One of the great benefits of river cruising is that boats can anchor frequently at villages and small ports, either to pick up provisions from the local market or let the passengers take in an excursion or two.
Among the highlights of Pandaw's excursions are water puppet performances, ethnic dancing, a bird sanctuary, Buddhist and Taoist temples and visits with local artisans and craftspeople.
We see several sturdy stone Catholic churches as well, built during the French colonial period. Visitors will invariably be welcomed to a village home with an offering of green tea. Or, if it's evening, they might tempt you with a splash of rice whiskey.
A unique feature of the houses we see from the upper deck is that many of them have fake gables. From a frontal view, it looks like another floor, but it's only a triangular façade with nothing behind it, giving the appearance of small Buddhist shrines atop the roofs. Almost every building has lightning rods, sometimes four or even six, on the rooftop. They're shaped like spires, which accentuates their pious appearance.
Another unique characteristic of the northern Vietnamese is the custom of burying loved ones in their paddy fields. Although the practice is now banned, thousands of shrines and tombstones still pepper rice fields as far as the eye can see.
Our tour guide explains that the tradition is twofold: firstly, so that the headstone acts a reminder to the family that you are still here, still looking over the household; and secondly, as a warning to your family never to sell this land.