Adventure on the Red River ... A Vietnamese river cruise

| November 29, 2017

Cox & Kings clients Anne & Jeff McCormack travelled to Vietnam, enjoying a cruise along the Red River on board the RV Angkor Pandaw.

Halong Bay sunset, Vietnam

We knew it would be quite an adventure and we weren’t disappointed!

With its shallow draft, the RV Angkor Pandaw is currently the only tourist ship on north Vietnam’s Red River and offers unrivalled experiences along its route. As a relatively new expedition, we accepted that the itinerary could change at any time due to local conditions, but that was all part of the excitement and anticipation. Serious flooding in the region the previous week had indeed threatened to alter our itinerary, though our fears were thankfully unfounded. Our thoughts were, however, very much with the people who had been so badly affected. 

After an 11-hour flight we transferred to the legendary Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi for an overnight stay before meeting the other passengers for the two-hour coach ride to Hoa Binh to join the ship for our downstream adventure. With its 7 million people, a staggering 5 million motor bikes, tall narrow houses and fascinating Old Quarter, Hanoi was a marked contrast with the countryside villages we were about to visit and that were to be the highlight of our holiday.

RV Angkor Pandaw

RV Angkor Pandaw

The ship was small, bordering on the luxurious, with a maximum capacity of 32. With only 23 on board, everyone got to know each other very quickly and a ‘house party’ atmosphere soon developed. We were in the hands of charming and efficient crew members who looked after all our needs. There is not praise enough for our two young guides, Vu and Duke, whose knowledge, care and humour contributed significantly to our enjoyment, not to mention the task they set us of purchasing five vegetables in a village market, in Vietnamese of course. Not easy but we managed it!  And we all soon learned the Vietnamese for hello: Xin chᾲo. In the context of a holiday, it is easy to forget the past, but informative films organised for us by the crew during the evenings kept us mindful of the horrors of the war.

Our first excursion involved a small boat ride on the beautiful Hòa Binh reservoir where we stopped off at our first village – just a few stilted wooden houses – and encountered that Vietnamese smile that was to greet us everywhere we went. A Buddhist temple in a cave was a surprising detour along the way and the Hòa Binh hydroelectric dam, the largest in south-east Asia, was a spectacular sight.

Local women in traditional dress

Local women in traditional dress

We were privileged to visit many local villages along the busy river, passing through rice fields where family members were once buried and where their monuments are still to be seen. Each village, specialising in different  trades, including ceramics, carpentry, blacksmithing, soy sauce production and conical hat making, provided us with an insight into traditional craft techniques that have been passed on from generation to generation. We met with an elderly woman, whose gums were dyed bright red and her teeth blackened by years of chewing the beetle nut, and a 96-year-old man who was keen to share his home and give us presents.

Both on the ship and in the villages we were treated to colourful dance and song performances, including a lion dance and a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show with local children who joined us for the occasion. The ship also arranged for us to visit a number of homes so we could talk with local families and ask questions about their daily life. Everywhere we went we were served with green tea and rice wine and made very welcome. It goes without saying that we politely avoided their ‘special’ rice wine: displayed in large bottles in a number of houses, this type of rice wine contains a snake – supposedly beneficial for the health!  We also sincerely hope that the enthusiastic owner of a private museum that we visited in the hills will be able to find a long term solution to its survival: as the younger generations lose interest in the traditional ways of life and move to the city, fewer people are left to ensure small but essential enterprises such as these continue.

Lion Dance

Lion Dance

A second chance to see Hanoi again later on the tour gave us an opportunity to visit the fascinating Temple of Literature (historical centre of learning), the lakes and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (from the outside as it was closed for its annual renovation). Shopping in the Old Quarter by cyclo was quite an experience and crossing the street was almost impossible!

As we cruised nearer Halong Bay we became aware of other tourists – we had been on our own up until then – but a truly spectacular sight met us as we reached Halong Bay in time for sunset. Whether in sun or cloud, the view of around 2,000 extraordinary limestone islands, formed over 20 million years ago, couldn’t fail to impress and provided a climax to the whole tour. Before we left, a visit to a floating fish farm in the bay provided our chef with a huge fish for our last dinner!  As we moved nearer to our port for disembarkation, new hotel developments indicated how popular the area is becoming as a tourist destination.

Ladies in a village

Vietnamese ladies 

The noisy, bustling capital of Hanoi with its traffic jams and millions of motor bikes; traditional rural life along the Red River and the smiling, welcoming people; and the remarkable landscapes of Halong Bay … we enjoyed fascinating and varied experiences and we will not forget in a hurry the friendships we made.

Thank you to Cox & Kings and Pandaw for a remarkable holiday.

Traditional Hat Xoan singing and dancing

Traditional Hat Xoan singing and dancing

Find out more about Cox & Kings' river cruises in Vietnam here.

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