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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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