small river ship that is to be our home for the next 10 nights on a one-of-a-kind cultural and historical journey through northern Vietnam.
She is a great beauty, the polished brass fittings and handcrafted teak of her double decks gleaming in the late afternoon sun. While the Angkor is a replica of an 1890s Irrawaddy Flotilla Company K-class river steamer, this luxurious 16-cabin craft was custom-built in 2013 and sports current mod-cons. (In 1995, Burmese historian Paul Strachan revived the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company — which, during Burma’s British colonial era, sailed the world’s largest private fleet — and restored an original steamer named Pandaw, thus Pandaw Cruises was born.)
As we head for the gangway, passing through the double row of crew members who have lined up to warmly welcome us, I feel I should have dressed-up for the occasion, as did passengers embarking on a river steamboat in the craft’s Golden Age, late in the 19th century. A trim and well-heeled Australian couple have done so; beautifully coiffed and attired they look like they have stepped out of a vintage travel poster. (They are seasoned Pandaw veterans on voyage nine and, while they prefer to dress smartly, the onboard dress is casual.)
A century-plus later, the almost all-inclusive Pandaw is the first – and only – commercial tourist craft plying the Red River and its tributaries, an ancient trade route that is northern Vietnam’s principal waterway. Called the Song Hong in Vietnamese, the Red flows 1,149 km from mountainous Yunnan in southwest China through Vietnam’s northern heartland to the capital Hanoi, before continuing south and draining into stunning Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Pandaw, which specializes in Southeast Asia expedition river cruises, including on the lower Mekong from Cambodia to southern Vietnam, ventured northwards in 2015, relocating the 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw to offer an alternative to the increasingly popular and trafficked Mekong. Expeditions, whose itineraries vary somewhat according to high or low water, traverse the Red River Delta, the cradle of the nation. The flat, low-lying, agriculturally rich and industrially intensive plain is home to Vietnam’s densest population.
If you’re intrigued by the novelty of an exclusive and relatively new cruise (this is the third season) to well off-the-beaten-track destinations seldom visited by Western tourists — where you’ll be a pleasant anomaly to the curious and friendly Vietnamese — or if you’ve already sailed popular Asian rivers like Myanmar’s Irrawaddy or China’s Yangtze, this Halong Bay and Red River cruise may appeal. It is also a choice alternative to typical day or single overnight Halong Bay cruises for those with time.
While the Tuan Chau Island Jetty is crowded with boats of all sizes (and levels of service and amenities), none is more handsome than ours and I feel, oddly, proud. As the sun dips, my husband and I head to the top deck to meet the other passengers, the purser and crew, welcome cocktail in hand. Most of our 18 fellow passengers are Pandaw veterans.
Excitement mounts as we motor into famous Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site remarkable for 1,969 karst islands and islets that rise spectacularly from its tranquil teal waters. As we weave amongst the 20-million-year-old limestone labyrinth blanketed in tropical forest, it is no wonder the sublime bay is a setting for Kong: Skull Island, last year’s Hollywood hit. Nor that this is Vietnam’s number one tourist attraction, drawing 4.6 million national and foreign tourists in just the first quarter of this year, up 21 per cent over last year.
With two nights to leisurely cruise the bay, we sail further south than most and weigh anchor in a sheltered cove where we are the only ship, a luxury in the increasingly crowded national marine park.
In the morning, our good-natured English-speaking guides, Vu and Tuan, present two morning excursion options (excursions are offered twice daily unless sailing a greater distance; all are included and are usually reached by bus). We eagerly raise our hands for biking 15 kilometres to Viet Hai Village on Cat Ba Island — one of the archipelago’s few inhabited islands — where we’ll join the rest of our fellow passengers, who arrive by electric buggy, for a guided walk around the time-honoured pastoral village.
The afternoon excursion sees us tying up to a floating fish farm, where we learn about the work and lifestyle of the family and their adorable “guard” dogs who live afloat as landless nomads in the waters off the island’s coast, as do 4,000 or so of their countrymen.
