Not known to many Westerners Unknown to the majority of Westerners, the Red River (Song Hong in Vietnamese) is thought to be the important economic and historical source of life for Northern Vietnam.

Beginning from Southwest China, the river and its tributaries pass through peaceful rice fields and bustling urban areas, linking Hanoi, the capital city of Hanoi to the famous Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin.

For river cruisers that have already taken a trip on the well-known Mekong within Southern Vietnam and Cambodia, the Yangtze in China or the Irrawaddy in Myanmar (Burma) A cruise through the Red River offers a unique perspective into a once-rural, yet rapidly growing Southeast Asian country.

The river is new to cruises that only one cruise line is currently offering cruises. Pandaw is an adventure cruise company which is specialized specifically in Southeast Asia, was looking for an alternative to the overcrowded and fiercely competitive Mekong. In 2015, the company transferred one of its low-draft vessels with a capacity of 32 passengers, Angkor Pandaw. It also began the first commercial cruise on the Red River. Although Pandaw’s all-inclusive, 10-night cruises are available all year and are subject to change according to the season, the schedules vary depending on the level of water, that fluctuate greatly based on the rainfall.

The highlights of every Red River cruise are a full day spent in Hanoi and a two-day trip in Halong Bay, a UNESCO-designated Labyrinth made of around 22,000 limestone islands and outcrops. However, leaving those “bucket list” destinations aside there are cruises that focus on smaller-town experiences rather than grand landmarks or stunning scenic views. (Indeed that, along many sections of the river, which runs through smooth terrain, banks of the river are typically littered with garbage.)

For instance, during an excursion to the Hung Lo Buddhist temple near Viet Tri, about 50 miles to the northwest of Hanoi visitors will be treated to a special show consisting of “xoan” (pronounced “shwan”) singing. The traditional style of Vietnamese storytelling, handed down generations to generations and acknowledged in the eyes of UNESCO as an instance in “intangible cultural heritage,” is not just about singing, but also acting, dancing in chanting, drumming, and dancing.

In the bonsai-growing city in Dien Xa, about 60 miles to the southeast of Hanoi the visitors are treated to a an overview of a family-owned business by the owner’s proud 13-year old daughter, Nguyen Linh Chi. The explanation she gives of the things that make Vietnamese bonsai distinctive that is bigger tends to mean better quality, while forms are more natural than Japanese ones -it’s fascinating. However, what was even more fascinating during a recent visit was the chat that took place on a leisurely walk back to the boat. In near-perfect English, Linh Chi confided that she’d love to attend college on America. United States one day -but then returning to carry on the family’s business of transforming nature into artful masterpieces that fetch hundreds thousand dollars for a specimen.

All on the river, tourists are welcomed with big smiles and a chorus of “xin chao” (“hello”) even on the river and everywhere including traditional fishing leg rowers all the way to deckhands on oceangoing freighters are both awed and delighted to experience something so novel as a cruise ship passenger.

Best Time to Take a Red River Cruise

Northern Vietnam has a cool to cold winter from November through March, and a hot and warm wet season that runs from April to October. The months of December and January are the most common months to be very cold and heavy fogs can reduce the visibility of scenic spots such like Halong Bay and Thung Nang/Tam Coc (known as “Halong Bay on Land.”) The summer months are the most rainy in the fall, and the late summer/early autumn storms can cause a stormy environment.

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A word of caution about traveling in Tet or the Vietnamese Lunar New Year: It is the biggest celebration during the entire year (generally occurring in February or January), Tet is celebrated for several weeks past when it actually occurs. This can mean festooning street decorations and adorned locals who visit family or friends could be accompanied by closed stores and workshops at various stops throughout the route.

Red River Cruise Lines and Itineraries

Some companies offer short excursions through the Red River Delta, and many tour boats provide Halong Bay cruises that last from a couple of hours to several days. However, Pandaw is the only commercial cruise company that travels along the Red River and its tributaries and offers an overnight stay on Halong Bay at the beginning or at the end of each sailing.

Alongside a visit to Hanoi All Red River itineraries feature daily excursions, often by motor coach, to see temples of various kinds and towns in which locals create traditional items such like bamboo lacquerware, ceramics conical hats, and sparkling exquisitely carved furniture.

From April to November, when the higher levels of water allow the river to flow further The trips are scheduled to begin or end at Hoa Binh Dam. Hoa Binh Dam on the beautiful Da (Black) River, located southwest of Hanoi.

From December to March, cruises begin or finish in the capital city of the province of Viet Tri close to the confluence of Red and Lo rivers. They also spend more time in a more extensive cruise on the inland waters of the coast, around Haiphong, the main industrial port. Haiphong.

Red River Cruise Port Highlights

Halong Bay: The eye-candy combination of soaring uninhabited limestone peaks, without any people and a sheltered, absinthe-green and protected water, also known as “Where the Dragon Descends into the Sea,” was given its name from a myth that dragons sent by gods to assist those in the Vietnamese combat Chinese invaders slipped into the bay and left the islands behind.

