The highlight of any visit to northern Vietnam is cruising around Ha Long Bay's otherworldly sea of limestone karsts. A Unesco World Heritage Site, the ancient forest of crumbling mountain peaks look prehistoric, and it is especially breathtaking at sunset.
Pandaw River Cruises' 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw is the only vessel that combines two days of cruising around the bay with a week inland plying the waterways of the Red River Delta, a region including the busy commercial port of Haiphong and the buzzing capital of Hanoi as well as a patchwork of rural farmland and villages.
In May, I sampled the 10-night cruise, which started in Ha Long Bay, by far the most scenic patch for the voyage, and ended in a small town northwest of Hanoi.
In Ha Long Bay, some of us kayaked while others hopped into a "basket boat" rowed by fishermen to explore the dramatic grottoes and caves. We also tied up at a floating fishing house to see and hear what such an isolated and hardscrabble life is like.
We got a chance to bicycle around rural Cat Ba Island (eight bikes are carried onboard for occasional use in port), while others preferred small electric buggies. We even spent time on a small beach late one afternoon, where we could swim while our charming young bartender served fruity cocktails and sang sappy ballads into a karaoke microphone.
Passengers boarding the Angkor Pandaw in Ha Long Bay, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna
Beyond Ha Long Bay: Before you book
• It's hot between April and September, with temperatures solidly in the 90s. Definitely bring a hat and lots of lightweight tops (even long-sleeved ones) to protect yourself from the sun on tours.
• There is WiFi onboard at times, but it's spotty. Enjoy being off the grid.
• The Ha Long Bay & the Red River cruise is offered year-round and is divided into two slightly different itineraries: the high-water itinerary from April to November, when it's hotter (90s-plus) with more rain and the boat can visit the highlands; and the low-water itinerary between December and March, when it's cooler (as low as in the 50s) and there's less rain but the boat can't get to the highlands and instead visits Inland Ha Long Bay in Ninh Binh.
Though thousands of tourists visit Ha Long Bay every day, Pandaw's captains know how, for the most part, to avoid the throngs.
There were 23 passengers on my cruise, and being such an intimate boat, it didn't take long to meet the others, mostly fit folks in their 60s and 70s from the U.K. and Australia, with a few North Americans in the mix. Everyone I chatted with had been on a Pandaw cruise before. They all sang the praises of the line, even if they grumbled about the heat or a part of an excursion they didn't like (several rolled their eyes about a scavenger hunt in a village market that the guides planned for us as a way to interact with the vendors of fruits and vegetables).
They were dedicated Pandaw groupies, who appreciate the line's unique brand of comfortable, quirky adventure en route to off-the-beaten-track corners of Southeast Asia onboard old-world boats designed in the spirit of the Scottish-made steamboats that plied Myanmar's Irrawaddy River a century ago.
Most took a last-minute itinerary change in stride when, because of lower-than-usual water levels, two days in the highlands were lopped off and replaced with stops in the coastal plain area. Going with the flow is part of a Pandaw adventure.
Each day took on a relaxing rhythm, sans TVs, loud music and public announcements. The boat was tied up along the banks or anchored midstream at night and generally moved in the morning for a few hours as folks sat on deck with a book or taking photos until the breakfast gong sounded at 7 for a buffet and a la carte Western and Asian items. There was always a delicious local dish that I gravitated toward, usually a variation of stir-fried glass noodles with local veggies and meat or seafood.
Most days there were both a morning and a late afternoon excursion with lunch served onboard in between. In addition to a buffet of tasty salads (from banana leaf to carrot and pomelo) and a soup — think a tasty, duck-bamboo noodle soup with local greens — a choice of three main dishes was offered daily, from Vietnamese-style spring rolls to the nation's beloved pho to a bacon cheeseburger topped with egg and pineapple.
Glass noodles drying in the sun seen on the way to an old Vietnamese village. Photo Credit: Rachael Nicoll
Cocktail hour commenced at 6 p.m., when the barman served complimentary fruity concoctions like a You Love Me made with vodka, triple sec, orange juice and grenadine and glasses of refreshing local beers Bia Hanoi and 33. Wine packages can be purchased, and repeat passengers get free wine at dinner. The gong would call us back to the dining room at 7 p.m., when again we had three choices, including a sizzling Vietnamese grilled fish with noodles and a New York strip steak, and for dessert, a classic chocolate mousse. Most passengers raved about the food.
