Unquestionably Vietnam’s most unspoilt region, Ha Giang, in the far north-east, is as colorful as it is culturally diverse. Vietnam Off The Beaten Track takes you away from the well-worn trail and into the mountainous heartland of north Vietnam.
Along with Ha Giang’s minority markets, rice-terraced landscapes and welcoming home-stays, you’ll visit the largest cave in the world, in the recently accessible Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, enjoy the charms of Hanoi City, and visit some of the further lying reaches of Halong Bay.
Destinations: Hanoi – Dong Hoi – Phong Nha Caves – Ha Giang – Sapa – Halong Bay – Lan Ha Bay
Day 1: Hanoi arrival (Dinner, Guide pick up)
Arriving at Noi Bai airport in Hanoi, you’ll be met and driven to your hotel, the capital city of Vietnam, is an elegant city located on the banks of the Red River with tranquil Restored Sword Lake at its heart.
With food stalls on every corner Hanoi is famous for its street food cuisine and Bia Hoi, a draft beer that is brewed daily and sold on street corners. Start your evening at ‘Bia Hoi corner’ and pull up a stool to taste the local brew and do a spot of people watching. Then walk through the bustling streets of the Old Quarter as your guide introduces you to the various foods on offer. You will stop at one of the many pop up restaurants and try a Vietnamese barbeque of flame grilled meats, tofu and vegetables on skewers just like the locals. End the evening with a walk along Hoan Kiem Lake for dessert at Hanoi’s most famous ice-cream street. You will spend the night in Hanoi.
Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, ranks amongst the world's most attractive and interesting cities. It was first the capital of Vietnam in A.D. 1010, and though the nation's capital moved to Hue under the Nguyen dynasty in 1802, the city continued to flourish after the French took control in 1888. In 1954, after the French departed, Hanoi was declared Vietnam's capital once again. The remnants of over 1,000 years of history are still visible here, with that of the past few hundred years wonderfully preserved.
Day 2: Hanoi Orientation (Breakfast, Lunch, Guide)
After breakfast at your hotel, you will be taken to visit the Ho Chi Minh Complex where you will hear about the man who led Vietnam’s campaign for independence from French colonial rule. Then you will see the One Pillar Pagoda and the Presidential Palace before heading to the Imperial Citadel. Once the apex of regional political power for more than a millennium, the area is now undergoing archaeological excavation and research. In the afternoon explore the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university and the iconic Long Bien Bridge, followed by cyclo ride through Hanoi's Old Quarters to experience daily life of people who are living in the oldest parts of the city, Enjoying the famous traditional water puppetry show in Thang Long Theatre where you will have chance to get a general picture of the daily activities typical to Vietnam's rural areas. You will spend the night in Hanoi.
Please be aware that the One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi is closed for renovation work until January 2015. Day tours will now visit Ho Chi Minh’s Museum as an alternative touring attraction.
Alternative for Day 2: Hanoi city tour by motorbike and street food (B, L, G)
You’ll have the whole day to explore Vietnam’s capital city on the back of a motorbike. Your guide will take you to the Temple of Literature, the first university in Vietnam dating back to the 11th century, and a popular attraction, as is Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, his simple stilt house where he lived and worked and the museum dedicated to his memory. After that, you’ll visit the bustling Old Quarter with its eclectic mix of architectural styles - traditional ‘tube’ houses, religious buildings, colonial houses, vernacular dwellings and modern concrete edifices.
The day also includes a ‘Street Life’ experience, also on the back of a motorbike. You’ll spend a couple of hours wandering around the back streets in and nearby the Old Quarter. A street food brunch is included – take your pick from traditional Hanoi Pho (beef noodle soup), Nom (green papaya salad with seasoned beef), Banh Goi (pillow-shaped rice pastry with minced pork and mushroom), Banh Cuon (hot rice paper with pork and fried onion) or Bun Cha (fresh noodle with grilled pork). If you’re hungry, try two or three varieties – they’re snacks rather than a meal.