Later we are tendered to a shell-covered beach on a tiny islet for sundowners. Although I had intended to take a swim, the trash floating by changes my mind (while garbage is strewn on land and in waterways, it’s particularly distressing to see in a UNESCO-protected site).
After an overnight in picturesque Lan Ha Bay, where thunder rumbles and the lights of Halong City twinkle on the horizon, an idyllic morning delivers perfect conditions for kayaking, one of the couple of more active options on the itinerary.
Accompanied by Vu, eight of us settle into two-person kayaks for a paddle on glassy waters around steep-sided karst outcroppings and into the Dark and Bright Cave. Inside the ethereal grotto lies a 100-metre low-light tunnel where stalagmites drip from the ceiling and sound-asleep bats hang. Sunbeams guide us onward towards the Bright Cave and into a hidden tropical lagoon.
I wish we could stay longer in lovely Halong Bay but it’s just one of the numerous impressive UNESCO properties Vietnam boasts. On the journey ahead, we’ll see and experience three more.
By afternoon the karsts recede as the captain commences the river expedition. It will take us at a leisurely pace from Halong Bay through a network of canals and tributaries lined with industry and verdant rice paddies to connect with the Red River, where we’ll continue upstream to Viet Tri, the end point of this dry season cruise.
When water levels are low December through March, which is when we sailed, the cruise can continue to operate (albeit with a modified itinerary) thanks to the ultra-shallow 1.2-metre draft that replicates that of the colonial Burmese steamer, perfect for travelling to the remote areas that are Pandaw’s hallmark and the nature of this river.
The Red’s tremendous volume fluctuations are not the only maritime challenge. It carries huge quantities of silt rich in iron oxide — which reddens its water and lends it its name — that must be dredged to keep the waterway’s shipping lanes open. Dredging operations are particularly intensive up north near where the cruise ends. (Pandaw’s website makes it clear flexibility is the name of the game: “Note this is a new river expedition and itineraries and schedules [are] very much subject to change due to uncertain local conditions.”)
Along the way, we tour several Buddhist and Taoist temples and pagodas and a stone Catholic cathedral to respectfully learn about Vietnam’s deep religious beliefs and pay visits to out-of-the-way villages dedicated to making one product or art and craft (like bonsai, ceramics or carved wood furniture), just as villagers there always have. By meeting and watching locals at work, we glean much about their culture.
An expedition highlight includes Tam Coc (which means three caves) in Ninh Binh province, part of the Trang An Landscape Complex, a UNESCO mixed cultural and natural property noted for its gorgeous karst scenery. It was also a filming location for Kong: Skull Island and Indochine.
Coined Halong Bay on land for its limestone peaks jutting out of the freshly planted lime-green rice paddies, we are delighted to take a languorous ride in a sampan propelled downriver by an older female rower who, incredibly, uses only her muscular legs and bare feet, just as we had seen on the prior season of The Amazing Race Canada. (Unfortunately, she is not pleased when we decline to buy her souvenirs after exiting the caves halfway and asks for “tip money” before we have even returned to the wharf. Yet, tip we do, as do others who share the same story. It’s the only place in Vietnam where we encounter such behaviour, sadly detracting from the experience.)
(Note: Tam Coc is only included on the December to March itinerary.)
Another day a walking tour of the lauded “ancient village” of Duong Lam — said to be 1,200 years old — is enjoyed by all. The restoration and preservation of five centuries-old buildings has earned the town a UNESCO award for cultural heritage conservation. We end with a visit to a 300-year-old wooden home to see its beautiful craftsmanship and how the Catholic family carries-on the old ways, including dual altars honouring passed ancestors. The 17th-generation owner also shares tasters of his homemade rice wine and shows us how to make Tet cake, a traditional food to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Vietnam’s biggest holiday (like our Christmas).
Like altars in every house, we learn many other time-honoured traditions are upheld (more so than anywhere I’ve been). We are treated to a Xoan singing performance at the Buddhist temple of Hung Lo near Viet Tri. Xoan (pronounced schwan) is a combination of song and dance, accompanied by a drum and clapper beating, that tell stories in honour of the royal Hung King ancestors. The performing art form was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2017 (one of Vietnam’s 12).
