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Encounters with the local children of Northern Vietnam

Pandaw Blog Compeition 2023 - 3d Prize Winner

It’s New Year’s Eve by the Western calendar, and the RV Angkor Pandaw is halfway through our journey on the Red River. The first part of our itinerary has been adjusted to accommodate the river’s lower-than-usual water level, but this is common with river cruises. What can anyone do about the unexpected? – it’s all part of the adventure! Pandaw is experienced at coming up with ingenious and imaginative substitutions; they’ve been doing it for decades.

Today we are docked, if that’s the word, at a neat little village veggie garden, our gangplank spanning onto a tidy path along which we walk to the village. Careful, don’t tread on the produce! This village is renowned for its bonsai. I’d always thought the word referred to a small shaped tree, but on the contrary these sculptured plants can be any size. We watch an artist up a ladder, snipping, twisting, tying; the patience he must have!

In the afternoon, we are introduced to what seems to be an extraordinary thing in a communist country: a Catholic village. It’s complete with a ‘French meets Vietnamese’ baroque cathedral, and the Christmas cribs – plural – are still up all around the cathedral square. They’re lifesize, splendidly made and distinctly imaginative.

Next morning we visit another village. It’s obviously Catholic as well, for it has a fine stone church. And if we thought yesterday’s Christmas display was impressive, this one outstrips it by far in both imagination and daring. Here Santa Claus is playing a saxophone; there a traditional Jesus Christ entertains two Caucasian-looking children with a guitar. Next is evidently the creation of the world. Adam and Eve share an apple, surrounded by a motley collection of animals: a deer, panda, tiger, ibex (I think that’s what it is) and some lake-dwellers. I don’t quite believe this next set piece, it depicts a conventional Jesus Christ with his foot on a soccer ball, with a cut-out figure in a footy jersey labelled ‘Maria’. She holds a soccer ball, and you can pose behind with your face in the head space for your photo. I wouldn’t be game.

Our afternoon excursion is something of a foretaste of our cruise’s grand finale, when we will finish in Halong Bay: this is Ninh Binh, ‘Halong on Land’. We take small rowboats to a limestone cave, on a waterway which winds between rock formations very similar to those in the famous bay. But here’s the trick: our boatwomen, hands clasped casually on their head, are rowing with the oars on their feet!

Days before in Hanoi, our meeting point after free time to wander had been the well-known tourist attraction of the Water Puppet Show. However, we were advised that it was not on our itinerary because we were going to see much better than that. The next afternoon this promise is made good, and it’s a rare treat.

After lunch we stroll into Than Ha village, where the locals are putting on a Water Puppet Show just for us. Traditionally, the puppeteers are farmers, and the stories they dramatise are folk tales, passed on down the generations. Over time this art has been developed to the extent of its being put on in city venues, but there is absolutely no comparison between a commercial tourist presentation and what we’re going to see here, in its original environment. Of course the villagers are going to watch too; why should they miss the fun?

We’re fascinated to see that the stage is, indeed, a sturdy edifice in the middle of a sizeable lake. A small side balcony is the musicians’ gallery, three beautifully-costumed ladies forming the orchestra. The action takes place in front of the curtain, the surface of the water is the stage, and what goes on underneath it is known only to the puppeteers behind the curtain.

It’s astonishing and enchanting what the puppets get up to. A couple of dragons chase each other, belching smoke; a small duck wanders into their battlefield, and gets out again very quickly. A boatload of people rows across, encountering a surprised-looking turtle on the way. Farmers drive oxen, ploughing their fields; fishermen cast nets; women plant rice. A couple of children set up a game, while fish leap nearby. But wait! – here come the dragons again, breathing fire and brimstone, and the turtle gets into the act too, with another creature I couldn’t identify but wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night. They’re all on stage for the grand finale (I think the turtle wins) and then the puppeteers emerge from under the curtain. There is tumultuous applause as they take their bows, gathering up their escaping creatures. Some of them bring the puppets over so that we can see how they are manipulated.

We Pandaw people have been wonderfully entertained, it’s time now for us to be the entertainment. Tim, our guide, has warned us that the local children will want to practise their English on us, so we are prepared. One delightful little lass accosts me with a serious mien.

“What is your name?” Her pronunciation is meticulous.
“My name is Jenny. What is your name?”
She tells me, then: “Where are you from?” We’re doing page one of the English primer.
“I am from Australia.”
“How old are you?” Tim has told us to be prepared for this; they need to know how old we are so that they know how much respect to pay us.
“I am sixty-seven years old.”
She gasps, and her eyes widen. “Oh! – you are VERY old!”
Out of the mouths of babes ... Don’t laugh, I tell myself, don’t laugh. I’ll get a lot of respect from this. “Yes,” I respond solemnly. “I am very old. How old are you?”

By now her repertoire is pretty well exhausted, and we part company cheerily. We’ve all had fun, and hope that the children have some satisfactory reports to make to their teacher.

Certainly, our reports on Pandaw will be more than satisfactory!



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