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QuirkyCruise reader review

Angkor Pandaw in Vietnam

REVIEWER

Glenice & Ian Warner from Australia.

CRUISE LINE

Pandaw.

SHIP

Angkor Pandaw.

DESTINATION

Red River, Vietnam.

# OF NIGHTS

10.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

May 2018, from Halong Bay, Vietnam.

OVERALL RATING

5 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 5

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 5

REVIEW

We were greeted on board by a fellow passenger with, ’Oh, you’re the virgin Australian Pandaw couple. You’re in for a treat!’  We sniggered at the first part of the introduction, but were very soon to find out that the latter part was absolutely true.

Care of the passengers was paramount on this gorgeous teak and brass ship. It began each day with coffee and tea for the early risers (but I’ll have to take their word for that!) and continued throughout the day with the immaculate care of our cabins, to ‘welcome home’ drinks after each excursion and even, the crooning of local love songs if there was a gap between the end of evening briefings and the start of dinner!  (To the less forgiving amongst us, this was the only time when the quality of service could dip below superb!)

Vietnamese cuisine is delicious at any time but was especially so on our cruise — the quality, the variety, the freshness and the presentation. But, there was plenty of choice, too, for those who preferred more Western-style fare. We never ceased to be amazed at the storm the chefs could whip up on board…and the weather whipped up a few of those too but always at night, so we didn’t miss one excursion and it cleared the air. The weather was unseasonably, ‘hot, damned hot,’ but air-conditioning on board and Dang’s fantastic evening cocktails, dulled the sting of it!

We thoroughly enjoyed the company of the passengers on board (mainly from the UK and Australia with two lovely, younger girls from the US) and interacting with the locals, off board.  This was the jewel in the crown for us. We would never have been able to visit so many, varied villages and iconic sites had we not taken the river cruise — 653 kilometers along nine different rivers! Perhaps it was because these were excursions to places that are off the beaten tourist track, that we were made so welcome by the locals, but I suspect it is also because the Vietnamese are one of the friendliest people on earth!  They often asked us to have a photograph with them.
We visited an amazing variety of villages, specialising in an eclectic range of arts and crafts — from bonsai tree growing to green bean cake making; traditional knife-smithing  to wooden furniture carving;  hand-painted ceramics to conical hat-making and the utterly unique, water puppetry.  We even visited a family whose house has been home to seventeen generations of their clan!  All of this was made all the more enjoyable by the exceptional quality of our guides, Duoc and Vu.  They not only educated us on the history and geography of Vietnam and the areas we visited but entertained us with many an amusing tale of growing-up, Vietnamese.  The three most important things a young man must do are: buy a buffalo; build a house; find a wife and in that order!

The river-cruising itself was both enjoyable and revealing. Passing through the variety of areas from the industrial to the agricultural, you gain a great overview of life and work in Vietnam and its impetus towards a developing country. Then there’s the incredible array of river traffic — from the tiny, indigenous basket boats, propelled by foot, to the myriad sand-movers that chug along just centimeters above the water line — all so ready to share a wave and a huge smile as they go by. Halong Bay is singularly spectacular, but on our cruise, made even more memorable by the visit to a floating house and fish farm, and a sunset swim and cocktails at Three Peach Island. (There seemed to be no end to the talents of our crew. While we swam they set up a barbecue and karaoke and Poly, our most thorough and personable Purser, became the ‘wedding singer’ extraordinaire!)

Our fellow passenger’s initial greeting was right; we were in for a treat. This was the most amazing immersion in Vietnamese history, culture, cuisine and lifestyle. So many of the passengers had completed, not one but four and even more, Pandaw Cruises; this will definitely not be our last!

➢➢For more on this cruise, read QC’s 12 Reasons to Take a Red River Cruise in Vietnam with Pandaw.

 

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Vietnam Red River Cruise

Vietnam 🇻🇳 Red River Cruise with Pandaw

By Heidi Sarna.

I recently returned from a wonderfully quirky 10-night Vietnam Red River cruise aboard Pandaw Cruises‘ 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw, sailing some 650 kilometers from Halong Bay westerly towards Hanoi and beyond. My bestie Rachael and I sailed along the Red River (or Song Hong) and its various tributaries, including the Black River (Song Da) and the Clear River (Song Lo).

The offbeat adventure was appealing and memorable in so many ways, including these 12 reasons.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Heidi & Rachael’s Vietnam adventure!