On many nights after dinner, a feature film or documentary with a connection to the itinerary was shown in the restaurant, such as "The Quiet American." Otherwise, it was a nightcap or two before heading off to sleep.
Cozy, air-conditioned cabins were welcoming after a long, hot day of touring, with their wood paneling, brass fittings, captain's beds, roomy bathrooms and sliding doors facing the promenade.
The milk chocolate-colored river, muddy from delta silt, was itself a destination and the backdrop to our 10-night exploration of northern Vietnam. We traversed some 405 miles from breathtaking Ha Long Bay westerly toward greater Hanoi, sailing along a maze of major rivers and tributaries that presented a more industrial tableau.
If rivers are roads, then the Angkor Pandaw was a vintage Studebaker sharing the highway with rusty pickup trucks. As the only tourist boat plying the Red River Delta, a big part of the appeal is seeing the real, unvarnished Vietnam. Cookie-cutter, rust-red barges carrying sand, stones, coal and fuel passed us one after another.
The true nature of a country reveals itself in the life along its riverbanks. In northern Vietnam, it's a story of both agriculture and industry: green fields of rice, bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava and corn share real estate with the tall chimneys of red brick kilns. Shipbuilders banks are ubiquitous along the riverbanks.
We saw northern Vietnam through the lens of our two 30-something guides, Duok, or Duke as he called himself for the benefit of the tourists, and Vu, both with college degrees in tourism. They shared their deep knowledge of Vietnam's history and culture and also enlightening personal anecdotes about marriage, education and religion.
Ha Long Bay aside, the cruise included visits to sleepy villages and small towns not used to seeing tourists. We were greeted with warm smiles, curious eyes and friendly waves. We were rarely asked to buy anything, and in fact, Hanoi was pretty much the only place where we could shop.
The week included a visit to the village of Thanh Ha to watch a private water-puppet show performed on a "stage" in the middle of a pretty pond of lotuses and lilies. We visited the famous late 19th-century stone cathedral Phat Diem, an eclectic hybrid of Asian and Western architecture, as well as a pair of old wooden Buddhist temples, the Thay and Tay Phuong pagodas, parts of which date back more than 1,000 years.
In Ninh Binh, the highlight was a visit to the Inland Ha Long Bay, part of another Unesco World Heritage Site, where we climbed in twos into small boats that women row with their feet and navigated through a picturesque waterway that snaked between limestone formations and through caves requiring us to duck down.
Boats women row with their feet prepare to take guests past limestone formations and through small caves.
On other days, we strolled through villages where conical hats, ornate wooden furniture, knives, pottery and bamboo and rattan bowls and vases were still being made as they had been centuries ago, with workers sitting on the floor and plying their trade.
Two days in Hanoi included a tour of the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" prison, where John McCain and other prisoners of war were held during the Vietnam War, and the lovely, 1,000-year-old Temple of Literature dedicated to Confucius.
The line at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to see the embalmed body of the famous leader was very long, so we had to skip it. A few of us wandered off for a few hours to the Old Quarter for a lunch of banh xeo, savory Vietnamese crepes filled with vegetables and herbs.
Our last full day of the cruise included a morning visit to the beautiful ancient village of Duang Lam to visit an old house and sample homemade rice wine. On the way, we chanced upon rice noodles drying in the sun like laundry, and a motorcyclist puttered past us with two large, blue-and-white ceramic vases strapped to his bike.
When it was finally time to go home and leave small-town Vietnam behind, the entire crew helped carry our luggage from the boat to the bus and then waved goodbye in a row as we drove off. It was a sweet farewell from a crew and a country that seemed to truly embrace our visit.
Rates for the 10-night cruise start at $2,925 per person. Fares include excursions; transfers between the airport and boat; the services of two English-speaking guides; tips for the crew; meals; and beverages, including coffee, tea, water, local soft drinks, local beer and local spirits. Pandaw pays commissions; for more information, email [email protected] or call (844) 361-6281.