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Sunset drinks on Pandaw Cruises

Our cruise down Northern Vietnam’s Red River and its tributaries with Pandaw Cruises was our first ever river cruise, and it didn’t disappoint. However, we also discovered there are some things you need to know to make the most of Pandaw river cruises wherever you happen to be sailing.  

Our 10-night expedition began two nights exploring Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage listed site and one of Vietnam’s most famous attractions. On our second morning we awoke to the sound of thunder echoing off the towering limestone karsts and rain lashing the ship, but thankfully the monsoonal rain and noisy storm didn’t last long.

It took less than an hour for some blue sky to appear and the ship’s kayaks were quickly launched for a paddle around the bay. The rest of us opted for traditional basket boats rowed by women wearing the conical hats known as non las. This was a peaceful trip with Halong Bay cloaked in silence except for the soft splash of our boatwoman’s wooden oars.

Kayak trip in Halong Bay
Kayakers in Halong Bay

That’s until the kayakers started shouting at us that they had discovered a colony of tiny bats in one of the caves. Our boatwoman paddled over to join them and rowed through the rocky, dimly lit space filled with the sound of fluttering wings until our boat emerged inside a semi-enclosed lake surrounded by dramatic craggy peaks.

One of the reasons we decided to write this Pandaw River Cruises review is to let people know that you need to embrace adventure when you’re sailing with Pandaw Cruises to make the most of your trip. Nothing on our itinerary was too hard or too scary to do, with a choice of activities for different ages and abilities, which we all really enjoyed.

Later that afternoon our ship anchored at a beach in Halong Bay where the crew set up a cocktail bar and our fellow passengers from Australia, Britain, and America laughed and socialised with us as they floated in Halong Bay’s emerald waters, taking care to keep their (complimentary) drinks above the waterline. Only the promise of a shower tempted us back to the ship.

See the real Vietnam
On this cruise you see the real Vietnam

After leaving Halong Bay, our first day was spent in an industrial section of the Red River. Another thing that’s great about Pandaw River Cruises is they show you the ‘real’ Vietnam and not just the pretty, sanitised tourist things. The local guide who accompanied on our tour group on the cruise was great and provided wonderful insights about the architecture and the people of Vietnam and their way of life.

Shipbuilders waved at us on the way to Thanh Ha, a small village on the Kinh Thay River, and washing that looked like colourful bunting hung from the cargo vessels that passed us. The greetings from the crew on passing ships added to our cruise through this bustling, industrial section of the Red River delta, an area that was a far cry from the beauty of Halong Bay.

On our arrival at the village of Thanh Ha, we clambered up the riverbank and walked through the village to a water puppet show performed in a pond studded with lotus flowers. By day, the singers, musicians and puppeteers were farmers. However, whatever they lacked in professional training they more than made up for with their joyous enthusiasm which was contagious.

Singers travel to shore after the show
Singers at the puppet show travel to shore after the show

Singers wearing jewel-bright outfits took to the stage and puppeteers standing behind a bamboo screen waded into the waist deep water to perform in the show. Wooden puppets strode and danced across the pond, delighting the locals who joined us to watch the show. We couldn’t understand the lyrics of the songs sung in Vietnamese, but the giggles and shouts of the kids made it easy to work out which character was the hero and who the baddies were.

It didn’t take long before our days on the 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw settled into a gentle rhythm, with free time spent sipping cool drinks and socialising as Vietnam’s rural scenery slid past. While each teak-lined cabin came with shiny brass fittings and all the mod-cons, the sweeping upper deck dotted with deckchairs was impossible to resist and we spent a lot of time sitting back and enjoying the view.

One thing you should do that we got completely wrong is checking the weather for the time of year you are planning to cruise before you book. We booked to cruise during the Australian school holidays without worrying about what the temperatures might be like. This meant we arrived in Hanoi for our pre-cruise stays at the InterContinental Landmark 72 hotel and the Pan Pacific Hanoi during the wet season and a record heat wave (something that is common in August, as we later discovered).

During the cruise, the temperature stayed pretty much the same which turned our much-anticipated day exploring Hanoi’s museums into an exercise in endurance. Passengers spent most of their time in the museums calling each other over to enjoy their ‘favourite exhibits’, the portable air-conditioners and fans that pumped out just enough air to revive us for the next stop on our tour that took place on a day that was above 40 degrees Celcius with almost 100 per cent humidity. Returning to our ship and being greeted with chilled towels and icy drinks was pure bliss.

Hanoi was the only major city on our ‘Red River and Halong Bay’ Pandaw River Cruises itinerary, with the remainder of the stops being small towns and local villages. Our favourite was Gia Thanh where we clambered onto a flatbed ferry for the trip to shore, joining motorbikes and labourers on their daily commute.

Farmer in the fields
Visiting a farm in Vietnam

Our guide took us up a dirt road and through a market where plump white grubs wriggled in wicker baskets, trying in vain to escape their fate of becoming beer snacks flash-fried with sliced lime leaves. Piles of spiky, pink dragon fruit caught our eye as we tried to avoid tubs filled with feisty fish that seemed determined to splash our feet.

During the following days we saw dance performances and craft demonstrations, visited farms, temples and pagodas, and also Duong Lam village which received a UNESCO cultural heritage conservation award for the restoration of its historic buildings. Learning how to make traditional Banh Chung with the locals was fun but also much harder than it looked!

Learning how to make Banh Chung in Vietnam
Learning how to make Banh Chung in Vietnam

One of our final excursions was our favourite and saw us visiting a house where multiple generations of the same family devoted themselves to the traditional craft of making non la. Children clambered onto their grandmother’s lap as she stitched the hats which have become a symbol of Vietnam. We drank tea with the family and everyone on our tour was presented with a non la as a memento of their time in Vietnam. It was a beautiful gesture and one that reminded us that the true beauty of a country is not always found in its major sights, but in its people.

Disclosure: The writer explored the Red River as a guest of Pandaw Cruises.

Want more great cruise advice? Check out our tips for choosing the perfect cruise, cruising with grandchildren, cruising with tweens and cruising with kids of all ages, solo cruising, the best activities on Ovation of the Seas, doing a Transatlantic cruise with kids, cruising in Australia or Papua New Guinea, Iceland cruise tips, cruising on a megaship, scoring a bargain cruise fare, cruising the Mediterranean, making the most of a cruise ship kids club, luxury cruising with kids, and the Byron Beach Club onboard P&O Cruises. We have also reviewed Disney Wonder, Pacific Adventure, Celebrity Edge, Quantum of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas, Pacific Encounter, Carnival Splendor, Voyager of the Seas, Nieuw Statendam, Viking Helgrim, Pride of America, Coral Expeditions in Tasmania and the Great Barrier Reef, Celebrity Solstice, and Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.