Sailing down Northern Vietnam's Red River and its tributaries with Pandaw Cruises is not for everyone. For this trip is a journey for travellers, not tourists.

When Pandaw states some spots are 'not the prettiest of towns', they mean it. However, the passengers on our replica colonial-era ship discover that beauty comes in many different forms.

Our 10-night expedition begins with one of the highlights on the itinerary, two nights exploring the World Heritage Listed Halong Bay. On our second morning we awake early to the sound of thunder echoing off the towering limestone karsts. Rain lashes the ship and lightning pierces the brooding grey skies which are common during Vietnam's monsoonal summer.

It seems certain the inclement weather will cancel the day's activities until a flash of blue splits the clouds and sun bursts through the gap overhead. Soon the sky has cleared and kayaks are launched for the more adventurous travellers onboard. The rest of us opt for traditional basket boats rowed by women wearing the conical hats known as a non la. Halong Bay is cloaked in silence except for the soft splash of our boatwoman's wooden oars, until excited shouts ring out in the distance.

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The kayakers have discovered a colony of tiny bats so our boatwoman cruises over to join them, paddling through a rocky, dimly lit space filled with the sound of fluttering wings until our boat emerges inside a semi-enclosed lake. Cobalt sky cups the steep limestone walls like an overturned blue bowl, providing a striking contrast to the craggy peaks surrounding us.

Later that afternoon our ship anchors at a secluded beach where the crew set up a cocktail bar. Passengers from Australia, Britain, and America laugh and socialise as they bob about in Halong Bay's emerald green waters, taking care to keep their perfectly mixed gin and tonics above the waterline. Only the promise a stellar sunset and a warm shower tempts us back to the ship.

After leaving Halong Bay our first day on the river is spent waving at shipbuilders and sand barges on the way to Thanh Ha, a small village on the Kinh Thay River. Washing hangs from cargo vessels like colourful bunting and greetings from passing ships mingle with a syncopated soundtrack created by hammers tapping on steel hulls. This bustling, industrial section of the Red River delta is a far cry from picturesque Halong Bay.

On our arrival at Thanh Ha village, staff help us dodge the cow pats as we clamber up the riverbank and walk through the village to a water puppet show performed in a pond studded with lotus flowers. By day the singers, musicians and puppeteers are farmers. However, whatever they lack in professional training is made up for with their joyous enthusiasm which is contagious.

Singers wearing jewel-bright dresses raise their voices in keening, lilting song as the actors standing behind a bamboo screen wade into waist deep water to perform. Wooden puppets depicting everything from rice pickers to buffalo and fearsome dragons shooting fireworks dance across the pond, eliciting laughter and gasps of delight from locals who have come to watch the show. We can't understand the lyrics but the giggles and shouts of the children make it easy to work out who the good and bad guys are. New Year is the only time a village usually hosts a performance of this calibre, so the Pandaw show is a treat for everyone, not just the passengers.

Our days on the 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw settle into a gentle rhythm, with free time spent sipping cool drinks and socialising as Vietnam's rural scenery slides slowly past. While each teak-lined cabin comes with shiny brass fittings and all the mod-cons, the sweeping upper deck dotted with deckchairs proves impossible to resist, as does the excellent Asian-inspired dining onboard.

Onboard it feels like a house party with (very) well-travelled friends. Pandaw cruises tend to attract those who enjoy getting off the beaten track and don't mind paying a little extra for a more comfortable trip with luxurious touches. Almost everyone is a repeat passenger, and by the end of the trip we can understand why.

However, this is no guarantee that everything will go according to plan. We arrive in Hanoi during a record heat wave and our much-anticipated day spent exploring the city's museums turns into an exercise in endurance. Passengers call each other over to everyone's favourite exhibit, the wheezing portable air-conditioners and fans which pump out just enough air to revive us for the next stop on our tour. Returning to the ship where we are greeted with chilled towels and icy drinks is pure bliss.

Hanoi is the only major city on the 'Red River and Halong Bay' itinerary, with the remainder being small towns and local villages. Our favourite is Gia Thanh where we clamber onto a flatbed ferry for the trip to shore, joining motorbikes and labourers on their daily commute.

Our guide leads us up a dirt road and through a market where plump white grubs wriggle in wicker baskets, trying in vain to escape their fate of becoming beer snacks flash-fried with sliced lime leaves and served with chilli sauce. Piles of spiky, pink dragon fruit catch our eye as we try to avoid tubs filled with feisty fish which seem determined to splash our feet. During the following days we see dance performances, craft demonstrations, temples, pagodas, and Duong Lam village which received a UNESCO cultural heritage conservation award for the restoration of its historic buildings.

One of our final excursions sees us visiting a house where multiple generations of the same family devote themselves to the traditional craft of making non la. Children clamber onto their grandmother's lap as she stitches the hats which have become a symbol of Vietnam. We take tea with the family inside their home and everyone is presented with a non la as a memento of their time in Vietnam. It is a beautiful gesture and one which reminds us that the true beauty of a country is not always found in its major sights.

THE DETAILS

10-night Halong Bay and Red River cruises with Pandaw Cruises are priced from NZ$3,990, including all meals, transfers, soft drinks, local beers and spirits, mineral water, coffee, tea and crew gratuities. Find out more at www.pandaw.com