Vietnam – six rivers of the north

By | Category: Travel destinations

inland Halong

Having left the misty beauty of Halong Bay – the RV Ankor Pandaw – then sailed up the Bach Dang river to anchor off Hai Phong. This bustling port city was full of activity and we saw many vessels, some rusty hulks, some undergoing repair and some full of aggregates; all under drizzly skies laden with the smell of pollution – a change indeed from Halong Bay.

From here we continued our Pandaw cruise from Halong Bay to the Red River in Northern Vietnam by sailing through a network of smaller rivers, passing banks lined with banana plantations and paddy fields. From time to time we noticed small ferries criss-crossing the rivers. Bridges are few and far between –and non- existent on the smaller rivers

bananas being brost on board the Angkor Pandaw

For our next excursion to Thanh Ha the sun was shining and the river sparkling when we came to disembark. Each time we did this was different. Sometimes, as here, it was via simple planking followed by a scramble up the bank (there were always half a dozen crew stationed to help anyone unsteady) and at other times we got into small boats and once we were even picked up by one of those little ferries and found ourselves in the company of local people, their ducks and pigs. One thing we almost never did was to moor at a conventional dock.

the beginning of the water puppet show. Image © D Dasovich

This time, once on land we made our way on foot to the village where we’d been promised a very special sort of entertainment – a water puppet show. At the top of the bank we found ourselves on a new road on either side of which rusty red cattle were tethered to graze.  Looking back down towards the river we saw impeccably neat vegetable gardens along the bank and, as we strolled up the road to the village itself, we noticed that even the verges and the gaps around the street trees were planted with lettuces and other food crops.

the green bean cake factory

On the way were invited into a small factory where green bean cake was being made. We were greeted enthusiastically by the workers, mainly girls, with a few young boys who come in after school, and we watched as the beans were ground to a paste, sugar added and the mixture put into moulds before being wrapped and boxed for sale. We were then offered tastes of this very pleasant sweet which is usually eaten with green tea.

As we continued up the street, apart from a few friendly old ladies there was no one about. We passed a disused temple painted with soft faded colours and eventually came to the square where the show was to take place. Pandaw, with their usual efficiency, had sent an advance party to put up an awning for us to sit under and we were joined by several local people, some of them grannies who had picked children up from school.

Water puppetry is an ancient tradition with a thousand year history which, apparently, started in this area. Originally it took place the lotus pools often found in front of community houses or temples but here a decorated proscenium-style façade was fronted by a large water tank with a rattan curtain at the back. This hid the puppeteers who stand waist-deep in the water and operate the puppets by manipulating long rods held just under the water.

the puppeteers – in waders – take a bow at the end of the water puppet show. Image © Karen Dovey

A small orchestra of pipes and drums played plangent music with a singer joining in from time to time. Front of house, a mother and daughter both dressed in pretty traditional outfits, bustled around settling people down. Anticipation mounted.

a mother and her daughter welcome us

The shows normally feature rustic tales and legends although some do incorporate more modern sketches. This one began with a figure, a farmer appearing on the water as if ploughing his paddy field. Then came two dragons swimming – the movement was incredibly good as they undulated sinuously through the water – next a yellow turtle, two water buffalo and four mandarins in a boat. Finally, a battle erupted complete with fire crackers and smoke and water swirled into high dramatic waves. After the show, which we thoroughly enjoyed in spite of not really understanding the story, we were invited back stage to meet the puppeteers.

We then headed back down the same road we’d taken to come only to find it was completely transformed. It was now a lively open-air market crowded with people shopping for their evening meal. All sorts of comestibles were on sale: chickens, ducks and other meats, a variety of eggs (including the ones with chicks inside, considered a delicacy…) plus a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables.

a very unlikely looking Vietnamese house with bansai trees

Then it was back to the boat where the crew as always greeted us with warm handtowels and drinks, murmuring, ‘welcome back,  welcome home’ and yes, by now our luxurious little vessel had become our floating home and its crew our family.

Although a plant lover, I had never really appreciated bonsai but I did find our next excursion of interest. It was to Dien Xa, a village with concentration of some of the greatest bonsai masters in the world. Having only seen miniature bonsai I was amazed at the size of some of these old, very valuable specimens, some 50 years old and worth thousands of dollars, millions of dongs.  In this country everyone aspires to own one or two bonsai but the specimens in this nursery were status symbols for wealthy people who buy or even rent them to show off (remember Vietnamese love to outdo their neighbours.)  Theft is accordingly a big problem; we saw several firmly secured by chains.

a revered bonsai in Dien Xa

A bonsai’s value is governed by age, type of tree material and design. Trees used include banyan, ficus and false yew. In design,  we learned that it is important to have big trunk at the bottom and that some people cheat by surrounding the main trunk with smaller ones and tying them tightly so that they all grow together. We see designs including ‘father and son,’  ‘sitting lion,’ ‘two friends’ and, most popular, ‘the dragon’.  This village is famous throughout the country, bonsai masters from here tend the bonsai at the Palace gardens in Hanoi and people come from far and wide to visit the numerous top quality nurseries.

Since leaving Halong Bay, our smart little ship R.V.Ankor Pandaw had sailed on five rivers; the Bach Dang, the Cua Cam, the Kinh Mon, the Kinh Thai, the Thai Binh and we were now on the sixth, the Nam Dinh. From our anchorage we boarded a coach bound for Tam Coc also known as ‘Halong Inland,’ about which I had heard a good deal.

This is another area where tourism is being developed and although not overcrowded we saw more tourists here than anywhere else. It is indeed a very beautiful spot with canals and rivulets winding through high limestone rocks similar to those in Halong Bay. The main attraction here is a sampan ride through these waterways and on arrival we saw rows of these little boats lined up waiting for customers. Each little vessel took two passengers and the rowers were all women – who incidentally rowed with their feet.

sapan ladies await us at Tam Coc

It was very peaceful as our boat swished gently past drifts of deep pink water lilies and families of white ducks. Eventually we come to a long, dark tunnel through the rocks where once again we had to bend out heads. Then, emerging in another of those quiet pools, the boat stopped. I thought it was going to turn round, but no, the women rowing stop here to give their passengers a head, neck and back massage! In fact our lady was very good masseuse and if rather unexpected, it was enjoyable. Then she, the oarswoman/masseuse, did a little sales pitch, bringing out a bag of handicrafts to sell to us. Amongst them were little bags, pretty and after a bit if bargaining, cheap, so I bought one hoping later I wouldn’t find a ‘made in China’ label on it. (I didn’t)

I considered this excursion one of the best so far but as we got out of the sampan a photographer rushed up to us to sell us pictures he had taken of us as we set off. I also heard grumbling from discontented punters who were being asked by their boat ladies for ‘bigger tips’. Our guides had shielded us from all this but I imagine this scene in a few years’ time and am glad to have come to this beautiful place before it had lost its innocence.

As well as delicious food, comfortable cabins and good service, we 20 passengers enjoyed on board entertainment in the evenings including films which feature Vietnam and the places we’d visited. We had already watched Good Morning Vietnam and Indochine with scenes set in Halong Bay and its caves and secret pools but when we returned it was to see the film of one of my favourite books, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American with scenes which relates to our next excursion to Phat Diem.


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