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Halong Bay and the Red River - Filming of the Pandaw Production

Blog by Spencer Butt, Pandaw IT Manager, filmed together with David Lumsden, Pandaw Art Department.

Firstly, I must thank all of our guests for allowing us to film this Pandaw expedition. We really appreciated not only their acceptance of us on-board, but the stories and advice that we shared on our travels aboard the RV Angkor Pandaw.

This was my second Pandaw trip to Southeast Asia with my colleague David and our remit was to capture the experience of Halong Bay and the Red River on video. My first trip was on board the maiden voyage of our seagoing vessel the MY Andaman Explorer around the Mergui Archipelago, so this was my first time on one of our colonial style small river ships.

We departed London Heathrow with Vietnam airlines direct to Hanoi, followed by a one hour transfer to the ship, arriving just before our guests embarked. After a long flight, the ship transfer was very efficient. Having published lots of images of our ships and staff over the years as IT Manager, our ship really surpassed my expectations as did the crew made us feel extremely welcome from the moment we arrived. To see all the staff working hard to present the ship in tip-top condition to our Pandaw guests upon arrival, really demonstrated their pride in both Pandaw and the special experience we offer. Even though David and I are Pandaw employees, we were treated with the same courtesy as all our guests.

After the ship safety briefing, we introduced ourselves to the guests, explaining our intention to create a short film and sought assurance that everyone was happy for us to be filming them on their expedition. We tried to blend in and not focus on any individual guest as we didn't wish to make anyone uncomfortable. There was a fantastic group of Australians, Tasmanians, Germans, Swiss and an Italian who gradually bonded well together over the ten days; all like-minded travellers appreciating this diverse culture and country.

Day 1 – (20 May) We boarded early before our guests, allowing us to meet the Purser and staff, and to film some of the cabins before being occupied. Our guests arrived at midday and were warmly welcomed by the Pandaw team as they embarked. We set sail in the Hoa Binh area, taking in the sights along the river over cocktail hour then moored in the same location overnight.

From the dock, David and I tested out the drone, focusing on the Angkor Pandaw with the backdrop of hills and enjoyed a walk into Hoa Binh to look around some of the fascinating streets and shops. Being British, we're not used to such heat and humidity! It took us a few days to acclimatise, especially carrying all of our equipment and running about in 95% to 100% humidity.

Halong Bay and the Red River cruise in Vietnam - Hoa Binh

Day 2 – (21 May) We got up early for breakfast, leaving by coach at 9am for an excursion to the Hoa Binh reservoir, Southeast Asia's largest hydropower station. I enjoyed the scenic drive through the mountains where we took a boat trip on the reservoir and visited an amazing cave with a hidden temple and walkways inside. The scenery was fabulous, very like Halong Bay itself, our final destination on this ten-day itinerary. Clear blue skies provided great photo opportunities for everyone.

In the evening, we thoroughly enjoyed the local Muong tribe music and dancing on the upper deck and were given the opportunity to play their gongs and instruments. I won’t forget their special rice wine drunk through bamboo canes from a single pot, having to yell 'oui oui oui' before drinking. The chief also yelled this as you drank, providing much encouragement! We filmed their performance on deck, staying at the back of the ship to ensure our guests had the best view and setting our tripod lifts high enough to see over those seated. It was a great performance and a really nice touch for our guests to try their instruments and interact with the Muong people.

Day 3 – (22 May) We started the day with a visit to a local market in Hoa Binh then the Muong museum. The Muong people welcomed us into their village just outside of town. Again, we were treated to a scenic journey observing local life on the way to visit their village. We shot some fantastic footage with our drone of their village and the paddy fields as well as some great footage of our guests interacting with the villagers.

Later that afternoon we set sail for our next overnight destination, Duong Lam. All guests congregated on the upper deck for drinks and a backdrop of stunning scenery. It was great to spend time speaking with the guests, hearing their past travel experiences (most extremely well-travelled). After dinner guests were given the opportunity to watch the film “Good Morning Vietnam” in the dining room. Overnight in Duong Lam.

Day 4 – (23 May) Disembarking at a military base port, we boarded our air-conditioned coach to visit the old village of Duong Lam with houses dating back 400 years. Our guests were set a team task of purchasing five items which they had to write down in their best Vietnamese and attempt to barter in the market. The winning team received a bottle of wine. Continuing through the town we visited a 400-year-old wooden building, enjoyed a few shots of rice wine and viewed a few more interesting buildings before heading back to our ship to continue cruising to Viet Tri. Filming here was great; a busy village of locals with a colourful array of market stalls selling mostly food. Meanwhile, the local children where using fishing nets to catch crickets from the trees to eat!