Day 3: Hanoi – Dong Hoi – Phong Nha (Breakfast, Guide)
After breakfast, you will be free until driver arrives to take you to the airport for the flight to Dong Hoi. Upon arrival, you will be met by your guide and transferred out of town to your hotel, close to the border of the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park.
Despite Dong Hoi’s recent popularity due to its proximity to the now famous Phong Nha Caves, the number of visitors to this coastal town is minimal, then you will be leaving visitor's to enjoy the 12km of pristine white sands in near solitude.
Day 4: Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park – Phong Nha Caves (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Guide)
After breakfast, you will departure along Victory Road 20 - formerly part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. You will stop to visit the memorial temple at Hang 8 Co; dedicated to the North Vietnamese volunteers who lost their lives maintaining the trail during the American-Vietnam War then continue on to the entrance of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, located close to the Laotian border and home to one of the world's largest known karst regions, with over 300 caves and grottoes. The Phong Nha Caves were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2003 and have only been open to the public since 2011. Much of the network of caves remain unexplored, however the National Park contains what are believed to be the world’s largest and longest caves. You will then visit the huge Paradise Cave (Hang Thien Duong), passing along the raised wooden walkway that runs into the cave, to witness the astonishing stalactites and stalagmites then move on to the nearby Nuoc Mooc spring where there is an opportunity to swim in the emerald stream that runs from the nearby caves.
During the afternoon, you will visit the old runway at Khe Gat, secretly built during the war, and also visit Phong Nha Cave itself. You will start kayaking the clear waters of the Chay River, launching from the Tro Mong Ranger Station and paddling as far as the Son River. You will paddle past several villages before arriving at ‘wine cave’, a grotto where the North Vietnamese government made rice wine during the war. Finally sample some local flavors and a BBQ at the Expedition Cafe. You will spend the night in Phong Nha.
Day 5: Phong Nha - Dong Hoi - Hanoi (Breakfast, Guide)
In the morning there will be time to revisit the National Park, taking a boat trip as far as 'Dry Cave'. Alternatively you may prefer to drive into Dong Hoi where there will be time to explore the town before transferring to the airport in time for your flight to Hanoi.
Upon arrival you will be met by your guide and transferred to your hotel. The remainder of your day is at leisure in Hanoi.
Day 6: Hanoi - Ha Giang -Hoang Su Phi (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Guide)
After breakfast, you’ll drive to Ha Giang, the northernmost province of Vietnam. You’ll stop en-route at Tuyen Quang to visit the remains of the 15th century Mac Dynasty Citadel and a market nearby. After lunch at a local restaurant, you’ll continue driving on a winding single lane road through strikingly mountainous scenery. In the mid-afternoon you’ll arrive at the small rural district of Hoang Su Phi. You’ll spend the night in a ‘base camp’ hotel called Pan Hou Village.
The northern province of Ha Giang has the highest amount of Ethnic minority groups in Vietnam. Its unique mountainous landscapes are covered with terrace rice fields, rocky highlands, large valleys and lush forests.
Pan Hou Village is a purpose-built ecotourism hotel which uses solar energy for lighting and heating. The village includes 14 rooms with bathrooms attached in 5 stilt-houses modelled on the traditional house of the Dzao ethnic people. It has one large lounge with a bar and a restaurant, serving Vietnamese and international dishes in separate buildings and all of the staff are employed from the local ethnic community.
Day 7: (Pan Hou) Hoang Su Phi - Meo Vac (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Guide)
After breakfast, you’ll visit the small communities of Quan Ba, Yen Minh and Dong Van, of which are some of the most picturesque villages in the northern tip of Vietnam. The scenery is spectacular – a vast limestone mountain range and perpendicular walls of rock. There will be plenty of opportunities to take photos, but please be unobtrusive when photographing the local people – cameras and camcorders are rare in these areas.
You’ll call in at the infamous Vuong Palace, once the home of a high-ranking H'mong family during French colonial rule. The palace attracts architecturally minded visitors due to its unusual combination of European and Chinese styles. From there you’ll drive to Dong Van town where your guide will show you the charming ‘Old Streets’ near the market. After lunch, a scenic route will take you to the Ma Pi Leng Pass from where you can enjoy a panoramic view of the Nho Que River –if you’re lucky you might see one of the stunning northeast sunsets. Finally, after your busy day, you’ll arrive at Meo Vac in the late afternoon where you’ll spend the night.
