Words by Bev Malzard
Torrential is the only way to describe the rain that lashed our ship for a good 20 minutes. But like all good monsoon downpours, the air soon stilled and the wide Red River became a silky spread of gravy coloured water.
Welcome to North Vietnam. We were sailing on a 10-day cruise on the RV Angkor Pandaw – a beautiful ship designed to mirror the vessels of the Irrawaddy Flotilla that plied the waters of colonial Burma.
Departing Hanoi, we sailed to the heritage-listed Halong Bay, where we cruised past extravagant limestone islands and karsts. As the sun set and the lights from fishing boats twinkled, we sat down for the first of many abundant meals.
Sailing west, we ventured through the ‘real’ North Vietnam along the Red River Delta followed by the Black River, where the landscape is defined by the progress and industry that keeps the county ticking along. There are concrete factories and sand mountains shoring up the banks against flooding, fish farms in tiny villages and banana plantations. And in the distance, the soaring spires of churches and the terraced steps of Buddhist temples.
Almost every day there was a new excursion to places rarely frequented by westerners. Despite our ship being the only leisure craft among the rivers’ gliding barges, the villagers were laid back and welcoming.
Village trips included a walk through the pretty town of Thanh Ha to watch a water puppet show, followed by the inspection of a small village that has the noble tradition of producing fine ceramic items with skills passed down through generations. These jaunts took place in the province of Hanoi, where the local Lion Dance troupe welcomed us to the region with a raucous drumming performance.
We were treated to an extraordinary concert in the village that’s home to Hung Lo temple, listening to a multi-generational choir carry on the tradition of singing ‘Hat Xoan’. We danced with the singers to a fishing song, without the usual embarrassment of looking like bulls in a China shop – a testament to the generosity of spirit characteristic of these local people.
Our last jaunt was in an H’mong village sitting among the lush, green rice fields. A cup of tea and locally made wine, peanuts and bananas – all the traditional social mores had been adhered to.
What a cruise, what an experience and what about another North Vietnam cruise? Don’t mind if I do.