On return to our ship we were again warmly greeted by the Pandaw team, removing your shoes to be cleaned, handed a wet towel and an iced drink, both of which are equally refreshing! This is a special moment as everyone is on the upper deck together chatting about the excursion and cooling down; an ideal time to chat with guests we hadn’t had a chance to speak to properly. I really liked the way this seemed to happen after every excursion.

This part of the river is quite industrial, lots of dredging of sand from the river bed and industry lining the shore. This contrast is still very interesting to observe, as large cargo ships look as if they are about to sink under the weight of their load and squeezed between the riverside industrial units are narrow but tall residential buildings. After lunch, we sailed to our next destination and mooring for the night with plenty of time to relax. After dinner the film “Heaven and Earth” was shown for guests.

Every day after returning to the ship, or when each camera card filled up, David and I had to download and backup footage to my external hard drive. David would then make a full back up of my hard drive, and yet another copy to another hard drive. Just in case! This particular evening when I plugged in my external hard drive we had been using for this process it was blank, nothing on there! The whole day of footage was lost as I saved it when we first returned then cleared the camera card. I had to then attempt to find some software and try to restore this data as this footage was some of the best we shot.

What was worrying me was the fact that the hard drive I had used was new and if I plugged this hard drive into a different USB port it would crash my laptop. It was a great concern that it may be faulty or even have a bug which could have been previously copied to the backups David was making, resulting in no footage at all. Luckily David’s backups seemed okay so we started using my USB key to transfer to David’s laptop first.

It was great to see how the guests were increasingly enjoying each other's company as they became more familiar. Together with the staff, there was such a comfortable and relaxed family feel which I liked.

Halong Bay and the Red River cruise in Vietnam guests

Day 5 – (24 May) Woken by rain and the thunder which was forecast since day 1- it's nice to have a fresh breeze after the heat of the past days. The crew were up early drying the decks and replacing the cushions on the chairs. After breakfast, today's excursion was to Hung Lo Temple to see a traditional folk song, Hat Xoan. The guests were seated in the temple for the performance which was truly a fantastic show, ending with rice wine shots for everyone. Outside the temple is a lovely public square and a picturesque lake with the dragons and lilies. Again, a walk back to the coach seeing everyday life in the village. 

Second excursion was to see how traditional Vietnamese village hats are made and the difference between poor and skilled versions. Travelling by air-conditioned coach through both rural and town life in Vietnam, you get to see how indigenous Vietnamese exist outside the tourist areas.  After navigating a dirt track we reached Tien Du village, visiting a house where Non La hats were made. We were then invited into the family home for fresh bananas and a drink and to meet the family who marked our visit with a gift of a hat for each guest. Our visit ended with a group photograph of all guests wearing their Non La hats. On our return to the ship we were treated to shoe clean, wet towels and an iced drink before lunch.

By now, David and I now felt acclimatised to the heat and are rarely breaking sweat. We've adopted a few tricks such as slowing our pace and keeping a little cooler rather than trying to be ahead of our guests all the time. We were conscious our guests didn’t want us tracking them all the time and have become more selective with what we are shooting.

Day 6 – (25 May) Up early for an 8am departure to visit 2 pagodas, the first a Chinese pagoda located in a busy town and the first time we’ve seen any other tourists (apart from Day 1). Today David and I agreed not to video our guests directly and give them space. The second pagoda, a short coach drive away, had 237 steps with spectacular views from the top. The guide had everything well organised for those who couldn't make the steps, offering the alternative of a visit to the house of a 92-year old local man with photo opportunities which a few guests really enjoyed. On the coach, I overheard one guest saying to another who didn’t climb the steps, “it was really nice to meet a local person living in their own environment”.

Returning to the ship for lunch we cruised further up river and moored at the steps of the Bart Trang Temple where guests visited the local ceramic village. David and I decided to skip this excursion as we were eager to get the drone set up and prepare to film the lion dance which was performed in the grounds of the temple on the guests return.

Day 7 – (26 May) We were anchored outside Hanoi on the Red River where the guests took a short bus ride for an tour of the old town including changing of the guard and Hanoi Hilton prison, returning to the ship for lunch. David and I chose to stay on-board, shooting more footage of the ship as well as setting up a photo shoot of a new front cover for our wine list. Guests appreciated that they were free to spend their afternoon in Hanoi or join the planned excursion to Thang Long puppet show, then make their way back to the ship or meet the coach at a specified time.