It’s worth arranging this tour to start on a suitable day in order to visit the fascinating Quan Ba and Yen Minh market. They take place on Sunday and are frequented by members of the H’mong ethnic minority groups in Quan Ba and Yen Minh. It’s a good place to meet the buyers and sellers of the local products and to get involved with the hustle and bustle of the market activities. It’s an interesting introduction to the local culture.
At this stage of the tour, you’ll be deep in the remote areas of the north where the accommodation is very basic with very few travellers (and hardly any foreigners!). From here until you arrive in Bac Me town, your guide’s will provide food and somewhere to sleep. It’ll be a long way from five-star menus and facilities, but our local guides know the area intimately and will ensure that you have the best available accommodation.
By visiting these remote areas, you’ll have direct interaction with the local people’s perpetual struggle to survive in the unforgiving environment. Living conditions are extremely harsh, and there is hardly any arable land in the mountains. The people survive mainly on a diet of corn, one of the very few species capable of growing in the rocky soil. Despite the hardship and simple lifestyle, the local people are very friendly, welcoming and generous to any visitors.
Day 8: Meo Vac - Ha Giang (Breakfast, Lunch, Guide)
After breakfast and a brief visit to Meo Vac local market, you’ll return to Yen Minh via a different scenic route. The breath-taking scenery makes today a real worthwhile challenge - you’ll travel along rough roads and tortuous bends to Lung Phin, another small town about 14km from Meo Vac. Your lunch will be arranged in a local restaurant in Quan Ba Town.
From there, you’ll travel back to Ha Giang, arriving in the afternoon. After checking into your accommodation, you might consider wandering around the city.
Most mountain markets in Vietnam happen at weekends, but Lung Phin is an exception. Its calendar is based on the dates of 12 animal designations - Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare/Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep/Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. The market looks like a huddle of thatched huts on a hillside and takes place every Monkey and Tiger day. The local people tether their animals to sell at the corner of the market. If you can arrange your travel in time to co-ordinate with the market days, you’ll experience an untouched culture that has experienced very little change in the last millennium.
Bac Me is a small town located on the bank of the Gam River, despite being easier to access from Ha Giang thanks to a newly improved road, it’s still a sleepy town seldom visited by people outside the area.
Day 9: Ha Giang – Sapa (Breakfast, Lunch, Guide) – 250km
Your morning is at leisure or wandering around the village, experiencing the peaceful daily life. There are also some trails leading out into the countryside, offering some great views of the surrounding mountains.
After that, your guide will take you to Sapa, you will have lunch en route. You will arrive in Sapa in the late afternoon and transfer directly to your hotel.
Nicknamed the ‘Tonkinese Alps’ by the French (this area of Vietnam then being Tonkin), Sapa is located within easy reach of both the Hoang Lien Son mountain range and Vietnam's highest peak of Fan Si Pan (3,143m). Five different hill tribes still live in the region and some of the villages, especially the more remote ones, are still largely untouched by modern ways of life.
Day 10: Sapa - Y Linh Ho Trek – Taphin – Lao Cai – Hanoi (Breakfast, Lunch, Guide)
After breakfast, you will leave for Y Linh Ho from where you will start your days trek with a walk into the Muong Hoa Valley below. You will pass through some of the stunning rice paddy terraces that the region is so well known for.
The total trekking time is likely to be three to four hours and throughout the morning the backdrop is breathtaking. You will stop at several spots that offer panoramic views of the valleys below and you are also likely to pass many H’mong people; thanks to the linguistic skills of your guide, you will have the opportunity to interact with them and learn more about their way of life. After that, you will return to Sapa in time for lunch and take a short rest. In late afternoon, you will be transferred to Lao Cai train station for the overnight train back to Hanoi.