1.  Two Days in Halong Bay. The highlight of any visit to northern Vietnam is cruising around Halong Bay’s sea of limestone karsts that pop out of the bay like mushrooms. The ancient forest of crumbling mountain peaks feels otherworldly and prehistoric, especially when you kayak through the grottos and passages. Pandaw knows where to go to avoid the mobs of other tourists that flock to Halong Bay. Sailing there at sunset is especially magical.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Scenic Halong Bay is breathtaking. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

2.  The Local Food. Angkor Pandaw’s Vietnamese chef and his staff prepared delicious fresh meals with lots of local ingredients, from banana leaf, pomelo (like grapefruit), lotus and cashew nuts to glass noodles and heaps of basil, mint and other greens. We were treated to the nation’s famous pho noodle soup and Vietnamese-style spring and summer rolls (there were western options too), and refreshing glasses of local Bia Hanoi and 333 beer whenever the mood struck.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

A delicious bowl of Vietnam’s popular pho noodle soup. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

3.  Glimpse into Village Life. Our 10-night cruise comprised two days moving around Halong Bay and a day in frenetic Hanoi; the rest of the trip focused on visits to villages within walking distance or a short bus ride of where we were docked. These small towns would otherwise be hard to reach or unknown to most visitors. With our guides we walked around neighborhoods specializing in trades still pursued the traditional way, from pottery to carved wooden furniture, noodles, baskets, knives and rice wine. Half the fun was interacting with locals along the way.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Noodles drying in the sun like laundry. * Photo: Rachael Nicoll

4.  Our Vietnamese Guides. Duok, or Duke as he called himself for the benefit of the tourists, and Vu were a pair of 30-something Vietnamese guides with college degrees in tourism. They shared not only their deep knowledge of Vietnam’s history and culture, but also fascinating personal anecdotes that shed light on the country’s customs, from marriage to education and religion.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Douk, one of our two local guides who sailed with us for the week. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

5.  The Vietnamese People. Maybe because tourism still isn’t widespread outside of the major cities, the Vietnamese are warm and friendly to outsiders. In the villages, the locals smiled and waved to our group of 25, making us feel welcome. There was a mutually benign curiosity between us and them, which made it fun to take photos and selfies, with our guides often helping us to ask questions and communicate.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

This sweet old woman charmed us all. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

6.  A Rustic Boat in a Rustic Place. It’s nice to travel to a place in a vessel that looks like it belongs there. The 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw, like the rest of the fleet, is made of teak wood, brass, and steel, and designed to recall an earlier era of Scottish-built steamers for Burma’s Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that in mid-1920s operated upwards of 600 boats. They’re not white or shiny or covered in strings of lights, they’re comfortable, unassuming, utilitarian, atmospheric and solidly made.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Boarding the 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw in Ha Long Bay. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

7.  The Other Passengers. Pandaw attracts an international lot from all over the world, especially the UK, Australia and North America. They’re an adventurous, well-traveled group of free thinkers who seek out the off-beat. Many Pandaw passengers could afford a more luxurious and mainstream experience, but they choose Pandaw’s quirky river cruises precisely because they are not predictable or cookie-cutter. Many return to Pandaw again and again.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Passengers on a walk through the rice fields of Cat Ba island in Ha Long Bay. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

8.  The Slow Pace of River Travel. Seeing the landscape gradually unfold from the decks of a river boat, especially at sunrise and sunset, is a special way to travel. The true nature of a country reveals itself in the life along the riverbanks. In northern Vietnam, it’s largely a story of agriculture and industry — green fields of rice, bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava and corn, are dotted with red brick kilns with tall chimneys. Ship builders along the river banks are ubiquitous and so are their rusty red cargo barges that motor up and down the rivers carrying sand, stones, coal and fuel, often passing within a few feet of the Angkor Pandaw.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

A typical barge on the Red River system being steered with the captain’s feet. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

9.  The Convenience. The appeal of cruises big and small is the inherent convenience of unpacking once while you travel to many different places. On small ships like Pandaw, the ease is multiplied. You’ll appreciate never having to queue for anything. Getting on and off the boat takes just a few moments and the vessels are able to tie up to a tree or anchor just about anywhere. Further, just about everything is included in the fares — the cozy cabin, excursions, spirits, beer and transfers.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

The standard Pandaw cabin, a cozy wood paneled abode with lots of storage and a big bathroom. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