In Thanh Ha Commune, we are the guests of honour at a water puppet show, a North Vietnamese art form with 11th century roots in the flooded rice paddies of the Red River Delta. Puppeteers standing waist-deep in a pond hidden behind a bamboo screen manipulate hand-carved and lacquered fig wood puppets on the water “stage” in front of the screen, depicting scenes from rural life, folk tales and national history. They are accompanied by musicians in the pagoda above and the giggles of children who have joined us for the amusing entertainment, along with their care-taking grandparents. Afterwards, we mingle and take photos, foreigners and Vietnamese equally enchanted with each other — I especially by two women in their 80s whose teeth are filed to points and blackened like liquorice, once a sign of youthful beauty.
Other highlights include a full-day exploring bustling Hanoi and its historic Old Quarter, lion and ethnic hill tribe dance performances, and a visit to a village home where a handful of women, most elderly and retired from backbreaking fieldwork, demonstrate how Vietnam’s distinctive conical hat — the non la — is painstakingly crafted by hand. Each of the iconic bamboo-frame and palm-leaf hats, worn by paddy workers and Vietnamese of all ilk, take a full day to make but sell for mere dollars at the local market. The lovely ladies generously give each of us one as a gift.
When our excursions amidst Vietnam’s hustle and bustle wrap, we return to our floating oasis of low-key luxury where welcoming staff await. To keep the gleaming teak shipshape, they collect our footwear for cleaning, hand us a refreshing wet towel and serve a freshly made welcome back juice. With the ratio to guests almost one to one, their care of us and the ship is meticulous.
We dine thrice-daily in the glass-enclosed, air-conditioned dining room, prepared by the chef and his team of six. Breakfast and lunch entrees are accompanied by a buffet, while dinner is usually served family style at the table or a la carte. Passengers choose where to sit, but usually dine convivially together.
In-between meals and excursions, we relax al fresco on comfie loungers and sofas on the top deck, drinking hot fresh ginger tea, reading a book, visiting with other guests or gazing idly at the shore and ships drifting by. Other activities include a lecture on the country’s history, a Vietnamese cooking demo and a back-of-house and bridge tour.
Afternoons conclude with sunset cocktails — a new special each day artfully concocted by the pleasant young barman — and a briefing by the fun-hearted purser on the next day’s activities, followed by an unhurried three-course dinner. After a full day, most guests retire or watch a filmed-in-Vietnam movie like Indochine or The Quiet American.
Following frivolities on the final evening including dancing and karaoke (the favourite pastime of Vietnamese young and old), I head to the vacant deck at the bow to reflect, feeling melancholy that this much-anticipated cruise is drawing to a close. Rather than being memorable for scenery, save for Halong Bay and Tam Coc, this unique Red River journey has been notable for offering deep insights into the history, traditions and living culture of the welcoming Vietnamese people.
When the morning call comes to disembark, we sadly say goodbye to our home away from home and the captain and crew, who have again lined up in a double row to bid us farewell. As we mount the steps to the waiting coach, I turn and take one last wistful look — and one last photo — of the old-world RV Angkor Pandaw, a great beauty on which to take a journey through old world northern Vietnam.
If You Go
The Pandaw experience is about exploring remote and often hard-to-navigate rivers. Pandaw has sixteen ships in Asia, plus a coastal ship that sails Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago.
The RV Angkor Pandaw operates year round. The Halong Bay and Red River cruise starts from US $2,925 and is almost all-inclusive except for some alcoholic beverages. On select dates, there is no single supplement.
Note re: April to November Itinerary
When the river is higher, the Angkor continues into mountainous areas beyond Viet Tri, exploring ethnic hill tribe villages well off-the-beaten-track. The ship goes as far as is navigable up the Red River and then down the Lo and little-known Da or Black River, one of its two major tributaries. A highlight is Ba Vi National Park with its rich tropical and sub-tropical flora and fauna. The cruise begins or ends in Hoa Binh.
For more information about Vietnam, click HERE.