French colonial possessions in Southeast Asia came to include modern Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, which were collectively known as ‘French Indochina’. The struggle for independence in each country tore their societies apart, and put them back together in unique ways. While each country experienced a civil war and communist takeover, Vietnam has since embraced global capitalism, Laos has remained a quiet backwater, and Cambodia is still recovering from the terrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. One thing they have in common is that they are hugely attractive to travellers from around the world. Now, you can experience the special charms of all three countries in one amazing package!
Vietnam is filled with stunning natural beauty and deep culture. Its mountains, jungles, and coastlines range from virtually untouched to well-groomed. Rural communities remain authentic and hospitable, and major cities are cosmopolitan but retain much of the old-world charm of the colonial and precolonial eras.
Laos is a unique, landlocked nation, sandwiched in the midst of the Southeast Asian mainland. Culturally a cousin to Thailand, Laos has remained a quiet agricultural society into the 21st century. With road, rail, and river access rapidly opening up through massive Chinese-funded infrastructure development, now is a great time to gain a feeling for the fading era of French Indochina, and for the colourful Buddhist culture of pre-modern Southeast Asia.
Cambodia is a small and little-developed country, but was once the seat of an advanced and immensely wealthy empire. The Khmer empire was based around a vast network of temples and reservoirs around today’s Siem Reap town. ‘Angkor’ is the name now given to the city, and Angkor Wat is its most famous attraction. Travellers will experience a society that still bears the scars of war, but which holds great pride in its past and hope for the future.
NOTE: All activities require a minimum of two people, and must be booked and paid for 2 months prior to departure.
Fly to Ho Chi Minh City. On arrival at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, transfer to your hotel in Ho Chi Minh City to rest up for the tour ahead, Ho Chi Minh City (commonly known as Saigon) is a city in Southern Vietnam famous for the pivotal role it played in the Vietnam War.
Note: Some flights may depart the day before.
After breakfast, we visit the amazing Cu Chi Tunnels, a well-known historical vestige of the Vietnamese revolution. This cobweb-like tunnel complex is a network of underground dug-outs over 200 km long, consisting of many layers and turnings with meeting, living, and fighting quarters where we learn firsthand how the Viet Cong survived their extraordinary underground existence during the Vietnam War.
Then, head back to city centre to visit the imposing Dong Khoi Street (formerly Catinat Street) before going to Notre Dame Cathedral. This is the most famous landmark in Vietnam, as the twin bell towers can be seen from a great distance; it’s made entirely of materials imported from France. In the same square is the famous Saigon Central Post Office, the largest functioning post office in Vietnam. Continue on to visit Reunification Palace, the palace of the presidents of South Vietnam before 1975, and the War Remains Museum, where you can learn about the Vietnam War. At the end of the day, visit Ben Thanh Market before returning to your hotel. Enjoy the rest of the day free at leisure.
Optional Lunch: Hoi An Sense. Hội An Sense restaurant is a beautiful harmony between refined cuisine and unique architecture. Set on an opulent rooftop with intimate terrace, relaxing fish pond and vivid lanterns, Hội An Sense draws influences from vibrant flavours of Vietnam’s central region.
Optional Dinner Cruise: Cruise on Saigon River and enjoy a delicious selection of local dishes as you take in the ambience of this charming city (at your own expense).
Depart with our guide and driver for a scenic drive through the Mekong Delta, home to the richest agricultural lands in Vietnam. On arrival at My Tho City, take a boat trip on the Mekong River to fishing villages and Dragon, Unicorn, Turtle and Phoenix Islands. Crossing the Mekong River, you’ll cruise along a small canal to see the daily life of locals in Bến Tre Province, visiting Quới An bee farm and handicraft workshop to enjoy some honey-tea and see how people make things from coconut wood. Take a horse-cart along country roads to visit fruit orchards, enjoy tropical fruit and listen to traditional music. Then, take small sampans back to your cruise to ‘Coconut Village’ for a coconut candy workshop and tasting. Visit Phoenix Island for a rice-paper workshop, then return by boat to My Tho and then by road back to Ho Chi Minh City. Enjoy the rest of the day free at leisure.