10.  The Calm & Quiet. By design, there is no loud music, no TVs in the cabins, and few announcements. Each day takes on a relaxing rhythm, punctuated by causal open-seating mealtime, one or two half-day excursions, and time for lounging on a deck chair chatting with new friends or soaking up the scenery and taking photos. Movies with a connection to the itinerary are frequently shown after dinner, but otherwise it’s a night cap or two before heading off to sleep.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Photo taking as the main past time on a cruise like this. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

11.  Not Commercial. It was so nice that this trip was not about shopping and buying stuff, whether on board or in the stops. There were a few places to browse and buy (Hanoi and the pottery village), but otherwise, the off-beat places we visited don’t see many tourists and so souvenir shops and touts are pretty non-existent.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

We visited quiet villages and rarely encountered other tourists. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

12.  The Quirkiness. Pandaw is different — the look of the boats, the historical backstory, the itineraries and the travelers it attracts. This is a line that marches to the beat of its own drummer, and I love their tune.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Rachael is jumping for joy on a ferry that transported us to shore. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

THE CAVEATS:  The Heat: Cruising in late April or May in northern Vietnam means it will be very hot in the afternoons — I’m talking up to 100 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius). The Barges & Factories: Vietnam is a country bustling and brimming with industry and it’s obvious with the many barges motoring up and down the rivers, and the factories and shipyards that line the riverbanks in some areas.

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QuirkyCruise reader review
REVIEWER

Derek Rham from the UK.

CRUISE LINE

Pandaw.

SHIP

Angkor Pandaw.

DESTINATION

Vietnam Red River Delta.

# OF NIGHTS

10.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

May 2018, from Halong Bay, Vietnam.

OVERALL RATING

5 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 4

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 3

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 3 small ship cruises.

REVIEW

This was our 3rd Pandaw expedition and other than the revised low water itinerary, didn’t disappoint. The ship, crew and food were all excellent, there were a few minor early irritations with the cabin that were sorted by the efficient purser. The low water revision to the itinerary meant that some of the locations weren’t what we were expecting but the two on-board guides did a great job with what they were left with.

The highlight was the 3 days meandering around Ha Long bay with the opportunity to cycle, swim and kayak amongst the stunning scenery.

 

 

🐧 QuirkyCruise.com’s Pandaw Review

Pandaw has been offering high-quality expedition-style river cruises in Asia aboard traditional-style boats for more than 20 years. The growing fleet comprises 16 nearly identical-looking teakwood riverboats built in Myanmar and Vietnam in the spirit of the 19th-century Scottish-crafted paddle steamers that plied Burma’s rivers at the height of the British Empire. Each boat carries 10 to 60 passengers and has an ultra-shallow draft, two or three decks, and flat tops so they can slip under bridges and easily navigate small rivers, even when water levels are low. Wood-paneled nautical-style cabins are roomy and very comfortable and meals are tasty enough. In every way, the Pandaw experience is solid, authentic and eminently comfortable just like the boats, with the focus on the destination, not fussy décor or cloying service. Step on board and breathe in the refreshing scent of teak wood before wiping your sweaty brow with a chilled face towel handed out by crew at the gangway. Read more. 

 

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QuirkyCruise reader review
REVIEWER

Donald Robertson from the UK.

CRUISE LINE

Pandaw.

SHIP

Angkor Pandaw.

DESTINATION

Halong Bay & Red River, Vietnam.

# OF NIGHTS

10.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

May 2018, from Halong Bay, Vietnam.

OVERALL RATING

4 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 4

-Cabin Rating: 4

-Service/Crew Rating: 4

-Itinerary Rating: 4

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 10 small ship cruises.

REVIEW

Trip was up to the normal high standard of Pandaw.  Being small ships the service is personal. There is also close contact with other passengers. Rivers were varied with a mix of scenery from industrial to agricultural, also of course the unique limestone islands of Halong Bay.

One depressing point is the amount of garbage dumped on the river banks in some areas.

The onboard guides worked very hard indeed to impart as much information as possible on Vietnam, its history, culture, and social and religious conventions.

 

 

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QuirkyCruise reader review
Reviewer

Barbara L from the USA.

Cruise Line

Vega Travel.

Ship

Vega Cruise Boat.

Destination

Halong Bay, Vietnam.

# of Nights

2.

Departure Date & Ports

March 2018, Halong Bay.

Overall Rating

4 out of 5 stars  (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 4

-Cabin Rating: 4

-Service/Crew Rating: 4

-Itinerary Rating: 5

Have you been on a small ship cruise before?