I took time today to try and restore our lost data from Day 4, trying various software to achieve this and managed to get a short list of applications to try.

This evening we were treated to the most beautiful sunset; gorgeous reds and oranges gave everyone fantastic photos opportunities.

Halong Bay and the Red River cruise in Vietnam. Droning and Halong Bay beach.

Day 8 – (27 May) Woke to blue skies and lovely sunshine, with a slight mist in the background giving a very remote feel. We cruised until midday towards our next destination, enjoying the lush green landscape.

Arrived at the village of Thang Long in the afternoon to watch the water puppet show which had been arranged just for Pandaw guests. A short walk, or bike ride for some guests, through a beautiful village to arrive at a very lovely village square with a large pond filled with lilies where the puppet show is performed. The gesture of all the locals coming out to enjoy the show, sitting with the guests, made us all feel very in touch with this wonderful country.

A slow stroll back through the village for David, Peter (our purser) and me to the ship, where a village market had been set up and our ship had already pulled away, luckily leaving a crew member waiting in the speed boat. We took the opportunity to video our Pandaw sailing whilst speeding in-front and around the ship.

The atmosphere on-board this evening was fantastic. Before dinner we had a quick quiz with a whisky for the winners. The evening guests enjoyed drinks on deck and a film night of “The Quiet American” before turning in for the night.

Day 9 – (28 May) We departed for Halong Bay, arriving early afternoon. Everyone was excited about reaching Halong Bay and on deck observing the landscape. Having purchased some recovery software I was hopeful we could retrieve our lost video footage but I had to wait for the scanning to complete which had been running since 5am with an hour still left to go when writing this, which was 9.40am. Fortunately by 10.20am my recovery software had completed its scan and yes, all data recovered! Total relief and further enhanced my enjoyment of this adventure. Happy times!

The route leading up to Halong Bay is quite industrial which is to be expected as the river leads out to sea and is the main port for import/export in the north. An area under rapid development, large bridges are being constructed over the river, high enough to allow the cargo ships to pass below and large cranes tower over the ships. Our Pandaw seemed very small in comparison.

After passing this we could now see Halong Bay in the distance. David and I took the speed boat out ahead of the ship with our drone and 4K video camera to film the ship entering the bay after quickly getting our gear together.

Powering ahead in the speed boat we first pulled up at a floating fish farm and filmed with the drone from the top of their small fishing boat on an area just less than 3 m2 as the Angkor Pandaw travelled towards us. Landing the drone was tricky but excellently executed by David. We then sped past our ship and landed on a small secluded beach for our next session with a 20 minute wait for the Pandaw to appear.

We experienced a slight issue with the drone when we laid some washed up tarpaulin on the sand to use as a taking off base but the camera showed too much white reflection and wouldn’t allow us to record. Having worked this out, we launched the drone just as the ship appeared. The next problem we experienced was our video signal not being transmitted back to our controller so we flew this one blind with our fingers crossed and luckily shot good footage by keeping the camera forward and playing it by eye based on the position of the drone. This may cause us some problems moving forwards.

Returning to the ship, the afternoon excursion was a visit to the 'light dark cave' in a hand rowed boat by Vietnamese. The scenery was unbelievable with endless photo opportunities. The row is slow, with some guests opting to kayak through a remarkable cave into an enclosed area. You can hear the bats in the cave and massive stalagmites hang from the ceiling. So beautiful, so relaxing. David and I opted to go on the rowed boat rather than the kayaks as we thought we may risk getting our equipment wet but watching some of our guests in kayaks we were kicking ourselves as this could have given us a better angle.

Returning slowly to our ship for a relaxing evening and dinner, the guests asked Peter the purser if we could eat with all the restaurant doors open which gave a lovely fresh breeze through the restaurant.

Before dinner we arranged a video shoot with two guests in the restaurant which went very well. The focus was on dining with a glass of wine which required drinking half a bottle to get the final shot which left Paulo and Claudia a little tipsy!

Halong Bay and the Red River cruise in Vietnam. David and Spencer.

Day 10 – (29 May) We awoke to the most stunning backdrop of Halong Bay and started cruising through the bay to our final destination on our expedition. The scenery is just amazing; just when you think you've taken the best photo the scenery continues to amaze every minute. I could have filled my SD card just here!

First excursion today was to the Viet Hai village set in a national park. David and I remained on-board for this excursion as we had our final items on our list to video: the captain and 2 drink shots. We were very happy with the results. When the guests arrived back we took the speed boat back to the dock to fly our drone for the last time. We were still experiencing issues with the video being transmitted back to our controller when we used our smaller capacity battery so we flew blind again, using the position of the drone to target our shots.

