As a pioneer of off-the-beaten-wake cruises throughout Southeast Asia, Pandaw was a logical candidate to launch the first commercial river trips in Northern Vietnam. In 2015, the company transferred its 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw from the increasingly crowded and competitive Mekong River to the Red River, which starts in China and connects the frenetic Vietnamese capital of Hanoi to island-studded Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Gulf of Tonkin.
Three years later, Angkor Pandaw -- a replica of a colonial-era vessel from the late 19th century -- remains the only cruise ship to ply the Red River and its network of tributaries.
The highlight of its 10-night voyages is an overnight at anchor amid the towering limestone rock formations of Halong Bay, and the rest of the trip gives passengers a glimpse of both rural life and industrial muscle. In many towns and villages along the way, foreign visitors are still relative rarities, greeted with curious smiles rather than jaded tourist pitches.
With two decks and a draft of a mere 3 feet, Angkor Pandaw is ideally suited for a river system where shifting sandbanks and low bridges can wreak navigational havoc on larger vessels. All voyages feature two days in Halong Bay, but scheduled itineraries vary by season: During the low-water months of December through March, trips start or end in the provincial capital of Viet Tri (about 50 miles northwest of Hanoi) and cover a larger inland cruising area near the coast. When water levels are higher, the ship can travel further upstream on smaller tributaries, and trips start or end on the Da ( Black) River at Hoa Binh, home to the Muong ethnic group and about the same distance from Hanoi.
Given heavy commercial traffic and prodigious amounts of trash along some stretches, the Red River isn't always postcard pretty, particularly near Hanoi and the major port of Haiphong. Specific routes and excursions are dependent on water flows and weather, and may be altered at the last minute. But, Angkor Pandaw's all-inclusive pricing philosophy, camaraderie among fellow passengers, emphasis on cultural interactions and high levels of service are major pluses.
Each time they leave or return to the vessel, which typically ties up to the shoreline, passengers are accompanied by attentive crew members ready to lend a hand or an arm. Low-key excursions emphasize traditions that remain vital to Vietnamese life, from visits to a village whose residents specialize in making conical hats to one that grows bonsai trees.
One of the most appealing aspects of life aboard this tiny ship is the greeting passengers receive after shore trips: a cool, scented towel; a glass of juice that varies every time; and a warm chorus of "welcome home!"
The typical age range for Angkor Pandaw's well-traveled passengers is 40 and up, though on our March cruise, most were in their mid-60s to mid-70s. Nationalities are a mix of British, Australians, Americans and Western Europeans, and all programs, excursions and announcements are delivered in English.
About half the passengers have sailed with Pandaw on other Asian itineraries -- often more than once -- and are physically active enough to negotiate sometimes steep, muddy riverbanks and participate in slow-paced walking tours that can last an hour or two.
Attire both on and off the ship is refreshingly casual, and "dressing for dinner" in the glass-enclosed dining room is as likely to include shorts and hiking sandals as dresses and loafers. Northern Vietnam's weather varies significantly by season; winter sailings (when days are often misty and temperatures typically range between 45 and 70 degrees) call for a warm sweater and/or fleece jacket, while loose, light-colored, quick-dry clothing is appropriate during the steamy summers. The ship's numerous temple visits necessitate knee-length or longer pants or skirts and tops that cover the shoulders.
While the ship keeps a stash of umbrellas at the gangway before every excursion, lightweight rain jackets are a must any time of year. Sturdy, slip-on shoes with a solid grip are ideal, since they're easy to remove before entering temples, private homes and the Angkor Pandaw itself (where a staffer collects and cleans passengers' shoes after each shore excursion).
Pandaw's all-inclusive approach means that virtually all expenses are covered by the cruise fare, from shore excursions to gratuities for waiters and other shipboard staff to group airport/hotel transfers at the beginning and end of the voyage to onboard soft drinks and snacks, daily cocktail and local beer and spirits.
Tips for the ship's two Vietnamese guides, who travel onboard and lead shore excursions, are not included but customary. Unfortunately, Pandaw doesn't offer any guidelines beyond "completely at your discretion." Based on passenger discussions during our cruise, amounts (paid in cash, in U.S. dollars) ranged from $25 per person, per guide for the entire 10-day voyage to $10 per person, per guide, per day.
Wine, cocktails, premium liquor, laundry service and gift shop items are priced in U.S. dollars, and bills are payable at the end of the cruise by cash or credit card (Visa and MasterCard only).