The bay was featured as a prominent background in the film Hollywood film “Kong: Skull Island,” Halong Bay is regarded as Vietnam’s most popular tourist attraction, welcoming around 7 million tourists (including around 3 million foreign tourists) every year. However, the majority of international cruise travelers arrive from Halong Bay’s Bay Chai port in Halong City and are restricted to a 6-hour trip through the busiest area of the bay, passengers who are on the Red River itinerary spend nearly two days towards the South, taking in the scenery and having a night anchorage in the less-crowded but equally stunning Lan Ha Bay.

In one afternoon trip the passengers take the traditional two-person rowboats as well as kayaks (where the captain of the boat handles everything) to go to The “Bright and Dark Cave,” which is a cave which leads to a protected lake, surrounded by cliffs that rise steeply. There are other highlights, including a visit at the lush, rocky Cat Ba Island, where tourists can bike or ride a bus to the village of farming Viet Hai. There’s also a trip to the floating village of fishing and, if the weather permits an exclusive sunset beach celebration on a tranquil island.

Hanoi: Pandaw passengers start the Red River journeys here, with motor coach transfers included from the airport or to the Hanoi’s Pan Pacific Hotel to the destinations of departure for the ship in Viet Tri Hoa Binh or Tuan Chau Island (just to the south from Halong City). However, Pandaw also stops at Hanoi’s historic capital for the full day of exploration.

In the cruise cost include guided tours of The Old Quarter, a warren-like maze of eateries and shops and the Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum in which passengers are able to line up in queues of students waiting in line to be able to take an intimate glimpse of Uncle Ho’s waxy and well preserved graves as well as The Temple of Literature. It is the home of Vietnam’s initial university, the complex dates up to Hanoi’s establishment a thousand years ago. The structure is inspired by the temple in Confucius his birthplace at Qufu, China.

Another place to visit is the notorious Hoa Lo Prison. It is more well-known by Americans for its nickname, the Hanoi Hilton, a sarcastic nickname given on prisoners U.S. pilots (including Senator John McCain) who wound up in Hoa Lo as part of the Vietnam War, Hoa Lo was founded in the French in the latter part of the 19th century in order to deter an expanding Vietnamese militant movement. While the majority prisoners were razed to create offices and apartments (now it is believed that the building is haunted) one section has been transformed into an exhibit. Although the dark, cramped cells and torture tools that were used in the hands of French are horrifying evidence of the human capacity for evil, the part dedicated to American prisoners is a lot and unsettlingly sunny and includes pictures of a festive Christmas meal and prisoners writing letters to their families.

Hoa Binh/Da River During the cruise’s high-water itineraries, between April and December, cruises start or close at Hoa Binh. It is located in the hill country that was that is traditionally inhabited by the Muong ethnic group It was the scene of a major conflict against the French in the late 1950s and early 1952. It also is the site of the nation’s most hydroelectrically powerful dam.

Excursions include a boat trip along the reservoir of the power station and an excursion to an indigenous hill tribe village The most popular draw — and the preferred choice for Angkor Pandaw’s captain is a full day of exploring the crystal clear waters of the Da River through Ba Vi National Park. It is a popular weekend getaway for tired city Hanoi locals, this hilly park was originally conceived to serve as a hill station during the French colonial era and is renowned by its lush, tropical forest.

Duang Lam: This charming small town close to Hanoi is awarded the formal “ancient village” label with the history of to 1,200 years, and hundreds of homes built by the traditional way that can be up to 400 years old. Walking tours with a guide include an excursion to one of them, where the 17th generation owner, who was a veteran who was a soldier for North Vietnam and was wounded in the Battle of Khe Sanh, welcomes passengers with a cup and glasses of rice wine.

Thanh Ha Commune It is the Vietnamese technique of making water puppets is performed by puppeteers that stand in front of a screen made from bamboo deep water to manipulate elaborately painted, lacquered wooden characters. It began in the rice fields in the Red River delta in the 11th century, and was believed to be an entertainment option for children during hot summer days and to keep them safe from the dangers of currents that flow through the river.

Commercial shows of a large scale are performed in Hanoi and other cities in Vietnam However, this adorable version — with live drummers and singers as well as a peanut gallery of local youth is held on a pagoda that is situated in the center of the traditional lake in a town that visitors take a walk to right from their ship.

Red River Cruise Tips

Visit for the people and not for the stunning scenery. With some notable instances such as Halong Bay, the Da River and Ninh Binh province, among them – the murky Red River and its tributaries traverse through in a boring landscape. However, cruises here offer the unique chance to get to know Vietnamese in regions in which Western travelers are still scarce.

Wear sturdy shoes as well as “temple socks. “ Slip-ons with strong support and non-skid soles are ideal to navigate the river’s steep and slippery banks, as well as to make it easy to remove before you step into pagodas, temples and private houses. (One person who has been on numerous Southeast Asian cruises on Pandaw vessels is adamant about her Merrell Clogs.) Pandaw staffers will collect shoes of passengers for cleaning every time they return to the ship, which is why socks are great while sipping a glass of refreshing juice on the deck or just waiting to have your footwear delivered to your room.

Be prepared for “go with the flow. “ The fluctuating levels of water and unpredictable weather are common for the ride along the Red River and its tributaries as well as the Pandaw disclaimer clearly states it is “this is a new river expedition and itineraries and schedules are very much subject to change due to uncertain local conditions.”