After breakfast, transfer to Tan Son Nhat Airport to board your flight to Da Nang. On arrival, you will be picked up and transferred to Hoi An, where you’ll take a walking tour through the narrow streets of this charming town. Perhaps more than any other place in Vietnam, Hoi An retains the feel of centuries past. Once known as Faifo, Hoi An was an influential port along the Silk Road. For over 500 years merchants from China, Japan, France, and Portugal settled in the prosperous town resulting in a distinctive blend of culture, cuisine, religions and architecture. In 1999, the town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then, visit the highly-regarded Bebe Tailor Shop to discover the story behind Vietnam’s traditional outfits. Enjoy the remainder of the day free at leisure.
You will be escorted by our local guide to discover Hoi An by walking tour through the narrow streets of this charming town. Perhaps more than any other place in Vietnam, Hoi An retains the feel of centuries past. Once known as Faifo, Hoi An was an influential port along the Silk Road. For over 500 years merchants from China, Japan, France, and Portugal settled in the prosperous town, resulting in a distinctive blend of culture, cuisine, religions and architecture. In 1999, the town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The remainder of the afternoon is free at leisure. You may also join one of our optional tours (at your own expense).
Optional Activity 1: Half-day Cycling Tour from Hoi An to Tra Que Village. Take a scenic bicycle ride through the rice paddies to Tra Que Village just outside Hoi An. This little village is well-known for supplying the many restaurants and hotels in the area with fresh herbs and vegetables. You will walk through the vegetable gardens, experience how the local farmers work the land and learn more about the history of the village and the importance of herbs in Vietnamese medicine and cuisine, before your relaxing pedal back to town.
Optional Activity 2: Fishing Village & Waterway Eco-tour. Enjoy an authentic social and cultural insight into the local Vietnamese way of life. Drive to a local farming village, travelling along picturesque country roads. Explore the now-tranquil coconut palm flanked waterways of a past war and hear of the extreme conditions endured by soldiers on both sides. Meet local fishermen and experience their daily life. You will take a wooden boat to a ‘water coconut forest’, and join local fishermen on the river to experience round net and cast net fishing. Learn to paddle bamboo basket boats (pictured at right) and join in a basket boat race. You’ll also learn how to use reeds or palm leaves to make grasshoppers, birds, rings, sunglasses, etc. Return to the boat to enjoy lunch and a cold beer or soft drink and then return the hotel by car.
This morning, you will visit the Réhahn Museum, to view the ‘Precious Heritage Collection’, by French Photographer Réhahn. This work focuses on the endangered cultural heritage of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minority groups, attempting to document their rapidly-changing ways of life. Afterwards, you have free time at leisure, or you may enjoy the following optional activities (at your own expense):
Optional Activity 1: Half day Da Nang Tour (Ba Na Hills & Golden Bridge). Explore Ba Na hills, sightseeing the panoramic views of Quang nam – Da Nang city; Discover the famous Golden Bridge (pictured bottom right); See famous places such as the French Village Campanile, Nine Floor Goddess Shrine, Tombstone Temple, Linh Phong Monastery, and Linh Chua Linh Tu Temple, and discover Fantasy Park with its adventurous games. Includes lunch.
Optional Activity 2: Evening Cultural Stage Show. Lune Performing Center Hoi An, with its graceful bamboo dome architecture, is known for such performances as My Village, Teh Dar, and The Mist. The shows portray the daily lives of farmers, minority tribes, and urban and rural dwellers, and carry Lune Production’s vision of upholding Vietnam’s culture and heritage, creating a whole new destination where heritage and art converge.
Depending on the day of arrival in Hoi An, you may instead see the stunning Hoi An Memories Show. This colourful and musically dazzling show, with a cast of nearly 500 actors and actresses, recalls the memories of Hoi An as a prosperous trading port over 400 years. It took nearly two years to produce the one-hour show. The theatre uses the waters of the Hoai River as its 25,000 m2 stage along with state-of-the-art lighting technology and sophisticated sound effects.
Today, drive to Hue City stopping along the way to take pictures at Lang Co Beach. On arrival, check into your hotel and enjoy free time at leisure. Hue City, during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802 – 1945), was the political, economic and cultural capital of Vietnam and its historical monuments were recognised as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1993. One of the largest battles of the Vietnamese revolutionary war was fought in Hue, as part of the 1968 ‘Tet Offensive’ that turned the tide of the war against the US-backed Republic of Vietnam. On arrival, you will take a boat trip to Thien Mu Pagoda – an historic pagoda on the banks of the Perfume River. Apart from the scenic riverside and hilltop location, the Thien Mu Pagoda and its environs are rich in history, standing witness to almost four hundred years of tumultuous nation-building in Vietnam. Transfer back to the centre of Hue city to visit the massive Kinh Thanh Citadel, the most well-known and iconic site in Hue, a sprawling complex within 2.5 km of walls, comprised of the Imperial City, several museums, lakes, and lovely gardens, all laid out in a series of concentric circles. Return to the hotel.