Returning back to our Pandaw for lunch we journeyed on to a small floating fish farm to see a variety of unusual fish and to learn about the fishing and farming methods. Just a quick visit here and we were cruising again to try and find a small beach to enjoy cocktail hour. The problem was the rising tide hiding a lot of beaches but we managed to find one very small strip of beach to try. The crew set off first to set up chairs and a table to serve cocktails from. A few more boat trips to transport everyone ashore and most guests enjoyed a swim and cocktails, the beach ever decreasing with the rising tide.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get any satellite signal to fly our drone here, maybe due to the over-hanging cliff above us. Instead we used our camera to selectivity film this experience, respecting the privacy of our guests. We all enjoyed staying here until there was little beach left. Some of the crew decided to swim back to the ship. This is where that family feel was really recognisable, seeing the crew relax and interact with guests as we neared the end of our expedition and everyone was starting to wind down.

This evening on-board before dinner, Peter the purser and our guides gave us a farewell speech and introduced all the crew on-board followed by dancing on deck with the guests which was really great fun. The captain was certainly a great dancer! Dinner was a BBQ style buffet with everyone seated on one long table. The food was superb and we got to chat with most guests. Later that evening a few of us stayed up late for a whisky or two, enjoying our last evening.

Day 11 – (30 May) I got up early to finish packing and to back up our last footage, ready to disembark for our transfer to Hanoi. Everyone was preparing to leave but wished they could stay. One guest remarked to me 'do you think they have a spare cabin? This is too much fun and I don't want to leave'. This was the general consensus of all guests! Disembarking at Halong we transferred to our air-conditioned coach for our journey back, stopping on the way at a pearl farm to see how they grow their own pearls and browse around their enormous pearl jewellery store. Further along we stopped at a local shopping centre for lunch which in fact was very nice - wasn’t expecting that! We enjoyed having a short time to look around the stores before continuing onto Hanoi airport to drop most guests for their onward journey then onto Hanoi’s Pan Pacific Hotel where David and I spent our two remaining days. 

As part of our free stay at the Pan Pacific Hotel, David and I were to create a promotional video for the hotel. An impressive hotel, very central with an amazing bar on the 20th floor overlooking Hanoi. Meeting their sales director for a quick tour, we were invited to eat at their buffet for dinner which had a great international selection of food from around the world. We wrapped up most of the video on the next morning before meeting again to access some rooms. The Pan Pacific kindly allowed us a 10pm checkout on the last day so we could keep all the equipment in our room before our transfer to the airport and flight home.

On reflection, it has been the most excellent experience with lovely people, it truly was a family feel throughout the whole journey and one I will never forget.

Final thoughts:

  • Parts of the river are quite industrial but as one Pandaw guest put it 'they do it very well, it blends in'. It is actually very interesting to see the dredging and ship building. Many guests took an interest and it certainly sparked conversation and debate.
  • The Vietnamese people are so welcoming. On excursions they are happy to invite you into their houses for a drink and take photos. The crew on passing ships would wave. When the Angkor Pandaw passes all the locals take as many photos of us as we do of them!
  • We haven't seen a single other tourist ship so far on our journey until we reached Halong Bay. In fact, I can only remember seeing other tourists on a handful of the excursions we did.
  • Paul Strachan writes “Pandaws are in themselves a thing of beauty” and indeed they are! The staff are up at 5am everyday cleaning the boat for our guests when they awake. I even saw the purser cleaning.
  • The atmosphere on-board is great and after a few days everyone is speaking to each other. It was a real experience and pleasure being on-board with our guests. I have now experienced the “family feel” of Pandaw.
  • Although Pandaw ships do have Wi-Fi, the actual internet is quite intermittent, especially when cruising and when everyone is on deck. When moored it is far more efficient but you have to accept that there is no internet when in remote places. There is so much to see that sending emails was not on anyone’s mind! For David and I, being up before our guests and after they retired to their cabins gave us the internet connection we needed to stay in touch with Pandaw colleagues for support - after all we are still working!
  • I publish many testimonials from our guests in which they always congratulate our staff and guides. I now understand why I always read nothing is too much trouble. They truly do help make our expeditions special in every way, from assisting guests on and off our Pandaw ship and through excursions, to ensuring everyone is enjoying a remarkable journey.

Finally, I must thank Paul Strachan for allowing David and I to take this trip.



River Cruise itinerary for Halong Bay and Red River

Halong Bay and Red River

Halong Bay - Viet Tri

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10 nights

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River Cruise itinerary for Halong Bay and Red River


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