Day 11: Hanoi - Halong Bay (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Guide)
You’ll arrive Hanoi in the early morning, where you’ll be met and taken by car to your hotel to have breakfast and take a short rest before departure to Halong Bay, one of the most spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the world’s largest marine limestone ‘karst’ landscape. There you’ll board a wooden junk that takes you first through Bai Tu Long Bay. You’ll continue your cruise to an island beach. Weather permitting, you’ll be able to swim or climb a hill (not a mountain!) for an overview of the bay’s remarkable seascape. You’ll then continue your cruise to visit Cua Van floating fishing village where you’ll have an opportunity explore the village by rowing bamboo boat. The cruise route is designed to avoid busy areas and includes a very quiet location for your overnight stay.
For your three-day Halong excursion, you'll board Indochina Sails, one of the best wooden boats on the bay. It’s a wooden junk modelled after the old Vietnamese court vessels with two barge sails, a wide transom and rectangular superstructure. The boat has 14-15 cabins in total, 11 Superior cabins in the lower deck and 4 Deluxe cabins in the upper deck, accommodating a maximum of 30 people, so you're likely to be joining other travellers for the cruise.
All cabins are air-conditioned and have windows overlooking the bay. In size, the Deluxe cabins are 14.5 m2 and Superior cabins are 13m2. Each cabin is furnished with two twin beds or a double queen size bed. The interior panelling, floor and furniture are of hardwood. Each cabin has a wardrobe, desk, pillows, white cotton sheets, and an en-suite toilet and shower with a good selection of high-quality toiletries. All meals, usually based on fresh seafood, will be provided on board. Kayaking is available upon request and at a surcharge.
Day 12: Ha Long Bay (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Guide on boat)
The Indochina Sails’ route is for two days only, starting from noon of the first day to noon of following day. If you book a three-day cruise on the bay, you’ll be transferred after breakfast to your day–trip boat with private crew to cruise to the bay’s most deserted areas with opportunities to swim from quiet beaches or kayak to visit water tunnels, fishing villages, or your choice of other locations. A personal chef will prepare and serve your lunch on board. In the late afternoon, you’ll return to the Indochina Sails boat for dinner and your overnight stay.
The smaller boat’s facilities are limited and at a lower standard compared to the Indochina Sails boat, but you’ll have its exclusive use to cruise around the further reaches of the bay well away from the tourist area. Pack lightly; you’ll want swimwear and a set of dry clothes, and, as there are different activities during the day, bring both shoes (such as trainers) and flip-flops or sandals.
Day 13: Ha Long -Hanoi Departure (Brunch, Driver Pickup)
You’ll awake to the fresh air of the bay, and can take a swim or enjoy a Tai Chi session on the large sundeck (beginners welcome!) After a light breakfast of pastries and tea or coffee, you’ll dock to visit one of the most famous caves in the bay. You’ll return to the junk for brunch while cruising back to the main dock and around noon you’ll leave for Hanoi airport to take the departure flight.
- Vietnam Visa invitation letter
- Breakfast and accommodation sharing a twin or double room.
- Pick-ups and transfers by private air-conditioned vehicle as specified in the itinerary above (Please note: pick-ups will be by a guide and driver or, where a guide is not necessary, a driver only. All unaccompanied drivers will be briefed in advance, and will carry a mobile phone to ensure smooth transfer arrangements)
- Boat cruises as specified in the programme. All Ha Long Bay boats will be fully licensed and comply with current safety regulations.
- Return train tickets: Lao Cai - Hanoi (air-conditioned soft four-berth cabin, good local standard in Fanxipan Train carriage or similar)
- Travel in an appropriate private air-conditioned vehicle with an experienced safe driver.
- The services of experienced English-speaking guides as indicated in the itinerary (please note: guides will be on hand from pick-up until guests’ return to their hotel or reaching their destination). Free days or part days will not include the services of a guide unless requested and included in the final itinerary.
- Where necessary, entry fees for all visits as mentioned in the programme.
- Lunches and dinners (as specified in the itinerary) in the best local restaurants and full board on the boat in Ha Long Bay.
- VAT and other taxes
- International flight tickets and airport tax.
- Lunches and dinners, except as specified above.
- Drinks, gratuities and personal expenses.
- Surcharges for Peak seasons (if any)
- Compulsory meal (if any)