Optional Activity; Enjoy a sumptuous Royal Dinner (at your own expense, four people minimum). Dress in beautiful traditional clothes (provided by the restaurant) and be served dishes which used to be made for the royal family. Enjoy live music during dinner.
After breakfast, depart for Hanoi. Hanoi is over 1000 years old and is currently the capital of Vietnam, as well the commercial, political, and cultural heart of the country. On arrival at Noi Bai International Airport, you will be welcomed by your guide and driver who will bring you to your hotel. Then, visit the infamous Hoa Lo Prison – the ‘Hanoi Hilton‘. Those incarcerated at Hoa Lo included Pete Peterson, who became the first US Ambassador to a unified Vietnam in 1995, and the late Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee for the US presidency in 2008. Next, visit the Temple of Literature, the first university in Vietnam, built for the sons of mandarins (high government officials). Then it’s on to West Lake and Tran Quoc Temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, which is located on a small island near the southeastern shore of the lake. After lunch, visit Ba Dinh Square, where Ho Chi Minh read Viet Nam’s Declaration of Independence on 2 September 1945. Visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (reminiscent of Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow), and Ho Chi Minh’s House, a modest residence from which he led the country until his death in 1969. Then, transfer by bus to the ancient ’36 Meandering Streets’ of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, which you can explore before before returning to the hotel.
Optional Activity (at your own expense); Water Puppet Theatre and Hanoi Foodie tour: A one thousand year old tradition, and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Hanoi, Water Puppet Theatre is considered to be one of the cultural highlights of Northern Vietnam, and includes a Vietnamese orchestra playing traditional music. Tonight, you’ll walk through the bustling Old Quarter as your guide tells you about the various foods on offer – stop and try some if you like! Stop at a ‘bia hoi’ store, sit down and share a relaxing moment with locals. The sidewalks are full of pop-up restaurants which offer truly local food like bánh cuốn (rice rolls with pork and herbs inside), and many kinds of noodle dish. You will enjoy southern-style beef noodles in Hang Dieu street. End the night with a drink at a local coffee shop, talking about life in Vietnam, before heading back to your hotel.
NOTE: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is only viewable from outside if your visit is on a Monday or Friday, and from 5 Sep. to 5 Nov. due to annual maintenance. Rules regarding dress and behaviour are strictly enforced by staff and guards. Legs must be covered (no shorts or miniskirts).
Travel by coach to Halong Bay and take a boat trip to explore one of the world’s great natural wonders, cruising the thousands of limestone islands filled with caves of all shapes and sizes. The sails of junks and sampans gliding along the clear and emerald waters of the bay form a magnificent picturesque scene that blends with the sky. You also get a chance to visit some of the hidden grottoes beneath the towering cliffs. A seafood lunch and dinner will be served on board the charming junk. Stay overnight on board.
Enjoy the aquamarine waters of the bay at its best as the junk continues to cruise quietly through spectacular limestone formations. Disembark from the junk at noon and transfer to Hanoi. Check in to hotel. Then, you will be escorted by our local guide to Hanoi’s Old Quarter by walking tour. Enjoy free time at your leisure to explore.
After breakfast, transfer to Hanoi airport for your flight to Luang Prabang, Laos. On arrival, you will be met by your driver and tour guide and transferred to your hotel. Check in to hotel and free at your own leisure. Luang Prabang is a beautiful, sleepy town, that has remained a stronghold of Lao culture. Set in a tropical mountain range among splendid natural scenery, this UNESCO World Heritage-listed town was the residence of the last king of Laos until the 1975 revolution, and still retains much of its original character. You may join an optional activity (at your own expense).
Optional Tour: Traditional Lao Baci Ceremony and Dinner (min. 4 participants).
After breakfast, head to Wat Xieng Thong, the largest and most splendid in the city. Built on the banks of the Mekong River in 1560, the temple is best known for its Tree of Life mural. Next, board a cruise up the Mekong to view Pak Ou Caves, filled with thousands of gold-lacquered Buddha statues over the centuries. On your way back down the river, stop at Ban Xanghai and Ban Xang Khong, two villages known for their laolao (rice wine) and handmade paper, respectively. After the daytime activities we visit Mount Phousi. Standing in the centre of town at 150m, Mount Phousi provides a great location to watch the sun set over the city with its many temples, and the misty mountains in the distance. Descend in the evening to the Luang Prabang Night Market, to purchase some souvenirs and snacks, and meet the locals – including members of ethnic minority groups who live nearby.