I’ve been on 1 small ship cruise.

Review

The 2-night Halong Bay cruise with Vega Travel was fantastic! It is on a small boat (max 16 guests) which made for an intimate experience, both among the passengers and in terms of sightseeing. The natural beauty of Halong Bay is second to none and on the smaller boat we were able to go to places that the larger boats could not. Our local tour guide was very informative and packed great activities into our time together. The tour was well run, the food was good and the crew was fun loving and accommodating. We also greatly enjoyed the other guests.  The cruise was a highlight of our trip to Vietnam!

 

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By Lester V. Ledesma.

Nothing says “I’ve been there!” better than a set of awesome travel pictures. I’ve combined my love of photography and travel in a series of “PhotoTreks” to some of Asia’s most exotic destinations, including Vietnam, Bhutan, Myanmar, Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand. One of my most popular offerings is a three-day Northern Vietnam PhotoTrek, which combines a one-night stay in Hanoi with an overnight cruise in the UNESCO World Heritage waters of Halong Bay. Photography and cultural immersion are the main goals of every PhotoTrek, and as such the group size is kept to a maximum of 12 people.

In Hanoi, enjoy the capital’s cozy cafes, ancient monuments and bustling street scene, with great photo ops around every corner. With its craggy rock formations and moody mist, Halong Bay provides the perfect setting for taking stunning landscape photos. These experiences are complemented by informal photography discussions, giving shutterbugs the opportunity to improve their craft.

Hanoi-based Vega Travel provides one of its three mid-sized, traditional wooden cruise boats for the trip, and also books the hotel in Hanoi, such as the Hanoi Bao Khanh next to the Hoan Kiem Lake. The Northern Vietnam PhotoTrek is ideal for weekend photography enthusiasts, and is offered to groups of 6-12 participants at around SGD$900 per person. This price includes lodging, transport and meals, but excludes airfare and visa fees.

Award-winning photojournalist Lester V. Ledesma (www.skylightimages.info) has photographed Asia for almost two decades, and his work appears in numerous international publications. For more information on upcoming PhotoTreks, check out the PhotoTreks FB page at http://www.facebook.com/PhotoTreks.

The PhotoTreks cruise boat docks at one of the many islands in Halong Bay. Traditional wooden boats like these are offered by PhotoTreks’ partner Vega Travel. * Photo: Lester V. Ledesma

 

small ship cruises in Halong Bay

Traditional Indochine patterns adorn one of the cruise boat cabins. Depending on the group size, ships used by PhotoTreks have five to seven fully furnished rooms. * Photo: Lester V. Ledesma

 

small ship cruises in Halong Bay

Dusk finds a fleet of boats moored at one of Halong Bay’s numerous coves. Participants learn basic photography techniques to help them capture the stunning sights. * Photo: Lester V. Ledesma

 

small ship cruises in Halong bay

The fiery hues of sunrise illuminate the karst formations of Halong Bay. The Northern Vietnam PhotoTreks itinerary is designed to bring participants to scenic spots at the best times of day. * Photo: Lester V. Ledesma

 

small ship cruises in halong bay

From a scenic vantage point, PhotoTreks participants greet the sunrise at Halong Bay with their cameras. * Photo: Lester V. Ledesma

 

small ship cruises in Vietnam

Traditional wooden boats and modern kayaks float side by side in Halong Bay. The Halong Bay cruise features different photographic subjects ranging from landscapes to local life. * Photo: Lester V. Ledesma

 

small ships cruises in Vietnam

This trio of rice farmers was photographed during a stopover en route to the shores of Halong Bay. * Photo: Lester V. Ledesma

 

small ship cruises in Vietam

Hanoi’s bustling street scene is a street photographer’s dream. * Photo: Lester V. Ledesma

 

small ship cruises in Vietnam

Three generations of Hanoians relax at Hoan Kiem Lake. PhotoTreks participants get to fine-tune their people photography skills, among many other aspects of the craft. * Photo: Lester V. Ledesma

 

small ship cruises in Vietnam

A group of ladies practice tai chi moves at dawn by the Hoan Kiam Lake in Hanoi. Cultural immersion and photography are the main goals of every PhotoTreks trip. * Photo: Lester V. Ledesma

 

small ship cruises in Vietnam

Vendors in Hanoi rush to bring their merchandise to the market before sunrise. * Photo: Lester V. Ledesma

 

 

 

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