From Hanoi to Luang Prabang via the plateaus of Upper Tonkin and the Nam Ou valley in Laos. A fabulous route through the territories of those ethnic minorities of Sino-Tibetan origin with their rich traditional costumes, the rice terraces, markets and stunning scenery. By train, by road or by boat, a trip to a different world, where men and women still live in harmony with nature, preserving their proud traditions and cultural identities. A unique and amazing circuit, way beyond the tours compiled for mass tourism, and extraordinarily rewarding.
Arrive in Hanoi, entry procedures, meeting with the guide and transfer to hotel. Tour starts at Ba Dinh Square, where the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum stands. Then to the adjacent Pillar Pagoda, founded in 1050 by Emperor Ly Thai To. Trip across the French Quarter, the beautiful neo-classical style buildings are now renovated and brought back to their ancient splendor to house ministries and state companies. With the Metropole Hotel, Opera House and the History Museum, the buildings justify well the nickname “Little Paris”, which Hanoi once boasted in colonial times. Visit the Temple of Literature, where people sat the exams to enter a career in the administration. Visit the Historical Museum, located in an old wooden house, and then a walking tour and a cyclo ride through the streets to Hoan Kiem Lake, at the southern edge of the Quarter.
Transfer by road, (175 km, approximately 4 hours), to Halong harbor, boarding in the late morning for a cruise of about 20 hours in the bay, with meals and overnight stay on board. Choice of a traditional Vietnamese junk (fitted with private cabins) or paddle boat (reconstruction of an original boat from 1910).
Lunch and dinner on board.
Landing by late morning, return to Hanoi and with time available for individual visits, shopping, strolling … in the evening transfer to railway station to board the overnight train to Lao Cai.
Brunch on board.
Arrive early in the morning at Lao Cai train station, the last station before the Chinese border. Transfer to Sapa(About 40 km), along a road that offers beautiful views over the mountains and gorges. Its market is lively throughout the week and one always meets there the minority tribes of the Dao Rouge and Black H’Mong, sometimes the Dzay, H’mong and others. In the afternoon a walk to the H’Mong village of Cat Cat, consisting of twenty traditional houses. About 2 km downstream, we visit the falls and a small hydroelectric plant built in 1925 and still in service. Meet the people, with enough time available to familiarize, then going back up the valley for about 1 km, crossing a suspension bridge over a gorge (total journey on foot about 6 km). Back to Sapa by road, and by car.
One whole day’s transfer towards Phong Tho with several stops en route. First stop to visit Ta Phin village, a Red Dao village near to which are the ruins of a seminar destroyed in 1952.Then Thac Bac (Silver Waterfalls) with possibility of a short trek around the Falls. About 12 km further, the Col du Paradis offers, during clearer days, a good view of the Fan Si Pan, the highest mountain in the Indochinese Peninsular. Continue on to Binh Lu, meeting place for women from the Dao Noir tribe and Phong Tho tribe, with villages visits of the Black H’Mong, Dao and Kinh tribes. Arrive late afternoon, book into the hotel.
Early morning visit to the market frequented mostly by the Tai, Dao and H’Mong. Departure for Pa So, at the northernmost point of the route, where begins the descent towards Muong Lay and Dien Bien Phu. Stops in different villages inhabited by ethnic H’Mong, Dao Rouge, Ha Nhi, Tay. Trip to Sin Ho, a small town at 1700m at the foot of Mount Ta Phin, at the centre of a beautiful landscape of rocky peaks. Arrival during the afternoon and booking into the hotel.
Transfer to the Lao border, Immigration formalities and meeting with the local guide. Continue on to Kwa Muang and Muang La (160 km, about 5 hours). At the confluence of the Ou and Pak rivers. Muang Kwa is an important center along the N4 road built by the Chinese in the 70s to link Oudomxay to the Vietnamese border. Arrive at Muang La in the early afternoon and booking into a small resort on the river with the rest of the day available to enjoy the site, including its spa and hot springs.
A whole day by 4 × 4 to the villages of Akha and Hmong, to meet two typical Laotian communities. The track that you take is superb and offers an incredible climb up to 1000m where you will have a memorable and unique view. You will first visit a totally isolated and beautiful Akha village. This community from Yunnan and Tibet has remained extremely traditional. Lunch will be taken from a magnificent site. Continue on foot to a Hmong village (45 min walk). This ethnic group, native from the high steppes of Tibet, will introduce you to their customs, and the importance placed on animals (pigs, buffaloes …) in their lifestyle and the care they take of them. The path that leads to this completely isolated village offers many impressive views. A few minutes from the village is a viewpoint with a 360 °range … over the whole region. Quite unique!. Then returning to the resort at days end.
Return to Muang Kwa(80 km, 2h30 drive). All aboard for a 5 hour cruise to Nong Khiau. This is probably the finest inland river in Laos, in the heart of a karstic area with beautiful scenery, sliding between green cliffs and knolls, rocky gorges and small coves of sand on which the bordering villages sit.
Picnic lunch on board.
Descending the Nam Ou river by boat to Luang Prabang(About 6 hours), with a stop at the confluence with the Mekong (Pak Ou). Then a stop in a village specialized in rice wine making and to visit the sacred caves, discovered by King Setthathirath during a hunt and to this day still greatly revered by the Lao. For over three centuries, the faithful come to Pak Ou on pilgrimage to lay down statues of Buddha, as offerings or in gratitude for a favor given: today there are now over 4,000 in all shapes, sizes and materials, stored in the lower cave. The caves, quite shallow, are at the heart of a spectacular setting in the middle of a cliff. It is reached by steps cut into the stone. If the first was mainly of religious interest, the second higher up presents some beautiful limestone formations. Arrival back in Luang Prabang during the afternoon.
Lunch at the restaurant in front of the caves.
Day dedicated to the visit of the city (by minibus, tuk-tuk, bike or walk), especially the peninsula, home to the main temples. A walk to the morning market and to visit the small museum of Traditional Arts and Ethnology (WAD), which displays objects of daily use, clothing and crafts from the northern Laoian tribes. Look at the main temples: Wat Visounnarat replica of the original temple built in 1519, the oldest of the city; Wat Aham the first residence of the Buddhist patriarch in Laos; Wat May former seat of the head of the Buddhist church in Laos; Wat Sene, built in 1718, the first temple in Luang Prabang in the Thai style with a yellow and red roof; Wat Sop a rare temple still visible in a Xieng Khouang style. Finally, Wat Xieng Thong, one of the crown jewels, impressive at the entrance of the city and amongst the sites classified as World Heritage by UNESCO, and private property of the royal family up and until 1975.Visit the National Museum, in the former Royal Palace. The building itself is not very attractive, however the collection of donations to the crown is quite interesting.
Free day to enjoy the ambiance and the very special atmosphere of Luang Prabang: a mix between the spirituality of the monks, the paradisical scene with the two rivers and the green mountains that surround it and, above all, the simplicity and spontaneous smile of the local people that is so naturally relaxed and welcoming.
Day 13: LUANG PRABANG
Transfer to the airport in time for the departure flight.
End of services.