Buddhism and temples are central to Lao culture and daily life. Observing the morning alms-giving is a striking experience to visitors to this country. Today you also have the option to participate in this ritual at a local temple, before observing how several typical Lao dishes are cooked and then engaging in a discussion on Buddhism in Laos with the monks. In the afternoon, head to the south to visit the Khuang Si Waterfalls. In Khuang Si village, you’ll see ‘Free the Bears Sanctuary‘ which cares for Asiatic Black Bears that have been rescued from local markets or hunters. The multi-tiered falls are formed from limestone, and are set amongst a lush forest environment. Take a walk though the trees, or kick off your shoes and cool your feet down in the clear waters. Wrap up the day with a visit to Ock Pop Tok, an organisation that helps increase local household income by selling products made by Luang Prabang women weavers.
Enjoy time free at leisure until transfer to airport for your flight to Siem Reap. Upon arrival, you will be picked up and transferred to the hotel. Check in and enjoy the remainder of the day free at leisure in Siem Reap. This is your opportunity to experience (optional, at your own expense) the world-renowned Phare Circus, where young local dancers and acrobats enact Khmer folk tales and modern stories. Developed by the charity Phare Ponleu Selpak, this performance expresses the history, challenges, and resilience of the people of Cambodia
Optional Tour: Phare Circus in Siem Reap.
Today you will visit the largest, best preserved, and most religiously significant of the Angkor temples. Angkor Thom covers an area of 10 square km. Enclosed by a wall and wide moats, the city includes many of Angkor’s most popular sights. Enter by the monumental South Gate over a causeway lined on either side by statues of demons and gods, each carrying a giant naga (a mythical serpent symbolising the transition from the mundane to the sacred world). Continue to the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King, former spaces for public ceremonies that are both adorned with dramatic bas-relief carvings. Visit the ruined Baphuon, Royal Enclosure and Phimeanakas, before continuing to the mysterious Bayon Temple. In this temple, one of the most popular and compelling in Angkor, explore the galleries of beautifully preserved bas-reliefs and ascend narrow stairs to reach the central sanctuary, where giant stone Buddha faces smile enigmatically down from every angle.
Visit Ta Prohm temple, one of the most popular attractions of Angkor as much of the jungle has not been cleared and it looks very much as most of the Angkor monuments would have appeared when European explorers first stumbled across them. Continue your visit to Angkor Wat, the Crown Jewel of Khmer architecture. Angkor Wat is the national symbol and the highlight of any visit to Cambodia.
Enjoy the morning and afternoon free at leisure, or join our Tonle Sap Lake and Floating village Optional Tour (at your own expense) until you will be transferred to Siem Reap airport for your evening flight to Phnom Penh. On arrival, you will be picked up and transferred to the hotel.
Optional Tour: Half day Tonle Sap Lake and Floating Village. Leave Siem Reap town to a beautiful village in the countryside, you will start to walk through the village houses, witness with very nice and different activities from the locals for their daily life. Just as some examples: how the locals wash vehicles, selling gasoline in whiskey bottles or the small shops where the locals sell food on the side of small streets. On the way, you can pick some fruit and interact with the locals. Take a roughly 30-minute buffalo-cart ride through the rice paddies to a local house to see a family doing daily work such as making rice wine and handicraft works. The family will offer you fresh coconut and some home made rice wine to taste. Drive onward to the next destination, taking a motorised boat to visit a floating village where people make a living from the lake in a respectful and meaningful way.
This morning we take in the attractions of Phnom Penh – the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, the most sacred temple in the country, and Wat Ounalom, the most important temple in of Phnom Penh, and the centre of Cambodian Buddhism. Later, the mood will turn slightly sombre, as we travel to where journalists camped on the eve of the Khmer Rouge takeover. We will visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school that served as Khmer Rouge ‘Security Prison 21’. Only twelve of perhaps 20,000 prisoners are known to have survived, and we also visit the Choeung Ek Killing Field where they are buried, to learn about these devastating events that affected the lives of so many Cambodians, and to pay our respects.
Enjoy free time at leisure before being transferred to the airport for your flight home.
Arrive back in Australia.